Bad Eating Habits? A Thinner Partner Might be a Problem in a Same-Sex Relationship, say Researchers

By Tom McLaughlin

It is widely known that the sociocultural ideals to be fit and thin – and the pressures that come with them – can lead to unhealthy eating and diet habits.

Female couple on couch in living room

Female couple on couch in living room

Although research has shown the influence of social relationships on these behaviors, little attention has been given to the influence of romantic relationships on the eating and diet habits of adults, says Charlotte Markey, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University–Camden.

What’s more, says Markey, research hasn’t focused at all on these influences with regards to the romantic relationships of same-sex couples – until now.

Markey teams with Villanova University researcher Patrick Markey; fellow Rutgers–Camden faculty researchers Kristin August and Christopher Nave; and Lindzee Bailey, a recent graduate of Rutgers–Camden’s master of arts in psychology program, who initiated the project as part of her thesis, to examine the topic in a groundbreaking study, titled “Understanding same-sex male and female partners’ restrained eating in the context of their relationships,” in the June issue of Journal of Health Psychology.

“The study aims to advance not only an understanding of same-sex relationships, but a more complete understanding of all romantic relationships,” says Markey, a resident of Swarthmore, Pa.

Charlotte Markey. Photo by Caryn Schwartz

Charlotte Markey. Photo by Caryn Schwartz

According to the researchers, restrained eating is defined as the deliberate, long-term restriction of food intake in order to lose, maintain, or avoid gaining weight. It is characterized by alternating episodes of cognitive dietary restraint, uncontrolled eating, and emotional eating. Although exercising some restraint is critical in the current food environment, where supersized portions can be found around every corner, explains Markey, dietary restraint – as the researchers studied it – is considered dysfunctional.

“It is important for all of us to be cognizant of practices conducive to weight management, but it is not healthy to vacillate between restraint and binging or emotional eating,” says the Rutgers–Camden researcher. “Understanding factors that contribute to dietary restraint can aid in the prevention of disordered eating and unhealthy weight management.”

Over the course of the study, the researchers surveyed 288 participants in monogamous, romantic same-sex relationships. The majority of the couples, who were participating in a larger study examining predictors of relationship quality and health among gay and lesbian couples, were cohabitating and romantically involved – on average – for about five and a half years.

Consistent with their previous research on same-sex couples linking body mass index and concerns over weight issues, the study found significant evidence that men and women who were relatively heavier than their partners were at particular risk for engaging in all facets of restrained eating that they studied.


Lindzee Bailey

The researchers posit that the findings may be explained in part by the need for individuals in both same-sex and heterosexual relationships to conform to body ideals of close reference groups – in this case, their romantic partners. This tendency can be increased, they add, when the partner is of the same gender.

According to Markey, the results of the study have a variety of significant implications for this traditionally understudied population. She notes that there has been discussion among researchers who study eating behaviors that lesbian women are not as concerned about their bodies and weight as heterosexual women and that gay men are more concerned about these issues than heterosexual men.

“What this study suggests is that the relationships that any individual maintains – regardless of sexual orientation – may be critical in determining their eating behaviors,” she says. “This implies that therapeutic interventions may improve not only their relationships, but their eating habits and even their overall well-being.

The researchers are now conducting research studying the influence and effects of body image in same-sex relationships, with plans in the works for additional studies focusing on other aspects of these relationships and their effects on health and well-being.

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