Eating disorders are fierce, all-consuming illnesses. They develop gradually and insidiously, but once formed, impact more than a person’s relationship with food. They damage social relationships as well, affecting far more than the person experiencing the illness firsthand. Parents, siblings, friends, and partners are also subject to the toll of an eating disorder, their relationships with their loved one often strained in its presence.
Given the secrecy and isolation common to these illnesses, eating disorders are particularly at odds with healthy intimate relationships. These relationships require vulnerability, honesty, and open communication, all qualities that are incompatible with an active eating disorder. The more consumed by disordered behaviors a person is, the more physically and emotionally distant from their partner they often are in turn. In situations where this distance or other relationship distress precipitated the development of the illness, the eating disorder only exacerbates it.
For a partner of someone suffering from an eating disorder, it may feel as if the illness is a third party in their relationship. The eating disorder—“Ed”—may seem like the priority in their loved one’s life instead. Indeed, people often compare life with an eating disorder to a codependent or abusive relationship wherein “Ed” makes the rules and prescribes values and principles by which to live. “Ed” takes control of a person’s life.
Research reveals a high level of intimacy problems and marital dissatisfaction reported by people who have an eating disorder (Van den Broucke, Vandereycken, & Vertommen, 1995; Woodside, Lackstrom, & Shekter-Wolfson, 2000). These relationships frequently suffer from issues related to communication, emotional health, and sexual intimacy.
Eating disorders pose many challenges to effective communication in relationships. Those with the disorders tend not to talk about it—the illness secretive by nature—and their partners struggle to make sense of it.
When couples do communicate, the eating disorder often interferes, filtering and warping messages in its characteristically cruel way. Its “voice” twists words to its advantage. Messages unrelated to weight, body, or food can become just that, perpetuating a cycle of disordered behaviors and thoughts.
From the partner’s perspective, this eating disorder filter may make it seem as if they’re interacting with someone entirely different from the partner they know and love. Not understanding this filter as part of the illness can lead to feelings of hurt, anger, and confusion.
More than hurt and confusion, dysfunction rooted in ineffective, inadequate communication can also contribute to feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and fear. When not managed effectively, these feelings can wedge further distance and lead partners to question their relationship.
While partners are becoming emotionally distant from each other, they too often experience isolation in other areas of their lives. Eating disorders get in the way of social events that may spark anxiety about food or body, worsening the isolation and loneliness felt within the relationship.
In addition to communication and emotional issues, many eating disorder symptoms—including shame, low self-confidence, body dissatisfaction, and negative body image—can complicate or compromise intimacy.
Food restriction can also decrease hormonal functioning, causing both men and women to experience a decrease in energy, mood, and libido. Research shows that sexual dysfunction is common across eating disorder diagnoses, and women with anorexia, in particular, tend to report lower interest in sexual intimacy (Pinheiro et al., 2010).
Though relationships are often negatively impacted by eating disorders, they also serve as a key catalyst in recovery. One study revealed that a supportive partner relationship was the most influential positive factor in women’s recovery (Tozzi, et al., 2003).
It’s important to know that you cannot “fix,” heal, or cure a partner’s eating disorder. You can, however, play a crucial role as a source of support. Below are some suggestions for partners of those with eating disorders.
An eating disorder specialist like The Emily Program can provide a personalized assessment and treatment plan.
Books, podcasts, and web resources can educate you about these complex, confusing mental illnesses.
While you can watch for and discuss warning signs, be wary of making comments about their food at mealtimes, when anxiety is often particularly high. Instead, model a balanced relationship with food yourself.
Know that even well-intended comments (e.g., “You look much healthier!”) are subject to the eating disorder’s filter. Compliment your partner’s non-physical attributes instead.
Look after your own physical and emotional health, recognizing that it is normal for your partner’s illness to be impacting you as well.
If you are concerned about your or your partner’s relationship with food, please reach out to The Emily Program at 1-888-364-5977.
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