Relationships

Heavy hearts: 'Mixed-weight' couples argue more

Jan. 24, 2013 at 10:11 AM ET

When Betsy Schow shed 75 pounds, she also eliminated a lot of stress in her marriage. 

She and her husband, Jarom, talked to TODAY about their experience as a "mixed-weight couple," in which one partner is overweight and the other isn't. Heavy all her life, she met Jarom in college during a “skinny period,” gained 25 pounds by their wedding in 2000 and was unhappy five years later when her weight reached 220 pounds.

Mixed-weight couples, especially those in which the woman is overweight, argue more and have more feelings of anger and resentment than same-weight couples, The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week, citing a study published last month in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. The extra conflict can cause problems with intimacy and communication.

In an unscientific online survey of more than 1,500 TODAY.com readers, 55 percent say weight differences have caused problems in their relationship.

Poll: Has weight caused problems in your relationship?

Betsy’s unhappiness with her weight strained the couple’s marriage, with fights and periods of frustration and even talk of splitting up. But she lost 75 pounds in 10 months, their marriage grew stronger and she wrote a book published earlier this month titled, “Finished Being Fat.”

The Alpine, Utah, couple discussed their journey on TODAY Thursday.

Betsy, 31, recalled the period in her life when her whole world centered around eating and her weight.

“It’s something I call ‘fat goggles,’” she told Savannah Guthrie. “It’s like beer goggles except with fat.”

“Everything revolved around weight, whether I was gaining, whether I was losing,” she said. “What we eat, what we could do together. Whether I would let him touch me because I was afraid secretly that he was disgusted, or did not want to go out because he was embarrassed by me.”

Jarom struggled with how to help his wife reach her goal of slimming down.

“It’s really hard to encourage somebody to eat healthier without that coming off as nagging,” said Jarom, 36.

“If I’m saying, ‘Let’s skip dessert’ or ‘Maybe we shouldn’t order the dessert,’ then she’s automatically going to feel bad about that and focus on her weight and her self image.”

Some of their toughest times came when Jarom made comments to his wife that he has not lived down since. Several times, according to the Journal, he asked her to change her outfit, saying: "That's not made for someone your size, Sweetheart," and once, when she was trying to spice up their love life with a playful, naked dance, Jarom told her: "I guess you are one of those people who looks better with clothes on."

Jarom acknowledged to Guthrie, "I opened my mouth without thinking and I think I've regretted it ever since."

Things got so bad that Betsy considered leaving her husband.

“I wanted a way out,” she told Guthrie. “I figured, maybe if I could escape, I could be somebody else, because nobody would know me and I could try again and maybe I’d be successful that time. I was tired of feeling unloved and broken and thought maybe that was the way out.”

Researchers don’t know which comes first in a relationship, conflict or weight gain, as the cycle often feeds itself when relationship stress leads to eating and more stress. They key for mixed-weight couples, one expert says, is for partners to work together.

“You have to figure out how you can let your partner help you and not get angry at them, and that’s the hardest part,” says psychiatrist and TODAY contributor Dr. Gail Saltz. “If you do it as a team, the person who is overweight feels supported.”

Jarom agreed, saying that after he was diagnosed with diabetes and had to watch his own diet, he gained the ability to relate to his wife’s struggle. “It’s better as a couple if you can make those decisions about eating together,” he said.

Betsy’s best advice for dealing with the issue is to for the overweight partner to look inward.

“You have to focus not just on the outside but on the inside and on that negative little voice that tells you, ‘You can’t, you’re fat,’” she said. To spouses who are tempted to criticize an overweight partner, she advised, just don't: "I guarantee that the person who is heavy says so much worse things to themselves and you need to stop that dialog and move on.”

Related stories from TODAY Health:

Everything to lose: Gym accepts only overweight members

Mom who put 7-year-old on a diet says daughter is now healthy

Here's the skinny: Diets are becoming passé

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