Please note that this is an Archived article and may contain content that is out of date.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.
Guest Bloggers: Utah Valley University MFT Program Contributors Karina Bahr, Sydney Bean, Hayley Jorgensen, Timothy Tsai, and Natalie Wennergren
When you fly on an airplane, one of the first things you are told before take-off is to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others.
If your partner is struggling with an eating disorder, you have probably tried everything you can think of to help them. In fact, research has shown that partner support is crucial to helping individuals with an eating disorder make a full recovery,4,6,7 so you’re on the right track.
But have you thought about your needs? If you run out of oxygen, you won’t be able to help your partner in this difficult time.
The eating disorder can have a negative impact on not only your partner, but you as well. It can hurt your social life, finances, work performance, education, other relationships, and your overall well-being.5 When there is so much going on in your life, it can be really difficult to know what to do with the emotions that come along with it all. It is normal to feel anger, loneliness, self-blame, sadness, frustration, and exhaustion.2 These effects siphon your oxygen and make it difficult for you to support your partner in their struggles.
So, what does your oxygen mask look like in this situation?
Making sure you have that oxygen mask on can play a big part in helping you navigate the difficult experiences and emotions you may be experiencing. Here are some ideas that can give you more air to push forward.
- First, get regular sleep. Poor sleep habits can lead to higher blood pressure and higher levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in the brain.3
- Lean on your support system. Who do you have in your circle that you can talk to? Don’t try to go through this alone.
- Keep up with your passions and hobbies. It’s easy to get caught up in the everyday stresses, but try to find time to fill your life with things that energize you.
- Get help learning to recognize and cope with your own emotions. Therapy is a great place for this. Once you have mastered healthy coping skills, you will be able to work on them with your partner as well.9 Remember that the emotions you are feeling are normal human reactions to what you are going through.
- Don’t blame yourself! All relationships have ups and downs, and researchers are quick to inform you that relationship dissatisfaction is not causing your partner’s eating disorder.1
What does your partner’s oxygen mask look like?
Once you have your own oxygen mask well situated, you can now work towards helping your partner equip their oxygen mask. Here are some solid, research-backed methods to doing so.
- Try to create an environment of open communication with your partner. Your partner will be more willing to express their needs to you if you are vulnerable, honest, and considerate in your communication with them.6 Here are a few questions to foster open communication with your partner:
- “How are you feeling today?”
- “How can I support you through your recovery?”
- “How can I offer compassion to you and your experience?”
- “What do you need from me today?”
- Offer compassion and non-judgmental support to your partner. Recovery can be a hard and slow process. Allow your partner to move through recovery at their own pace, and do not force any behaviors if they are not ready.6
- Be careful when discussing food and bodies. Try not to label food as good or bad and commenting on your partner’s body or size as this can exacerbate symptoms.6
- Try to help your partner stay involved with supportive friends and family members. Individuals who experienced their social groups as non-judgmental and actively supportive are able to better maintain eating disorder treatment and resist relapse.8
- Be empathetic. You may not fully understand what your partner is experiencing, but try to respond to their behaviors with sensitivity toward their needs.7
The fact that you’re reading this blog post says a lot about how much you care. You are not responsible for healing your partner, but you can play a role in aiding them in their recovery. If you haven’t gotten everything right so far, that’s ok! You will probably make some more mistakes along the way (we all do). But if you can learn from them and continue to be a support to your partner, you’re on the right track.6 Just don’t forget to put on your own oxygen mask first!
- Blais, R. K., Monson, C. M., Livingston, W. S., & Maguen, S. (2019). The association of disordered eating and sexual health with relationship satisfaction in female service members/veterans. Journal of Family Psychology, 33(2), 176–182. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000493
- Harron, D. (2019). Loving Someone with an Eating Disorder : Understanding, Supporting, and Connecting with Your Partner. New Harbinger Publications.
- Nollet, M., Wisden, W. & Franks, N.P. (2020). Sleep deprivation and stress: A reciprocal relationship. Interface Focus 10(3) https://doi.org/10.1098/rsfs.2019.0092
- Rosenbaum, D. L., August, K. J., Gillen, M. M., & Markey, C. H. (2023). Understanding eating disorder symptoms in same-gender couples: social environmental factors. Journal of Eating Disorders, 11(1), 1–12. https://doi-org/10.1186/s40337-023-00732
- Surgenor, L. J., Dhakal, S., Watterson, R., Lim, B., Kennedy, M., Bulik, C., Wilson, N., Keelan, K., Lawson, R., & Jordan, J. (2022). Psychosocial and financial impacts for carers of those with eating disorders in New Zealand. Journal of Eating Disorders, 10(1), 1–13. https://doi-org/10.1186/s40337-022-00565-2
- Tesselaar, J. M., Mendoza, R. R., Siegel, J. A., Elbe, C. I., Caravelli, N. S., DeJesus, J., Fenton, M., Victoria, B. S., & Blashill, A. J. (2023). A qualitative analysis of relationship advice from the perspective of people living with and recovering from eating disorders while in diverse romantic relationships. Eating Disorders, 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1080/10640266.2023.2206753
- Tosyali, A. F., & Harma, M. (2021). The role of co‐regulation of stress in the relationship between perceived partner responsiveness and binge eating: A dyadic analysis. International Journal of Psychology, 56(3), 435–443. https://doi.org/10.1002/ijop.12712
- Venturo‐Conerly, K. E., Wasil, A. R., Dreier, M. J., Lipson, S. M., Shingleton, R. M., & Weisz, J. R. (2020). Why I recovered: A qualitative investigation of factors promoting motivation for eating disorder recovery. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 53(8), 1244–1251. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.23331
- Weber, D. M., Fischer, M. S., Baucom, D. H., Baucom, B. R. W., Kirby, J. S., Runfola, C. D. et al. (2018). The association between symptom accommodation and emotional coregulation in couples with binge eating disorder. Family Process. https://doi-org/10.1111/famp.12391