Divorce rate for bariatric patients high?

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DETROIT — When Vincent Welch went to an orientation class before having weight-loss surgery at Henry Ford Hospital, he brought along his wife, Michelle — something that is highly encouraged because the operation and lifestyle change can make such a big impact on a marriage.

“One of the first things they tell you, in the first hour of the orientation, is that the divorce rate for bariatric patients is really high,” said Vincent Welch, 50, of Warren, Mich. “It kind of caught us by surprise.”

Michelle Welch was afraid. “I was freaking out,” she said. “Here’s what happens. One person in a marriage gets the surgery. They lose weight. They start looking good. And the other one either gets jealous, or the other one doesn’t want to be married to them anymore.”

Vincent is retired from Ford Motor Co., where he worked on an assembly line. At his heaviest, he ate four or five meals a day and topped 500 pounds. It was not uncommon for him to eat an entire pizza by himself or wolf down an entire bag of potato chips while watching a baseball game.

Doctors told him he had to shed the excess pounds. But if he had the surgery and lost the weight, would he stay with Michelle, 43? She had struggled with weight, too. She weighed about 350 pounds. “I was scared” of losing him, she said.

Vincent had weight-loss surgery on Dec. 13, 2007. Over an 18- month period, he lost about 300 pounds. Michelle was proud of her husband, but their relationship became strained. “When I got below her weight, it bothered her,” Vincent said. “She became jealous about every little thing.”

At one point, he got down to 185 pounds. “I lost the equivalent of two average human beings,” he said.

Their relationship was tested but, he said, “She never had anything to worry about. I loved her, as is. And she loved me, as is, whether I was heavier or thinner. We have a good relationship.”

Many websites that describe weight-loss surgery list divorce as one of the possible post-op complications. One site goes so far as to call it Bariatric Divorce.

There are several reasons someone might get a divorce after having bariatric surgery, according to David Sarwer, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Sarwer said that the surgery can have a positive effect on a solid marriage, but there is a risk that it can tear apart a marriage that is already on the rocks.

“In general, we know, after bariatric surgery, that people tend to feel much better about themselves,” said Sarwer, a member of the American Society for Metabolic & Bariatric Surgery. “Not only do we see health improvements, we see decreases in depressive health symptoms. We see improvement in self-esteem and increase in quality of life and body image. Intuitively, we would think if one partner is feeling better that would only help the marriage. But what we have found is that weight and weight loss can actually play a more complicated role in a marriage or romantic relationship.”

Henry Ford Hospital offers support groups led by a dietitian and a psychologist that meet twice a month before and after surgery.

“When people are morbidly obese and their activity level is low, they may not feel they have choices” to leave a bad marriage, said Anne Eshelman, a clinical health psychologist who works with bariatric patients.

Eshelman runs a support group for bariatric patients. About 2,200 bariatric surgeries have been performed at Henry Ford since 2002, and Eshelman said every situation is different.

“Sometimes, there are tensions in a marriage because of the lifestyle changes,” Eshelman said. “If one person has surgery and the other doesn’t, there may be lots of conflict.”

That wasn’t the case for Trudy O’Brien, 59, an applied linguistics professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. O’Brien weighed 270 pounds before she had weight-loss surgery and has lost 110 pounds. She said that she received nothing but support from her husband, Doug. They will celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary in June.

“My husband has been rock steady,” Trudy O’Brien said. “But I can understand the tension, though, if there are deeper problems.”

After her husband had bariatric surgery, Michelle Welch saw a dramatic change. He had more energy. He was so much healthier. And she started to worry. Not about their relationship. But about herself.

Could she do the same thing?

“I never pressured her,” Vincent Welch said. “I never made her feel bad or awkward when I was losing weight.”

Michelle had bariatric surgery on March 29, 2010. At her heaviest, she weighed 353 pounds. She has lost 133 pounds, and the weight is still coming off. “My knees are thanking me big time,” she said.

In some ways, she had it easier. She had a built-in support system.

Research shows that family members who have weight-loss surgery together will lose more weight than doing it alone, according to the American Society for Metabolic & Bariatric Surgery.

Vincent has seen a dramatic change in his wife. He beamed with pride as he talked about how she lost the weight but grew as a person.

“The greatest thing for me is to see her self-confidence and self-esteem blossom,” he said. “That’s been breathtaking to see. To see her feel whole again, where the weight is not an issue. Watching the joy as the weight keeps coming off her.”

They are both healthier and living new lives.

They have lost 431 pounds combined.

“It’s even better than it used to be,” Vincent said. “We love each other, no more, no less. We had a solid foundation going in. It got tested a few times, but we came through with flying colors.”

“Because we both did it,” Michelle said, “it made our marriage 10 times stronger.”

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The Henry Ford Bariatric Surgery Center offers three surgical options:

— Roux-en-Y Gastric Bypass: A small pouch is surgically created to limit the amount of food the stomach can hold. The small intestine is reconfigured so that food bypasses the first and a portion of the second segment of the small intestine to limit the calories the body absorbs.

— Laparoscopic Adjustable Gastric Band: A band is fastened around the upper part of the stomach to create a small pouch.

— Laparoscopic Sleeve Gastrectomy: A small stomach pouch or sleeve is created laparoscopically to decrease the amount of food it can hold. The small intestine is not operated on or reconfigured in any way.

Source: Henry Ford Hospital