Betsy and Jarom Schow agree that the biggest problem they've faced in 12 years of marriage isn't money, sex or parenting. It's weight.
Ms. Schow, 31 years old, was heavy for much of her life. When she was growing up, her family ate a lot of processed foods and takeout, and she rarely exercised, she recalls. In school, children "mooed" at her when she walked by. She started her first diet at age 12.
She met her future husband in college, in what she calls "a skinny period." Mr. Schow, now 36 and a software engineer, was outdoorsy and thin. The two went on hiking, skiing and rock-climbing dates. Even so, by the time they married in 2000, Ms. Schow had put on 25 pounds. Every year, it seemed she would lose 25 pounds and gain 30 back. By the Schows' fifth wedding anniversary, Ms. Schow weighed 220 pounds. And she was very unhappy about it.
Few subjects in a relationship are more difficult to talk about than one person's weight. Even people who aren't overweight can obsess about their appearance (sadly, these mostly tend to be women). How can a partner raise the issue with someone who is overweight without causing hurt or embarrassment? And how can an overweight person address his or her weight problem without obsessing and harming the relationship?
The Schows, who live in Alpine, Utah, stopped doing fun things together. When they went hiking, Ms. Schow would read a book at the trailhead, waiting for her husband to return. She stopped going to his parents' Sunday dinners because, surrounded by thin people, she felt embarrassed and judged. For several years, she and her husband slept in separate rooms because she felt anxious and uncomfortable in her body, and had trouble sleeping.
There were arguments. More than once, Mr. Schow asked his wife to change her outfit, saying, "That's not made for someone your size, Sweetheart." And there was the unforgettable occasion when Ms. Schow, "trying to spice things up in the bedroom," did a playful little dance, naked, she recalls. Her husband told her, "I guess you are one of those people who looks better with clothes on." (He apologized immediately but she still didn't speak to him for a week.)
Today, Mr. Schow says he has "no idea" why he blurted out such a thing. "I haven't lived it down yet," he says. He never found his wife unattractive, Mr. Schow says, but after she lost 75 pounds, and kept the weight off, he did feel more attracted to her.
Mixed-weight couples, where one partner is overweight and the other one isn't, have more relationship conflict, including arguments and feelings of anger and resentfulness, than same-weight couples, according to a study by researchers at the University of Puget Sound, in Tacoma, Wash., and the University of Arizona, in Tucson, published last month in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Of 43 heterosexual couples in the study, those who reported the most conflict were a healthy-weight man and an overweight woman. When just the man was overweight, couples reported no more conflict than same-weight couples.
The researchers said they don't know whether a weight difference caused couples to argue more, or whether conflict caused one partner to eat more and become overweight. Couples had less conflict when the overweight person reported feeling the partner was supportive of their efforts to exercise and eat a healthy diet. "That is significant because even though they are at risk for more conflict, there are communication mechanisms that can reduce this," says Tricia Burke, the study's lead author and visiting assistant professor in the communication studies department at the University of Puget Sound.
Another finding: Mixed-weight couples who ate together frequently reported more conflict than those who seldom ate together.