After two years of effort and many weight loss achievements and setbacks, Susan painfully realized that most of her old friends weren’t really her friends anymore. She didn’t feel they were really there for her during the process, and if they couldn’t support something so important to her, then they must not care about her as much as she thought. A big weight loss effort can ruin a good friendship, and can even break up a marriage. But it doesn’t have to.
Why does weight loss create problems in relationships? Because it changes them. When you’ve been ballroom dancing with someone for a while and then you start changing your dance steps, it can be disconcerting for your partner. They have to change their steps too to prevent the two of you from taking a tumble. But their natural inclination is to maintain the status quo and unlike you, they may not have any reason to change. So they’ll resist your new steps, probably unconsciously and possibly vigorously, and their resistance will sabotage your weight loss.
For centuries, food has been a social glue that brings people together, and eating of some sort is so often involved in getting together. Just like dance partners, if you change your eating patterns, the people you socialize with will notice the difference – and it might not feel good to them. They might feel threatened that your friendship is changing. They might want the “normal” you back again, instead of this slightly unfamiliar you. They may react in some confusing and hurtful ways. And your reaction to their reaction will probably determine whether your friendship survives.
Protest Behavior From Your Friends and How to Address it
If you start taking walking breaks instead of coffee and cookie breaks, it’s a great step towards your weight loss goal but your old cookie break friends might misinterpret your absence and wonder why you’re upset with them. They may know consciously that you’re trying to lose weight but their unconscious brain will still feel hurt that you don’t hang out with them like you used to. When you don’t want to go out for frozen yogurt with them after a stressful day like you have so many times in the past or don’t come to happy hour anymore, they may feel like they’re losing a friend. They might miss you.
If your friend says something like “Oh, come on, one frozen yogurt isn’t going to kill you!”, it directly undermines your weight loss efforts. It’s hurtful. You may give in when you otherwise would have stayed strong. This is an act of sabotage. But it’s because they miss the friendship that’s changed and they’re protesting.
You may get tired after a barrage of comments like this, and start avoiding the friends who are making these sabotaging remarks. But avoidance is also a hurtful act and it’s easily misinterpreted as you not caring. If you can recognize and tolerate a little bit of protesting from them, that can often help them get past it. Reiterate that the friendship matters to you and try to find new ways for the two of you to engage in friendship.
To many people, food is love. By giving you chocolate to cheer you up when you’re feeling discouraged after blowing your diet for the weekend, they’re trying to show you that they care.. but you will probably feel that they’re not doing you any favors. And you’re right – this is an act of sabotage. Relatives that tell you to “Have another helping, you don’t need to lose weight” or “You’ve lost some already, you can have a little dessert” are likely trying to reassure you that they love you just the way you are. Unfortunately, their protests are undermining your efforts, leaving you feeling angry and unsupported. They may not understand this at all. You may have to help them support you by explaining it to them.
Some people, when they see someone else making healthy changes or making success look easy, can feel jealous. It’s probably not a proud moment for them but it’s a common emotion and not likely one they can easily control. They may very well feel conflicting feelings, both jealous and also happy for you at the same time, but the jealousy might win out in the moment. They may say something sarcastic or demeaning, like “I see you had to resort to wearing your ‘fat’ jeans today”. Not very nice! You could react in anger, snapping back at them “You’re just jealous – and you live in your fat jeans!” but this only deepens the rift between you. Your empathy for their feelings is the key to dissipating them and healing that rift. Instead, try reflecting back what you can read in between the lines and reiterating how you feel about your friendship. Try “I’m sorry I haven’t had a cookie break with you in the last few weeks… I miss our morning breaks together”.
The human brain was designed with an unconscious aversion to change – it actually experiences change as pain. This pain can make a friend protest, to say and do things designed to get you to act like you used to, before you were losing weight. Armed with a better understanding of how your friends might react when you change your own behavior, you can empower yourself to see sabotage efforts when they happen and know them for what they actually are – an attempt to hold on to your valued friendship just the way it was in the past. You can choose to respond with empathy, instead of anger or avoidance, and help your friendship evolve, as it must do to continue long term into the future.