Contributor: Staff at Montecatini Eating Disorder Treatment Center
When your partner is unwell, you want to help them any way you can. But the effects of an eating disorder can be confusing, unexpected, and even alarming, so you may feel powerless to support them. If you’ve been feeling this way, you’re not alone.
Adults who suffer from eating disorders enter committed relationships at the same rate as those who do not have eating disorders. But many have trouble maintaining healthy relationships because the impact of an eating disorder can be overwhelming for both partners .
When one partner has an eating disorder, couples often struggle to communicate effectively, have fewer positive interactions with each other, and experience significant relationship distress . Fortunately, couples can work together to learn how to best support the partner who has an eating disorder. These are just a few ways to get started:
Open the Lines of Communication
Effective communication can be hard in any relationship, but for those who have the added challenge of an eating disorder, communicating can be even more difficult.
It is common for people who have anorexia nervosa to struggle with expressing their feelings and to avoid difficult emotions. This can make it hard for them to communicate their needs, tolerate any challenges within a relationship, or build close relationships .
People who have bulimia nervosa tend to lack strong communication skills, while people who have binge-eating disorder often feel intense emotions and have difficulty setting boundaries. Many people also find their partner’s secrecy surrounding eating disorder behaviors troubling . While this stems from feelings of shame and guilt, hiding certain behaviors can weaken trust in a relationship and create a sense of isolation between partners.
Not everyone who suffers from an eating disorder has the same communication struggles, but it is important to recognize that these conditions can affect the way a person communicates. You can support your partner by creating a space where they feel safe to talk to you about their behaviors and experiences.
You do not need to have the perfect answer for everything, but you should actively listen and ask questions to verify your understanding.
Learn More About Your Partner’s Struggles
While you can ask your partner questions about the eating disorder they are struggling with, doing your own research can also help you understand what your partner is going through. In fact, the more you learn about the symptoms your partner is suffering from, the more compassion you will have for their daily experiences.
Look for reputable online resources such as the National Eating Disorders Association for information on specific eating disorders, symptoms, and treatment. You can also bring your questions and concerns to local treatment providers and support groups.
Taking the initiative to get this information will show your partner how much you care about their health, making you a trusted, safe person to turn to throughout their recovery.
Talk to Your Partner About Their Needs
Many people feel anxious about whether their partner is eating enough or if they are falling back into unhealthy eating habits, but they are not sure how to express their concerns. Conversely, the person who is struggling with the eating disorder may worry that their partner is taking away control of their recovery by policing their food intake .
This is a common challenge among couples who are struggling with an eating disorder. Sunny Gold suffered from binge-eating disorder since she was a teenager. Although she and her husband had been working together to manage her recovery since they were dating, it took years to figure out how to communicate her needs to him .
When he questioned something she ate, she felt defensive. “It was like, ouch, you caught me,” Gold told The New York Times. “Or, are you shaming me, as other people have shamed me in the past? Are you trying to be the food police?”
But with better communication, Gold felt more comfortable telling her husband that she didn’t need him to watch her food intake or make sure that she didn’t binge eat. She just needed him to be there for her . Talking about your partner’s needs instead of assuming that you are responsible for their recovery — or that you need to be the food police — is critical to maintaining healthy communication.
If you’re not sure where to start, you can discuss what to expect during meals, at restaurants, or at special events. It may be helpful to set a meal schedule or agree on what food-related language or topics to avoid. Having these conversations can remove the anxiety from these daily activities for both partners.
Remember that the eating disorder has been in control of your partner’s life for a long time, so anything you do to help them feel more in control can be invaluable to their recovery.
Understand Your Partner’s Body Image Concerns
Your partner may also struggle with body image concerns that are keeping them from developing healthy emotional and physical intimacy with you. These concerns can be deeply rooted, and you may find it difficult to understand why they have certain feelings about their body.
Just as you did when you opened the lines of communication, create a safe and supportive environment that encourages your partner to talk to you about their body image concerns. You do not have to agree with their statements, but approach the conversation without judgment.
Once you have a greater understanding of their challenges, work together to create strategies for how you can support them in ways that benefit their recovery . For example, you may decide that if your partner asks you how they look, you will not comment on their weight or appearance.
When your partner is suffering from an eating disorder, it can be highly disruptive to both of your lives. But by working together on a strategy, you can support your partner in ways that help you maintain a healthy relationship.
References Kirby, J. S., Runfola, C. D., Fischer, M. S., Baucom, D. H., & Bulik, C. M. (2015). Couple-based interventions for adults with eating disorders. Eating Disorders, 23(4), 356-365. https://doi.org/10.1080/10640266.2015.1044349.  Ellin, A. (2018, November 29). To treat eating disorders, it sometimes takes two. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/29/well/eat/eating-disorders-food-anorexia-bulimia-binge-partners-spouses-treatment.html.
About Our Sponsor:
Montecatini provides comprehensive treatment for women who are struggling with eating disorders and co-occurring mental health concerns. We feature a full continuum of life-changing care, including residential treatment, a partial hospitalization program (PHP), and an intensive outpatient program (IOP). We also offer a wellness center where clients can build healthier relationships with their bodies through joyful movement.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a 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 May 25, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on May 25, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC