My girlfriend, “Heather” and I have been dating for almost 2 years and are in our mid-twenties. In the last year or so she has been putting on weight. Heather was about 125 lbs and 5’ 5” when we met, and now she’s around 170. (I’m not sure exactly how much she weighs, but that’s what she looks like she weighs to me.)
She says she wants to be thin again, but if I try to talk to her about how to do it, she gets hurt or mad. If I don’t say anything about it, she says that I’m really thinking about it, but just not saying anything about it (which is true, sometimes). I feel like I’m stuck because no matter what I do, I can’t help. I do want to help her do what she wants, but I don’t see any way to do that.
I’m trying hard not to be shallow, but I’m just not attracted to her the way I was before. Heather says that I should love her no matter what she looks like because even if she is “fat,” it’s the person inside who I should love. I wish I didn’t feel the way I do, but I do and I can’t pretend that I don’t.
To tell the truth, I’m starting to not like our relationship, but I don’t want to be the kind of guy who breaks up with his girlfriend because she got fat. What do you think I should do?
Hope I’m Not Shallow
You have a dilemma: If you try to help your girlfriend Heather “be thin again” she resents it; if you don’t try to help her, she resents it. In psychology, this is an example of what is called the “double-bind,” or in the vernacular, damned if you do, and damned it you don’t. What the psychologist Gregory Bateson, who identified the syndrome, proposes as the only sane solution is to stop being part of the transaction, i.e., to withdraw from the situation.
As I have advised in this column before, you can’t be your partner’s therapist. Obviously, Heather has some kind of conflict that she needs to address and resolve. Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to be inclined to confront the issue, and one of the side-effects is that you are losing your affection for and connection with her.
According to Heather, you shouldn’t love her less because she has become physically unattractive to you, or “fat.” That seems like an ideal that most people can’t attain. For example, what if she decided that she wanted tattoo sleeves, or a variety of piercings, knowing that you found them a turn-off? Or let’s say that she started dressing in a sexually provocative manner when you liked the under-stated way that she dressed when you started dating. What if she started showering less and stopped using deodorant? Would she say you don’t love her anymore because she stinks? The essential question is this: what is going on that accounts for the change?
If you can’t talk to her about what is causing the change, you only have one rational choice: to withdraw, as Bateson would counsel someone in your bind to do. What that means in your case is that you need to break-up because you can’t make a person do what you think (or even what she thinks) is best for her.
Heather needs some soul-searching time for herself, which should also include professional counseling. Whatever the means, she has to do some psychological plumbing of her own depths.
You should not feel like you are the bad guy because what you are really doing is giving Heather the room to do what she has to do. If you two stay as you are, you and she will keep avoiding what has to take place, because you don’t want to be unkind and she doesn’t want to be unloved. Think of the issue like this: it’s not that you’re too shallow; what’s the matter is that she is not deep enough, and you need to get out of her way so she can take the plunge.
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