Marriage and divorce alter our lives in a number of ways, and recent research suggests that our waistlines are among the first things to change in response to these events.1 However, men and women appear to respond differently to these relationship transitions, especially when it comes to experiencing a significant weight increase. Specifically, women are more likely to pack it on after marriage, while men are more likely to do so after divorce.
In a recent study, over 10,000 people across the United States were surveyed regularly between 1979 and 2008. The researchers tracked what happened to people’s weight in the two years following a relationship transition. On average, they found that both men and women gained at least a little weight after both marriage and divorce when compared to their single counterparts. The amount gained by most was relatively small and unlikely to pose a major health threat. The researchers didn’t stop there, however, because focusing only on averages masks the fact that different people may have very different experiences.
In fact, between 10 and 15% of people showed significant and unhealthy weight increases as their relationship changed (the equivalent of 21 or more pounds on a 5’10” person). If we focus only on those who gained a lot of weight, an interesting gender difference emerges. The risk of substantial weight gain was greatest for women after marriage; in contrast, men had the greatest risk after divorce. This was especially likely for people over age 30; younger people had a much lower probability of experiencing such weight increases in response to relationship transformations.
How do we explain this pattern of results? We don’t know for sure, but it could have something to do with women taking on more household and child-rearing duties than men after marriage, which may reduce the amount of time they have to stay in shape. For men, research shows that their health benefits substantially from marriage because they gain a source of social and emotional support that they might not otherwise have, which contributes to better health and quality of life.2 Thus, when men divorce, they may lose this benefit entirely and their health (and waistline) may suffer.
In short, marriage and divorce are among the “weightiest” issues we face in our lives, but the implications they have for our health and appearance may depend upon our gender.
1Tumin, D., & Qian, Z. (2011, August). Marital transitions and weight changes. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, Las Vegas, NV.
2Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Newton, T. L. (2001). Marriage and health: His and hers. Psychological Bulletin, 127, 472-503.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Lehmiller’s research program focuses on how secrecy and stigmatization impact relationship quality and physical and psychological health. He also conducts research on commitment, sexuality, and safer-sex practices.