Relationships that Could Impact Weight Regain After WLS

Relationships that Could Impact Weight Regain After WLS

August 9, 2019

Few things affect us as profoundly as our relationships. Relationships can be a source of great joy and happiness, think of a best friend, a comforting family member, or a beloved co-worker. Unfortunately, however, some relationships leave us feeling sad, anxious, angry, frustrated, and lonely; and unfortunately, such emotions go hand in hand with emotional eating.

For WLS patients to avoid regain, it’s critical to identify and address unhealthy relationships that put us at risk for emotional eating. What relationships are they? In my work with WLS patients, I’ve identified several.

5 Types of Unhealthy Relationships

The bad influence.

The “bad influence,” is someone who pressures you to abandon your post-surgery food plans and overeat.

Kate* described this scenario perfectly: “My mom, who loves to cook, keeps pushing me to eat, telling me to ‘live a little’ and ‘loosen up.’ It stresses me out and makes me want to avoid her.”  

The bad influence pressures us to eat and leaves us feeling anxious, frustrated, and angry, a perfect recipe for emotional eating.

The jealous partner.

I hear about the “jealous partner” nearly every day in my work with WLS patients.

Vickie* shared her experience this way: "My husband has been extremely jealous since I had surgery and lost weight. Last night he said, ‘Where do you think you’re going in those jeans? Are you looking for a new man or something?’ He was like this when we were dating, but I hadn’t seen it in years. It makes me feel depressed about the whole thing. I don’t want to stop wearing my new clothes, but I don’t want him freaking out and making me feel bad.”  

Dealing with a jealous partner can leave us feeling anxious, depressed, and angry, and craving food for comfort.

The envious friend or family member.

Sara* came to one of our sessions very annoyed, sharing this about a co-worker, “She insists on badgering me every day about my weight loss, calling me a ‘skinny brat’ and saying, ‘it must be nice!’”  

Relationships with someone envious can result in frustration, irritation, and anger, and reaching for food to cope.

The critic.

Few things are more upsetting to a WLS patient than someone criticizing his/her decision to have the surgery.

As Karen* said, “I’m so sick of people saying that I took the ‘easy way out’ by having bariatric surgery or saying, ‘You should have tried harder to lose weight without surgery.’  They have no idea what I’ve been through!” I have also heard of WLS patients being criticized for their choice of surgeon, their clothing choices after surgery, their decisions regarding dating, their food choices, their decision to have plastic surgery, etc., etc., etc.

With such scrutiny, it’s no wonder that WLS patients are at risk for emotional eating and stress eating!

The toxic influence.

We all know that person who leaves us feeling drained. That person who just can’t be pleased, who is critical, who thinks only of themselves, or who leaves us feeling rejected or abandoned. My seven-year-old son refers to such people as “bucket drainers” - a perfect description!  

Spending time with such people can lead to a cocktail of negative emotions, including anxiety, self-hatred, depression, anger, and loneliness; and can also lead to the desire to binge.

Clearly, there are many types of relationships that can increase the risk of emotional eating after WLS. So what can we do to protect ourselves? I’ve found that boundary setting and self-care are critical.

5 Tips for Setting Boundaries and Improving Self-Care

Tune into your feelings.  

When you’re spending time with someone, really notice how the interaction is making you feel. Do you feel uncomfortable? Anxious? Agitated? Sad? Lonely? Drained? Do you leave the interaction feeling bad about yourself? Do you feel like bingeing? If so, you’ve taken an important first step: recognizing that the relationship is unhealthy and that you need boundaries and self-care.

Consider writing your feelings in a journal to gain even more clarity on your feelings.

Consider removing yourself from the situation or relationship.  

Far too often, my WLS patients tell me that they’re in toxic, hurtful relationships, the kind that can lead to emotional eating. In such cases, taking care of ourselves can mean setting the firmest of boundaries: leaving a relationship altogether.

Jean*, for example, felt pressured into providing childcare to a “friend” for free. As we discussed it, Jean realized that she felt used and unappreciated- something that she’d felt in many relationships. When she put her needs first, quit the job, and tolerated the discomfort of “letting someone down” she felt empowered and relieved.

Similarly, Josh*, whose girlfriend was jealous, possessive, and controlling, recognized that the relationship was hurting him both emotionally and physically- and that he was bingeing to soothe his feelings of pain and anger. With the help of counseling, Josh was able to leave the relationship and find a healthier one. He’s feeling much better emotionally and his eating is back on track.

Are you experiencing a toxic relationship? Is this relationship hurting you emotionally or physically? Do you need to leave the relationship? These are all questions that you might discuss with a counselor or trusted confidant.

If you can’t leave the relationship, advocate for yourself.  

We can’t always leave a relationship, such as when we have a difficult co-worker but need our job. In these cases, it’s important to set boundaries through actions and words.

Sara*, for example, intentionally stopped going to lunch with the co-worker who was critical of her weight loss. With some work in counseling, she also eventually spoke directly to the coworker, saying, “It offends me when you call me a skinny brat. I’d appreciate if you’d stop doing that.”  The co-worker has not made a comment since.

In what ways could you advocate for yourself through actions and words?

Seek Support.  

Boundary-setting can be challenging, especially if you have a history of being a “people pleaser.” In this case, I encourage you to enlist the support of trusted friends, family members, and/or a counselor to support you in your efforts.

Who might be a good support person for you?

Engage in self-care activities.

Self-care is critical because it helps provide the energy and mental clarity needed to set boundaries and make healthy relationship choices. It also sends the message that you are a valuable person who deserves comfort, rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation.

Some self-care activities that I highly recommend are: spending time in nature, moving your body in enjoyable ways, doing something creative, engaging in an activity that you find truly relaxing (e.g., getting a massage, taking a warm bath or shower), spending time with a pet, doing yoga or meditation, spending time with a beloved friend or family member, reading, and/or watching an enjoyable movie or television show.

I encourage my patients to engage in self-care activities at least once each day. What self-care activities might be valuable to you?

* Not the real names of patients.

Weight loss surgery is undoubtedly a journey. My hope is that these strategies allow your journey to be filled with healthy, fulfilling relationships. Wishing you the very best!

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Tanie Miller Kabala, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and integrative wellness coach who specializes in treating weight loss surgery patients. She wrote her book, The Weight Loss Surgery Coping Companion:  A Practical Guide to Coping with Post-Surgery Emotions to help patients navigate the emotional journey of weight loss surgery. Read more articles by Tanie!