When Your Partner Is Struggling with an Eating Disorder: How to Support Yourself to Support Them
Struggling with an eating disorder can be one of the most isolating experiences. At the same time, the disorder not only affects the person struggling with it, but also those around them – friends, partners, family, children, coworkers, etc. Eating disorders have a unique impact on the dynamics of romantic partnerships, creating distance and conflict between partners. As the partner of someone struggling with an eating disorder, you might wonder the following:
How can we be so close but it feels like there’s nothing I can do to help?
Why does it feel like this is driving a wedge between us?
Am I doing something wrong?
How can I support them?
Why am I feeling so angry, lonely, frustrated, and sad?
Why do I struggle to understand it? Why can’t they just stop?
Why do I feel like I’m competing with the disorder?
Eating disorders can feel innately at odds with healthy + secure relationships. They can stand in the way of physical and sexual intimacy, activities around food and meal times, and open communication. For the partner struggling, the disorder might contribute to secrecy, guilt, and shame, and fear of being judged or misunderstood. They might not want to feel like a burden to their partner by talking about it. There might be a fear that bringing it up or seeking treatment will lead to a loss of control. They might develop distrust of their partner when they want them to suggest getting help.
On the other hand, the partner of the individual struggling might feel helpless and like they’re walking on eggshells. They might feel like their partner is choosing the disorder over them, coinciding with emotions of grief, anger, and loneliness. They might worry about losing their partner if they suggest treatment or express their concerns. Patterns of codependency and enabling might surface leading to resentment and creating a chasm in what was once the most intimate bond.
At the core, it is important to highlight that you cannot fix or save your partner. You cannot force or guilt your partner into recovery through threats and ultimatums. The following suggestions are not universal but may provide a place to start in finding your own support so that you can support your partner.
Avoid blame or criticism towards yourself and your partner when they slip up. Recovery takes a long time, and recent studies estimate that it could take up to 10 years. You won’t always say the “right” thing, and your partner’s recovery won’t be perfect. Learning to live with the reality that there will be ups and downs and holding space for the grief and other emotions that come up will be essential to working together as a team and making sure you’re both being supported.
Educate yourself and develop awareness about eating disorders. Awareness and knowledge is essential. It is important to understand the signs and symptoms of eating disorders, which are often misunderstood or misrepresented. A good place to start is our Eating Disorder Therapy page where we dispel myths about eating disorders and explain common eating disorders. This can ease some of the discomfort and demystify an often misunderstood topic.
Examine your own beliefs around food, bodies, and diet culture. It is estimated that at least 1 in 4 dieters will go one to develop an eating disorder. We live in a society that equates weight loss, thin bodies, and “healthy” eating with moral superiority. We get the message that anything that deviates from that image is a moral failure. This is known as diet culture, and unfortunately, most of us are unknowingly complicit in upholding it which can inadvertently impact a loved one’s recovery. Recognizing this can be difficult, and you might start to assign blame to yourself. Be gentle. We’re surrounded by messages that directly conflict with recovery, and it takes time to unlearn diet culture beliefs.
It’s important to examine your own relationship with your body, movement, and food. Get curious without judgment. Are you dieting frequently or making unhelpful comments about your own body? Do you associate certain body types with being “better” or “worse” or “healthier” than others? Do you allow yourself to eat intuitively or are some foods off limits or labeled as “bad” or “unhealthy”? Do you participate in joyful movement for benefits outside of changing your physique or losing weight?
Use caution when talking about food, bodies, movement, or the disorder. First off, there are so many more interesting things to discuss. Something I hear from many clients struggling with eating disorders is the frustration of feeling monitored once they disclose their disorder to loved ones. They’ve expressed wanting a reprieve from food, the disorder, and body talk. It might be helpful to have a conversation about your partner’s triggers (such as comments about weight or their body) to create understanding and ameliorate the familiar walking-on-eggshells feeling.
Recognize that your partner is not their disorder. Eating disorders are exhausting! Externalizing the disorder can help both you and your partner remember that there is so much more to them than the disorder. For example, work to find time to participate in activities that don’t revolve around food (which can be an anxiety trigger) and that foster other areas of their identity. You are allowed to feel joy, even throughout the challenge.
Communicate openly. It makes sense that you want to try to fix it. It is difficult and heartbreaking to see your partner suffer, and you may be feeling a sense of urgency. Rather than giving advice or trying to fix, listen to understand. Sometimes just holding space for your partner to share their experience can foster connection and deeper trust. Remember that you can just ask your loved one what they need from you. They might want you to help them find a dietitian or treatment center. They might need you to eat a meal with them. They might just want to have fun and not think about their ED. These are all parts of recovery. An open dialogue demonstrates empathy and shows that you respect their autonomy.
Get support through individual therapy, couples counseling, or other support groups. In couples therapy, you can navigate these difficult conversations with the guidance of a trained therapist. Joining a support group for the loved ones of those struggling with eating disorders can connect you with others in the same position as you. Groups provide space to learn new perspectives, gain knowledge from trained professionals and others’ lived experiences, to feel less alone, and to develop hope. The National Alliance for Eating Disorders has groups specifically designed for family and loved ones.