Must Marriage Add Pounds? Self-care and couplehood


To beat the statistics on marriage and weight gain--keep some focus on yourself.

Exactly why is it that married people get fatter? For they do—studies consistently show that singles gain less weight over time than the partnered. And those who are actually married gain even more than those in unmarried relationships. So what’s going on? And can you enter that state without losing your shape?

Researchers tend to explain the differences, first, in terms of lifestyle. For example, partners may become more sedentary. Maybe they grapple with post-pregnancy weight. Maybe they eat out more often. Then researchers point to incentive. (Picture that cartoon where the bride kicks up her heels: “Hurray, no more Weight Watchers!!” ) In other words, we may not try as hard once we’ve landed a mate.

I think an important missing question is “Why is it so much harder to care for yourself after marriage?” For a healthy diet and a weight bring more than just mate-landing looks. They also support better health, energy, and self-esteem. Lifestyle factors and reduced incentive certainly contribute. But as the sabotaging partner issue (see Part 1) makes clear, there’s a lot going on in relationships that can complicate things. And shouldn’t having a partner make self-care easier, at least in some ways?

Sometimes, caring for oneself and attending to others feels fundamentally incompatible. So, for example, exercise time can drop to the bottom of the priority list when husbands and kids need attention.

I recently explored this issue with a 40-something businesswoman I’ll call Rita. She’d spent several years during her teens and twenties caring for a very sick mother. She rarely took time to attend to her own needs, fearing that her mother would suffer in pain or feel unbearably bereft in her absence. Recently, Rita’s partner has suffered bouts of illness. During this time it has seemed nearly impossible for Rita to stick with a diet plan essential to her own health. When her partner is doing well, the food preparation and planning goes smoothly. This is not a matter of Rita’s partner insisting on fattening meals, bringing sweets into the house or demanding unreasonable amounts of attention. Rita is coming to realize that she simply doesn’t, and sometimes feels she can’t, focus on herself, when feeling vigilante about someone she loves.

In another scenario, Rose has gained a lot of weight over the course of her marriage. She feels it’s hard to keep good food in the house. Her family likes ice cream and treats, she’ll say. She feels she can’t insist on more home dinners—and her family likes to go out, even on weekdays. As for exercise, there’s just too much else to do, she says. She realizes that these explanations don’t make perfect sense. But she feels guilty when she asserts her own needs. She doesn’t want to disappoint, or cause upset, even if temporary. “I know they won’t really suffer if I don’t buy junk food, or say ‘no’ to eating out. But I end up just feeling awful if I push it.”

For some, weight clearly fluctuates with relationship status—rising in relationship and falling in singlehood. While many factors obviously contribute, I often notice it among those who tend toward overresponsibility for their “others”. These same people may gravitate toward, or attract those “others” who do less and need more from their mates. It’s hard then, indeed, for to keep focus on such things as exercise time or healthy cooking.

So you could think of maintaining weight after marriage as part of maintaining post-marital health overall. And essential to that is attending to how we care for ourselves day in and day out, even as we remain attentive to our mates. This could prove as important as keeping up with dental care and regular check-ups—other things that maintain our health and attractiveness, and that we wouldn’t want to let go.