I’ve recently been creeping around online forums in order to understand how folks are thinking about health and relationships. I have discovered that people in forums reveal the most intimate details of their lives, emboldened by the promise of anonymity. Thoughts that may take one years to admit to one’s therapist are instantly made available for public scrutiny within the ‘privacy’ of the virtual realm.
One question that comes up over and again: How do I tell my partner that (s)he has “gotten fat?”
This question comes from men and women alike and it takes a variety of forms. To my surprise, people have not raised this question in a scathing way. More often than not, it is a genuine plea to figure out how to address this elephant in the room without hurting one’s partner.
There are gender differences to be sure. Men, you often speak to the difficulty your wife’s weight gain has caused in terms of your ability to be attracted to her, to find her sexually appealing. You are concerned that she will continue to gain weight and you’ll cease being attracted to her altogether. You know it is a real issue for you, yet you worry about sounding like an insensitive jackass. Underlying it all is the desire for her to be healthy and to feel good about herself, yet speaking about how her weight gain is affecting your relationship feels like incredibly dangerous territory.
Women, your worry tends to take a different form. You are less concerned with changes in his physical appearance and more aware of your lack of attraction to changes in his behaviors and emotions. Where he was once confident and empowered, he has now become lethargic, ashamed of his body and lacks the confidence that initially drew you to him. You wish you could do something to support him in regaining his esteem, but you worry that commenting on this most obvious aspect – an increase in weight – will only lead him to feel more ashamed.
In our culture, the concept of being “Fat” is often equated to laziness, associated with the lack of motivation or desire to grow. Thus, pointing out that your partner has packed on the pounds can feel like a landmine. You may worry that it will result in a cycle of shaming, blaming, withdrawal and distancing – the very opposite of what you intend by surfacing this issue.
So, what do many of us do? We pull away, keeping our frustrations, anxieties and irritations to ourselves as best as we can. Though we try to be “good” partners, what more often happens is this: In efforts to address the situation in a non-shaming way, you come home and make a nice salad for your partner, talking up how nice it feels to be healthy. Your girlfriend acquiesces, but adds a side of chips to spice up her meal. Or perhaps you suggest a nice walk after dinner and your boyfriend politely declines and grabs a six-pack to enjoy with his video games. Your irritation grows and becomes harder to keep in check. You argue about the laundry or the kid. The fight escalates. Both of you withdraw, your partner none the wiser that you had ulterior motives.
For fear of addressing this issue directly, you continue to grow farther apart. A tone of condescension slips into your casual suggestion to, perhaps, skip the dessert. The frustrated partner often does not address the weight gain at all, until she is at her wit’s end, perhaps using it to justify an affair or a break-up. What started out as an a few extra pounds has now become a relationship conflict that feels unresolvable. In short, avoidance breeds resentment.
Here are three ways to avoid avoidance and address the issue head on:
- It’s about the weight. And it isn’t.
Keep in mind that this conversation is about your partner’s health, but it is also about the health of the relationship. You are both equally responsible for sustaining relational fitness. If you avoid approaching the topic directly, you too, are maintaining the problem.
- Be Honest.
Sit down with your partner and have a serious conversation about the impact of her weight gain. Chances are your partner has a lot of feelings about herself, you, and the state of the relationship. It is your job to avoid becoming defensive and blaming. It’s likely that she, too, is unhappy with some of your behaviors. Commit to working together to create a balanced lifestyle and relationship.
- Look in the mirror.
Often when we become fixated and frustrated by an aspect of our partner, we are avoiding looking too closely at something about ourselves that needs attention. After you’ve spoken directly with your partner, step back, give him space and take a look in the mirror. What are ways that you need to change in order to have a more fulfilling life, outside of the deficits that you imagine exist within your significant other?
This won’t be easy. It takes a capacity to be direct and kind with your partner and yourself. Your relationship may lack the strong foundation that comes with a mutual practice of empathy and honesty. If you are unable to address your concerns directly with your partner, it may be time for you to see a couple’s therapist so that you can work on the basic elements of communication and trust that are necessary for you and your partner to maintain a healthy, happy and engaged relationship.