January: the season to shed and renew. Specifically, renewing our annual promise to shed our holiday paunches and renew our commitment to health.
And when weight, energy levels, health, and self-esteem change over seasons and years, couples in long-term relationships must navigate those changes. How do they voice their dissatisfactions? How do they accept change in a physical relationship? I interviewed eleven couples about changes in their personal and their partners' fitness and self-image; whether they shared fitness regimens or pizza nights on the couch; and how they talk about their bodies.
1. "Weight Gain Is Grounds for Divorce."
Camilla “didn’t hesitate to inform” Ross that he was “flabbier” when she returned from her deployment in Iraq. “I wasn’t nice about it,” she says. “It wasn’t one of my prouder moments.” Yet Ross, now her husband of three years, has repented for “slacking off.” “Weight gain is common during a spouse’s deployment, but I take full responsibility,” he says. “We’ve talked about it, and the only acceptable reason for weight gain is pregnancy … Significant weight gain is grounds for divorce.”
“We’re vain people,” he continues. “I don’t want to have physical relations with a fat gal.”
The “very Type-A, take-charge” couple met at West Point. They paint their marriage as a meeting of mutual motivations. For their third date, they ran a Valentine’s Day half-marathon that each had registered for independently. “We cheer each other on,” Camilla, 26, says. “He keeps me accountable.” Ross, 32, says he feels “empowered by what we share.”
Like many women, she supposes, Camilla self-effaces more than her husband. “She’ll say she’s having ‘a fat day,’” Ross says. “I’ll reassure her that she’s gorgeous.” If he notices she’s gaining, though, he’ll make a joke about extra dessert. Likewise, Camilla will “make a side comment” if she notices weight gain in Ross. “If you can’t be responsible enough to take care of yourself, how are you going to take care of a family?” she asks.
2. She Lost Weight, Met a Guy — and Helped Him Become a Woman
Matilda’s ex-husband didn’t invite her to his work functions, claiming his coworkers wouldn’t take him seriously if they saw her. But he’d also pile clothes on their workout equipment, saying, “If you lose weight, you’ll leave me.” She ate for comfort, loathed herself for gaining weight, and then ate more, until she was almost 400 pounds.
Meanwhile, in a different city, Jake played sports, rode a unicycle, and “dreamed of living as a girl.” He told girlfriends, “If you see women’s underwear around here, it’s not some other girl’s, it’s mine.”
Matilda left her husband and began working out twice a day, six days a week. “I learned a lot about my willpower,” she says. She also began addressing “the whole tangled reason” behind her eating habits. “It’s easier to deal with your own stuff when you’re alone.”
Jake and Matilda connected on a dating site for “open minds” and hit it off immediately. With Matilda’s support, Jake began transitioning to Sarah. “Matilda helped me feel better about my image,” Sarah, 30, says. “I’m concerned about my face and chest stubble. Matilda says, ‘No one can tell.’ It makes feel good that people see me as a girl. In public I don’t get the look of disapproval I used to get … My life has been blessed.”
As Sarah emerged, though, Matilda started gaining weight again. Matilda, 40, watched as friends gave Sarah size zero cast-offs. Her cut legs looked sexy in tights. “I grieved the future I’d once imagined, of having a good-looking guy who was just batty about me and vice versa,” Matilda says. Sarah “was going through this incredibly vulnerable thing,” so, ashamed of her own feelings, she didn’t share them. “I try to comfort Matilda, but she tries to deal with things on her own,” Sarah says.
3. The Pregnant Body As Liberation
Ellen, 30, “felt blah” during her first trimester, but once she stopped throwing up and started showing, confidence was hers: “No one had ever smiled at my belly before. It felt nice.” Pregnancy liberated her from self-consciousness over belly fat, and during the second trimester, she and husband Gene, 30, started having sex again, “a lot.”
“I didn’t think we’d be able to do certain positions but we could,” Gene says. “I felt the baby kicking right there between us … And you’re entering the hole the baby is to going exit. Weird is not descriptive enough a word.”
After giving birth, Ellen “was more focused on the baby than stretch marks ... my body belonged to this little creature who was on me all the time.” It was a few months before they had regular sex again. “Our son sucks on her breasts, which makes me not want to touch them. They used to be mine, sexual objects. Now they’re utilitarian,” Gene says. “Now I look at other women’s breasts and think, 'Oh, those serve a purpose.'” In response, Ellen laughs, “How enlightened of you!”
4. The Gym Rat Who Proposed on the Mat
George proposed to “gym rat” Jenny at their gym, moments after their regular boot camp class, because fitness “unites” them. Most mornings they rise together at 5:15 a.m. to start the day with a workout.
Jenny, 32, says, “I’m constantly staring at myself in the mirror deciding which body parts to hate, but if something were really bothering me, I wouldn’t say it.” Fiancé George, 52, says Jenny often asks whether her body has changed. “I’m not just going to say, ‘No,’” he says of his assessments. “I’m not going to have that kind of relationship. I want to be honest.” He asks her about his body, too.
“He’s always very kind,” Jenny says. “I can tell he’s choosing his words, like, ‘Your ass is not fat, it’s just a different shape.’” George replies, “Well, if you run uphill all the time, your ass is going to become a very specific shape.” After years of “being obsessed with these issues,” Jenny is sensitive about her body, but considers the shared exercise regime “putting the focus in the right place.” Jenny says, “I have better body image since meeting George. If I’m criticizing myself I can step back and see myself through his eyes.”
5. "Yup, I’m Fat."
“I don’t mind if I’m fat, I just don’t want everyone to know,” Kevin, in his thirties, laughs. “It’s not a shameful thing” for men, he says. “It’s just a thing. Like, ‘Yup, I’m fat.’”
“I probably tease him just a little bit more,” his wife, Ana, says. “It’s pretty deeply engrained that he’d never comment on a women’s appearance. I’m sensitive. He’d probably fib to spare my feelings, even if I’m saying ‘Be honest with me.’” She continues, “I’m not petite, but he’s never given me any indication that that’s what he wants.”
When they exercise regularly, sex occurs more frequently, too. Ana says she’ll have more energy and will be “more confident, more playful, showier.” Otherwise she “just wants to flip the lights off and keep a shirt on and sex decreases.”
They usually diet and go to the gym together. Grocery shopping, Kevin says, can be “an impossible roadblock” because they “fundamentally disagree”; for example, about whether he should drink Diet Coke. “If I’m not exercising he’d never call me out,” Ana says. Kevin explains, “In general we say, ‘I’m fat and I’m not going to do this by myself, so what’s happening?’”
6. A Husband Finds Confidence After Grief
Doctors continually implied that the pain Kate felt during sex was “in her head,” so her husband Andrew, then a college student, concluded “she just didn’t want to have sex with me … I thought I was unattractive and I had to lose weight.” Already slender, he dropped about twenty pounds but “consistently felt overweight.” He says, “I was never forthcoming with her about it. I didn’t tell anyone about the anorexia.” When they’d been together four years, Kate was diagnosed with an inflammatory bladder condition and colon cancer in quick succession. She died soon thereafter.
Now in his early thirties and remarried, Andrew says, “None of those same issues come up in my current relationship with Hannah. She gives me a lot of confidence. It’s amazing, actually.” He talked openly with Hannah about his previous marriage and struggle with self-image “from the beginning.” He asks, “What am I holding on to? When my first wife passed away, why would I not be completely honest about everything?”
Hannah points out that the Baroque painter “Rubens’s women were considered beautiful because they were fleshy.” Fat meant money; “today, skinniness gives status.” She says Andrew tells her he loves her body every day, but after she lost the twenty pounds she’d gained “vegging out, taking advantage of his unconditional love,” he told her he’s more attracted to her “slimmer.”
“When she has kids it’ll be hard for her to lose the weight, but that’s not something I really care about,” Andrew says. “Our relationship certainly transcends the physical.”
7. Doughnuts and OCD
“She brings Dunkin’ Donuts in the house!” Rufus exclaims. “Cook me vegetables!”
“A forty-plus-year-old should have willpower!” Jenny playfully replies in mock anger. “I’m not cooking!”
“After twenty-plus years of marriage,” she continues, “I can’t say, ‘Look, dear, you need to work out.’ We have to keep it lighthearted. We both know what we need to do.” She weighs herself daily, which Rufus considers “OCD.”
“I tell him I see rolls, and he tells me to stop looking,” Jenny notes. “If he loses his chest, I’ll still love my husband.”
His advice to young couples: “No harsh words.” Her advice: “Don’t expect to stay the same.”
8. "Your Body Doesn’t Belong to You."
A lifelong athlete, Chelsea has always “needed the stress release” of regular exercise or else she’s “antsy.” Now the mother of two, the 36-year-old says her relationship with her body changed temporarily post-birth. With little free time, she struggled for two years to lose weight after her second pregnancy. She and her husband had less sex: “I’m sure [my husband] noticed, but we didn’t have a specific conversation… Women are often more critical of themselves than they need to be.”
“When you’re breastfeeding, your body doesn’t belong to you,” she says. “Someone attached to you needs you. And your husband needs your body parts too … I said, ‘My boobs are off-limits.’”
9. The Reformed Sun Goddess and Her Husband
Former “sun goddess” Tracey, 50, talked with her husband Daniel “about everything” happening to her body when her doctors told her melanoma would probably kill her. Through chemotherapy, surgeries, and blood transfusions, “I couldn’t accept that I had to leave my daughter.” A last-ditch experimental treatment worked. She’s been cancer-free for three years — and finds herself wearing bikinis un-self-consciously for the first time in much longer.
“You can look good to other people but not be fit,” she now realizes. Together she and Daniel, 58, adopted a carb-free Paleo diet. He stopped drinking beer. Even when he had a potbelly, Daniel thought that he and Tracey “always looked like a Hollywood couple.” He suspects he lacks machismo now: “I used to look a lot tougher and stronger. Guys want to be a tough guy. I don’t look like a threat.” But he feels better, and he and Tracey plan to stay this way. “I’m just happy to be here,” she says. “Young people don’t think about living a long life, they think about looking good, the now.”
10. Tuesdays with Weight Watchers
Three years ago, a TV show gave Jane and Mark’s backyard a makeover. “It’s not like we didn’t know we were overweight,” Jane says, but seeing themselves onscreen “scared” them for their health.
Mark, 50, changed his work schedule so he could walk Jane the three miles to and from her weekly Weight Watchers meeting on Tuesdays. He keeps walking while she’s in the meeting. “The momentum of two is tougher to stop. One pulls the other,” he says. Jane adds, “He knows anything could keep me on the couch. It’s a great time for the two of us. I have him all to myself, no distractions.”
After losing about seventy pounds over three years, Jane realized, “When I was heavy, I became invisible.” Now men open doors for her. Mark has lost weight but not as much as Jane. The pair rarely discussed their gradual weight gain, but Jane says, “His body type has zero affect in terms of how I feel about him … It’s not like, ‘Oh, great, now he’s sexy.’ That we’re healthier just means I’ve got a shot at spending more time with the person who makes me happy.”
11. His Weight Loss Signaled Illness — and Bonded Them Together
Soon after Kyle and Alison became fast friends, he began losing weight and suffering flu-like symptoms. They started dating in their late twenties. One month later, Kyle, already “damn near gaunt,” was diagnosed with cancer.
Even as Kyle underwent chemotherapy, he kept working as a social media strategist and “tried very hard to project independence.” He had only recently moved out of his parents’ home and “didn’t want family doting.” Alison’s care allowed him his adulthood: “I tried to help him keep things as normal as possible,” she says.
Chemo so weakened Kyle that even picking a movie wore him out. Alison made their plans, and they often “restricted their radius to the neighborhood” because he was tired. Despite his illness, she didn’t consider leaving the burgeoning relationship. “I just wanted to hang out with him,” she says. Because Kyle’s illness immediately plunged them into “intensity,” “once in a while” she’d wonder, “Who’s he going to be in the future, my friend, my boyfriend, fiancé?”
Now that Kyle is cancer-free and they’re living together, they’re learning later than usual to negotiate “little New York couple things you take for granted,” like going out separately. Alison says that they “broke down the walls under a vastly different peril” means they can “broach uncomfortable topics” like how they’re feeling about themselves “without fear.” He adds, “It doesn’t mean it’s not awkward sometimes … But it never feels judgmental.”