When we treat ourselves, be it in cookie form or a night spent watching TV, having someone do it with us tends to make us feel less guilty. When I lived with a boyfriend in college, eating dessert shortly before falling asleep to a Law and Order marathon became a ritual I thought was harmless. Turns out, though, live-in partners can harm us more than we realize.
Recently, Time magazine published a study about the issue of significant others and obesity. After studying almost 7,000 people over the course of a few years, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that those who entered relationships and moved in with their significant others were twice as likely to be overweight as their single-living peers.
Such findings aren’t exactly surprising—after all, coupledom often means eating out more and spending more time cuddling on the couch in lieu of going to the gym. However, the study also showed that the risk for a woman becoming obese rose the more time she lived with her mate, whereas for men, the obesity risk averaged highest during the first two years. I decided to seek out two perspectives—one from a nutritionist, the other from two couples counselors—to figure out why women who cohabitate are so much more likely than men to become obese as the years go by.
Putting “We” Before “Me”
I spoke with two MFTs (Marriage Family Therapists), Jodi Perelman and Sandy Roos. I also consulted Rania Batayneh, a nutritionist and wellness coach. While they each had varying interpretations of the study and its results, all of them touched on one important thing that tends to happen when couples move in together—women giving up self-focus. Instead of taking care of themselves, many women’s priorities shift to the relationship and tending to their partners’ needs, putting a great deal of pressure on themselves. “I think a lot of it is the way women care for people and what they’re willing to compromise,” Rania suggests. “Men are typically cared for by their mothers and girlfriends … and women want to please their partners.”
This isn’t to say that men don’t participate in relationships or do their fair share, but that women often occupy the caretaker role, which results in their own needs—including making time to be physically active and eat well—taking a back seat. Plus, managing other people’s lives on top of everyday stresses like jobs and relationships outside of the home (with friends, family members, etc.) can “wreak havoc on things like nutrition and exercise,” Jodi says.
Jodi and Sandy both cite the pressure put on women by society as a potential catalyst for weight gain. “There are a lot of expectations for women’s work in the world—not only the work they get paid for, but their domestic work as well,” Jodi expresses. Sandy voices a similar theory: “Look at stress and look at what we do to women in our culture in terms of messages about self,” she explains. Women are bombarded with society-mandated expectations that encourage them to strive for being a superwoman, an unattainable goal that just leads to feelings of failure and dissatisfaction—which could lead not only to neglecting personal health, but self-medicating with food as well.
The Role of Intimacy (or Lack Thereof)
Many people turn to food as a coping mechanism; they eat too much as a way to fill an unrelated void caused by loneliness or a lack of intimacy. Though it seems that living with someone might eradicate such feelings, all three women I interviewed named intimacy issues as a probable culprit. “When you’re first courting, there’s a lot of attention and men want to make a good impression, and I’m wondering if that goes away after living together for a while,” Sandy surmises.
Sometimes after the honeymoon phase, connecting and communicating require more work, and that can be yet another thing that pulls women away from taking care of themselves or causes them to seek fulfillment through food instead. Sandy believes that part of it might be women’s difficulty in expressing their emotions. “Men are pretty in touch with their anger … and often women are less able to admit if they’re angry or if they have a need,” she explains. “I wonder if [these women] will eat rather than bring something up.”
Comfort levels may increase after moving in together, but that can also lead to less emphasis on physical appearance. “The weight gain happens because sometimes people just stop worrying about it. We stop caring about the physical because we found each other,” Rania says. Jodi suggests that physical intimacy is often negatively affected by relationship problems, so if there’s a lack of that in the relationship, it could lead to less of an incentive to remain attractive to one’s partner. “That may have been more important to them during the courtship phase,” she states.
Metabolism Can Play a Part, Too
The differences in men’s and women’s bodies and how they hold weight are essential factors as well. Jodi wonders whether it’s easier for men to lose weight than women; after all, we’re predisposed to storing fat in certain areas and our metabolisms slow as we age. Rania lists the increased emphasis on meal time as a possible reason women put on weight. “I think when people are alone and single or just not living together, there’s less of an emphasis on meal time,” she suggests. Of course there’s nothing wrong with making dinner an important part of the day, but the trouble comes when women eat the same amount as their male partners. “Men typically have higher metabolisms,” she reminds us. The extra incidences of restaurant dining and treats after dinner—a glass of wine here, a shared piece of cake there—can add up to extra pounds over time, too.
There are many benefits to sharing our lives with another person, and putting on a few pounds because we’re eating meals together and bonding over movie nights might just come with the territory. But when obesity risks are increasing as a result, that means that there’s something more going on than too many trips to the ice cream shop. “[The study] uses the word obesity,” Sandy points out. “That’s more than comfort—that’s a real health risk.” And with over 26 percent of Americans falling into the obese range these days, clearly something needs to be done. That’s why it’s important to keep stress and intimacy issues out of the equation as much as possible by making communication the number one priority. Couples can get healthy together or maintain fit lifestyles by supporting each other and being honest about their individual needs. The key is finding a way to focus on strengthening the relationship without losing ourselves in the process.