Friendly Sabotage During Weight Loss
Margaret E. Woltjer, Ph.D. | February 2005

Whether you are someone who is beginning a weight loss program for the first time or for the eighth time, adequate preparation is essential for good results. There are numerous reasons why programs succeed or fail, some of which are linked to biochemical and physiological processes. However, some programs fail because of “friendly sabotage” by spouses, family, or friends. Because this problem is especially problematic between spouses and has been identified by numerous weight loss professionals, regardless of which weight loss program is used, the problem deserves close attention.

Weight loss does not happen in a vacuum; we interact with people every day and usually more intimately in the presence of food. Therefore, if weight loss is to occur, we need to acknowledge the impact of people as we make changes in our food habits and visa versa. We are dealing with a dynamic system wherein all components change in response to changes made within any component part. Dynamic systems are constantly changing, with each part impacting and being impacted by the other parts. If we apply this process to a family wherein one member begins a weight loss program, we would see each family member being impacted by the change and, in turn, impacting the person who is trying to lose weight. This would suggest that everyone in the family system is a critical participant in the process.

Spousal sabotage occurs for several reasons, but if we group the most common ones reported using a dynamic systems perspective, we can identify three types of sabotage: Intentional, Unexpected and Unintentional.

Intentional Sabotage
Intentional sabotage occurs when a spouse knowingly and deliberately tries to make you fail. For example, you plan a nutritious dinner for the family but your spouse brings home pizza and breadsticks. Spousal sabotage is most likely to occur if the spouse feels threatened by the changes seen in his/her partner. Marriages tend to be particularly vulnerable when one person changes and the other does not. Change creates stress on a system and anxiety within the person who is unprepared to handle the stress. A spouse who is insecure about himself or his marriage may feel neglected or unimportant and may react to change with hostility or emotional abandonment. Fortunately, intentional sabotage is probably the least prevalent of the three forms of sabotage.

Unexpected Sabotage
This form of sabotage occurs when a spouse initially supports her partner’s weight loss efforts, but then discovers that she is beginning to undermine his progress as he loses weight. For example, Sally supported Joe in his goal to lose 60 pounds. She carefully shopped for his dietary needs and liked the way he looked as his weight dropped. But about 30 pounds later, she occasionally offered him favorite desserts as a “reward” for his progress and complained that she missed sharing a bowl of ice cream with him as was their custom each evening before his diet began.

Unexpected sabotage is usually a disappointing surprise for both the dieter and the spouse. The spouse is frequently unprepared for the impact that change of any kind has on the marriage. In Sally’s case, while she fully supported the idea of Joe’s goal, she was unprepared for the loss of intimacy she experienced - no longer eating certain foods with her husband. In other cases, a spouse may feel jealous of the attention his/her spouse is getting as progress becomes more obvious. Perhaps she has more energy to engage in activities she previously declined or has become more self-confident. Couples who have a relatively stable relationship stand a good chance to deal with the various forms of unexpected sabotage when they occur as long as they realize that it is not a vindictive act.

Unintentional Sabotage
This form of sabotage seems to be the most common form experienced by couples. In this situation, the partner intends to support the weight loss effort but doesn’t know how or, perhaps, hasn’t been fully included. Let’s say that Grace has done a good job of planning by talking to her husband, Bill, about how she would like his support during her weight loss program. Bill says he is fine with her going on the diet, but that he does not want to participate with her. Grace begins exercising and follows her new food plan, but soon becomes discouraged when Bill rejects her invitations to walk with her or try a new recipe. She periodically begins skipping her exercise sessions and eventually stops the diet. Or, Frank decides to get rid of the 20 pounds he’s been carrying around and begins to eliminate certain foods from his diet, but fails to tell his wife what he wants to do. She continues to prepare meals he used to enjoy and Frank eventually regains his weight.

Unintentional sabotage occurs when couples fail to communicate fully about how support will be offered, or even if the spouse can give it. In Bill and Grace’s situation, it appears that their idea of what constituted “support” was quite different from each other. Bill supported her efforts, but was clear about not wanting to be a part of it. In Frank’s case, his diet plan was a well-kept secret and he failed to realize that spousal support would be critical for him to meet his goal.

The problems associated with spousal sabotage readily highlight several issues which must be addressed by any married or partnered person who is beginning a weight loss program. First, change in one person will affect all other people within that person’s system. Second, as ongoing changes are made, all persons within a system need time to adjust to change. Third, as adjustments are made, all persons within a system need time to adjust to adjustments made by others.

Each system is dynamic, with challenges and solutions being unique to each system. To address the problem of sabotage, the following recommendations are offered:
  1. Plan your weight loss strategy before you even begin, but be prepared to make changes when the unexpected happens.

  2. Include one or two people in your plan as primary supporters and talk to them beforehand about what you need from them. Find out what they will be able to do to support. Then, keep in touch with them about how they are doing as you go along.

  3. Be alert to signs that you or your spouse may be tiring of the effort it takes to make changes in lifestyle and talk about it together. Sometimes slight adjustments in routine can help you both keep on track.

  4. At times a spouse who says he or she does not want to participate in the exercise or the change in food may be willing to do so later in the process. Keep an open mind and periodically extend the invitation.

  5. Find new ways to experience closeness or to celebrate successes besides splurging at a restaurant. If food is going to be an inevitable part of the family gathering or celebration, prepare for your food needs in advance by saving some calories for the occasion.

  6. Know how to assert yourself in situations where friends and family may intentionally or unintentionally derail you from your Plan.

  7. Learn how to take responsibility for your derailment (should it occur); then, get back on track and keep going. Find a new support system if the one you relied on is not working.
Most people who successfully navigate through the process of weight loss ultimately recognize strengths and weaknesses lying hidden beneath the surface of their relationships. Strong relationships tend to absorb the ebb and flow of dynamic change while growing stronger in the process.
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