Can Fat Help a Relationship?

When a new client comes into my office for weight-loss counseling, I begin by asking two questions to assess his or her motivation: How is your weight hurting you, and how is your weight helping you? Most people can easily respond to the first question, but almost everyone is puzzled by the second. How could being overweight possibly be useful?

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Can Fat Help a Relationship?
Can Fat Help a Relationship?

When a new client comes into my office for weight-loss counseling, I begin by asking two questions to assess his or her motivation: How is your weight hurting you, and how is your weight helping you? Most people can easily respond to the first question, but almost everyone is puzzled by the second. How could being overweight possibly be useful?

There are actually a multitude of secondary gains that stem from being overweight or obese, and these so-called benefits can cause people to be subconsciously resistant to losing excess weight. One benefit relates to the role that weight can play in a romantic relationship. In fact, an individual’s obesity is often a hidden factor that keeps a couple together. Consider these two scenarios:

Scenario one: “We are not having sex because I’m fat.”

When sexual intimacy has become infrequent, it is often easier to blame the lack of sex on something superficial (like weight) than it is to discuss the real underlying issue getting in the way. For instance, some overweight women use this reasoning to protect the egos of male partners who struggle with sexual dysfunction. It becomes her fault that they are not engaging in intercourse, and he does not have to face the emasculation that might come with his inability to perform.

Alternatively, overweight individuals might use the “I’m too fat” excuse when sex is physically uncomfortable or unsatisfying. These folks would rather take the blame themselves than risk insulting or worrying their partner.

Or a couple might not be having sex because they have fallen out of love; in this case, acknowledging the reality – which could end the relationship – is much more difficult than citing weight as the culprit.

In each of these cases, as long as the weight stays on, the partnership can continue without sex.

Scenario two: “My relationship is unsatisfying, but I can’t leave because I’m overweight and no one else will want me.”

Leaving a romantic relationship can be a painful and complicated process for many reasons. Often, a couple has built a life together that might involve children, shared finances, and the bonds of an extended family. The thought of potentially ending a current partnership to pursue a more fulfilling one can be frightening.

Because of this, people often use their weight – and their belief that they would not have success on the dating scene –  as a way to justify (to themselves) staying in an unhappy relationship. Some fear that if they do lose weight and start to receive more sexual attention from other potential partners, they might be tempted to end their current relationship and then be forced to cope with the aftermath. As long as they remain overweight, there’s a compelling reason to take this possibility off the table. The burden of choice is alleviated.

When I learn that one or both of these scenarios is true for my client, I bring the issue to light. In most cases, individuals are unaware of the subconscious reasons that they may remain overweight, so awareness can be transformative in and of itself. Then I encourage my clients to deal directly with the relationship issue at hand. Perhaps the couple needs to have honest dialogue about the sexual problems. Maybe the overweight client must be empowered to leave the dysfunctional relationship and accept whatever consequences may arise. In any case, dealing directly with the underlying issue is the top priority. And after that, weight loss may naturally follow.

Blog written by Katie Rickel, PhD
Dr. Katie Rickel is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in weight management and health behavior modification. She...