Are you in a relationship with someone who lives with an eating disorder? Is someone in your family experiencing symptoms of anorexia or bulimia or other disordered eating symptoms that don’t seem to fit into a neat category? This guide can help you navigate your relationship and help you play a supportive role in your loved one’s condition instead of an enabling one. Read on to learn more about eating disorders, how they affect relationships and what you can do to help.
To start, let’s review the most common eating disorders and their specific traits. At The Ranch Tennessee, we offer treatment for all eating disorders.
Types of Eating Disorders
While the idea of eating disorders is mostly common knowledge, most people are not aware of the details involved in each type of eating disorder. In general, eating disorders are mental illnesses wherein a person develops eating behaviors that negatively impact their lives. The negative eating behavior is usually linked with emotional disturbances, and people who are living with eating disorders report having a sense that eating behavior is out of their control.
Anorexia nervosa is probably the most well-known out of all the eating disorders. Often developed during adolescence, anorexia is most often expressed by a significant weight loss, although it is not always the case. People with anorexia restrict themselves from eating, and they have an intense fear of gaining weight. Due to their food intake restriction or compulsive exercise, their body is not receiving the nutrients it needs, and it is imperative that they eat to stay at a healthy level. There’s often a denial of having an eating disorder, too, which contributes to a skewed self-perception and impaired recognition that the challenges they face have serious medical consequences.
Bulimia can be less easy to spot, as many people who suffer from this disorder are adept at keeping up an appearance of ‘normal eating.’ Also likely developed in adolescence, bulimia nervosa is characterized by episodes of binge eating followed by purging. While eating, people with bulimia report not being in control of how much they eat, and they end up eating until painfully full. To compensate for the caloric intake, those with bulimia will often make themselves throw up or use laxatives. While individuals with bulimia often maintain their typical weight, they still fear gaining weight and might deal with problems stemming from their purgings such as tooth decay or dehydration.
Binge eating disorder (BED) can also be incredibly dangerous. Like individuals with bulimia, people with BED engage in binge eating behavior. However, they do not take part in purging behaviors like vomiting or using laxatives, causing people with BED to be overweight or obese. People with BED also report feeling out of control when eating, along with feelings of shame or guilt after each binge eating episode.
Suppose a person doesn’t meet the criteria for a diagnosis of the disorders above. In that case, they are often diagnosed with OSFED, which stands for other specified feeding or eating disorder. OSFED includes several eating disorders (like orthorexia) that are not yet considered eating disorders independently. For instance, individuals with orthorexia develop an obsession with healthy eating to the point where it disrupts their entire lives. While perhaps not as immediately dangerous as other eating disorders, this still represents a potential issue that may cause strain in any relationship.
Eating disorders are like a gun that’s formed by genetics, loaded by a culture and family ideals, and triggered by unbearable distress.
- Aimee Liu
How Eating Disorders Affect Relationships
Eating disorders, like any other mental health issue, isn’t insular. These behaviors and practices affect all aspects of people’s lives who suffer from them, along with their partners, their children and even friends and coworkers.
Some people in relationships where one partner struggles with an eating disorder might even feel as if the eating disorder is another member of the relationship. The eating disorder gets to make decisions and might make itself a priority at times. It’s important to realize that this is not who a person may be; they may be acting in a certain way and feel out of control.
The most common issues in relationships where an eating disorder is present are communication, emotional health and sexual intimacy. Mental illnesses are secretive by nature; the person who has a mental illness will often find ways to hide it. Because our mental health is a large part of our daily experience, a person with an eating disorder might feel the need to hide many elements of their private lives from their partners. Furthermore, when communication does occur, sometimes there can be missteps in the way partners talk to each other. A person with an eating disorder might see everything through the lens of their illness. In contrast,the partner without an eating disorder may have trouble understanding or empathizing with their situation.
In emotional health matters, those with mental illnesses likely have issues with their feelings of self-worth and experience feelings of hopelessness or other anxiety or depression symptoms. When one partner experiences mental illness symptoms, they might become less social and retreat inward, making communication more difficult and obscuring the path toward healthy behaviors.
Eating disorders can also affect intimacy, whether platonic or sexual. Eating disorders often come with negative feelings of self-worth that manifest in low self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, shame, and negative body image. It’s not easy for a person who sees themselves in such a low light to open themselves to intimate situations, especially physical moments where they fear someone might judge their body. Some people with eating disorders also suffer a history of trauma and abuse, which may have involved sexual acts and may display even more intense levels of fear or aversion to sexual intimacy.
Supporting vs. Enabling
One of the reasons we first reviewed the types of eating disorders is to start learning. To best support your partner or loved one, you need to educate yourself on the eating disorder they have. Support tips differ between anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder and the rest. Do your research and learn about the myths and the truths. Learn about how the eating disorder’s destructive voice affects and warps their view of themselves and what it might lead them to do. It will help you better understand your loved one and the actions they take. On that note, don’t be afraid to ask questions; this is generally considered a sign of interest and care by your loved one.
Perhaps the most meaningful decision you can make as a source of support is to talk to your loved one about seeking help. Eating disorders are painful to deal with alone. Often, eating disorders come with baggage: emotional and mental struggles tied to the disordered eating behavior and need to be addressed in conjunction with the eating disorder. Mental health professionals who specialize in eating disorder recovery can help your loved one obtain the treatment they need, whether it involves therapy, medication, or other forms of treatment.
Communication is also crucial. Because you can’t read each other’s minds, it’s essential to ask your loved one questions to see how you can help and how they are feeling. Make sure to listen without judgment, and if they feel comfortable expressing their feelings, validate those feelings and the pain they are sharing with you. Try not to tell your loved one what to do; unfortunately, while you may be trying to help, this may come off as patronizing and judgemental. Instead, focus on listening, and make sure you continue to reach out. It’s easy for people with eating disorders to shut other people out, even when they need support.
Also, provide your loved one with practical support. There’s a person underneath the eating disorder, a person who needs to take care of many daily chores and might not have the mental or emotional energy to carry them out. Offer your loved one to help with errands or chores like doing the laundry or driving them to and from appointments. Plan activities or events that don’t revolve around food, so they feel more comfortable attending and connecting with others.
Think about how you can model a healthy relationship with food. Try your best to eat healthily, exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight. Don’t talk about food or eating habits, and don’t comment on others’ weight or exercising routines. The goal is to make healthy habits surrounding eating and physical health seem mundane and boring, nothing to worry about. Now, this might not be all it takes to deal with an eating disorder. Often, family therapy is needed to work through conflict areas, but it will go a long way to help your loved one know there is a healthy balance they could one day achieve.
And finally, though not to be forgotten: take care of yourself. Recovery is not a simple journey from A to B. It’s often a years-long process that takes many turns. If you support your loved one throughout their journey, you’ll need to be healthy, physically and mentally, to be a good source of support. Don’t neglect your needs, and don’t ignore your thoughts. Don’t take your loved one’s actions personally. Make sure to set boundaries, so you can also have your space to unwind and spend however you like.
If your loved one needs help with an eating disorder, we are here to offer treatment. The Women’s Eating Disorder Recovery Center at The Ranch is a nurturing and healing place set in a serene environment in Middle Tennessee. Contact The Ranch today to find the best treatment plan for your loved one and start the journey toward recovery. Call us at 1.844.876.7680