How your partner's stress can affect your waistline

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People gain weight for a variety of reasons: genetics, illness, too much fried food, lack of exercise, and yes, the monster that is stress. Researchers have been warning us for years that chronic stress can lead to extra pounds on the scale. But according to a new study, it's not just our own stress that can negatively impact our jean size—our partner's stress may influence it, too. Womp womp.

For the study, researchers at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research followed 2,042 married individuals from 2006 to 2010 to explore how chronic stress and negative marriage quality might affect their waistlines. For the purposes of the study, "negative marital quality" was defined as the extent to which one’s partner is critical, disappointing, irritating, or demanding. On average, couples had been married for 34 years at the start of the study—which made the participants a markedly older crowd. But if you're someone who plans on getting and staying married, or at least settling down with a long term partner, you should keep reading.


During the four years that the study took place, the researchers met with couples once every two years. At each meeting, they measured their waistlines, performed a physical assessment, and conducted face-to-face interviews. The couples also answered a slew of questions about their stress, their partner's stress, and marital quality.

To measure stress, participants were asked about physical and emotional problems they were dealing with, drug or alcohol abuse, difficulties at work, financial strain, housing problems, and sick friends or family. To measure negative marital quality, couples answered questions about how often and to what extent their spouse criticized them, demanded too much of them, let them down, or got on their nerves. Fun day, right?


So what did the researchers find?

To begin with, they found that both genders endured significant stress over time and both genders saw their waist circumferences grow. For context, at the start of the study, 59% of husbands and 64% of wives were at an increased risk of obesity and disease, but by the end of the study, 66% of husbands and 70% of wives were at an increased risk of disease. Not only that, nearly 10% of participants increased their waistline by more than 10%, which is an average increase of four inches over four years.


But the point of the study was not to confirm that people gain weight during marriage—it was to figure out why. So what role did stress and marital quality play?

To answer this question, the researchers created models to determine whether a participant's weight gain was influenced by his or her own stress or his or her partner's stress. Notably, they found that "among married couples it is the partners’ reports—not those of the individual—that are important for waist circumference." In other words, according to this study, when you're married, the more stressed out your bae gets, the more your jeans may decide not to fit.


The researchers then broke down how both marital quality and gender affected the results. In doing so, they discovered three things:

  • Wives’ chronic stress exposure was associated with increased waist circumference among husbands when husbands reported low marriage quality.
  • Husbands’ chronic stress exposure was associated with increased waist circumference
    among wives when husbands reported low marriage quality.
  • Wives’ chronic stress exposure was associated with increased waist circumference among husbands when wives reported high marital quality.

Now, the first two of these findings make a lot of sense. They're basically saying that when a husband or wife is stressed out, his or her partner gains weight, especially when the husband feels negativity in the relationship. The third finding is a little counterintuitive, though—it's saying that when chronically stressed out wives reported that their marriage was good, their husbands gained weight!

For the first two scenarios, the authors offer several explanations—the most compelling being that husbands don't often report negative marital quality (lots of research has shown that marriage benefits men more than women), so husbands who are reporting an unhappy marriage might be super unhappy, which could contribute to their partner's weight gain.


As for the third scenario, the authors offer two hypotheses: First, given that wives typically report lower marital quality than husbands, it may actually be a sign the husband has checked out of the marriage. In other words, he's not being negative or nagging, but it's because he no longer cares, which is kind of sad.

The other alternative is that wives who report positive marriages may have husbands who care too much! Basically, in the husbands' efforts to be empathetic and supportive of their wives' stress levels, they end up packing on the pounds themselves. On top of that, wives who have good marriages may also feel more comfortable unloading their feelings and stress on their attentive husbands, which again results in husbands gaining weight as they too bear that burden.


The takeaway here is that whether you're a man or a woman, your partner's stress can negatively impact your waistline. Whether we like it or not, when we tie the knot, we link our health and happiness with someone else's. So if your partner has put on a few pounds over the years, take this as a friendly reminder not to judge, nag, or body shame them for their weight gain. More stress won't help them lose weight. Instead, offer up love and support—and perhaps try out some stress-relieving techniques together.

Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.