Liz and Danny* have been in a committed relationship for more than a decade after a serendipitous meeting at a Mexican restaurant while both were seated at different tables. At the time they met, she was a sprite-like redhead with a quirky sense of humor; he was tall and thin with a mop of curly black hair. Physically attracted from the moment they locked eyes, emotional intimacy came later and grew over time.
Fast-forward 10 years. At 41, Liz remains slender. But Danny, 46, is no longer the lean, dark, handsome type she fell for. Now, she says, his 6-ft.-1-inch frame is "more than a little fleshy and mushy" and the weight gain is a turnoff. So much so, she's found herself uninterested in sleeping with him. She's unhappy; he's growing more resentful.
"It's hard to admit but he's simply not attractive to me anymore," she says. "I'm turned off by his belly fat and love handles."
While the couple is talking about the problem, Liz concedes that she's thinking about leaving the relationship if Danny doesn't, literally, shape up. She feels he's become so complacent and entitled that he has little motivation to change.
"It's kind of symbolic of the way he feels about our relationship," Liz says. "I have refused to have sex with him on several occasions."
We've all heard of men who pressure their wives, partners or girlfriends to lose weight, and often female fears of losing a man will prompt a major overhaul. On the flip side, experts say women often withhold sex as a weapon of last resort when their partners refuse to or don't lose weight.
Dr. Laura Triplett, an assistant professor at California State University-Fullerton, conducts research on body image and the social implications of physical appearance. She has found that women in their 20s in particular stop having sex with their partners when they don't meet their idealized notion of what a man should look like.
"They usually give an ultimatum: 'We're going on a vacation and you have until June to look this good,' and they give him a picture that they want him to mold himself to. They buy him gift certificates to trainers and gym memberships as incentives," Triplett explains.
It's no secret that obesity is a national epidemic: The number of obese American adults outweighs the number of those who are merely overweight, according to data released in January 2009, by the National Center for Health Statistics. The data reveals that more than 34 percent of Americans are obese, compared to 32.7 percent who are overweight; nearly six percent of Americans are "extremely" obese.
‘He was growing man boobs’Sabine* says Kurt* began piling on the pounds 18 months into their three-year relationship.
"I'm not sure if it was because he was getting too comfortable or because his adolescent skinny boy metabolism was just growing into middle-aged fat man metabolism. Regardless, he was getting bigger and not in a good way … he was growing man boobs," Sabine recalls. "I was getting really grossed out."
Sabine, now 37, is a size two and argued with herself about the passive-aggressive comments she made to Kurt, 40. Still, she stopped sleeping over at his house as often and turned off the lights when they had sex; ultimately, they stopped having sex altogether.
When men gain weight and become physically unattractive to their partner, "what usually happens is the woman takes it much more as a sign that he doesn't love her. Women tend to personalize things," Mary Jo Rapini, a psychotherapist who specializes in intimacy and sexuality at the Methodist Weight Management Center in Houston, observes.
"First there's the nagging, 'let's go for a walk, let's join a gym'. Then we start finding negative things about them. At this point, women feel like their partners don't care," she says.
When Sabine finally confronted Kurt, "he was shocked. He said he hadn't noticed. He said he would try to take better care of himself. But at that point it was too late." A year after that conversation, Sabine left the relationship.
"It's great that women are realizing that we are also visual creatures and that we are sexually stimulated by what we see and that we have a right to ask our partners to gift us with the benefit of good grooming and a regular visit to the gym," Veronica Monet, a certified sexologist who specializes in relationship dynamics, says. But "any time we threaten our partners by withholding sex or love whether we're male or female, we take the relationship in a negative direction."
Monet suggests talking frankly about your feelings with your partner. For example, "'This thing isn't working for me, would you be willing to change it?' 'I would be so turned on if you lost 20 pounds.' The big reward any man gets is female approval."
"Share your true feelings, while requesting a specific course of action from your partner," Monet advises. "It's extremely important to avoid any negative statements, name-calling or accusations. Instead, begin sentences with 'I feel' followed by descriptors such as 'sad,' 'afraid' or 'angry'." She says this technique encourages compassion while simultaneously expressing negative information and requesting new behavior.
Ultimately, Monet says: "You have to realize that your overweight husband [or boyfriend or partner] is only going to lose weight when he wants to, which sometimes leaves you out of the equation."
Which is exactly what happened in Sabine's case, though it was too late for the relationship. After the breakup, Kurt was accepted into a graduate business program, became motivated to shape up and started dropping pounds.
*Names have been changed.