By Wesley Gallagher

Eating disorders are often a silent disease, hidden in the shadows and closets of life. Unfortunately, however hard someone tries to keep it secret and separate, an eating disorder inevitably ends up affecting almost every aspect of a person’s life.

If you’re in a romantic relationship with someone struggling with an eating disorder, you probably already know this. As much as your partner tries to hide it or tell you it’s not that big of a deal, you feel the strain it places on your relationship.

It may be your partner’s eating disorder, but it’s affecting you too.

How Eating Disorders Affect Romantic Relationships

Couple holding hands on park benchRomantic relationships require honesty, vulnerability and intimacy from both partners in order to be healthy and successful, and the very nature of eating disorders erodes these crucial relationship elements.

In an article in Psychology Today, Carrie Gottlieb, PhD, talks about the effects eating disorders often have on relationships. A person with an eating disorder is intensely preoccupied with food, weight and shape, making it difficult at times for them to think of anything else. In fact, eating disorders can become so preoccupying that they virtually take the place of other interpersonal relationships.1

As your loved one slips deeper into symptoms, there is increased distance in what should be a close, intimate relationship. Shame and secrecy replace vulnerability and honesty as the eating disorder tightens its grip on its victim. It’s not surprising, then, that romantic partners of people with eating disorders often report feeling decreased emotional intimacy in their relationships.1

What You Should Know About Your Partner and Their Eating Disorder

If you’re romantically involved with someone struggling with an eating disorder, there are some things you should know about your partner. The following list of six key words, compiled from articles in Thought Catalog and Recovery Warriors written by women who have struggled from eating disorders, will help you begin to understand your partner better.

  1. Eating disorders are usually not about trying to look good for someone else (yes, that includes you). Control is often the driving factor – she wants to be in control of her life, and when things get out of control and she starts to feel anxious, she will turn to her eating disorder to regain that feeling of control.
  2. Your partner is most likely hiding many aspects of her eating disorder from you. She hides because she fears your reaction to her habits. She may fear that you will reject her, be disgusted by her or pity her. Or she may even fear your compassion and understanding, since she’s so uncompassionate to herself. She may decline invitations to social events or shared meals in order to hide her habits from prying eyes.
  3. One of the reasons she hides things from you is the shame she feels about her eating disorder. Shame from past events may even be a motivating factor in her eating habits, and while she might feel a fleeting sense of control during one of her episodes, that shame is likely to quickly return in its aftermath.
  4. Self-Esteem. Shame erodes self-esteem, and your partner probably has extremely low self-esteem. While low self-esteem is often a precursor to eating disorders or a co-occurring issue, her self-esteem is further diminished by her eating disorder. She may even be a high achiever in other areas of her life, but until she changes her approach to food and her body, the low self-esteem is here to stay.
  5. Your partner may avoid sex and intimacy due to shame and low self-esteem over her distorted body image, and in fact the disorder may be a way of coping with past sexual abuse. She could also be extremely sexual, using sex as a way to numb the shame and bad feelings. Hormonal imbalances and caloric insufficiency can also decrease sex drive.
  6. As counterintuitive as this may seem, her eating disorder is not, ultimately, about her weight. Even if she does reach one of her goals, she won’t be pleased if she meets it. No matter her weight or waist size, she will never measure up in her own eyes.2,3

Just like with substance abuse, it can take years for someone with an eating disorder to reach the bottom and turn things around. You can’t fix your partner, but there are ways you can be there for her and, hopefully, point her toward recovery.

How You Can Help Your Partner

If your partner is struggling with all of these things we’ve listed, it’s understandable for you to feel helpless or overwhelmed. Don’t worry, there are steps you can take to support your partner, and care for yourself, in this situation.

  1. Educate yourself. Learn everything you can about your partner’s eating disorder, and clear up any misconceptions you have about it. This will help you to better understand what she’s struggling with, and how you might be helping or hurting with your responses to her behavior.
  2. Be careful with your words. You may not think your comments about her eating habits or weight are harmful, but the reality is that she’s constantly thinking about these things, and something you say can easily trigger her. As you educate yourself on her disorder, educate yourself on what words are helpful and what words aren’t.
  3. Support your partner. It’s easy to become overprotective or policing, or withdrawn and silent, if you’re dealing with a partner with an eating disorder. You might find yourself questioning every food decision she makes, or conversely, avoiding the topic altogether for fear of saying the wrong thing. Instead, try talking to your partner in a nonjudgmental way if you notice her struggling. See if you can get her to open up and be honest with you. Eating disorders thrive in the darkness, so try helping her bring it into the light.
  4. Find support for yourself. You most likely could benefit from a support group, or even individual or couples therapy with an eating disorders specialist. These environments provide a safe place for you and your partner to talk about your concerns and find new ways to cope with feelings and support your partner.1

There is hope for your partner, and your relationship, no matter how hopeless things may seem. You can play a crucial role in your partner’s recovery process, and you might even find that walking together through recovery actually strengthens your relationship.


Sources

1 Gottlieb, Carrie. “Eating Disorders And Romantic Relationships.” Psychology Today, February 12, 2016.

2 Lifshitz, Laura. “8 Heartbreaking Things You Need to Know About Loving Someone with an Eating Disorder.Thought Catalog, May 13, 2015.

3 Koenig, Karen R. “6 Ways Eating Disorders Can Affect Your (Romantic) Relationships.Recovery Warriors, August 18, 2016.