After marriage, both men and women tend to gain some weight, but men tend to gain even more after divorce, according to a study that followed over 10,000 people to better understand the impact of people’s marital status on their health. Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth – a biannual survey of men and women from 1986 to 2008 – researchers tracked the body mass index (BMI) of folks who were never married, were married or were divorced. The results showed that within two years of marriage most couple’s BMI values increased. But divorce also turned out to be a significant marker.
Weight Issues Have Also Relational Components
“After marriage, women will take care of their families and maybe eat the way their husband does or their children do,” said Dr. Zhenchao Qian, a sociology professor at Ohio State University and one of the lead authors of the study. The change in routine that comes with married life can trigger weight gain, at first more so for women than for men. “Men tend to be healthier after marriage in terms of diet,” said Dr. Qian.
With regards to their overall health, men clearly benefit from marriage. Married men are more likely to go for routine medical checkups and take better care of their health needs than bachelors. After divorce, however, things can quickly turn for the worse.
“Joy and grief are strong emotions that can lead to an increase or decrease in appetite,” said Susan Heitler, a marriage counselor and writer for poweroftwomarriage.com. “Newlyweds often gain small amounts of weight because they’re content. But in people who are newly divorced, depression can cause substantial weight gain,” she said.
Of course, there are other factors besides change of marital status that must be considered. Pregnancy, parenting, career changes, financial problems, aging and widowhood all leave their own mark on people’s health and wellbeing.
Interestingly enough, it doesn’t seem to get easier with age. On the contrary. People who get married and/or divorced while they are still young seem to be less affected by weight gain in response to their experiences. “Both marriages and divorces increase the risk of weight changes from about age 30 to 50, and the effect is stronger at later ages,” said Dmitry Tumin, a doctoral student in sociology at Ohio State University and co-author of the study. “As you get older, having a sudden change in your life like a marriage or a divorce is a bigger shock than it would have been when you were younger, and that can really impact your weight,” he added.
Weight gain affects relationships
Weight problems do not only affect people’s physical health but also their relationships. In a different study conducted at Cornell University, researchers found that physical appearance plays an especially significant role at the dating stage but also throughout marriage. According to the study, young normal-weight women are more willing to date overweight men than the other way around. Once married, overweight wives seem to be happier in their marriages than many normal-weight ones. Still, females tend to be more concerned about weight issues than males, regardless of marital status. At any age, men seem less tolerant of overweight partners and less comfortable in dating overweight people than women.
“While the population of this country – and the world for that matter – is getting fatter, ideals about body weight increasingly emphasize slimness. Society tends to reject obese individuals and subjects them to severe stigmatization and discrimination,” says Dr. Jeffrey Sobal, a nutritional sociologist at Cornell University who studies the sociology of obesity and one of the authors of the study, which was subsequently published in a book titled “Overweight and Weight Management” (ASPEN 1997).
While the study found that body weight was not associated with most aspects of marital quality, several connections were identified as significant. For instance, men who gained weight while they were married reported more marital problems than men who kept their weight down. By contrast, married women did not seem to be as affected by their weight changes.
“One theory about why obese women are happier with their marriages is related to recognizing their decreased value in the marriage market in a society that stigmatizes obesity. As a result, obese women are more likely to be satisfied with their current marital condition compared with opportunities for seeking a new partner. In other words, women appear to internalize and accept the negative assessments of their obesity [better than men],” the study concludes.
Weight gain and sex
While many women are concerned about losing their man because of weight issues, some also use sex to pressure their partners into weight loss. “Women often withhold sex as a weapon of last resort when their partners refuse to or don’t lose weight,” said Dr. Laura Triplett, a professor at California State University in Fullerton who conducts research on body image and social implications of physical appearance. She found that especially women in their 20s stop having sex with partners who don’t meet their expectations of what a man should look like.
It’s not just a matter of vanity or loss of respect when Mr. Right turns wrong because his waistline expands. “When men gain weight and become physically unattractive to their partner, what usually happens is the woman takes it much more as a sign that he doesn’t love her. Women tend to personalize things, said Mary Jo Rapini, a psychotherapist specializing in intimacy and sexuality at the Methodist Weight Management Center in Houston, TX. “At one point, women feel like their partners don’t care,” she said.
Women are not all that different from men when it comes to aesthetics, according to Veronica Monet, a sexologist who does research in relationship dynamics. “It’s great that women are realizing that we are also visual creatures and that we are sexually stimulated by what we see and that we have the right to ask our partners to gift us with the benefit of good grooming and regular visits to the gym. But any time we threaten our partners with withholding sex or love, whether we are male or female, we take the relationship in a negative direction.”
Instead, she suggests, couple should share their feelings and talk frankly about weight problems with one another. “It’s extremely important to avoid negative statements, name-calling or accusations,” Monet said. “Ultimately, you have to realize that your overweight partner is only going to lose weight when he [or she] wants to.”