Relationships After Weight Loss Surgery: For Better or WorseDecember 28, 2012
What To Do When Those Closest To You Are More Comfortable With “Worse"
We all know that change doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it’s dynamic. As you change, your relationships with those closest to you change too. Yet, most of us are caught by surprise when our dynamics with those closest to us begin to change in the aftermath of our weight loss surgery (WLS). Understanding why these changes occur, and how to address them, can make the difference between deepening the intimacy and connection we feel with those that matter most to us – or losing that intimate connection.
Prior to having WLS, most of us had at least one person in our lives (a partner, parent, child, friend, etc.) that expressed concern about our health and longevity and supported our decision to have the WLS. That person had a stake in wanting us alive, well, and in their life for the long haul. So, we are understandably hurt and confused if the same person that initially supported and encouraged us begins to change their tune as we become healthier, thinner, more mobile, and more social.
Obesity is often a family disease. The family is the core unit of all social relationships across cultures. Even if we are not connected to our original families anymore, we tend to recreate the family systems we grew up in with those closest to us. When one person in the family goes through major changes (like WLS), the rest of the system experiences “aftershocks,” like in an earthquake. In the Earth’s case, the “aftershock” is a natural way to release the remaining tension and pressure so equilibrium can be reestablished. In our loved ones’ case, I would argue that the same holds true.
When we lose weight and become more available to work, run errands, and socialize with others, those closest to us may feel threatened and may (unconsciously) do or say things in an attempt to reestablish old roles, routines, and responses. They don’t do any of these things to consciously hurt us or make life harder for us. They are just trying to get back into equilibrium.
They just want life to feel “safe” again, on solid ground, like they did when we were overweight and our roles were clearly defined, predictable, and exclusive. It’s important to remember that our loved ones may be used to having us virtually all to themselves, so suddenly sharing us with a broader social network may be challenging and difficult for them to adjust to.
One of the biggest oversights in the WLS preparation process is the lack of education and communication about how our WLS will impact those around us. The focus of the preparation is generally on how the surgery will impact us, not on how our weight loss may affect those closest to us. This common (and often painful) oversight usually results in no one being adequately prepared to deal with the complicated range of feelings that arise (all around us) as a result of our WLS.
The bottom line is we all want to feel safe, loved, and know that we belong. Wanting safety, predictability, and reassurance during any transition is a normal, natural response. We aren't the only ones that need support during our WLS transition. Those closest to us are going through their own tough transitions; it’s just not as obvious because there are no pounds and inches melting away before our very eyes.
So, if you've noticed that your loved ones are doing or saying things that feel like they are trying to sabotage your weight-loss progress, or blame you for not being as available, you are not alone. But, it may be helpful to understand that jealousy and sabotage (whether it’s self-sabotage or actions taken by another) can always be traced back to that deep desire to “protect” and preserve the equilibrium or status quo – even when that status quo made everyone miserable! Because, like it or not, even misery (that we are used to) is predictable, and change (even if it’s positive) is not.
It’s critical to understand that your family, close friends, and loved ones need their own source of support to adjust to “the new you” in order for the transition to work for everyone. If your partner or family members are willing to acknowledge that your WLS transition is difficult for them too, that’s half the battle. The other half is getting everyone the support they need to make the transition as productive, healthy, and sustainable as possible.
Talking to our loved ones about getting the support they need is key, so we don’t resort back to old behaviors (like overeating) in an effort to make them (and us) more comfortable in the moment. So, the next time you find yourself getting confused, angry, or reaching for food you didn't intend to eat after a loved one says or does something that triggers or hurts you, ask yourself if they may be feeling scared or threatened and just looking for any way possible to get back to “normal” again.
If the people that matter most to you are willing to work together to explore, understand, and consider one another's experiences and needs with respect and compassion, then you have a chance to make your relationships more meaningful and intimate than ever. With this sort of foundation, you can work through your collective transitions with a new appreciation and understanding of all that is possible for each of you now.
To do that, I recommend that you and your partner (or family) either participate in:
1. Structured coaching, designed to help each person identify and implement practical strategies to move through his/her individual transition with more ease, understanding and, support; or,
2. Couples or family counseling (with a professional in your area) to help you work through more complicated, longer-term relationship issues.
Whatever you choose, understand that your WLS can be framed either as an opportunity to increase the satisfaction and depth you experience in your closest relationships or as something that shines a light on the growing divide between you and those closest to you. How you frame it and the actions you take based on that belief is up to you.
ABOUT THE AUTHORJill Temkin, founder, Living Thin Within: has an MA in Psychology and is a Registered Addiction Specialist, with 30 years of experience working in the mental health and addiction fields. Jill established Living Thin Within in response to her own journey for support after WLS. Her mission is to help women thrive in their new bodies by learning how to sustain health and happiness from within.
Read more articles by Jill Temkin!