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I can count on one hand the couples who’ve walked through my office door seeking help because of a weight issue. Instead, a husband or wife, often seeing me alone, will mention a lack of intimacy, a sexual problem, or that he or she just isn’t asturned on anymore by his or her partner. But as details emerge, I’ve seen time and again how extra pounds gained over months or years can create a tipping point within the relationship. And often, the open dialogue that happens as a result of counseling is the firsttime they’ve acknowledged this: I’ll ask a client “have you discussed your concerns about your partner’s weight?” The typical answer will point to “hints” about eating better,exercising or health risks. But “honey, you need to lose some weight?” Doesn’t happen. For good reason. A weighty issue calls for a delicate approach. That’s especially the case since there’s a double standard. Men are more likely to be bothered by a partner’s weight gain because unfortunately women tend to be judged by their appearance more so than by intrinsic qualities like intellect and personality. Sized up against mainstream beauty standards, heavier women may be viewed as less attractive. Men are more visual and are more likely to articulate their displeasure: “She has a pretty face but she could lose some weight,” or “She’s got more cushion for the pushin’.”
These comments can be destructive.
I’ve never had a client say she is concerned about her man’s weight gain. However, a man may be stressed by how his own weight impacts his relationship—especially in the bedroom. Excess weight may contribute to lowself-esteem, fatigue, decreased libido in either sex. Anxiety about weight may factor in problems like erectile dysfunction for men and painful intercourse for women. When a client with anxiety, frustration, or anger reports a sexual dysfunction, I recommend they consult with a doctor. Once medical issues are ruled out, therapy may be of help.
Regardless of which spouse faces a weight challenge, the dynamics at work are a dance between you both. And often, as a partner gets in a groove and works hard toget healthy, the music changes. Some folks will undermine their spouse’s attempts to lose weight. You’ve grabbed your iPod and are headed to the gym when suddenly your sweetie is in the mood to have sex, mentions an urgent chore from the “honey-do” list or prods you to spend time with the kids. Maybe she puts out a plate of loaded nachos or he rents that chick flick you love and pats the spot next to him onthe couch. The idea of you losing weight was fine. But upsetting the status quo can trigger fears about you receiving compliments and attention from others; having more power within the relationship; creating new expectations in the bedroom or perhaps even re-evaluating the relationship altogether.
A partner struggling with the change may not know how to articulate these feelings and may withdraw. If both partners were overweight and one slims down, the other may feel self-conscious during sex or avoid it. Listening to each other’s concerns, supporting one another’s efforts toward wellness and refraining fromjudgment, ultimatums, or other controlling behaviors increases the likelihood of positive feelings.
And the positives of getting healthy—a boost in energy, stamina, self-esteem, body image and sexual satisfaction—outweigh any trip-ups along the way. A guy I know dropped 120 pounds over two years: He feels more confident, lasts longer in the bedroom and has a dozen more reasons to smile. The best one—he’s recharging his relationship with his wife.
James Wadley, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor and Director of the Master of HumanServices Program at Lincoln University. He is a licensed professional counselor and marriage, family, andsexuality therapist and can be found at www.drjameswadley.com. Portions of this article are inEbony Magazine (May, 2012).