Is your relationship making you fat?

Do couples use food to feel closer, avoid conflict, or cope with tension in relationships? Researcher Emily Butler delves into these questions at University of Arizona in Tucson. (Shout out to my son, UA PhD student Abe Weil, for forwarding me an article on her research.)

Butler, director of UA’s Health & Interpersonals Sytems Research Group, is looking at behavioral patterns going on with 80 new couples and investigating to what extent those behavioral patterns effect healthy vs. unhealthy patterns.

The first pattern Butler’s looking at is called “demand-withdrawal.” This happens when one well-intentioned partner pressures the other to change a habit. The other partner, feeling nagged, pulls away and engages even more in the criticized habit. You know, like this.

Joe: You really need to stop eating peanut butter.

Sally: Yeah, I hear you. You’re probably right. I’m going out. (Drives straight to store to buy 2 more jars of peanut butter.)

Joe: I’m glad you see it my way. (Happy he said something and feeling like he’s helping.)

Sally already feels bad about the behavior. Even though Joe is trying to help, he will make the problem far worse…he’ll cause Sally to self-medicate with the peanut butter–find some emotional regulation in a Jif.

Equally unhealthy, is the “symptom sytem fit” pattern. This is when the couple engages in unhealthy habits because it seems to benefit the relationship in some way, like sharing ice cream with a favorite tv show each night. (Creates closeness, avoids conflict…whatever the goal, it’s not likely conscious but has become a pattern.)

Before I dropped 85 pounds, my husband and I had one of these symptom system fit patterns. On date nights, we’d buy a pound bag of peanut butter M&Ms and almond M&Ms, then go to the movies. We’d also occasionally order a big popcorn, with butter and the largest Diet Coke ever made. It was a bonding pattern–our date night ritual.  (We’d also drink a bottle of wine and eat a fancy dinner before all that stuff. You may be able to see how I was 85 pounds overweight.)

We had to learn to watch movies in a whole new way on date nights after I’d dropped the weight. It took some time before I could walk into the theater and just enjoy the movie without thinking I needed all that other stuff to have fun.

These patterns also show up in sedentary or active habits the couple builds together. If they are sedentary, this can be problematic over time. On the other hand, if they can build active habits, this can serve them well.

Butler suspects interpersonal relationships may play a bigger role than we think in weight regulation. Her hope is to develop family weight loss and healthy weight maintenance therapies.

From my own informal study, the couples I work with (husbands and wives or moms and daughters/sons)  who drop weight together have been very successful. They develop habits of health together and use the patterns above to work in their favor, strengthening the likelihood they will grow old together in a happy and healthy way.

About @jamieweil

I'm on an adventure to bring happiness, relaxation, and some shine to a stressed out world. You might call it a Divine mission. Covid Season 2020 has taught me some important lessons about myself and about you, but most importantly about US. I have written about those in a book called Shine: When Chasing Sacred Spaces Goes Dark, my 6th book which came out December 2020 and hit #1 Bestseller in 7 categories thanks to my readers. I teach an online class to empower empaths through writing and am holding my first writing retreat for empaths under the Full Flower Moon and Lunar Eclipse May 5-7, 2023 in mystical Mt. Shasta, California. We have sold our house, not bought another, and have set out on a synchronistic adventure with Kai, our 103 pound lab, at the center. We call it The Kainnection Adventure. Dogs are the equalizers of all. (Home base:
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4 Responses to Is your relationship making you fat?

  1. charliepriceauthor says:

    I self medicate with baked Lays and my physician keeps prescribing more and more I just wish the bags didn’t make so much noise with their damn crinkling.


  2. I think at first the couple’s eating is almost a celebration of life and love. The big problem is that we as women try to keep up and eat as much as the men forgetting they can eat a lot more than us because they are bigger and often more active on the job and playing sports. My husband is also naturally thinner so when he rides bikes he’s riding to enjoy the view and then gets irritated at me because I’m power walking or riding because I’m doing it for the exercise. Though now he is beginning to get a small beer belly where his stomach was concave when we first met. So it’s catching up, all those beers that is.


    • jamieweilhealthcoach says:

      Just had this conversation with my naturally thin husband today. Unfair. Aggravating. These are words that come to mind:) And I’m WAY more active than he is which adds to the injustice.


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