Eating disorders, whether anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or another lesser-known form of these mental illnesses, are complex disease states with severe consequences. Many individuals who suffer with an eating disorder will require some form of professional intervention and treatment to establish healing and recovery, and the process of treatment typically occurs over the course of months and years.
Eating disorders do not only affect the individual who may be suffering, but those closest to them, as well. Seeing a loved one struggle with an illness that may be difficult to understand can feel overwhelming and confusing.
Marriage in Eating Disorder Recovery
Eating disorders are generally associated with poor social functioning and lower mental, physical, and social quality of life . Spouses and other family of eating disorder sufferers may face their own unique obstacles as they learn to navigate a complex relationship, one that is often overtaken by the eating disorder itself.
Before help or treatment is even sought, couples may find themselves dealing with many challenges in their marriage, especially as the eating disorder takes a stronger hold over an individual in the relationship.
Because eating disorders impact a person physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially, there are many stressors that will inevitably impact a marriage.
Most commonly, an individual suffering will begin to withdraw, isolate, and/or attempt to hide abnormal eating behaviors from their spouse. This might create many difficult scenarios in a marriage, such as tense conversations, lack of communication, misunderstandings, lack of intimacy, financial stressors, and more.
Research has found that eating disorders have been associated with decreased intimacy and communication and increased sexual problems, all of which can intensify problems between partners .
It can be difficult for a spouse to understand what their loved one might be dealing with, especially if the eating disorder sufferer is withdrawing, hiding their struggles from their spouse, and/or choosing not to communicate about the obstacles they are facing. This can create distance between partners in a marriage, which further triggers misunderstandings between two people who love each other. On the one hand, an eating disorder suffer may feel alone, unwanted, and unaccepted, while their spouse may feel betrayed, alienated, and confused.
Pressure on Spouses of Eating Disorder Sufferers
The process of supporting a spouse through eating disorder treatment can also be taxing and physically/mentally/financially exhausting.
Because of the chronic nature of eating disorders, treatment may involve countless doctor appointments, hospital visits, therapy sessions, medication management and more. Depending on the severity of the disease, a person with an eating disorder might be temporarily disabled, requiring a caregiver to help them with daily needs, or even to provide meal support and regular supervision.
When the responsibilities of coordinating health care, taking care of finances and bills, attending sessions, and providing daily support fall squarely on the shoulders of the spouse of an eating disorder suffer, this can quickly become overwhelming for one person to bear.
No matter how much a person loves their spouse, these kinds of physical and emotional stressors can be burdensome, even creating feelings of resentment.
An individual may feel embittered by the lack of reciprocity in their marriage, or even remorseful of lost time robbed by the eating disorder.
There are a myriad of emotions that might be experienced by a spouse of an eating disorder suffer, many that are overlooked as time, attention and resources are focused on eating disorder recovery.
Developing Healthy Coping Skills
The life and well-being of a spouse of an eating disorder sufferer is just as important, and keeping one’s well-being a priority is necessary for the overall integrity of a marriage and in the long-term support of the recovery process itself.
If you are the spouse of an eating disorder sufferer and have found yourself dealing with resentment or overwhelm, it is crucial to attend to your own physical/mental/emotional well-being and appropriately care for yourself through this grueling process. Some ideas to help support you in this journey may include the following :
- Connect to a support system for families of eating disorder sufferers
- Get plugged in to your own individual therapy sessions to effectively process what you are experiencing
- Deliberately take time out for yourself and to enjoy activities/hobbies that fill your own cup
- Make regular time for self-care. Sleep, nutritious food, and exercise should be non-negotiable
- Regularly integrate activities that bring you joy, such as listening to music, journaling, talking with a friend, etc.
The eating disorder recovery process is not easy for the individual suffering or for their loved ones. By prioritizing self-care and developing healthier coping skills, you can strengthen your resolve throughout the eating disorder recovery journey.
About the Author: Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC is a Contributing Writer for Eating Disorder Hope.
Crystal is a Masters-level Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) with a specialty focus in eating disorders, maternal/child health and wellness, and intuitive eating. Combining clinical experience with a love of social media and writing,
As a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, Crystal has dedicated her career to helping others establish a healthy relationship with food and body through her work with EDH and nutrition private practice.
References:: Doll HA, Petersen SE, Stewart-Brown SL. Eating disorders and emotional and physical well-being: associations between student self-reports of eating disorders and quality of life as measured by the SF-36. Qual Life Res. 2005 Apr; 14(3):705-17.
: Maxwell, M., Thornton, L. M., Root, T. L., Pinheiro, A. P., Strober, M., Brandt, H., … Bulik, C. M. (2011). Life Beyond the Eating Disorder: Education, Relationships, and Reproduction. The International Journal of Eating Disorders, 44(3), 225–232. http://doi.org/10.1002/eat.20804
: National Eating Disorder Association, “Family and friends offer essential support in the fight against eating disorders”, https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/family-and-friends Accessed 21 June 2017
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published on August 31, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on August 31, 2017.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com