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Is your diet ruining your relationship?

by January 15, 2016 Healthcare

Today’s post is about a new research study that’s right up my alley! My first book (with my co-author Denise Maher), Your Diet is Driving Me Crazy: When Food Conflicts Get in the Way of Your Love Life was all about how food impacts your relationship, and how your relationship impacts food.

The book was based on my relationship, as well as the dozens of couples I’ve counseled, whose food conflicts created major barriers, to not only intimacy and communication, but also to health. At that time (the book was published in 2004), there wasn’t a lot of good research about this topic. There were some stats about how couples tend to gain weight after marriage, and since the book was finished, I’ve seen some interesting studies about how women in unhappy marriages tend to gain the most weight.

But today, I read about a brand new study, conducted by researchers at Ryerson University in Toronto, that looked at how significant others respond when their partners attempted to make healthy dietary changes.

The study’s authors conducted interviews with 21 people making dietary changes (mostly for medical reasons). The partners’ responses varied widely, from co-operation and encouragement to skepticism and anger, despite the fact that the significant others described themselves as being supportive.

These conclusions absolutely parallel what I’ve found in working with couples. My book is a collection of case studies based on real people I’ve worked with (along with exercises & solutions), and I’ve found that food is one of the most emotionally-provoking dynamics in a relationship. When one partner changes his or her eating habits (whether out of desire or necessity), it absolutely impacts the other partner, and the relationship itself.

Dietary changes don’t just impact what foods are brought into the house. They can impact the couple’s social life, the way they spend time together, and how they bond; and these changes can trigger fear, anger, frustration, and even shame. For example, when one partner begins eating healthfully, it can mean no more getting pizza & a DVD on Friday nights, sharing buckets of popcorn at the movies, going out for ice cream, or trying new restaurants. For many couples, spending time together primarily involves eating, and eating in carefree, fun, indulgent ways.

Changing those rituals can feel like a major loss for some partners, particularly when they didn’t choose it themselves and weren’t prepared for it. And if you were brought up to bond over food, or show love with food it can be even tougher. As supportive and loving as a significant other may be, dietary changes can really throw a relationship for a loop! I can give you countless examples, but here are a few scenarios I’ve encountered:

When one partner starts eating healthfully, the other can begin to feel embarrassed or ashamed of the (less healthy) way they eat (consciously or unconsciously). And feeling this way is not an emotion we like as humans. Seeing your partner eat fresh fruit while you munch on Cheetos can make you feel kinda bad, and even without realizing it, you might react by sabotaging them, or beginning to resent them. You might even feel judged, even if they’re not at all criticizing you or asking you to change.

When one partner starts eating healthfully, the other can become insecure about the relationship itself. They may (again unconsciously) worry that if their partner loses weight, and becomes more vibrant, they will be more attractive to others. This can stir up feeling or abandonment, or fears of infidelity, even if they’re unfounded. I have seen this scenario result in sabotage, bickering, jealousy, and controlling behavior.

When one partner starts eating healthfully, the other can feel like they’ve lost their “partner in crime.” Sometimes our partner is the one person in our lives we feel safe “letting loose” with. In fact, pigging out together can be a very intimate experience for some couples (laying in bed and eating ice cream, cooking a big meal together, etc.). We typically don’t eat the way we do in front of our partner in front of anyone else – eating in an uninhibited way can feel like one of the most fundamental ways of “being yourself.” When that changes, it can feel like losing a confidant, and can cause couples to struggle a bit to find other ways to share that level of intimacy.

Very interesting, complex stuff! The good news is there are effective ways of addressing these feelings, resolving them, improving communication, and restoring harmony in the relationship. That’s what my whole book was about. I included lots of exercises and tips for how to talk to each other about these feelings (or even uncover them) – that can be tough – but once they’re out there, and they can be addressed more rationally, it’s amazing how powerful and positive the impact is on the relationship. I’ve had clients go from feeling completely unsupported and abandoned, to feeling closer to their partner than they ever have before.

If you’ve made healthy dietary changes, how did your partner react?