25-Sep, 20:34

11:48, August 22 83 0

2017-08-22 11:48:02
The Sweet Spot: My Boyfriend’s Gaining Weight. I Feel Shallow for Caring.

This column is an edited excerpt from the “Dear Sugars” podcast, an advice program hosted by Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed. The audio contains an extended conversation and more letters; submissions are welcome at dearsugars@nytimes.com. If you’re reading this on desktop, click the play button below to listen. Mobile readers can find “Dear Sugars” on the Podcasts app (iPhone and iPad) or Radio Public (Android and tablet).

Dear Sugars,

I’ve been with my boyfriend for more than two years. At 31, I’ve been in a couple of long-term relationships before. This one is different. I love him to death and he feels the same about me. I knew after a week that I wanted to marry him and we have plans to get engaged soon. A few months ago, I went through a period of questioning. He’d put on some weight and his face looked different and I wasn’t feeling as attracted to him. I know how shallow that sounds, but I’ve always been told that physical attraction is important in a marriage, and I thought: If I’m not feeling attracted to him at 34, how am I going to feel when he’s 54? I did some soul-searching and realized the relationship was important to me. When I made that decision in my heart, my libido followed.

I now find myself questioning our relationship again. His physical changes have gotten more pronounced. It seems like a questionable choice to commit to someone if I’m not sure of my attraction to him. I’ve been told by friends that I have a tendency to sabotage myself, that deep down, I don’t feel like I deserve happiness and subconsciously make choices to ensure I don’t get it. I’ve struggled with depression my whole life, so if my brain was playing tricks on me, it wouldn’t be out of the blue. Could this be self-sabotage? Because being madly in love with someone for more than two years and then backing away because he’s put on a few pounds sure sounds like I’m either a terrible person, or I have some issues.

Scared to Choose Wrong

Steve Almond: I don’t think you’re a terrible person, Scared to Choose Wrong. You felt an immediate and intuitive connection to this man, enough to talk marriage a week in. That’s awesome. But it doesn’t leave much room for the doubt that naturally arises as a courtship lengthens and intensifies. Now that you’re getting serious about a long-term commitment, your ambivalence is locating itself in anxiety about his weight gain. It’s worth considering whether this anxiety is standing in for a more fundamental fear: that you won’t be able to love this guy over the long haul, that you’re too “terrible” — too judgmental, too superficial. When we doubt a lover, it’s almost always an expression of self-doubt cast onto them.

Cheryl Strayed: What’s really interesting to me about your situation, Scared, is that your desire for your partner returned once you realized how much he meant to you, not after he lost weight. You thought you weren’t attracted to him because he became a bit chubby, and then you found yourself attracted to him again. That tells me that there might be something else going on here — something more internal than how your boyfriend’s face looks after he’s put on a few pounds. Perhaps it isn’t his weight gain that’s causing you to question your relationship, but rather your own notions about what the ideal man should look like. There are so many messages we receive in this culture that tell us that people who are overweight are undesirable, so it’s no surprise you would internalize that and feel conflicted when you see your boyfriend’s body changing. Only you can answer the question of whether or not your reservations about this relationship are self-sabotage or a sign that it isn’t meant to last, but as you grapple with it, I encourage you to deeply examine the difference between the ideas about body weight you’ve received from the culture and your experience of loving — and sometimes desiring — your boyfriend.

SA: We get so many letters from people who are struggling with negative feelings about their bodies, or those of their lovers. So much of it has to do with living in a society that sets up impossible standards of beauty, particularly for women but also for men. Think about how much of our consumer culture is predicated on the illusion that we can purchase our way to thinness, to eternal youth, to perfect abs and no wrinkles. Our doubts are what underwrite that industry, so companies do everything they can to stoke those doubts. And we wind up carrying them into our relationships. You worry that you “have issues,” Scared, but the point is, our entire culture has issues.

CS: That’s not to say physical attraction doesn’t matter. It absolutely does — and you’re correct that it matters even more in a long-term relationship, Scared. But a good part of our desire for others starts with the self. The onus is on us to identify what we want in our intimate relationships. Is your boyfriend’s weight a deal killer for you? It might be. You have a right to your preferences. But you’re going down a dangerous path when you hitch your wagon to an erotic ideal. No one can maintain it over the long haul, even if we achieve it for a short while. Ask any 80-year-old who’s still sleeping with the person they married at 30. We all change in appearance as we age, whether it’s weight gain, wrinkles, gray hair or something more significant. Part of loving someone over time is loving those changes. Long-term relationships thrive when the people in them are open to repeatedly seeing their partners anew, physically and otherwise.

SA: One thing you know, Scared, is that you tend to sabotage yourself. That can be a tough mandate when you feel such overriding and unprecedented emotional connection. So maybe finding fault with this guy’s weight is the best you can do to mess things up. But as Cheryl points out, the first time this happened you were able to step back and think deeply about what this man meant to you, and suddenly the cloud of doubt in your head — can I love a guy who’s likely to gain more weight? — evaporated. That’s no coincidence. You’re a deeper person than you realize.