Relationships can change when you lose weight, for the better or worse

Photo by Kevin Lanceplaine for Unsplash

There was an article in last week’s Guardian newspaper titled “Why Weight Loss Causes Breakups”. It was about how dramatic weight loss following bariatric surgery may transform people’s lives, but can also lead to the end of relationships.

The article was specifically about weight loss surgery and dramatic weight loss, but the issues are relevant to any amount of weight loss, achieved by whatever means.

When you lose weight, it’s not just the number on the scale that changes

As the article by journalist Sirin Kale describes, there are many ways this can happen. These are shown through interviews with people post-surgery telling their stories. One person talked about their confidence growing, and realising that they didn’t need to be treated as they had been up to then any longer. When what you’ll accept from a partner changes, they have to change too or the relationship will falter. Many of the stories involved a shift in confidence and self-esteem, which led to partners and close friends having to adjust, or lose the relationship.

As the article says, “patients also end up having to recalibrate the most destructive partnership in their lives to date: their relationship with food”. And for particular people, like Chloe, the changes follow from losing food as a way of coping: Chloe’s marriage fell apart because she wasn’t able to use food as a diversion from her unhappiness – her coping mechanism had gone.

Because there is so much more to size and shape than just size and shape, more things change than just physical presence when you lose weight. Your own sense of identity can alter, and your partner or family or friends may feel that you have become a different person. If they can adjust to that there is no problem, and the relationship will change and grow. If not, you may find as the contributors to the Guardian piece did, that you’ll have to tackle issues that only surface as your weight falls.

Society and wider groups

Some of these issues will be directly about specific relationships, but they are wider than that if you find that society as a whole treats you differently, and you attract different attention, including sexual attention. You may welcome and embrace this, or dread and shun it. We’re all different and what matters is how you find you are feeling.

Your place in groups you are a part of may change. If you’ve adopted a particular role in your family or friendship group, and if this role is threatened by losing weight, the whole group may feel threatened. In which case, group members may react by either trying to push you back into your old role, or even excluding you from the group. Group psychodynamics are very powerful, and largely unconscious, so if you find yourself feeling upset or confused about what’s happening in any groups you’re a part of, ask a trusted person who’s not involved in the group for their help working out what to do and for their support while you do whatever you decide to do.

Being prepared for potential changes

To help people to anticipate and work out how to deal with potential problems that come with success, in chapter 3 of “How to Retrain Your Appetite”, which is titled The Psychology of Eating and Appetite, I outline the questions to ask yourself at the outset. Before you start putting in the effort to change how you eat, ask yourself, “Do I really want this, and if so, why?” and then “What will change when my weight changes, and will I feel OK with this (will it feel safe; will I still feel like me; do I deserve to succeed)?” The next question is “What won’t change?”, because if you think all your problems are going to be solved by slimming down, you may be really disappointed when they aren’t. These questions aren’t purely about relationships, but you can include important relationships when you think about all of these questions. When you’re clear about the answers, you’ll know whether now is the time to go ahead. If you want to read more about these questions, here’s the link to my book.

Some relationships suffer while some grow

In her book on “Living with Bariatric Surgery”, Clinical Psychologist Dr Denise Ratcliffe has a whole chapter on changes in relationships following surgery. She says, “it is a myth that there are very high divorce rates after bariatric surgery – the evidence demonstrates that those who have healthy relationship before surgery continue to do so after surgery, but losing weight can worsen relationships that were problematic to begin with”. Denise Ratcliffe talks about a study which found a difference between partners who sought to maintain the status quo and those who embraced the change. And she has a helpful tip for anyone whose partner, friends or family seem to be resisting change which is that if you’re vocal about health-related reasons for weight loss then this seems more acceptable to others.

How do you tell which relationships to treasure and which to let go?

My main recommendation is a very simple one. It would be to start noticing how you feel in the company of different people, both before, during and after weight loss. If you feel good in someone’s company, that’s a sign that the relationship is a healthy one. There may be unease or discomfort during periods of change, but if the connection is essentially positive, that’s good.

If on the other hand you notice tending to feel bad about yourself or guilty or anxious in someone’s company, that’s not such a good sign. Letting go of unhealthy relationships can be a scary prospect, but it makes room for life-enhancing and health-giving relationships to take their place.

Further Reading

McCarthy, H (2019) How to Retrain Your Appetite: Lose weight eating all your favourite foods, Collins and Brown

Ratcliffe, D (2018) Living with Bariatric Surgery: Managing your mind and your weight, Routledge

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