It’s a topic which is regularly brought up in relationship counselling sessions

There are many tough conversations to try and have with a partner, such as telling them their personal hygiene is becoming an issue or that the new thing they tried in the bedroom a couple of times recently just isn’t doing it for you. Talking about weight gain falls into this awkward category of things you dread broaching and it’s an issue which crops up quite regularly in my counselling sessions.

Some might think it’s a sign of selfishness: real love shouldn’t be conditional on our other half maintaining a perfect physique. Sure enough, it is unrealistic for any of us to think that our bodies won’t change as we grow older.  Nevertheless, we know the UK has a huge weight problem. Obesity levels in the UK have more than trebled in the last 30 years, over 60% of people are overweight or obese in England, and according to predictions from the World Health Organisation, three in every four men and two in every three women in the UK will be overweight by 2030. Being concerned that a partner may be putting themselves at risk of ill-health by being genuinely overweight oughtn’t to be seen as a taboo subject which can’t be raised. 

However if you’re thinking that all your other half has to do is exercise some willpower you might be surprised to learn that recent research has challenged the idea that obesity is simply the result of the individual “eating too much and doing too little”. Studies have shown the environment has a major influence on the decisions people make about their lifestyle. Known as “obesogenic environments”, these are places, often urban, that encourage unhealthy eating and inactivity. Everywhere you look on most high streets today there are tempting food shops. And it’s in our DNA to feast when food is plentiful because at points throughout human history, famine was a genuine concern.

So if you are thinking of mentioning your partner’s weight to them, firstly ask yourself why you want to say something. Whose problem is this? Perhaps it’s creating a problem for both of you - for example if may affect holidays and social occasions. Your partner may be reluctant to go out whilst you want to socialise. What is it about their increased weight that you’re struggling with? Do you think they’ve changed since gaining weight and is it this that’s bothering you?  “They’re not the same person I married/moved in with” is something people often say in the counselling room. 

All relationships involve change and it’s this that we often find is the toughest thing to deal with. Sometimes I hear the reverse of this situation too - an overweight person who suddenly sheds all the weight can make their other half feel threatened: will they leave me now they’re more attractive? How do I deal with this new person who’s more outgoing and confident? The answer to being troubled about the way a partner’s appearance has changed may well lie with you, not them.

Before you mention anything to them it’s also worth asking if your partner is upset about another issue such as the loss of a loved one or stress at work. If this is the case, it sounds obvious, but talk to them and let them know you’re there for them.  Perhaps they may want to get some support from a counsellor to address the underlying issues before they start worrying too much about their waist line.

Recognise that no one can lose weight on someone else’s behalf, or by being cajoled into it. The motivation has to come from them. And pointing out a person has gained weight can make them feel worse because chances are, they’re already very well aware of it.

If you decide that raising the issue really is necessary, it is vital that you stress that you still love your other half. It’s much easier to lose weight in a warm, supportive, and equal relationship than one in which one partner feels they are nagging and the other feels nagged. And if your other half does try to lose weight, be encouraging.

Of course, if your partner decides they are happy and healthy the way they are, then so be it. You might feel justified in voicing an initial concern – but don’t go on about it. Moreover, sometimes you may both have to accept there isn’t anything to be done even if your partner would like to lose weight. I’ve dealt with clients in the past who are overweight due to a medical condition or the medication they are on.  Sometimes dieting isn’t the right thing for them and their health, and so in those cases I would help the couple to accept that.

Health is always a better way to bring the subject up rather than suggesting someone doesn’t look as good overweight as they used to. “I’m concerned that you’ll get diabetes, high blood pressure or be at risk from a stroke or heart attack,” sounds much more caring than telling someone “you look fat and you need to sort it out!”. You can also say that you want your partner to stay alive, and let them know that’s the place where your concern is coming from.

Another method people try is to suggest you go on a diet together, but this too can be fraught with problems if you don’t actually have much of a weight problem yourself. There is little that’s more demoralising for someone who’s overweight than to watch their partner succeed on a diet where they cannot.

Ultimately though it’s the person who has gained weight who has to deal with this and all you can do is try to provide them with a warm, supportive, space that makes it easier for them to get motivated to lose weight. As with alcoholics or smokers, the desire for change can only come from the person themselves. But you can make it easier for them. Don’t mock them, ever, about their weight even in a jokey, seemingly kind way. And finally, try to imagine yourself in their shoes - what do you think would work for you if the situation were reversed? 

Denise Knowles is a Relate Counsellor and Sex Therapist. The charity offers information, advice and counselling