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Is Fat Keeping Your Relationship Intact?

When a new client comes into my office for weight loss counseling, I begin by asking two questions to assess motivation:

  • How is your weight hurting you?
  • How is your weight helping you?

Most people can easily respond to the first question. Almost all are puzzled by the second. How could being overweight possibly be useful?

There are actually a multitude of secondary gains that stem from being overweight or obese, and these “benefits” can cause people to be subconsciously resistant to losing weight.

One “benefit” relates to the role that weight can play in a romantic relationship. In fact, an individual’s obesity is often a hidden factor that keeps a couple together. Consider these two scenarios:

Scenario 1: “We are not having sex because I’m fat.”

When sexual intimacy has become infrequent, it is often easier to “blame” the lack of sex on something superficial (like weight) than it is to discuss the real underlying issue getting in the way.

For instance, some overweight women use this reasoning to protect the egos of male partners who struggle with sexual dysfunction. It becomes her “fault” that they are not engaging in intercourse, and he is relieved from facing the emasculation that might come with his inability to perform.

Alternatively, overweight individuals might use the “I’m too fat” excuse when sex is physically uncomfortable or unsatisfying. These folks would rather take the blame themselves than risk insulting or worrying their partner.

Finally, a couple might not be having sex because they have fallen out of love. In this case, acknowledging the reality – which could end the relationship – is much more difficult than citing weight as the culprit.

In each of these cases, as long as the weight stays on, the partnership can continue without sex.

Scenario 2: “My relationship is unsatisfying, but I can’t leave because I’m overweight and no one else will want me.”

Leaving a romantic relationship can be a painful and complicated process for many reasons.  Oftentimes, a couple has built a life together that might involve children, shared finances, and the intermixing of extended families. The thought of potentially ending a current partnership to pursue a more fulfilling one can be very frightening.

Thus, people often use their weight (and their belief that would not have success on the dating scene) as justification to themselves for staying in an unhappy relationship.

Furthermore  some fear that if they do lose weight and start to receive more sexual attention from other potential partners, they might be tempted to end their current relationship and then be forced to cope with the aftermath. As long as they remain overweight, there’s a compelling reason to take this possibility off the table.  The burden of choice is alleviated.

When I learn that one or both of these scenarios is true for my client, my first step is to bring the issue to light.

In most cases, individuals are unaware of these subconscious motives to remain overweight, so awareness is key and can be transformative in and of itself.

My next step is to encourage my clients to deal directly with the relationship issue at hand.

Perhaps the couple needs to have honest dialogue about the sexual problems. Maybe the overweight client needs to be empowered to leave the dysfunctional relationship and accept whatever consequences may arise.

In either case, dealing directly with the underlying issue is top priority. After that, weight loss might naturally follow.

About Katie Rickel, PhD

Dr. Katie Rickel graduated summa cum laude from Duke University with a Bachelor of Science in psychology and earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Florida. She completed an APA-accredited clinical internship in health psychology at Duke University Medical Center, with advanced training in behavioral and bariatric obesity treatment as well as the psychological management of chronic pain and illness. Dr. Rickel also has expertise in treating anxiety disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder and specific phobias. Her research has been presented at various professional conferences and published in scientific journals. Dr. Rickel has also appeared on “The Dr. Oz Show” and has been quoted in several popular media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Health magazine, Yahoo! Health, Women’s Health magazine, Weight Watchers magazine, and abcnews.com.

View all posts by Katie Rickel, PhD