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Overweight Since Childhood: Family Characteristics and the Effect on Relationships

August 13, 2015

In my last blog post, I introduced stage one of the 8 Stages of Drastic Weight loss, which is all about understanding where people are at when they begin their weight loss journey. I discussed the five personality characteristics that tend to be shared by people who have been overweight since childhood, which is an important part of the equation, but there is another element that must be understood also. That element is the characteristics shared by the families of people who have been overweight their entire lives, and the way their weight has affected relationships not only with family members but with everyone in their lives.

Family characteristics

Not surprisingly, people who have been overweight their entire lives tend to come from families that also have struggled with obesity. However, what may be surprising to hear is that in those families, being overweight is viewed as a really shameful thing. For these families being overweight is a hot button issue that causes shame. In psychology this is what is known as intergenerational transmission of shame—in other words, not only is everyone in each generation of the family struggling with being overweight, but there is a lot of shame that is passed down from each generation about being overweight.

When children, from a very young age, are exposed to their parents constantly trying various crash diets in order to lose weight, it sends a strong message that it is a really shameful thing to be overweight. It also makes them more aware and more ashamed of their own obesity, even at ages as young as three years old. Worse yet, many of these children grow and become adults with self-talk that mirrors their parents in regards to their weight and self-esteem. Parents often say they have to be careful what they say around their kids and when it comes to weight shame and self-consciousness this is particularly true.

The effect of obesity on relationships

In my research with contestants from NBC’s The Biggest Loser, I found three main ways that being overweight since childhood impacted people’s relationships. I also recognized that in my own struggle with obesity, my relationships had been affected in very similar ways.

The first way was that it created a pattern of co-dependence in relationships, where people who are overweight tend to absorb the emotions of those that they are closest to. One contestant described the phenomenon in this way: “I realized somewhere in my journey not only was I eating for my own feelings, I was eating for everyone else’s feelings.”

This is exemplified perfectly in the story of a husband and wife in my study, David and Sharon (names have been changed for privacy). David and Sharon both had been overweight their entire lives, and as a married couple, when one person was having a bad day it caused both of them to overeat. After they successfully lost weight, it became a real struggle not to relapse into those bad habits. When one person was down, the other person, even if they were on a healthy track, just quickly reverted to old behavior and would say something to the effect of, “Yeah, you’re right. Pizza sounds good,” while internally giving in to their partner’s cravings and keeping the peace seemed much safer than rocking the boat to advocate for their own needs.

David even said there were times when his wife would come home and he knew she was having a bad day and so he almost preemptively would get a bowl of ice cream and make her an ice cream sundae. He called this his “peace offering.”

Another way that being overweight impacted people’s relationships was that it caused them to feel as if they had to overcompensate for their obesity by being exemplary in all other areas of their life. They felt like they really needed to be not just a good friend, but a great friend…and not just a good husband, wife, mother, father, etc. but a great one.

The third way that relationships were impacted was that people’s embarrassment and shame about their weight really caused them to hold back socially. Some people would even lie and make up excuses as to why they couldn’t hang out with friends, when the real reason was that they were just too embarrassed.

The path to change

For people who have struggled with weight their entire lives and who have been impacted in the ways described above, change does not come easily. It must be very intentional and takes time and commitment. That’s why I have created eight-week program to help people move through the stages of drastic weight loss. This first stage is simply about understanding where the journey begins. In the next stage, we will identify the anchor for change—in other words, finding out why someone wants to lose weight, which is what will sustain them throughout their journey.