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Bariatric Surge and Relationships

An interesting article in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune (“Marriages can suffer after bariatric procedures,” 9/6/11) tells us that, contrary to what we might think about weight loss strengthening marriage or a romantic partnership, it actually can cause marital tension and discord instead. Here’s the scoop.

The article observes that what happens in a relationship post-surgery depends on how healthy and stable it was pre-surgery. According to David Sarwer, associate professor of psychology, University of Pennsylvania: “In general, we know, after bariatric surgery, that people tend to feel much better about themselves…we see less depressive symptoms. We see improvement in self-esteem and increase in quality of life and body image.” His statement makes one think that significant weight loss would only improve a relationship, but that’s not always the case. Anne Eshelman, a clinical health psychologist who runs a support group for bariatric patients, counters this assumption: “When [both] people are morbidly obese and their activity level is low, they may not feel they have choices,” for example, to assert their needs or even leave a marriage. “If one person has surgery and the other doesn’t, there may be lots of conflict.”

This tension reinforces what I’ve experienced with clients who have lost large amounts of weight, though not necessarily through bariatric surgery. In some cases, their long-term relationship has improved. As an individual feels healthier, he or she wants to be more active, and may then spend more time with a partner or their mood may improve. When both partners lose weight together and support each other, a stronger bond is forged between them. Even if a great deal of weight isn’t lost, they may become more fit and adopt a healthier lifestyle. This can be a tremendous bonding experience.

On the other hand, one person losing weight can expose insecurities, jealousies and power imbalances in the relationship. Often partners anticipate that they’ll now have more intimacy and are angry and dismayed when there is no increase or less. Weight loss can produce an increase in sexual feelings, flirting, or altering clothing style or appearance—in men or women—to the point where a partner feels as if he or she doesn’t know the beloved any more. Consequently, one partner losing a significant amount of weight, even over time, can shake up a relationship. Of course, the more emotionally healthy each partner is and the more solid the partnership, the better things go. Something to think about for any of you considering bariatric or other weight-loss surgery as well of those of you losing weight in a long-term romantic relationship.