Weight Wars: What Really Happens When You “Try to Help” Your Partner Lose Weight

Every morning was the same. Margaret would sit at the table for breakfast with her husband before he left for work. She would have her measured cup of Special K with 8 ounces of skim milk and a cup of black coffee. Her husband, on the other hand, would have his usual 2 large pancakes dripping with butter and thick maple syrup and several links of his favorite breakfast sausage. His coffee was sweetened and lightened with cream. He would read his newspaper as usual, and then when they were done, she would clear the table. On his way out the door she would bid him to “have a good day” and out he went. After she closed the door behind him she would go to the window and peer through the blinds as he left the driveway, made his way around the corner, and then out of sight.

The next thing that happened was predictable because it had become somewhat of a habit, or maybe it was something different (an act of rebellion?) As soon as she felt safe, Margaret would head to the fridge. The leftover sausage was thankfully still warm. She would pop a few in her mouth and gobble them down fast while standing in front of the open fridge. What else could she have? Leftover meatloaf, some pie from a party, cold french fries from a restaurant (her husband’s leftovers, not hers, she never ordered fries). Then, one after the other she would eat these random foods in a manner that was not enjoyable. No, she was not savoring some good food because she was hungry. There was little enjoyment here, and she really didn’t know what was going on. But I had a feeling because I had seen it one too many times before.

You see, Margaret’s husband was trying to help her lose weight. Over the years her weight creeped up and she often complained about it. Whether he also had an issue with it, or was only trying to help her I don’t recall, but the affect was the same. He became the food police and she became the prisoner. But she got to break free when he wasn’t around. Deep down, she was also angry and resentful that he was trying to control her, yet she didn’t have the awareness or strength to speak up. I ended up referring her to a therapist to help her with these issues and we worked on ways to stop her binge eating. Margaret’s story is not unique, and trying to help a partner with weight concerns and dieting is not unusual. Being partners together working on healthy eating and exercise can be a great thing. Understanding when it spells trouble, however, is critical.

Whether you relate to either side of this scenario, I have some suggestions from having witnessed so many situations where good and loving intentions backfire. Are you the person who is adamant about eating healthy and feel your partner should too? Have you listened to your wife or husband complain about his or her weight for years and so you feel compelled to say something when you see them taking 2nds? Are you worried about your husband’s newly diagnosed hypertension and now your fear for his health causes you to point out the sodium content of everything he puts in his mouth?

Or, maybe you are the person under the microscope (at least that may be how you feel). Do you find yourself choosing what to eat in a restaurant because it won’t cause your partner’s eyes to roll? Do you quickly hide the snack in your hand when your husband or wife enters the kitchen (because you are sneaking something and don’t want to be found out?). Do you feel sad inside because the person who is supposed to love you seems to be focused on your body size and shape instead of the real you?

When we care about those we love rarely do we do or say things to hurt them on purpose, yet when it comes to weight, dieting and eating, it happens all the time. If you have someone you care about or who complains about weight and you want to help, or, if you feel like the victim in this dynamic, here are some suggestions I have learned are helpful to restore peace and hopefully, happiness.

  1. Have a conversation. Stop pretending. If you are feeling hurt by the fact that you feel like you are being watched when you are eating, say something. Wait until you are not feeling angry and think about what you really need for support. Since every situation and every relationship is different, you may or may not feel comfortable with this. If you don’t feel like you can have a peaceful and productive conversation, and you truly are finding yourself eating out of resentment or if you are binge eating in secret, consider getting some support from a professional therapist who specializes in eating issues. Life is too short and if you can’t have a conversation it is likely the situation will get worse.
  2. If you are the one who has taken on the “watch dog” or food police role, but sense that your partner does not appreciate, or even gets angry at your diligence, why not ask them? Even if your partner asked you for support initially, you need to find out what that means. It may not mean they need comments from you, or maybe they thought they did need that kind of policing, but now it is not helpful anymore. The best thing you can do when you want to help someone is to ask: what can I do to help?
  3. Take a chance. Eat it in public. Eat it in front of your partner. Don’t hide when you eat. When you go to grab that snack and find yourself gobbling it down while standing in front of the fridge before you get caught, stop and ask “is this really enjoyable?” Eating food you enjoy is one of the blessings of life. Instead, walk over to where you normally have a meal, get a plate or napkin, and sit down. Enjoy your snack. Being aware of what you are eating, how it tastes, how your tummy feels, how hungry you are (or aren’t) is the first step to getting more in tune with your body and intuitive eating.
  4. Do some self-reflection. Do you recognize a pattern in your life when it comes to dieting and weight? Does your weight fluctuate depending on if you are dieting or not? Sometimes, we get into patterns in our relationships involving dieting and this can affect our relationships. The non-dieting partner may not know how to help and just assume they are being supportive when they become the food police after the big dieting announcement. If you recognize a pattern, my suggestion (of course!) is to consider getting off of the dieting band wagon. There are lots of resources and support for ways of living that are focused on intuitive eating and health (instead of weight). Check out Health at Every Size as well as a great non-dieting blog Dare Not To Diet

In this world focused on dieting, eating fads, weight, fitness and all that, changing your ways in not easy. I always have believed that caring about your health is way different than obsessing about your weight (which is not exactly in your control). There IS a way for us to work together toward a sane goal, but it has nothing to do with the scale and no food police needed. Instead, it involves partnering with each other to agree to make time for meals together. To agree to take a walk together or do yoga together, or turn off the TV during dinner time. It may be to learn to cook together, to try new vegetable recipes, to learn about special diets together (if one spouse needs to follow a low sodium diet for hypertension, for example). In this case, working on keeping giant bags of chips out of the house for the person who does not have the issue (they can buy a bag for lunch at work, instead). Creating a healthier eating environment at home to be supportive of each other’s health goals is way different than watching and commenting on what we eat. At the same time, deciding to go out for pizza and enjoying every minute (no comments about “breaking the diet” please!) does not mean you gave up on health. No, it means you are learning to incorporate normal balance in your life, and enjoying pizza on occasion does not mean you don’t care about your health.

With spring around the corner, I can almost smell that feeling of hope in the air when I walk outside in my garden and see some new life emerging (among the finally diminishing layer of dirty snow). I hope you consider a new life with no food police, no guard dog, just complete freedom and peace. Wherever you live, with whomever, that is the way it should be.

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