Can being overweight hurt your marriage?

A recent study found that marriages where one spouse is thin and the other overweight have more conflicts. If that's you, read on.

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Not much is off-limits for Melanie and Bill Draper* (*not their real names)—except for Bill’s weight. “What he eats is fairly healthy,” says Melanie, 57, who lives in northern New Jersey. “But he eats huge amounts—it’s like an addiction.” Bill, who’s 55, knows he could lose a good 50 pounds, but gets annoyed when Melanie brings it up. “It’s stressful. I want him to lose weight for his health and appearance sake,” she says. “But he just thinks I should love him unconditionally.

That’s not surprising, says Gail Saltz, M.D., a psychiatrist and a relationships expert for the Today show and “Anytime there’s a divergence—whether it’s money or sex or weight—there are potential problems. Plus, weight influences how you feel about your body, health, and attractiveness.”

Recent research echoes Dr. Saltz’s comments. A new study by researchers from the University of Puget Sound and the University of Arizona found that mixed-weight couples had the potential for higher conflict in their relationship. The study, published in The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, assessed 43 couples and found that couples where the woman was overweight and the man was normal weight argued more than other couples. (In the study, couples where the man was overweight and the woman was normal weight had no greater conflict than those where both parties fell into the same weight class.) The study also found that there was less relationship conflict when one partner supported the other’s effort to diet and exercise.

So how do you navigate this high-octane topic? By being in your spouse’s corner—not on her back, says Dr. Saltz.

Ask for help.

If you’re the one who’s overweight, tell your partner exactly what you need, suggests psychologist Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., author of Marriage Rules: A Manual for the Married and the Coupled Up. It could be anything from “Push me to get outside and walk with you every day” to “Stop trying to be helpful. I need to struggle with this by myself.”

Be a good listener.

If you’re on the other side of this issue, see if your mate will clue you in. (Say: “I’d like to learn more, and whether there’s any way I can be helpful,” Lerner advises.) Don’t be defensive, correct facts, interrupt, or counter-punch.  “Instead of advising, be curious about her experience. You can say what you think and feel in the next conversation,” she adds.

Admit reality.

There are many things that can pack on the pounds when you’re a Boomer—from medications and health problems to the loss of a parent or pal, notes Dr. Saltz. Since shedding the weight can be more than just a matter of willpower, acknowledge this very real issue as a couple. Then team up to battle them together. One way to show support: Go to the doctor together.

Make a game plan.

Together come up with healthy menus and outdoor activities. Meet the heavier partner in the middle, suggests Dr. Saltz. If you’re a marathon runner, maybe the two of you can walk around the park and sneak in some together-time. Ditto for food. If you’re crazy for chips, but they’re your partner’s Achilles heel, opt for something lower-cal, like soy chips.

Zip it during mealtimes.

If your mate gets up for a second helping, don’t say anything. It’s hard for an overweight spouse to avoid feeling criticized if you micromanage at the table, notes Dr. Saltz. Instead, set up some parameters in advance. Discuss the healthy foods you’ll make. Offer to skip dessert or the glass of wine. In fact, the whole topic of weight should be off-limits while you eat. And if that’s impossible, limit the number of times you break bread together.

Be understanding.

People fall off the wagon all the time (we’re only human). If your spouse feels guilty, tell him, “I know you don’t feel great about yesterday, but let’s get back on the right track today,” suggests Dr. Saltz.