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‘I can’t get over how my boyfriend treated me when I was grieving’

Ask Roe: If this hadn’t happened, I think we’d be getting engaged soon but I feel confused

I have been with my boyfriend for five years and I thought we had a great relationship. Two years ago, I lost my mother after a short, sudden illness. She was my best friend and it floored me. I felt like I was going through the days in a daze and though I managed to keep working, I felt utterly disconnected from everything. I was comfort eating a lot and put on some weight. My boyfriend was supportive of me emotionally after my mam died but after about six months, he started making comments about my appearance. They started with “supportive” offers of asking did I want to exercise together or offers to organise sessions with a trainer in my gym but I had no desire to work out.

My weight was not a priority and even though he phrased it nicely in the beginning, it was clear he wanted me to lose weight which made me feel worse about myself and kept the comfort-eating cycle going. Over time, he started to become colder towards me and stopped being physically affectionate, and he would only ever offer types of support that involved me exercising, not ever asking me how I felt or what I needed emotionally. I felt terrible about myself and unsupported.

I eventually got a therapist and have been able to talk to her about my mam and it has helped. Over the past few months, I’ve started feeling a bit more like myself. The grief still comes in waves, but it’s more manageable now. I’ve started exercising more regularly and I’ve lost a bit of weight and my boyfriend has become very complimentary again, and he’s back to being affectionate. I know that it’s normal that we weren’t at our best when I wasn’t at my best, but I also have a lot of doubts and discomfort around how he made me feel about my body when I was grieving. If this hadn’t happened, I think we’d be getting engaged soon but I feel confused. I don’t know if I’m being unfair or making a big deal out of nothing.

I don’t think you are being unfair. You are very understandably looking at someone who you are considering spending your life with, thinking about how they treated you during a difficult and vulnerable time, and wondering whether this is the person with whom you want to face the rest of life’s challenges.


The red flag that you may be feeling and that I am deeply concerned about is how your boyfriend made you feel like his love, affection and kindness was dependent on your weight. Physical attraction in a long-term relationship can wax and wane, there will be periods of more lust and higher libidos – but if you are considering being together forever, uncontrollable attraction cannot and should not be the definer of the relationship, and it cannot and should not be the determining factor of whether you treat your partner with kindness, respect and affection.

Life is long, bodies change, people have injuries or get sick, people have children, and people’s lifestyles and priorities can change. If you want to marry someone, you have to commit to loving and showing up for your partner through those potential and unavoidable changes. If a partner is unable or unwilling to do that, they are showing you that their love, respect and kindness is conditional on you remaining attractive to them. And while some people may be fine with spending their life adhering to a subjective standard of attractiveness defined by someone else, I frankly don’t want that for you or anyone else. It speaks to a very particular value system that feels shallow to me, and if you’re thinking about marriage and hoping to have a partner who sticks by you through hard times, through illness, through pregnancy and child rearing and the changes that come with that, I worry that your boyfriend’s valuing of appearance and attraction over everything disqualifies him from the position.

Physical attraction may be out of our control to a certain degree and he may not have consciously decided to find you more attractive when you were slimmer – but kindness, respect, emotional support and affection? They are actions, and decisions. You decide whether or not to be kind to someone, to check in with your grieving partner and to do what you can to support them, to hold them and kiss them and compliment them – and he sounds like he made the choice to stop doing these things when you were at your most vulnerable. Of course you are having doubts.

However, I do want to give your boyfriend some benefit of the doubt, only because there are possibilities that are worth thinking about. I don’t know how your grief or low self-esteem manifested, and I wonder if it’s possible that you may have also withdrawn from him emotionally or physically. This would be completely understandable in your state of grief, but it is possible that maybe your boyfriend was trying to take his cues from you, and not initiating as much affection because he felt like you did not want it as much. Now that you are feeling a bit better emotionally, it may be that you seem more receptive to compliments and physical affection.

I will also argue until the day I die that unless somebody explicitly asks you to help them lose weight or exercise or go to the gym that it does feel like a body-shaming, agenda-laden offer of support. A more open-ended question like “What would feel helpful or supportive for you right now?” is always better. But from your letter, it does also seem like exercise plays a role in your life and that when you are feeling mentally and emotionally well, it is something you enjoy. Being very generous to your boyfriend, I wonder if he became preoccupied with the idea of exercise because he saw you no longer doing something you enjoy, saw your self-esteem affected by your changing appearance and thought that helping you get back into a routine would be something tangible and manageable he could offer.

Again, I am not saying this is a good approach unless specifically requested, but sometimes when confronted with situations that are completely out of our control, like seeing a partner experiencing grief, we can fall back on concrete, results-focused “solutions” because we don’t know how else to help. It is possible that your boyfriend was being clumsy, clueless and hurtful but is open to hearing about how his actions affected you, and is willing to learn how to do better.

You know better than I whether those possibilities feel true, but I do know that you need to raise these issues with your boyfriend. Get a recommendation from your therapist for a couples’ counsellor so that you can share your experience of the past two years and express your hurt and concerns to your boyfriend. This will allow you to see whether he is willing to listen carefully and consider how to be a better partner to you. But you need to take your feelings seriously, and think about what you want moving forward.

I’m very sorry about your mother. You say she was your best friend – think about the partner and love she would want for you, and make sure you get it.