How romantic relationships can help or hinder weight loss

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New qualitative research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships suggests that romantic partners are in a unique position to help with weight loss goals.

The study consisted of interviews with 44 overweight adults from a Southwestern city in the United States. Most participants wanted their romantic partner to be involved in their weight loss efforts, and welcomed any help they received. But relationships could also be an impediment to weight loss efforts, as several participants reported that they and their partner had different approaches to getting fit.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s author, René M. Dailey of the University of Texas at Austin. Read her explanation of the research below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Dailey: I’ve been doing research on how family members support weight management for a few years. The predominant theories that are used to understand romantic partner support of individuals’ weight loss implicitly characterize romantic partners as objective individuals who are able to impart ideal support. Yet, we know from experience that partners might not be able to provide quality support or even undermine weight loss efforts. I wanted to delve into the unique nature of romantic, cohabiting relationships to understand how the relational context might be facilitating or hindering individuals’ weight loss.

What should the average person take away from your study?

There are three major findings from this study. First, the vast majority of participants wanted a team effort in losing weight. Beyond praise or encouragement, logistical help (e.g., partners making them meals, taking care of the household or kids so individuals can have time to exercise) or partners just being accommodating (e.g., being open to the individuals working out late at night, willing to try new foods) was seen as helpful.

Second, certain obstacles were presented by the interdependent nature of romantic relationships. For example, sometimes partners had opposing perspectives on weight loss that made working together difficult. Partners also sometimes made negative comments about their own body or weight loss efforts that drained individuals’ motivation. Some also found it difficult to balance their weight loss goals with the needs of the relationship (e.g., individuals had to make choices to either work out or spend time with their partner).

Third, individuals trying to lose weight might make it difficult for partners to provide support. Some participants gave mixed messages about the support they desired from their partners or inconsistent reactions to partner support. For example, some individuals reacted positively to the partner’s suggestion to go for a walk one day but then had a negative reaction the next day.

Overall, the findings suggest that weight loss occurs in an intricate, relational context that both partners shape. And merely coaching cohabiting partners on which strategies to use might not address the complex web of relational dynamics that affect the weight loss process.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

This was a qualitative analysis of interviews with 44 individuals, and thus, the findings are not based on a representative sample. The results, however, point towards relational dynamics (e.g., balancing the needs of the individual and the relationship, partners’ own struggles with weight loss, differing perspectives on weight loss) that need to be assessed in future research. These characteristics could also be incorporated into a more comprehensive model of romantic partner support of weight loss.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Obviously, weight loss is hard, and individuals have to be motivated to lose weight. But romantic partners are in a unique position to help individuals with their weight loss goals (e.g., daily contact, meals together, sharing household responsibilities). As such, it might be beneficial to incorporate romantic partners into weight loss programs.

The study, “Exploring the role of the romantic relationship context in weight loss“, was published February 21, 2017.

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