When it comes to helping someone you care about lose weight, the critical goal may be, “first, do no harm.”
On New Year’s Day, couples across the globe vowed to “lose weight” and “get in shape.” In the past, I’ve suggested that romantic partners work to achieve fitness and weight loss goals together, but doing so requires navigating some tricky terrain. Drawing on my own research examining romantic partners’ health and a recent interview with Sarah Varney, author of, XL Love: How the Obesity Crisis is Complicating America’s Love Life,1 here are 5 tips for working with your significant other to make 2015 the year that you actually achieve your goals.
- Reframe the Issue. Changing your eating and physical activity behaviors will be more likely if you are thinking about these issues in a beneficial way. The first step is to frame these issues as health issues. In Varney’s research for XL Love, she found that people sometimes viewed their partners as selfish for not staying in shape. Many felt isolated from their partners. Some even perceived being fat as somehow immoral. But, guess what? Pointing a finger at your partner or disparaging them is unlikely to accomplish much. Even if you are frustrated with yourself, frustrated with your partner, or frustrated with the both of you, it’s important to reframe. Make your weight loss and fitness goals a team effort. Let working to stay healthy bring you closer to your partner. Work to accomplish your goals to add extra years to your own life and the life you share with your partner.
- Focus on feeling good. How many times have you started a diet with the goal of not just losing weight but feeling better about yourself? What if you and your romantic partner worked on feeling good about yourselves first? Sounds somewhat counterintuitive – huh? However, some research suggests that when we feel good about our bodies, value our physical selves, and are committed to our health, we are more likely to initiate and stick with a weight loss regimen.2 So, maybe before you set out to lose weight or get in shape you and your partner can work on complimenting each more often? Try making it a daily ritual to discuss some of your partner’s physical (and other qualities) that you like. After all, no one is going to be motivated to eat better or jog more often when they feel so down on themselves that they don’t even want to lace up their jogging shoes. We can all use a bit of praise as we embark on efforts to change our lives for the better.
- Don’t compare. In my research, I’ve found that romantic partners tend to compare their bodies to their partners’ bodies.3 How could we not? How many other people do we see naked (in real life)? The problem seems to be that in most relationships there is one partner that is heavier than the other partner. And, when those people compare their bodies to their partners’ bodies, they end up feeling like they fall short. Body dissatisfaction and weight concerns are likely consequences of this “partner comparison.” But, as I’ve already suggested, feeling badly about our bodies (and related, worrying about our weight) is a bad place to start when you’re try to lose weight or get in shape. So, instead of comparing yourself to your partner, work to conspire with them to achieve your goals.
- Communicate. How many times can you dodge the infamous, “do these pants make my butt look big” question? It’s always easier to avoid questions like this than to risk walking into a communication land mine. But, my research suggests that romantic partners tend to view each other’s bodies favorably – much more favorably than they typically realize.4 We fall in love with and stay in love with people we are attracted to and perfection is not required for attraction to persist. So, some actual communication about our bodies and weight may not be such a bad idea. In my research lab at Rutgers University, we have romantic partners do a body image exercise that forces them to talk about how they view their own and each other’s bodies. This exercise gets participants talking about their insecurities, what they like and don’t like about their physical selves, and almost inevitably leads partners to offer assurances to each other about their bodies. Partners leave the lab in a good mood – after talking about their bottoms, breasts, and biceps. Of course, working to communicate with our partners about the many things we appreciate about them – aside from their appearance – can be invaluable.
- Get help. In Varney’s research for XL Love, she found that people can be so at war with their own bodies that it is impossible for them to successfully maintain relationships with other people. Before feelings about your body or weight detract not only from your personal happiness but your relationships as well, be sure to pursue professional help. There are a number of places you can turn for help – individually or with your partner. A registered dietician can help you work on what to eat, when, and how much. A primary care physician can assess your weight status regularly and help you monitor not only your weight but also other indicators of your health (e.g., cholesterol levels). A couples’ therapist can help you talk with your partner about issues you may have a difficult time dealing with on your own (i.e., that question about her butt, those pants, and the fight that followed). Who you are as an individual – and as a couple – is intricately tied to how you feel about your body and weight. It’s not overdoing it to call in the pros when you need some extra support.
Having support from people who care about us can unquestionably contribute to the adoption of healthy behaviors.5 And, few people care about our health and well-being more than our romantic partners. So, work with your partner to achieve your New Year’s resolutions this year and you won’t have to set the same resolutions again next year!
Want to learn more?
Order Dr. Markey’s book Smart People Don’t Diet and Sarah Varney’s book XL Love on Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, or wherever books are sold.
Visit my web page: www.SmartPeopleDontDiet.com
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Copyright Charlotte N. Markey, 2014.
1Varney, S. (2014). XL Love: How the Obesity Crisis is Complicating America’s Love Life. New York, NY: Rodale.
2Palmeira, A. L., et al. (2009). Reciprocal effects among changes in weight, body image, and other psychological factors during behavioral obesity treatment: A meditational analysis. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 6, 6-9.
3Markey, C. N. & Markey, P. M. (2013). Gender, sexual orientation, and romantic partner influence on body dissatisfaction: An examination of heterosexual and lesbian women and their partners. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. doi:10.1177/0265407513489472.
4 Markey, C. N., Markey, P. M., & Birch, L. L. (2004). Understanding women’s body satisfaction: The role of husbands. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 51, 209-216. doi:10.1023/B:SERS.0000037764.40569.2b.
5 Markey, C. N., Markey, P. M., & Gray, H. F. (2007). Romantic
relationships and health: An examination of individuals’ perceptions of
their romantic partners’ influences on their health. Sex Roles: A Journal of
Research, 57, 435-445. doi: 10.1007/s11199-007-92665.