PhotoHaving the ability to read your spouse’s mood can be a good thing. When partners can sense that something is weighing on the mind of their loved one, they can spring into action with efforts to help ease their mental burden.

But while connectedness can help keep partners stable and emotionally afloat, having a stressed-out spouse may contribute to weight gain in older adults. University of Michigan researchers found that older adults gain weight when their spouse is experiencing long-term stress.

"We found that your partner's stress, and not your own, predicted an increased waist circumference over time," said Kira Birditt, a research associate professor at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

Quality of marriage

Couples who participated in the study had been married an average of 34 years. The results of the four-year study suggested that couples 50 and older put on weight in response to chronic stress.

Birditt and her colleagues found that when a stressful circumstance occurred for more than a year, it could lead to a negative quality of marriage -- and, in turn, weight gain. The results also appeared to vary by gender.

Husbands usually experience lower negative marital quality. As a result, they may be more shocked and affected by negative feelings when they do arise, Birditt explained. And stressed-out men can be bad for wives’ waistlines, the study found.

"Wives were 1.6 times more likely to have an increase in waist circumference when their husbands reported greater stress and greater negative marriage quality," Birditt said.

Interestingly, husbands were more than twice as likely to have a 10% increase in waist size when their wives were stressed but weren’t complaining about marriage quality. Birditt said she couldn't explain that difference.

Coping together

The findings show that "marriage has powerful influences on health," the authors said. Birditt pointed out that the effect of marriage quality on older couples’ weight could be explained by the use of one particular coping strategy: eating. 

"Research shows that people who are more distressed in their marriage do eat more as a way to feel connected to each other to reduce their feeling of stress," Birditt told HealthDay.
To minimize weight gain during stressful times, partners can set healthy goals together rather than separately. Saying 'Let's go out and walk together after dinner every night' is better than one partner saying 'I'm going to go exercise,' she said.

The study is published in the Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences.

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