The Science Behind Gaining Weight When In A Relationship

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Earlier this week I went to the gym. It was the first time I’d been in almost two weeks and after just a few minutes on the treadmill, I was so tired that I almost packed up my reusable water bottle and went home to sit on the couch.

After struggling through twenty minutes of moderate cardio, I gave myself a break and went to the locker room to weigh myself. Standing on the scale, I looked down at the number in shock. The immediate, gut reaction that popped into my head was: “oh no, it’s relationship gut.”

The notorious “relationship gut” or, the supposed weight one puts on when in a happy relationship, was something I’d heard of, but it wasn’t something I thought actually existed. At least, not really.

I thought of it as a joke, like a funny explanation for a few extra pounds one might gain when life gets busy. Either that, or it was a silly explanation for ordering an extra glass of wine at dinner or having another cookie for dessert. It was a cute way of saying you didn’t care about those extra 200 calories now that you had a girlfriend or boyfriend, husband or wife.

I always thought of “relationship gut” as a joke, that is, until I stood on the scale and realized I was almost ten pounds heavier than I was when I got married less than a year ago. And 25 pounds heavier than I was when I met my husband.

It wasn’t like I’d made a big change in my eating habits. And a few missed gym visits didn’t mean I wasn’t working out at all. But only when I was looking down at the highest number I’d ever seen on the scale, I started to wonder if there was something more to this “love weight” idea.

Of course, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with gaining weight. There’s absolutely no problem with having thighs that touch or being plus-sized or having a weight that fluctuates. But for me, I hated the idea of not being in control of my body. I didn’t like not knowing exactly why my weight was changing. I wanted to feel in control of myself and my lifestyle, and this idea of some mysterious relationship-related force dictating that change was unsettling to me.

I started to think back on the possible causes of my new “love handles.” Once I started thinking about it, it wasn’t hard to see why I’d put on some pounds. Before moving in with my husband, I used to make time to go the gym four or five times a week. But now, when my husband and I get home from work, and one of us doesn’t feel like working out, we don’t. This happens more often than not. Likewise, back when I was living alone I might have found a can of vegetable soup in the cupboard and called it dinner, but now that there are two of us, I’ll either be sure to make plenty of food (often too much) or we’ll grab something from a restaurant (which is usually higher in calories with larger portions).

The more I thought about it, the more I started to think that maybe being in a relationship was contributing to my weight gain, or at least, pushing it in that direction. And I realized I wasn’t alone. A 2018 study found that 79% of Americans gained weight after starting a relationship. What’s more, they gained an average of 36 pounds over the course of the relationship, 17 of those pounds in just the first year.

So, does this mean that relationship gut is real? Does this mean everyone (or at least 79% of us) in a relationship are doomed to gain a little love weight? I started doing some research on the science behind weight gain, hoping to find answers and, perhaps, solutions.

One interesting point I found was that one reason people might gain weight is that once they have a partner, they care less about what they look like (and whether or not they are appealing to other people). One 2013 study featured in the American Psychology Association’s online journal Health Psychology found that newlyweds who were satisfied in their marriage were more likely to gain weight while those who were unhappy were more likely to lose weight in hopes of finding a new mate. Basically, if you notice your boo suddenly drop weight, yikes. Totally kidding, but that is kind of what the study suggests — ridiculous as it is.

But there are other reasons for weight fluctuations that aren’t quite so… definitive.

While one poll found that 64% of couples stated that “being comfortable” was a big factor in their weight gain, there’s also data that suggests that couples gain weight because of the activities they do together.

This survey found that 30% of couples claim that their main activity is watching TV while 20% say eating out together at a restaurant is one of their main bonding activities.

And I get that. Sometimes you just want to hang out with your partner. Sometimes sitting on the couch or enjoying a meal together is the best way to do that. I know that for me, simply sitting on the couch, eating some food, and watching some trashy TV with my husband is one of my favorite things to do.

But maybe time and energy isn’t the only reason behind weight gain. That same survey found that 52% of women say they usually eat the same amount as their male partner and 56% say that this means they eat much larger portions than they would normally.

But it’s not like exercising less and eating more is the only problem. Sometimes it’s a change in priorities. One study found that couples usually continued to gain weight as they focused on growing their family. 42% of those polled explained that starting a family was the main reason they became less mindful of their weight.

But on the other side, changing priorities doesn’t mean that allk previous priorities have to go out the window along with your so-called “skinny jeans.” Yet, one survey revealed that only 26% of people wish that they (and their partners) had a healthier lifestyle. Keep in mind: a “healthier lifestyle” doesn’t mean a thinner one, but maybe realizing that sitting on the couch all day watching your favorite TV shows isn’t as satisfying as it once was.

Whether it’s eating together, watching TV together, raising a family together, it’s pretty clear that happy couples want to do things together. Maybe we just need to be more creative because you can pretty much eat, drink, and watch TV with anyone without getting bored. But how many people can you hike a mountain with and never find yourself without something to talk about? How many people can make you see something interesting (or hilarious) at even the dullest museum? I guess those should be the activities we choose to do with our S/Os. After all, you can always go home afterward and catch up on the TV you missed.

For me, I decided that the “dull” activity that a partner could actually make more fun was going to the gym. So I dragged my guy there for the last few weeks. While I thought going to the gym would be a challenge — either inconvenient or tiring — it ended up being wonderful. Working out together, lifting weights and struggling through cardio, was a bonding activity we loved.. and not just in a “misery loves company” kind of way. In fact, my husband started to feel like the ultimate personal trainer. Him telling me to keep trying or dig deep actually made me want to. It could be the benefits of mixing up our daily activity, or of trying something new, but something about working out together makes me feel even more like my husband and I are a team. But the best part is that after working out together, we still get to go home, watch TV, and eat dinner together; and that’s still one of my favorite activities.