"Every day, Seth and I argue about what to have for dinner," said Liz, 49, a business consultant and mother of Sam, 17, and David, 13. "If we don't settle the menu in the morning, we'll bicker by phone all day long. Often the easiest solution is to eat out. But then we fight about the restaurant."
"Seth is a steak-and-potatoes guy who tolerates the occasional chicken breast or bowl of pasta. I, on the other hand, will eat anything — and it shows. During our 23-year marriage, I have gained 85 pounds and with one exception have never stuck to a diet. But Seth bears some of the blame — he sabotages my dieting!
"He won't cook unless he's grilling outdoors. And if I prepare a healthy dinner, he'll push the food around his plate and sulk. The boys have picked up on our bad habits. From Seth they've learned to be picky, and from me they've learned to equate food with comfort — to the point where they both have weight problems, too.
"My love affair with food dates back to childhood, when my parents used food as a reward for every occasion. If there was something to celebrate, we'd have cake; if one of us four kids was sad, an ice-cream cone would chase the blues away. As a girl I wasn't quite fat, but I was never really thin, either. I always got that classic line, 'You have such a pretty face — if only you'd lose a few pounds.'
"My late father worked in purchasing for a department store; Mom was a homemaker but worked part time. She always drove herself hard and expected no less of us. When we didn't meet her exacting standards, she'd guilt-trip us. Even now, at 74, she prepares a daily to-do list and gets upset if, say, bad weather keeps her from pruning her rosebushes.
"I met Seth when I was a graduate student in New York City. I'd taken a waitressing job to help pay for school, and he was my first customer. We hit it off instantly, discussing politics, travel, and our love of Big Band music. Seth, who was newly divorced with a 5-year-old son, not only was smart, articulate, and funny but handsome, too.
"We got married six months after we met. We had a sizzling sex life, but as happy as we were, those early years were stressful. Seth shared custody of his son Todd, who's now 28, with his ex-wife, and the two of them were always wrangling about that. After I got my MBA, I had a grueling schedule, while Seth, a mechanical engineer, got laid off twice.
"We were both thrilled when, five years into our marriage, I became pregnant. But that's when my weight gain started. I put on 80 pounds with Sam and lost just 50. With David I gained 35 pounds and never dropped one. When the boys were little, I was too busy to diet, and over the years I packed on another 20 pounds.
"Since turning 40, though, I've tried every diet known to man. One month I'm up, the next I'm down. Five years ago Seth, who had also put on weight, joined Weight Watchers with me. With his support I lost 40 pounds and started exercising. But after Seth lost 45 pounds, he stopped. I couldn't stay motivated to go it alone and I gained it all back.
"That's when Seth changed. He became hostile and began making nasty comments about my eating habits. If I reach for a piece of bread, he'll ask, 'Aren't you on a diet?' or if I manage to lose a few pounds, he'll say, 'You'll never keep it off.' It hurts my feelings, and it seems unfair, since he has regained a lot of his lost weight, too.
"I can't remember the last time we had sex. Seth rejects my overtures and never initiates. I feel so unloved and alone. Last year, when my dad died, I hit bottom. But his death reminded me that life is too short to be miserable. 'I love you, but I can't live like this,' I told Seth when I asked him to try marriage counseling. 'We need to change, but we can't do it on our own.'"
"Why is it my fault that Liz can't stick with a diet? Why am I to blame for the fact that she won't exercise?" asked a clearly frustrated Seth, 54. "As for our fights about dinner, I'm reluctant to tell her what I'd like since I don't want to tempt her off her diet. But I detest the low-calorie food she makes. I don't cook, so it makes sense to go out. But do I twist her arm to order the super-rich pasta?
When I decided to stop smoking, 20 years ago, I threw out my cigarettes and never touched one again. Nobody helped me quit. Why can't Liz take responsibility for her weight problem and correct it?
"I've always been self-reliant. My dad died of a heart attack when I was in kindergarten. My sister was eight years older, and my mom worked long hours as a secretary, so I fended for myself from an early age.
"I first spotted Liz through the window of my favorite restaurant. I couldn't get through the door fast enough to meet her. She was beautiful, vibrant, and charming, and I felt I could tell her anything. By our second date, I knew I'd marry her. I knew my son Todd would love Liz, too. On our first outing, the two of them held hands as we walked around the zoo. It was clear that she'd be a fabulous parent. And she has been — both to Todd, who's grown up now, and to our sons Sam and David.
"Five years ago, I was thrilled when Liz lost 40 pounds on Weight Watchers. After I hit my goal, she said she was committed to continuing. So I was disappointed, but not surprised, when she quit. What bugged me, though, was that she blamed me! She said I wasn't supportive, that I should exercise with her. She wants me to walk around the track at her pace, which is way too slow for me.
"Liz has gotten so fat that I barely recognize her anymore. I haven't felt attracted to her in years — a fact I've never revealed, because it would hurt her. But I still love her. She is the smartest woman I've ever known; she has stood by me in difficult times; she is a devoted mother and stepmother. I agreed to try counseling because we used to be great together. I just hope we can learn how to be great again."
The Counselor's Turn
"Food fights in marriage — from what to eat to how much money to spend on food — are very common," said the counselor, "partly because food is so deeply rooted in our backgrounds. In examining their families of origin, I could easily see how Liz's and Seth's attitudes were shaped. She was looking to him for the unconditional love and support she didn't get from her pragmatic, no-nonsense mother — a woman who, not accidentally, Seth resembled. 'You were drawn to a man with whom you could continue the unconscious struggle to win the nurturing you missed as a child,' I told Liz. 'You're reaching out for love.'
"Meanwhile, Seth expected Liz to be more independent. Having pretty much grown up on his own, he believed in individual responsibility and didn't really get the team player concept that permeated Liz's view of marriage. This meant he resisted being drawn into her dieting and exercise routine, which he came to see as a lost cause anyway.
"Initially I tried to convince the couple to work together to end their power struggle. But their complaints continued unabated, so I decided to abandon the team approach. I urged Liz to find a diet she could stick with without Seth's help. 'You must do this for your health and self-esteem,' I said. 'If Seth comes along for the ride, great. But you can succeed alone.'
"Inspired by my straight talk, Liz researched several programs, selected the South Beach Diet and lost 45 pounds in six months. Currently she's losing about two pounds a week by avoiding simple carbohydrates and eating smaller portions. She also goes by herself to a gym several times a week. 'If Seth wants to accompany you and exercise at his own pace, fine,' I said, 'but don't let his absence become your excuse for not going.'
"I told Seth that if he didn't want to eat Liz's low-carb cooking, he should prepare his own meals. When the family dined out, I advised him to let Liz choose the restaurant. Seth agreed, but soon after Liz started South Beach, he decided to join her. Now, every morning before work, the couple plans their dinner menu or select a restaurant. They have begun cooking with marinades, spices, and herbs; not only do their sons enjoy these meals, but each has trimmed down along with his parents.
"After trying several classes, Liz discovered she enjoys yoga. 'It alleviates the joint pain I felt from carrying around so much weight,' she said. 'That helps me stick with it.'
"Most importantly, I urged Seth to change his communication style. 'By belittling her, you're creating more ill will,' I said. Seth needed to be direct but supportive. During one highly emotional session, he professed his love for Liz and then finally admitted that he was no longer attracted to her because she was so drastically overweight. For years, Seth had made excuses to avoid having sex with Liz, while hurling verbal jabs about her failed dieting. 'You needn't feel guilty about being upset by her appearance,' I said, 'but if you keep feigning headaches and firing off insults, you'll sabotage her progress and create more acrimony.'
"When people marry, they enter into a marital contract, which is usually implicit. If, however, the contract is breached — this could range from a switch in religion or career to a change in physical appearance — problems ensue. It's normal, for instance, for people to put on a few pounds as they age. But if part of the implied contract was maintaining a relatively stable weight, a partner's excessive gain would constitute a breach.
"Contracts can certainly be restored or renegotiated, but the partners must first verbalize the breach. Liz didn't fully grasp the negative effects of her weight problem. She didn't mind Seth's weight gain, so she assumed he didn't mind hers. When she finally heard the truth, Liz felt relieved. 'I wish you'd told me sooner,' she said. 'It would have motivated me to stick to a diet.'
"In time, Seth began praising Liz for her dieting success. His supportive approach has greatly eased the marital tension. Her increased attractiveness has also reawakened Seth's libido. 'Our lovemaking isn't as frequent or as passionate as either of us would like,' Liz reported, 'but we're moving in the right direction.'
"After a year of counseling, Seth and Liz admit they've got a long road ahead — Liz wants to drop another 35 pounds, and Seth another 30 — but they are rightly proud of their accomplishments. 'Liz and I are more tolerant, more forgiving, and less resistant to change,' Seth recently acknowledged. 'We are deeply in love and will be together for the rest of our lives.'"
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on interviews with clients and information from the files of Stephen Betchen, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and author of the forthcoming Intrusive Partners, Elusive Mates: The Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic in Couples. The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities. "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is a registered trademark of Meredith Corporation.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, January 2005.