Eating disorders can be extremely disruptive to relationships. When someone you love has an eating disorder, it may feel as if she (or he) has a more intense relationship with food than with you.
Often, the most well-meaning attempts to help only end up making things worse. With information and understanding, dealing with this issue can bring you closer together, and even strengthen your relationship.
#1 – Understand what disordered eating is – and is not.
“I don’t get it. “Why can’t you just stop (or start) eating?”
A common misperception about disordered eating is that the behavior – whether it involves restricting, bingeing, or bingeing and purging – is only about food.
Those behaviors are “symptoms” of underlying problems, although they definitely seems like “the” problem.
Just as you cannot get rid of a weed by just pulling it out of the ground, people cannot fully recover from an eating disorder without getting to the root of problem.
Therefore, it is important to identify and work through the conflicts and emotions that lead to the behavior with food, rather than focusing on the behavior itself.
# 2 – Identify the underlying conflicts.
“My partner won’t talk to me about this.”
People use food to comfort themselves, to distract from uncomfortable emotions, and inner turmoil. They may also be also battling themselves – or more specifically, their bodies – as a way of expressing conflicted attitudes towards their own basic needs and wants.
Those struggling with anorexia often deny those needs, turning against their wish for love, connection, and even food, as a way of avoiding disappointment or rejection.
People who are bulimic may take in food as a representation of all needs, and then purge it, symbolically getting rid of their needs, and staying locked in an “I need so much, and I hate my needs” cycle.
Those who binge without purging may fear their needs will never be met, that they will never have enough of what they want, so they fill up on food when they may actually be unfulfilled by various aspects of life.
People with eating disorders often focus on accomplishments and productivity as a way of protecting themselves from uncomfortable emotions or ideas.
Sometimes these conflicts are often out of awareness, but not out of operation. One way to open up a dialogue is to ask questions such as, “What do you want more of? What are your hopes and fears about closeness? What aspects of life are satisfying? Which are unsatisfying? What are you feeling right now?”
#3 – Communicate with words, not actions.
“What do you mean, you feel fat? You look great.”
Fat is a substance, not a feeling. If your partner feels “fat” her or she may be using the term “fat” as a default description for feeling unsatisfied, or wishing for more of something they’re not getting.
People who feel deprived may restrict food as a way of converting their emotional emptiness into physical starvation.
Those who overeat, or binge, may fill their internal emptiness, or express a wish for “more” by taking in more food. Therefore they express feelings and conflicts through action, not words.
One way of communicating is to use the 1-2-3 approach:
1) When you ______
2) I felt___________
3) Because it meant__________
For example, “When you said you were too fat and didn’t want to have sex, I felt rejected, sad, and upset, because it meant you don’t trust me or my love for you.
This helps both partners recognize the real issue – in this case, lack of trust – and begin to talk about it.
# 4 – What does your partner’s eating disorder reveal about his or her relationship style?
Other people can be inconsistent, unreliable, unavailable and unpredictable. Unlike people, food is always the same and consistently available.
Whether your partner is struggling with anorexia, bulimia or binge eating, he or she may have substituted a relationship with food for the relationship with you.
Those who struggle with anorexia often deprive themselves of closeness and connection with others as a way to feel emotionally safe, believing that if they don’t get too close, they won’t get hurt.
Those who binge may be “hungry” for love but turn to food instead, unconsciously fearing they will never get enough or be interpersonally satisfied.
Those who binge and purge may show bulimic behaviors in the relationship, allowing a lot of closeness (equivalent to bingeing) and then creating distance (equivalent to purging), but never letting themselves have too much closeness, love, and trust.
Understanding your partner’s relationship style, and how it differs from your own, is key. Does he or she feel more comfortable with distance, or closeness?
What are their fears and hopes about connection? How are they similar or different from yours?
# 5 – Don’t be the food police.
Comments such as, “Do you really think you should eat that?” Or, “C’mon, try it. One bite won’t kill you” hurt more than they help.
It is natural for you to want to help, and it can be difficult not to speak up when you see your partner limiting food, or bingeing on pizza and ice cream, behavior that may or may not be followed by trips to the bathroom to purge, or exercising for hours at a time.
Commenting on these behaviors doesn’t help, however, and may have the opposite effect, making your partner defensive.
Focusing on food can create a battle of wills, and keep your partner focused on food, instead of on the conflicts and emotions that are facilitating their disordered eating.
# 6 – Do examine your own beliefs about weight and size
“That actress who lost all her baby weight? She looks amazing.”
Although at the core, eating disorders are about deeper issues than weight and food, comments and attitudes from others can impact how people feel about themselves, which can trigger the behaviors.
Sometimes people are unaware of how their own reactions impact their partners, such as making negative remarks about heavy people, or focusing on the physical attributes of others who are healthy, fit and/or sexy.
# 7 – Give yourself permission to feel your own emotions
“The eating disorder is disrupting our lives. We can’t go out to eat, and we practically never have sex. I feel guilty for being upset. I should be more understanding.”
Feelings are reactions to situations, not evidence of wrongdoing. When your partner has an eating disorder, it impacts your life in various ways.
Instead of judging and criminalizing your emotions, give yourself the right to be angry and upset. Go ahead, get annoyed, frustrated, or enraged, but with this caveat: allow yourself to be angry at the eating disorder, not the person struggling with it.
When you can express anger at how the eating disorder impacts the relationship, while remaining concerned about your partner, you’re modeling that it’s permissible to show feelings, and that emotions can be constructive, rather than destructive.
Eating disorders impact both women and men of all ages, across all socioeconomic levels.
The good news is that by decoding the symbolic language of disordered eating, you can develop a deeper understanding of your partner, which leads to greater trust, a deeper connection, and a more intimate relationship.
About the author
Nina Savelle-Rocklin, Psy.D. is a Los Angeles-based psychoanalyst who specializes in weight, food and body image issues. She is a recognized expert in eating disorders, interviewed and quoted by the Los Angeles Times, Prevention, Real Simple, Huffington Post and many other publications. She is considered a thought leader in eating psychology and is a regular contributor to the Eating Disorder Hope website and the National Eating Disorders Association blog.
Dr. Nina brings a fresh perspective to the treatment of disordered eating, helping people understand “why” they turn to food instead of focusing on the behavior itself. She writes an award-winning blog, Make Peace With Food, hosts a popular podcast, Win The Diet War with Dr. Nina, (voted “New & Noteworthy” by iTunes the first week of release) and offers “food for thought” on her video series, The Dr. Nina Show. She is currently writing a book for Rowman & Littlefield on the psychoanalytic treatment of eating disorders. For more information, please visit www.winthedietwar.com.