March 24, 2023

Wendy Irvine had been chunky — or “well-insulated,” as she likes to call it — from the time she was a child. But when she turned 26 and started dating her now-husband, her weight ballooned to the point that she had trouble recognizing herself in photos. She gained about 25 pounds on top of the extra 30 she felt like she was already carrying.
“My husband lived on pizza and fancy bakery treats, and I ate with him and packed on the pounds,” said Irvine, 57, a writer who lives in Atlanta. “It absolutely bothered me. I’d always been a size 12/14, and all of a sudden 16s were cutting off my ability to breathe. I was horrified.”
About 10 years in, she realized that her husband was going to continue eating cinnamon rolls every weekend and ice cream every night, and she decided to focus on changing her own diet. “I was happy, of course, but I didn’t like that I’d let myself go,” she recalled. She ultimately lost 55 pounds and has kept the weight off for years.
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Over the past decade, Tara Suwinyattichaiporn has gained weight in multiple long-term relationships. She’s been with her current partner for three years, and they’re both foodies who enjoy trying new restaurants together. “My partner is super fit, so we would eat the same amount of food, but then I would gain all the weight, and he doesn’t ever gain weight,” said Suwinyattichaiporn, 34, an associate professor of human communication at Cal State Fullerton. “Right now, some skirts are really tight, and some dresses are really tight” — so she’s pledged to take action, starting with journaling about how she feels and using that to motivate healthier behaviors.
Like Irvine and Suwinyattichaiporn, many people report that coupling up eventually means sizing up their clothes: “A lot of people are surprised. It’s a very familiar and intuitive idea that a good relationship should make us better in every way and help preserve our health and well-being,” said Sarah A. Novak. Novak is an associate professor of psychology at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., who has researched relationship weight gain. “It’s counterintuitive that there could be an exception to that, depending on how you think about weight.”
Yet studies indicate that putting on pounds while in a relationship is a common phenomenon. Here’s a look at what the research has found, plus tips on how to address it.
Relationship weight gain is particularly difficult to study, said Penny Gordon-Larsen, a professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For one thing, there tends to be insufficient data on both members of the relationship; only one partner will participate directly, estimating details like what their partner weighs and eats. It’s also rare for researchers to collect data on people before they enter the relationship and then again afterward.
Plus, coupling up often occurs alongside other major life changes: “That’s the point in the life cycle when you’re also getting a new job, or transitioning to a busier schedule, or moving out of your family home and cooking on your own,” she said. Any of those factors could play a role in weight gain.
Still, there’s a pool of research that shines a light on who tends to put on the most relationship weight. A 2012 study that Gordon-Larsen co-authored, published in the journal Obesity, found that transitioning from being single or dating to cohabitation or marriage was associated with an increased likelihood of obesity. The longer a woman lived with a romantic partner, the more likely she was to continue putting on weight, while the risk of obesity among men spiked between the first and second years of cohabitation. Within a few years of their nuptials, spouses were twice as likely to become obese as those who were only dating.
It’s nearly impossible to tease out exactly why people gain weight in relationships, Gordon-Larsen says, but a number of factors likely contribute: busier schedules that interfere with health routines; fancy date nights lingering over restaurant meals; perhaps spending more time on the couch watching favorite TV shows. Plus, she says, there’s some indication that if you’re eating with someone who has a tendency to eat larger meals, you’re more likely to increase your portion size, too.
Interestingly, research co-authored by Novak determined that, among those who had been married for more than four years, happy couples were twice as likely to put on weight than couples who reported not being as content with their relationship. It wasn’t a dramatic amount: about 5 to 15 pounds over four years. “It’s this indicator that people are comfortable. They’re prioritizing the relationship and saying, ‘With our limited time, let’s go get brunch,’ ” she said. “They’re not trying so hard to maintain their bodies to look cute in the club.”
Less-happy couples, on the other hand, were perhaps more likely to keep weight off because they were motivated by the “mating market model,” or desire to attract a new mate. “If you’re single or think you might become single soon, you’re going to invest in things that make you more attractive, like fitness,” Novak said. Plus, if you’re already checked out of the relationship, it might be easy to spend more free time at the gym.
Some people who gain relationship weight feel perfectly fine about the extra pounds. But for those who want to make a change, experts suggest an array of strategies that also seek to protect the partnership:
Be proactive. Since many couples are prone to weight gain, it can be helpful to think about preventing it before it even happens, said Becca Krukowski, a professor in the department of public health sciences at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and an expert in behavioral weight management. “There are things that can be quite enjoyable, like engaging in physical activity together or going grocery shopping together or meal prepping for the week,” she said. “Particularly during those early honeymoon months when everything is fun, you might as well do something that’s also good for your body.”
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Pay attention to the way your lifestyle has changed, and look for a happy medium. If you and your partner love going to brunch together, don’t drop that or other favorite activities, or “prioritize fitness to the exclusion of the relationship,” Novak emphasized. Instead find a middle ground. “Maybe it’s that sometimes we do brunch, and sometimes we go hiking,” she said. “Think about, what can we do differently but still be connected to each other?”
If you’re the only partner interested in making a change, invest in new shared activities. Perhaps you and your significant other used to linger over gourmet meals together, but now you’re cutting back — or you’re blowing off movie night to spend time with your Peloton. If your new lifestyle will “disrupt some of the things that brought you joy together,” look for new shared routines or activities, Novak suggested. For example, reserve 8 p.m. every night for distraction-free connection.
Over-communicate. It’s best to be clear with your partner about how you’re feeling, what kind of changes you want to make and what type of support will be most helpful (or not). You might say, for example, “Please don’t ask me if I want seconds. That’s too challenging for me,” Krukowski suggested. Or “Please tell me one time after dinner that I set a goal to go for a walk, but if I tell you that I’m too tired, don’t continue to bug me about it.”
And remember: Your partner shouldn’t police what you eat. Perhaps you’re reaching for the dessert menu when your significant other hits you with the dreaded, and unwelcome, “Are you sure you want to eat that?” Regardless of whether you gained weight in a relationship, you don’t have to tolerate such comments. As Novak put it: “Even if they have the best of intentions, if your partner is focused on your attractiveness — or making jokes or teasing in a way that is not cute — then they have given you the gift of a giant red flag.”


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