A Bad Relationship Can Make You Gorge Yourself

I can already imagine the David Lynch adaptation of this study, where a suburban couple drowns their sorrows in coffee and a lap pool filled to the brim with rum-raisin ice cream and crushed Valium.

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Aug 17 2015, 5:00pm

Foto von Mabel Lu via Flickr

We all know that there is no greater way to relieve our volatile and ever-growing stress than to devour, clandestinely, a massive amount of food we never really needed—or even wanted—to eat in the first place.

In a bad relationship? Most of us would readily trade in a kind-eyed therapist who wants us to talk out our feelings in favor of an industrial-sized vat of mac and cheese and an ungodly amount of white wine in a heartbeat.

READ: I'm in an Open Relationship with My Compost

And why wouldn't that be? After all, there is a clear-cut and tangible link between the unhealthy act of overeating and the stress it stems from. We know that for sure now, because a group of researchers just studied 43 couples to see how marital stress affects appetite.

Lisa Jaremka, who is an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Delaware, worked with six collaborators from Ohio State University's College of Medicine to see if arguing with one's beloved can cause overeating. Their study was just published by the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

And yes, when the arguing got nasty, the "I need to be covered head-to-toe in soft cheese" hormones surged. It all comes down to a pesky hormone called ghrelin, which makes you believe you are hungry. After a hostile argument, the participants who had healthy body mass indexes and those who were classified as overweight both experienced a surge of ghrelin. The correlation was fairly strong and occurred in both men and women.

Interestingly, though, those participants who were classified as obese, having a BMI of 30 or greater, showed no surge of ghrelin after arguments.

Also, leptin—known as the satiety hormone that tells us we're full—was unaffected by the fighting.

In the study, the couples attended two long sessions—we're talking nine and a half hours a pop. During that time, according to Medical Express, the couples tried "to resolve one or more conflicts in their relationship." Sounds great, right? They also ate a meal together, responded to questions, and had their blood tested. Hormone levels were studied at four intervals: once before the meal, and three times after, at two, four, and seven hours later.

Why would the participants subject themselves to this delightful exercise? Jaremka said, "Many people have an intrinsic interest in relationships and want to have a better understanding of them, especially their own"—thus, they were willing to participate.

In the end, though, these stalwart scientific subjects may have done a favor to humanity: "The study broke new ground by exploring the body's ability to regulate appetite after an argument with a spouse, and may help researchers understand how marital difficulties ultimately result in health problems."

So, now we know, Q.E.D., that weight gain is not as simple as calories in and calories out. Stress plays a major role as well. "Right now, it's one-size-fits-all—diet and exercise," Jaremka said. "I hope this will help us start to tailor interventions. These studies suggest people have difficulty controlling appetite and with specific types of foods … A personalized approach would be beneficial in the long run."

So what you always thought was true is in fact true: rejection and other relational difficulties can make you hungry. And yes, we assuage our desire for relief from the vagaries of our relationships with food. I can already imagine the David Lynch adaptation of this study, where a suburban couple drowns their sorrows in coffee and a lap pool filled to the brim with rum-raisin ice cream and crushed Valium.

READ MORE: David Lynch's Philosophy on Drinking Coffee

The scientists say that now that they have scientific proof that our bodies crave food when our relationships go south, they may be able to develop more effective interventions for weight gain.

So, are you in a "distressed" relationship? Take a second to contemplate before you reach for the refrigerator door.