Having a Relationship While In Eating Disorder Recovery

Couple kissing in the snow

Eating disorders can have a fundamental impact on relationships.   It can be destructive, harmful, lashing out and limiting.  All relationships require energy, time, commitment, and a give and take approach.  In those with eating disorders, energy levels are already low, and focus is on food, exercise, body shape/size, and weight.    On average, individuals carry eating disorders for 16 years, and almost 60% are not married nor had a social relationship [1].

Love and Marriage and ED

In relationships, whether friendship or romantic, when an eating disorder emerges, it begins to change the personality and qualities of the suffering.

The person will start to isolate and slowly push all loved ones out until it is just them and the eating disorder.

Any type of confrontation, compassion, or support to help the sufferer is seen as a threat to the eating disorder, and the sufferer will retreat further into their symptoms to cope.

In many long-term relationships, the roles may shift to a patient-caregiver role which can disrupt the healthy balance of mutual support. It can also lead to unhealthy and stressful or dependant attachments [1].

Sexual intimacy is also challenging for the person with the eating disorder. In many, there is a reduction in libido and distorted body image which can lead to self-loathing. Often they do not want others seeing their body or seem them as attractive. 90% of thoughts, feelings, and energy goes into the eating disorder, leaving little room for intimacy [1].

Being in a relationship means needing someone to trust to be there for them, to put them first, and to weather the storms with someone. Healthy relationships typically consist of “Me, You, and Us” [2].

Eating disorders can chip away at this dynamic and leave the eating disorder as the center of the relationship. Being able to find ways through the recovery process and treatment to be able to be there for each other is key to feel safe, secure, and loved.

You Are in The Circle of Trust

Research has shown that a close relationship with a partner can positively affect recovery from an eating disorder [2]. Understanding that there are cognitive challenges with the person struggling with an eating disorder is essential.

It can help with knowing what to be able to expect or not in the relationship during the recovery process.

It is crucial within the relationship to be able to engage in activities outside of the eating disorder to strengthen the relationship. Whether self-nurturing in nature or a group activity being able to get away, or involved in something that both of you can enjoy, it is essential to connect with someone else.

It can be meeting up with friends or family, doing a painting party, taking a walk in nature, or seeing a movie. Getting into activities that do not involve food, body, or weight talk is so important in the recovery process.

Asking how your partner can be supported when struggling with an eating disorder is imperative. Reminding them that you are their team can help your partner feel connected and safe to open up about the eating disorder and fears.

Working with your partner to be able to get into group therapy, individual therapy, or couples therapy for the eating disorder is vital if they are not already engaged in treatment.

Couple in a relationship riding a bike

Often various mental illness or past traumas are involved in the ongoing need for the disorder and getting treatment from professionals that understand this can help start the recovery road.

It can help to clarify with each other the roles within the relationship, what to expect from each other, and needs of each other. Some couples choose to do this within the safety of couples therapy if they feel unable to come to a resolution on their own.

Being able to set structure around daily activities and supportive tools can help with boundary and role setting. Learning to have consistency and coping skills to help with eating disorder symptoms is also vital.

Knowing that the non-eating disorder partner also has feelings, needs, and a voice is okay. Seeking treatment for them can be beneficial during the recovery process.

It can be a burden to help support someone long-term in recovery, and individual therapy can be a supportive tool. Understanding that each person’s self-care is vital and it is helpful to the relationship.

Coping With Disease

Many partners cope or do not cope through various ways [3]. One is the way couples communicate.

Some problematic patterns involve conflict avoidance or conflict over a variety of areas. Conversations or conflict around the eating disorder could lead to issues of secrecy and fear, or counseling leading to the uncovering of unhappiness within the marriage.

Relational boundaries are also necessary, and these are rules that partners use on each other to negotiate the relationship. There may be boundary issues in the relationship due to unhealthy attachment.

Anxiety, fear of rejection, fear of failing, feeling insecure, trust issues, and isolation can contribute to problematic boundaries within the relationship [3]. Partner, if unsure how to handle these emotions, may, in turn, feel helpless or unable to cope with their partner’s illness.

Reaching out to others to gain education on the eating disorder. Learning about the complexity, myths, treatment modalities and options, and support groups can help you take a more active role in being able to understand the needs, emotions, and issues with your loved one.

Gaining social support from family and friends to be able to help with the treatment and recovery process is also essential to both person’s well-being. No one person can support someone with an eating disorder. It takes a group of individuals who care and love the sufferer.

In conclusion, being able to have a relationship while in eating disorder recovery is possible. Through the use of couples therapy, supportive groups loved ones, and education, a couple can work together to free the person from the eating disorder. Through this process, couples can become stronger and better than before.

Image of Libby Lyons and familyAbout the Author: Libby Lyons is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS). Libby has been practicing in the field of eating disorders, addictions, depression, anxiety and other comorbid issues in various agencies. Libby has previously worked as a contractor for the United States Air Force Domestic Violence Program, Saint Louis University Student Health and Counseling, Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute Eating Disorders Program, and has been in Private Practice.

Libby currently works as a counselor at Fontbonne University and is a Adjunct Professor at Saint Louis University, and is a contributing author for Addiction Hope and Eating Disorder Hope. Libby lives in the St. Louis area with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys spending time with her family, running, and watching movies.


[1] Baker, F., & Francesca Baker Francesca Baker is a writer, music lover, and creative soul wholeheartedly committed to recovery and a compassionate and balanced lifestyle. (2015, July 22). How Eating Disorders Affect Relationships. Retrieved October 01, 2017, from https://www.recoverywarriors.com/how-eating-disorders-affect-relationships/
[2] Me, My Partner, and That #*&%# Eating Disorder! (n.d.). Retrieved October 01, 2017, from http://nedic.ca/me-my-partner-and-eating-disorder
[3] A. (2014, February 24). In a Relationship and It’s Complicated: Eating Disorders in Intimate Relationships. Retrieved October 01, 2017, from http://www.scienceofeds.org/2014/02/24/in-a-relationship-and-its-complicated-eating-disorders-in-intimate-relationships/

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 November 17, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on November 17, 2017.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com