The Influence of Romantic Partners in Weight Loss

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After the indulgences and celebrations of the holiday season, many individuals see the start of a new year as an opportune time to set new goals and make changes to improve their lives. In 2018, a YouGov poll revealed that the two most common new year’s resolutions included eating healthier and getting more exercise. As resolutioneers start to research the most effective diet plans, sign up for gym memberships, and summon all of the motivation and will-power they can muster to achieve these goals, they often overlook one very important factor to their success: their romantic partner.

Romantic partners can be especially influential in supporting or undermining a loved one’s efforts at weight loss. In romantic relationships, partners establish interdependence, which means that each person’s goals, routines, and actions are shaped, influenced, and sometimes even dependent on the actions of their partner. Romantic partners in an interdependent relationship typically have to share meals, align schedules, and coordinate spending habits in ways that allow partners to have some influence over one another’s decisions and behaviors. A partner’s influence can manifest in two forms: partner facilitation and partner interference. Facilitation from partners involves actions that would help a romantic partner accomplish his or her goals. For example, knowing that one’s spouse is trying to eat healthy, a partner might facilitate that goal by picking up fresh vegetables at the farmer’s market so that they can plan some healthy meals for the week. Interference from partners involves actions that prevent a partner from performing a typical routine or accomplishing personal goals. For example, one partner might be forced to skip their favorite aerobics class at the gym because their partner was late getting home from work to help supervise the children.

One study asked 122 individuals who were trying to lose weight to report on the ways that their romantic partner facilitated or interfered with their efforts over a period of two months (Theiss, Carpenter, & Leustek, 2016). The responses were then analyzed to identify themes of partner interference and facilitation. The results pointed to three ways that romantic partners interfered with weight loss goals. First, the most common issue that participants reported in this study was that their romantic partner made it difficult to plan healthy meals or to control the food environment. Individuals mentioned that their partner thwarted efforts to eat healthier by complaining about more nutritious meal plans, tempting them by bringing unwanted junk food into the house, or urging them to cheat on their diet. Second, romantic partners also interfered in the weight loss goal by discouraging or preventing exercise. Individuals noted that their partner could be a distraction from exercise, offered a comfortable alternative to a strenuous fitness routine, or failed to balance household labor in a way that made it possible to find time for working out. Third, participants indicated that their partner interfered in weight loss goals through emotional or relational discouragement. This theme was described as the various ways participants were discouraged by hurtful comments, lack of attention, or threats to the relationship associated with weight loss. Examples included partners neglecting to notice weight loss, unwanted pressure, no acknowledgment of goals, lack of support, guilt tripping, apathy, jealousy, or competition. Thus, there are a variety of ways in which romantic partners can directly or indirectly undermine individuals’ weight loss goals.

Despite the various ways that a romantic partner can hinder weight loss, the results of this study also pointed to four ways that romantic partners facilitated weight loss goals. First, romantic partners made overtures that enabled healthy diet and exercise, such as cooking healthier meals, agreeing to keep junk food out of the house, purchasing fitness equipment, taking care of chores around the house so participants had time to exercise, and finding ways to make exercise easier. Second, many romantic partners participated in joint weight loss efforts, such as exercising together and adopting the same diet plan. Third, romantic partners provided encouragement, support, and positive reinforcement, such as sharing diet and exercise tips, reminding the partner to get to the gym, expressing confidence in the partner’s ability to achieve the goal, and recognizing and complimenting the partner’s success. Finally, many participants indicated that being in a romantic relationship was in and of itself a motivating factor because they wanted to be healthy and attractive for their partner and for the longevity of their relationship. These results suggest that a romantic partner can facilitate weight loss through accountability and support.

One of the most important factors for promoting weight loss is the ability to communicate with a romantic partner about one’s goals and efforts to lose weight. Communicating with a romantic partner about weight loss provides opportunities for messages of acceptance (e.g., compliments, encouragements) and challenge (e.g., questioning food choices, suggesting more effective behaviors) that can help to motivate individuals in their weight loss endeavors. On the other hand, romantic partners can also stymie a significant other’s weight loss goals by belittling their efforts and scrutinizing their choices in ways that lead to hurt and conflict. In the same study that identified themes of partner interference and facilitation, the researchers asked participants to report on their relationship dynamics, communication about weight loss, and efficacy or confidence in their ability to achieve their goal (Theiss, Carpenter, & Cox, 2015). Individuals who had heightened uncertainty about the relationship and perceived that their partner interfered in personal goals and routines reported that they avoided talking to their partner about their weight loss goals. In addition, individuals who avoided communicating with a romantic partner about their weight loss efforts reported less efficacy to achieve their goals, whereas individuals who communicated openly with their partner about diet and exercise had higher confidence in their ability to achieve their weight loss goals. In other words, people tend to be more confident about their ability to succeed in their weight loss efforts in a relationship context where individuals feel comfortable communicating openly about their goals with a romantic partner.

There is considerable evidence that individuals who coordinate weight loss efforts with a partner, romantic or otherwise, are more successful at shedding pounds than those who do it alone because they are more accountable and supported in their efforts. Thus, in addition to identifying the most effective diet plan and fitness regimen, individuals who strive to lose weight in the new year should also cultivate close relationships that will help to facilitate that goal. 

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