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Come on, Honey. Live a little.

Dieting is tough enough without adding a sabotaging (if well-intentioned) spouse to the mix

By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / March 17, 2011

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Since she married 24 years ago, Sara Maffeo has put on 25 pounds, at least, a weight gain she blames not on a lack of exercise, or too much fast food, but on her loving husband.

“I don’t stand a chance,’’ said Maffeo, 53, an administrative assistant at Fidelity Investments. Not against the custard pies Jerry brings home to Melrose from the North End, where he co-owns Martini’s News, or the cannolis he pushes, the chocolate bars he wants her to enjoy. “I’ve got a surprise for you,’’ he’ll call out cheerfully, entering with 3,000 calories of trouble.

“He thinks everything is good for you,’’ she said.

Maffeo has lost weight over the years. “But just when I’m on track, he’ll come home with a whole pie for the two of us,’’ she said. “He says, ‘You’re supposed to enjoy life.’ ’’

But what happens when one spouse’s enjoyment is another’s blown diet? Statistics on diet-wreckers are hard to come by. But experts see the behavior so often they have a term for it: the “sabotaging spouse.’’ Sometimes it’s inno cent (see Jerry, above), other times it’s more calculated. But one thing is for sure: With the spring dieting season upon us, spouses — chubby or not — are pointing fingers.

Elaine McCauley Meehan, the local territory manager for Weight Watchers, sees it at the group’s meetings, where members sometimes complain about partners who show their love or other emotions through food. “Some people feel very threatened,’’ she said. The non-dieting spouse may worry about a newly slender, more confident spouse, she said, or feel threatened because family routines are changing.

So who has it worse — husbands or wives? While there are no numbers on that, there are patterns: The sabotaging wife may make a fattening meal and urge her husband to eat it, Meehan said. She imitated the wife: “Honey, I made it for everyone, just have a little.’’ Men, she said, are more likely to bring home high-calorie treats or suggest fattening restaurants.

Meehan, 43, of Brighton, isn’t just a Weight Watchers employee, she’s also a member. She lost 88 pounds five years ago and has kept it off, despite a sabotaging spouse of her own (well-intentioned, she said, but challenging even so). “It will be 10 p.m., and he’ll pull out a Reese’s Peanut Butter Easter Egg. It’s my absolute favorite thing in the world. I may use some of my [Weight Watchers] extra PointsPlus to eat it, but often times I’ll get mad. I’ll be like, ‘What are you doing?’

“At the same time, if he was to take it away from me, I’d get angry,’’ she conceded. “There is no winning.’’

For his part, Meehan’s husband, John, 41, says he just wants to make his wife happy, even though the delicious gifts can backfire. “She works hard and she deserves a little bit of pleasure,’’ said Meehan, a custodian in Brighton, “but sometimes it blows up in your face.’’

About 19 percent of men and 22 percent of women are currently dieting, according to a survey by the NPD Group. Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst and a vice president at the research firm, said he doesn’t know how many of those dieters live together, but “it could be only a few households where both are on a diet.’’

Who knew that food could be such an issue between partners? Money, sex, childrearing — we hear a lot about those conflicts. But mashed potatoes? Apparently so.

“There are so many food fights,’’ Cynthia Sass, author of “Your Diet Is Driving Me Crazy,’’ and “Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches,’’ wrote in an e-mail. “Couples eat together more than they do just about anything else together, so when they’re not on the same page it’s a continual battle.

“When one partner decides to change his or her eating it changes what the couple buys at the grocery store, what’s brought into the house, where and what you eat when you go out to dinner, even vacations and holidays, which largely revolve around food.’’

A change in one person’s diet can disrupt a couple’s usual activities, she said.

“If you used to share a large bucket of popcorn at the movies or grab a pizza with your DVD and one partner no longer wants to do that you’ve now altered even your weekend rituals. Not to mention the fact that when one partner starts to eat healthier the other may begin to feel bad about their own eating habits, which can lead to feelings of being judged or guilt.’’

Even well-meaning spouses can make dieting harder than it already is. Consider the plight of newlywed Maddie Ogren, 25, an event services manager who’s lost 90 pounds on Weight Watchers and is trying to shed 50 more. She and her husband live in Back Bay, above a cupcake store and a couple of restaurants. To get into her home she practically has to sprint past temptation, but once upstairs, she’s not completely safe, either. “We got a Julia Child cookbook for our wedding,’’ she said.

“He’s totally supportive and wonderful,’’ Ogren says of her husband, John, “but he loves to cook.’’ Pulled pork in a crock pot, beef bourguignon, delicious popcorn with lots of oil, he makes them all. “I don’t want to impede his creative side, but I can’t eat like this every day.’’

A good marriage certainly makes people happy, but except for couples with a weight-gain limit clause in their prenups (yes, these reportedly exist), all that wedded bliss may mean a few extra pounds. A 2009 study done by University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill researchers found that married men and women were twice as likely to become obese over five years as those in romantic relationships who are not living together.

That doesn’t come as news to Shirley Walsh, 53, of West Roxbury. “I don’t know if we’re ecto-, meso- or endomorphs,’’ she said, “but we’re different morphs.’’ Her husband, Dan, is tall and thin and can eat whatever he wants, and she . . . well you can guess.

Walsh, who owns Kalembar Dune, a vintage shop in West Roxbury, said her problem isn’t so much what her husband makes or brings home for her, but rather the pasta and meat and potatoes and other fattening food she makes or rather, was making in an attempt to please him. Recently she told him, “I can’t eat like you,’’ and started preparing salads and vegetable-based meals instead of dishes like chicken cacciatore.

“He said he’ll give me his full support,’’ she said, “but we’ll see how long that lasts.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com.

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