So reads the heading from an article in the July 6th issue of Time Magazine. Even though my skin was bristling at the glib headline, I felt obligated as a professional and specialist in the field of eating disorders and overeating to read it and find out what they had to say. I was not impressed with the simplicity and surface level of the conclusions they drew but I did find the statistics interesting. I’m going to share their conclusions with you and then take them a step further and explain, on a deeper level, why their results were so.
The article quotes a study in the July 09 issue of Obesity that “set out to determine how romantic relationships affect the tell-no-lies number on the scale.” The study tracked 6,949 men and women over “a handful of years” and discovered that whether you just cohabitate with your mate or marry them and live together, you are far more likely to gain weight than those who just date (by 230% apparently).
Now here’s an interesting but not surprising bit of info. Women who are common-law with their partners are 63% more likely to become obese than dating women and guess what? Their partners typically show no increased risk for obesity during cohabitation. Men seemed only to put on a little weight during the first and second year of living together and then it all settles down for them. The women, on the other hand, kept on gaining (To me this clearly means that these women found it hard to find balance and practice good self-care in a committed relationship. Or put more succinctly: They felt compelled to use food to cope!)
The study suggests that these gains in weight are due to less gym time, more meals at home, and that “after months of prepping to squeeze into the crinolined and cummerbunded finery, couples just let themselves go.”
Well, I have to say – on reading that at the airport in LA recently I actually harrumphed out loud. I was so incredibly disappointed by the simplistic, surface, and derogatory explanations given for this pattern I felt angry and I felt my momma bear instincts for those who struggle with the use of food to cope coming out in full force. ARgggg!!!!
How much more information do these researchers need to be able to see beneath the surface to what’s really going on here? Why are they (seemingly) so incredibly satisfied to focus on food and women’s perceived lack of willpower for Pete’s sake!!! Because that’s our society, that’s why.
Our society places the responsibility/cause of overweight squarely on the shoulders of food and exercise. What our society hasn’t grasped, as evidenced by the skyrocketing numbers of those with food and body image struggles despite a new diet program/pill/supplement being born every minute, is that it isn’t about the food. It isn’t about the food. If you’re eating and you’re not hungry; eating past the point of fullness; not allowing yourself to eat when you are hungry; or feeling like you need to use some harmful approach to rid yourself of the calories you’ve just consumed (whether self-beratement, purging or a period of extreme restriction), you’re using food to cope. It’s that simple. No ifs ands or buts.
The fact that these researchers and the writer of the article were content to focus on the changes in lifestyle and diet as the causes and not ask the question “why do relationships lead to harmful changes in lifestyle?” makes me sad and frustrated.
A person who eats naturally:
- eats when hungry;
- stops when full;
- doesn’t feel guilty;
- eats everything in moderation; and
- has a life that is separate from thoughts of food and body image.
A natural eater whose routine changes, whether due to a new relationship, an illness, an accident, a vacation or any other event, is not going to have a problem returning to their natural weight once they either gain familiarity with the new routine, or once things return to normal (ie. the injury has healed or they’re back from vacation). A natural eater isn’t going to have any trouble getting back to their natural weight because they don’t use food to cope. They don’t worry about it, they just do it because there is no emotional attachment to food and, even if they aren’t content with their physical form as a result of their accident, they aren’t beating up on themselves and seeing themselves as bad, wrong, lacking, failed and unlovable. They’ve simply put on a few pounds and now they need to hit the gym or cut back a bit on the extra sweets they’d been ingesting. The same thing can be said of a natural eater in a relationship. Once they get used to the relationship’s rhythm, their natural eating tendencies will once again settle into place.
A person who uses food to cope though has a more challenging time until they learn to become a natural eater. And the place where we struggle the most is in relationships with others.
This is because, the reasons we use food to cope in the first place are that:
- We don’t feel good enough as we are; we believe we are unlovable;
- We believe we are undeserving of all that we desire;
- We believe we are responsible for other people’s feelings and needs rather than trusting them to take responsibility for themselves;
- We feel guilty and shameful for asking for anything that we need because we don’t feel deserving and worthy of care and attention;
- We feel anxious much of the time that someone is going to be angry or disappointed with us and that we will then lose their love and approval.
There are many other reasons but they are all variations on the themes above. Now, here I am, let’s say my name is Georgette, and I use food to cope because of the reasons above. Let’s say that I’ve been able to “get a handle on it” somewhat and that I’ve been pretty “good” with my choices and haven’t binged as much as I usually do for some time. I’ve been going to the gym, too, and have brought my life to a relatively balanced place even though I still do use food to cope at times and haven’t healed that pattern. Then I meet a guy and we get serious. Not only does my routine change (which is the explanation of the Time article for my weight gain in my new relationship), but I’ve never learned how to take care of myself in relationships. I’ve never learned how to ask in a healthy way for what I need or to even feel like I have the right to do that. I’m afraid of anger and of disappointing my partner so I don’t want to bring up anything that might upset him or hurt his feelings and I don’t want him to know anything about me that might make him judge me and, heaven forbid, leave me. Do you think I’m feeling a little stifled and a little anxious? Yes, I am. And guess what I do when I feel anxious or overwhelmed or sad or angry etc.? That’s right, I eat!
First Comes Love, Then Comes Obesity Time
So, because I use food to cope and because I haven’t healed the pieces that trigger me to do that, and because I’m not even giving my partner a chance to show me that it is safe to ask for what I need and that I am loveable and worthy of time and energy and care, I’m dooming my relationship to a very limited, stifled connection and in many cases, if our divorce rate is any indication, to its demise.
Our need for safety and trust and respect in relationship is healthy and appropriate. We all need that. And every human being will have strong reactions to being in a relationship where they don’t feel safe and respected. Our reactions will differ depending what we’ve been taught about how to express our hurt, anger, sadness, fear and love. Some will withdraw and get silent and stony, some will get loud and aggressive, some will talk about things and bring them out and work them out or at least name them so they can begin to be dealt with. Those who chose one of the first two options to deal with unmet needs in relationships are going to be the ones who also use drugs, alcohol, food, over-exercise, shopping, gambling, isolation and, procrastination to cope. And just so you know, that’s the majority of the population.
Thankfully, more people each day are learning to identify what they need and feel and how to communicate that effectively but still, the numbers of people who use harmful methods of coping with stress and unmet needs and the hurt feelings they trigger in relationships are far greater. That’s why 63% of women gain a significant amount of weight in a relationship. They may very well be exercising less and eating more. That’s not news. But leaving the focus on the surface, with what I consider to be the symptoms of the problem (eating when not hungry and not practicing good self-care) is missing the entire point: What is it about relationships or at least about how 63% of women approach them, that leads to diminished self-care and an increased use of food to cope?
Men are less likely to use food to cope. They are more likely to use alcohol, drugs, avoidance and withdrawal (also known as Stonewalling). Also, it’s often the women in relationships who are trying to mould themselves to be what they think their partner wants / needs them to be in order to feel safe and secure in the relationship. Of course, the sad thing is that as long as you are being anything but yourself in a relationship you will never, ever, feel safe in it. You will always feel insecure and fraudulent and be waiting to be found out and to be rejected. Any time you’re anything but authentic about what you need and want in a relationship, whether it’s Sushi and not Italian, or deeper more meaningful communication, or better sex, you’re going to feel anxious, insecure and start to build resentment towards the other person (even if it’s not their fault that you didn’t ask for Sushi, and even if they’d be completely open to deeper communication and better sex if you just asked). And that anxiety and insecurity leads to the need for some way to distance from your thoughts and feelings in the moment and that’s where food comes in.
And once the anxiety and insecurity and subsequent resentment start to build, walls start to go up. The only effective solution is to communicate as openly as you can about what you need and how that person can support you to get those needs met.
Anything else is going to lead you to need your food coping strategy and is going to also lead to a sense of separation, isolation, mistrust, and disrespect in the relationship that, in most cases, never needed to be there if you both had just talked openly about how you felt and what you needed in any given situation and worked to find a way for you both to get what you need (there is always a way for both people to get their needs met).
So, it makes perfect sense to me that 63% of women gain weight in relationships but it truly infuriates me to see it chalked up to such simplistic and surface explanations as not exercising as much and eating a bit more. Clearly there is much more going on, and each of you for whom this hits home has a choice to continue to use food to cope and not address issues as they arise in your relationship or to find out why you’re using food to cope and to take steps to overcome those old beliefs and patterns of behaviour that lead you to feel fearful of taking up equal space in the relationship and of asking for what you need.
The CEDRIC Centre exists to help you to overcome these old harmful beliefs and patterns and to create the safety and trust within yourself that allows you to be in a healthy romantic partnership without needing food to cope at all which means you feel peaceful, relaxed, happy and are a natural weight for your body without dieting.
If you’d like that to be your reality, send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and let’s get started! Or visit our web page at www.cedriccentre.com and find out more about The CEDRIC Centre’s workshops, books, and individual counselling.