The Healthy vs Unhealthy Partner

Having a loving and supportive partner is a valuable asset, especially when it comes to setting and achieving weight loss goals. For some, however, the prospect of a partner losing a lot of weight can be difficult to accept and can highlight insecurities they may have about the strength of their relationship. This appears to be more prevalent when both partners are perhaps struggling with their weight, and leading similar lifestyles, and one partner decides they would like to make some wholesale changes.

I have worked with many thousands of patients undergoing weight loss surgery and it’s not unusual to hear from a patient, following significant weight loss, that their new lifestyle, dietary habits, and personal goals are not going down well with their significant other. For many couples there are traits that evolve over time within each household. For example: take away on Wednesday nights, dinner and drinks with friends on Friday nights, drinks and a barbeque at home on Saturday nights, and lazy Sundays at home watching movies (with popcorn of course).

When Sue came to see me about a year ago, she made a point of telling me her husband was supportive of her undergoing gastric sleeve surgery. She indicated her husband was understanding of her situation with her weight as she had been on so many diets and battled with her weight since her late teens. She was now 38 years of age, heavier than ever at 102kg, and had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

When Sue and her husband met a few years ago they were both a little overweight. They had both come out of long-term relationships and neither of them had children from their previous partners. Sue was relatively active, walking most days, and was watching what she ate, but not necessarily on a particular diet. She was around 14kg overweight; and, her husband, Paul, was about 10kg overweight when they met. Over the next 3 years together, their lifestyles moulded into one that was devoid of any regular exercise, included an increase in alcohol consumption, and less emphasis on healthy meals in exchange for more take away and eating out. As a result, both Sue and Paul gained more weight over those three years. At 102kg, Sue was carrying around 40kg of excess weight and considered morbidly obese. Paul was not that far behind.

Fast forward 6 months, following gastric sleeve surgery, Sue has lost around 22kg. This accounts for just over 50% of her excess weight, which has also led to remission from her diabetes and much improved sleep habits. These results are well within normal expectations for this period following gastric sleeve surgery; and, Sue has been compliant with all her medical, dietary, and behavioural advice. She has cleaned up her diet, improved her nutritional intake and managed to curb her fast food/take away intake substantially. She has also been walking most days again and attends her local gym 3 times a week.

Unfortunately, for Sue, her relationship with Paul is under stress. It turns out Paul’s support for Sue has been wavering over the last couple of months. Her new-found motivation for a healthier lifestyle, including exercise habits and dietary preferences, has put their relationship to the test. Sue feels Paul has become disengaged, physically and emotionally.

Sue’s experience, thankfully, is not an overly common occurrence; however, it does happen from time to time. Let’s start with Paul. It’s likely that Paul, despite his initial support for Sue going through weight loss surgery, was not ready to make the same sacrifices Sue had to make to help her lose weight through surgery. This includes eating 75% smaller portions and putting an emphasis on healthy eating patterns and adequate nutrition. A 75% reduction in portions doesn’t leave much room for unhealthy choices when nutritional requirements are at stake. Paul is also perhaps feeling left behind with Sue’s emphasis on a healthy lifestyle that includes more regular exercise, which is more time away from him and their common interests. Paul is a regular, almost daily, consumer of alcohol and enjoys going out to dinner with friends on the weekends. Sue simply cannot consume at the same frequency or the same amount of alcohol to Paul and he is now having to drink alone most nights. On the weekends, she has a couple of drinks with him, but she feels drinking every night interferes with her capacity to maintain more consistent and regular sleep and exercise habits. Sue also has a goal to get her weight to 70kg before summer.

There are indications, from our discussion, that Paul has also become jealous of Sue’s progress, especially since she is feeling more confident about herself and her body image. Her self-esteem and self-efficacy are improving. The challenge here is that Paul and Sue are leading two very different lifestyles; and, Paul is feeling both left out and jealous of his wife’s progress to an emotionally and physically healthier version of herself. It’s possible Paul did not envisage the progress Sue would make in such a short time, nor the change in her formation and activity levels. Paul probably also didn’t consider the impact these changes would have on his lifestyle or eating/drinking habits. Or, if he did, he may not have been ready to go on this journey with her, despite showing support for her in the beginning. Sue’s progress also, potentially, highlights some of Paul’s shortcomings, which leads to him having lower self-worth and esteem. 

This highlights the importance of involving supportive family members in your decision to undergo weight loss surgery, especially those you live with. Getting everybody on board to leading a healthy lifestyle helps those going through surgery as well as those living in the household. It doesn’t always go to plan, which is why it’s important to have these discussions with the psychologist at the bariatric clinic you’re working with and perhaps involve family members in the consultation process. All successful partnerships require compromise; and, with the right guidance, both partners can continue to maintain aspects of each other’s lifestyles without putting added, unnecessary pressure on the relationship. 

Warren Artz
WLSA Psychologist