Please note that this is an Archived article and may contain content that is out of date. The use of she/her/hers pronouns in some articles is not intended to be exclusionary. Eating disorders can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights.
By Center for Change Guest Author
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 are 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
Romantic 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 are romantically involved with someone struggling with an eating disorder, there are some things you should know about your partner. The following list, compiled from articles in Thought Catalog and Recovery Warriors written by those who have struggled from eating disorders, will help you begin to understand your partner better.
- Eating disorders are usually not about trying to look good for someone else (yes, that includes you). Control is often the driving factor – they want to be in control of their life, and when things get out of control and they start to feel anxious, they will turn to their eating disorder to regain that feeling of control.
- Your partner is most likely hiding many aspects of their eating disorder from you. They hide because they fear your reaction to their behaviors. They may fear that you will reject them, be disgusted by them or pity them. Or they may even fear your compassion and understanding, since they are so uncompassionate to themselves. They may decline invitations to social events or shared meals in order to hide their behaviors from others.
- One of the reasons they hide things from you is the shame they feel about their eating disorder. Shame from past events may even be a motivating factor in their eating habits, and while they might feel a fleeting sense of control while participating in a behavior, that shame is likely to quickly return in its aftermath.
- 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, their self-esteem is further diminished by their eating disorder. They may even be a high achiever in other areas of their life, but until they change their approach to food and their body, the low self-esteem is here to stay.
- Your partner may avoid sex and intimacy due to shame and low self-esteem over their distorted body image, and in fact, the disorder may be a way of coping with past sexual abuse. They 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.
- As counterintuitive as this may seem, their eating disorder is not, ultimately, about their weight. Even if they do reach one of their weight goals, they won’t be pleased if the goal is met. No matter their weight or waist size, they will never measure up in their own eyes.2,3
Although you can’t “fix” your partner, there are ways you can be there for them and, hopefully, point them toward recovery.
How You Can Help Your Partner
If your partner is struggling, it’s understandable for you to feel helpless or overwhelmed, but there are steps you can take to support your partner, and care for yourself.
- 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 your partner is struggling with, and how you might be helping or hurting with your responses to their behavior.
- Be careful with your words. You may not think your comments about their eating habits or weight are harmful, but the reality is that your partner is constantly thinking about these things, and something you say may be a trigger. As you educate yourself on the disorder, educate yourself on what words are helpful and what words aren’t.
- Support your partner. It is easy to become overprotective or policing, or withdrawn and silent, if you are dealing with a partner with an eating disorder. You might find yourself questioning every food decision they make, 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 them struggling. See if you can get them to open up and be honest with you. Eating disorders thrive in the darkness, so try helping your partner bring it into the light.
- 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 as well as ways to 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.
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.