Recognize Unhealthy Relationships, Build New Healthy Ones

How to Recognize Unhealthy Relationships & Learn to Build New Healthy Ones

April 11, 2018

Almost a decade ago I did a series of interviews with weight loss surgery patients who were between one and two years post-op. It was one of the most rewarding, and educational experiences of my life.

During the interviews, I asked people about their incentive for having surgery. Unequivocally, every interviewee replied by giving an answer that emphasized the importance of their relationships. For example, one person stated, “I looked at my son, and said, ‘I wanted to see him grow up.’ That was the main purpose of the whole thing (weight loss surgery). Because he's young.” Another person answered, “I have had this little baby. He’s our miracle baby and there’s no way, I mean there’s no other choice. I was either going to die or try and live for him and I chose the second one.”

Each and every response talked about their spouse, grandchildren, family members, friends, etc. The biggest takeaway for me was that relationships are extremely important. Relationships matter.

Recognizing Unhealthy Relationships & Learning to Build Healthy Ones - Starts with You

After having weight loss surgery, changes can take place in every facet of life including changes in the relationship realm. Ideally, it would be great to have the support of everyone around you but the reality is that people are going to respond differently.

And, just as the key to being healthy is self-care, having relationships that complement your life, not take away from it, are paramount. Developing the ability to know what healthy looks like is a great way to begin. After all, having healthy relationships starts with you.

Your History with Unhealthy Relationships

If you’ve never experienced healthy dynamics in relationships, it will be difficult for you to recognize them. Believe it or not, some people aren’t necessarily attracted to healthy dynamics because they’re simply not used to them. Familiarity is important to us, so much so, that we tend to gravitate to what is familiar to us, even if it’s unhealthy. If it’s dysfunction or chaos you’re used to, being in a relationship with stability may seem uncomfortable in the sense you don’t know what to do with it. You can’t act according to the rules if you don’t know what they are, right? Breaking the pattern of familiarity in unhealthy relationships can be a challenge if you’re not aware of it.

Another factor that plays into how you handle your relationships is your family of origin. What you experience throughout your development may set the standard for what you deem as acceptable.

For example, if you grew up never feeling accepted by your parents, you will typically strive to get acceptance (more than normal) from everyone around you. If you grew up in a secure, encouraging, and stable environment you will probably be more secure in your relationships where acceptance is important but not over-consuming.

One of the more common scenarios I’ve seen with my weight loss surgery clientele are people who are in unhealthy relationships where they conform to those around them. They have a pattern of deferring to everyone else’s likes, wants, or needs. This practice often comes at the expense of themselves.

We commonly refer to this type of person as the “appeaser” or “accommodator” in relationships. They’re great at giving and giving and giving. So, what kind of person would complement this type of person? The obvious and correct answer would be someone who takes, and takes, and takes! A controlling type of personality would fit like a hand to a glove. As is often asked, “What happens when an appeaser and controller meet? They marry.”

A brief checklist of features found in unhealthy relationships:

  • They’re often one-sided. They take and you give.
  • They drain you!
  • You go against what you know is right or what you want.
  • They include guilt trips for you not participating in things.
  • They include put-downs or back-handed compliments.
  • You come away disappointed or hurt often.
  • You over-apologize. You don’t feel like you’re not good enough.
  • They contain more negativity than positivity.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

Once you decided to have weight loss surgery you made the biggest commitment of your life. To be successful long-term it takes consistent devotion of keeping yourself a priority. This change will not always be welcomed by those around you, especially if you have a history of self-neglect.

Because you’re predictable to those around you, this new routine of self-care may be met with resistance. Unintentionally (or intentionally) people may try and nudge you back into the pre-WLS version of yourself.

A lot of people don’t like change. Remember, just because you’re at a point in your life where you’re open to change and growth, it doesn’t mean that those around you are at that same point.

Old, familiar dynamics of unhealthy relationships are often associated with old, familiar behaviors that you’re trying to move on from e.g. social eating, social drinking, sedentary routines, etc. And, if it comes down to people not respecting what you’re doing for your life and health, setting some solid boundaries may be in order.

The thought or threat of family members being disappointed with you may prompt feelings of abandonment and make you want to “give in” to “keep the peace.” The last thing you do is “give in” to them out of fear or guilt. This is sometimes difficult to do because we want the love and support of those who are closest to us. No one can set boundaries for you, it is your responsibility.

Communication is vital to any relationship. Learning to be assertive and developing a “voice” to express your needs, and expectations allow you to set guidelines on how others behave towards you. Not allowing what you may have allowed historically can be a curveball to others. As you set these limits, some people may attribute this change to the surgery itself, “Man, she never had this ‘attitude’ before. What’s going on with her?”

The best way to state your expectations with others is through respect. Everyone responds favorably to respect. If you take that approach in communicating your boundaries, it leaves little room for them to dismiss you.

The following is an example, “Once I decided to have surgery, I made a commitment to myself to live a certain way. Having your support would mean the world to me but I understand if you choose not to. If that is the case, I will respect your decision. All I ask is that you respect my decision to take care of myself.” If someone were to dismiss you, it is clear that they have to play less of a part in your healthier future.

Building New Relationships

It was Socrates who said, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”

It’s important to establish new relationships with other WLS people so you’re a part of a community that understands what you’ll be going through on your journey. Being part of the WLS community through support groups is a great venue for making new relationships.

Having a relationship with people who have experienced what you’re going through is invaluable. They can offer you an amount of empathy and support that those who are closest to you, with the best of intentions, cannot. Being involved in a good, education-driven support group will reinforce the things you need to hear that you won’t necessarily hear from anywhere else.

Having this new source of support will serve you well as you make changes with people in your personal life. This will help you have confidence as you develop and use your voice to take care of you. Establishing new relationships that are associated with new behaviors makes it easier to live a healthy life you owe to yourself.

Tips for Making New Relationships After WLS

  • Be honest about who you are and what you want.
  • Use your voice to express your needs, and to encourage others.
  • Reciprocate by being a good listener.
  • Seek out people who want to live in a healthy way.
  • Avoid negative people.
  • Look for people you respect in the WLS community/potential mentors.
  • Get involved in a hiking, biking, or exercise group.
  • Establish a routine meeting or activity with people who share your interest.
  • Use a therapist to help you; become more assertive, less co-dependent, improve your self-esteem, etc.
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Steven Reyes


Dr. Steven Reyes offers expertise on the psychological adjustments associated with weight loss surgery. Dr. Reyes is best known for his compassionate coaching and therapeutic approach in helping others with their psychological and physical well-being. Dr. Reyes' research includes a phenomenological study of the post-surgical adjustment issues with weight loss surgery patients between 1 and 2 years post-op.

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