Thinking through the good qualities we hope to bring to our relationships, it’s inevitable that some of us – possibly half of us – will look back on a marriage and divorce, realizing we brought the worst of ourselves into the union.
If not our worst selves, we certainly didn’t bring the respect, communication skills, and empathy to our spouses that we may routinely express with our closest friends.
Of course, if marriage doesn’t bring out the worst in us, divorce certainly will… And that may be exactly where we’re headed if we don’t bring a capacity to be attentive to our partners, ourselves, and changing circumstances.
Treat a Spouse Like a Best Friend
I remember mentioning to someone once that we ought to treat our husbands and wives at least as well as our best friends. And yet we don’t.
- Giving your partner the cold shoulder. Would you do that to your bestie?
- What about yelling? What about withholding something important to him or her the way we sometimes withhold sex?
- What about simple respect, which you may say isn’t simple and I would argue the opposite?
If you don’t respect your partner (or your best friend for that matter), what are you doing in the relationship?
Yes, yes, I know. Things don’t start out that way and now you have kids and a house and shared assets, etc., etc., and I get it. Believe me, I get it. But what about that respect, that communication, that empathy?
Care to re-inject a little bit in the hope of heading off a serious disconnect, not to mention modeling a good example to your children?
Losing Ourselves in Marriage
Marriage is hard. Some marriages are harder than others, and kids put an enormous strain on our unions.
Come on. Admit it. They do.
Children add layers of worry we can’t even imagine until we’re parents, and the financial and logistical aspects of parenting these days are pretty damn difficult unless you’re sharing responsibilities and costs, especially if you have more than one child. And even then, they’re still wearing.
What else puts pressure on relationships?
Time and familiarity, boredom in the bedroom, and all those little quirks that bug you. Too little time together, or maybe too much. There may be money problems, especially if you have differing attitudes toward spending and saving. There are family problems, health problems, stresses at work that frequently have us scurrying like chickens with our heads cut off.
Time constraints are killers, sucking the life out of us, as women especially tend to think it’s our own doing that we can’t manage the “everything” we’re trying to juggle.
And so we begin to lose ourselves, bit by bit. We’re resentful of losing ourselves, we justify it, we rationalize it, and we frequently internalize the frustration all the same – drinking too much, smoking too much, eating too much (or badly), and chipping away at our own self-worth.
Marriage, Weight Gain, Our “Worst Self”
Then there’s the weight issue specifically, or as I like to refer to it, the “fat” issue. For some men, a fat wife is a betrayal, a transgression, a free pass to cheat.
Might we remember that it’s typically the woman with the kitchen duty – shopping, preparing meals, feeding the kids? We’re around food all the time.
Despite living elbow-deep in meals and snacks — planning, purchasing, preparing — some don’t gain weight. For others – especially if we tend to put on a little extra easily or we sleep little – the pounds stick and don’t fall away.
In a recent discussion on our pop culture preoccupation with becoming one’s “best self,” a reader remarks on a friend’s divorce. The husband seems to reinvent himself after the marriage ends. This savvy reader comments:
Friends of ours split up and now the husband has lost 100 lbs, took up a hobby, etc. Why didn’t he do that when he was married?? What about giving your spouse your “best self?”
We typically expect weight loss from women as they divorce, renew interests, prepare to compete in the dating world, and build back confidence. But I might imagine that the dynamics may be similar for men as in this case, and are not so straightforward as simply ‘ignoring’ excess weight while married.
Setting aside issues of diet for a moment (processed foods with their sugar and salt), isn’t the inability to lose weight usually a symptom of other problems?
Fat is a Feminist Issue. And a Helluva Wall to Intimacy.
It’s easy to assume that this man could have – and should have – brought a better self to the marriage and to his wife. But the fact of weight loss following divorce illustrates how people may repress something in marriage that manifests in a physical way.
Those who immediately look at “the Divorce Diet” as a slap in the face to the ex-spouse may misread the situation, and make faulty assumptions. I can only use my own experience and that of my mother as examples.
First, some people play mind games as a means to an end, routinely carrying these psychological manipulations into marrage. This dynamic may take many forms (passive-aggressive behavior, extreme selfishness, withholding of affection), and when we find ourselves on the receiving end, our responses may include denial as well as self-protection.
Second, overweight creates problems of its own, not the least of which are health risks and for many of us, deteriorating self-esteem. But it is protective. Not only does emotional eating provide solace (for a time), but the distance created by fat – physical, emotional, and sexual – serves its purpose for some of us, albeit unconsciously. After all, how many of us want sex with someone who manipulates and disrespects us? Someone we’re angry with, though we’re eating the anger – literally?
Certainly, few of the women I know. Pounds put on during childbirth and not lost – harder to lose when you sleep little and are under stress – become a great way to put up barriers, and sadly, part of the vicious cycle when communication (and reapportioning childcare duties?) could go far to helping the relationship.
Stuck in Overweight
Not only is it hard to lose because there’s no time for the gym or even a walk, but we’re around food all the time – shopping for it, preparing it, putting it away. Food is an easy and accessible means to self-soothe, and very effective (as mentioned) at keeping people at arm’s length.*
Even those you love.
I’ll digress for a moment and mention my mother, who spent many of her years obese. At 5’1″ and 250 pounds, there’s little question that she was at least 100 pounds overweight. Her relationship with my father was not, best I could tell, very close. She was unhappy and spoke of it often – too often, and to me. Like many couples married in the 1950s, they stayed together for decades because that’s what you did.
At one point, my mother lost 125 pounds. It was a grueling year, part of an experimental near-starvation diet, and her discipline and resolve were remarkable. At her goal weight, in her late 40s at the time, she was literally half the size she had been for 20-some years. She received no psychological counseling (that I’m aware of), and while expecting that her relationship with my father would magically change (for the better), she was no different (and nor was he); she was simply thinner and disoriented.
A year later the weight was back, and their relationship, the same as always.
The Divorce Diet
My own battles with eating issues are lifelong, though I was convinced I had conquered them by the time I married in my 30s. Two pregnancies one after another resulted in considerable weight gain, and try as I might, I couldn’t get the pounds off.
The real issue as I see it now?
I was left holding the bag on everything that was “my responsibility” before children, and the bulk of the responsibilities after – bringing in the bacon (at the same rate of pay), and oh by the way, raising the kids.
There was no “me,” much less time for myself, so how could there be an us, much less a thinner me for a (theoretically) more intimate us?
I lost about half the weight I gained over the course of a few years, which I recognize (now) was also more difficult given my level of sleep deprivation. As mortified as I was to be “heavy” – listen, I was fat – I also sensed that I was safer. Among other things, though my marriage knew little intimacy, fat protected me from so much as considering straying from my marital vows. Feeling unattractive served as a very effective “keep out” sign.
But weight was never the issue in our marriage. All the other fundamental aspects of connection were – shared values, mutual respect, play time, meaningful communication, and more.
Self-Sabotage Distracts From Other Issues
I don’t have all the answers. (No one does.) But I have learned a few things, and I try not to repeat my mistakes – and believe me, I make plenty.
I don’t think I gave my husband my “worst self.” On the contrary. I loved him, I gave him what I thought was the best of me, and I did what seemed best at the time in the face of logistical challenges (his travel) and our individual histories, including, quite possibly, his preference for emotional distance.
Part of that history includes my dislike of confrontation, and not speaking up as the resentment over our disproportionate responsibilities was building up.
Some might suggest that my overweight was giving him my worst self. I would respond by saying his lack of attention and respect to my need for help wasn’t giving me his best self. Moreover, with his assistance, I might have been more successful at losing weight faster, which would have made us both happier.
We were both in the wrong, though I doubt either of us was fully conscious of it at the time.
As we were divorcing, the last of the weight dropped away at a frightening pace – the result of anguish and stress – not intention. That I looked so much better after divorce than during the last years of marriage was deceptive. I felt frail, uncertain, and vulnerable. It took years to begin to feel like a “self,” much less anything close to a “best” self.
Marriage? Personal, Tricky, Complicated
While I’ve used the issue of weight gain to illustrate ways we may sabotage ourselves and harm our relationships, many other destructive behaviors emerge on the scene, from spending less and less time together and lack of sexual contact to verbal abuse, benign neglect, drinking, and sleeping around.
Generally, we don’t suddenly exhibit our worst selves when we say “I do,” though we may think we can coast in ways we once tried hard to please. But these are complex dynamics, heavily influenced by factors that may be beyond our control — employment, aging elders, children acting out, health.
I try not to make assumptions. I know there are never any guarantees in relationships – married or not. I remind myself that we ought to treat the one we love as we would a best friend. At the very least.
*Note: I am fully aware that psychological factors are not the only aspects of retaining unwanted weight. Clearly, medical conditions, medications, lifestyle, genetic factors, menopause, as well as personal and cultural preferences are part of this picture. Nor do I believe that we must all be some idealized variation of “thin” that seems to be so prevalent in American culture today.
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