Relationship Intimacy and Disordered Eating

Relationships in eating disorder recovery

Relationships and Eating Disorders – Is Emotional Intimacy Possible?

It is a deliciously fulfilling experience to deeply connect emotionally with another person.  No matter how much we discount our need for intimacy with others, it remains a steadfast lifelong longing that must be fulfilled in order to truly experience a meaningful life.

But, how do we deeply connect with others?  How can we risk that kind of vulnerability and even risk feelings of emotional dependence on others?  This is a big quandary for individuals with eating disorders.  The eating disorder was partially developed to falsely fill this need.

The eating disorder tells us that it is the one secure, reliable and constant relationship that we can count on.

It is available to us 24/7 to comfort us and drown out all uncomfortable feelings.  But, to receive the gift of true intimacy we must open ourselves up to other highly flawed individuals to love us and support us, despite their own needs.

We also have to be able to tolerate it when others cannot or choose not to be emotionally available to us and find other individuals or healthy coping skills to deal with the reality that no one person can meet all of our needs, all of the time.  All of this requires emotional maturity, communication skills, a sense of personal identity, and self esteem.

Research has demonstrated that women struggling with anorexia do value emotional intimacy, and they perceive emotional intimacy to be the capacity to share a mutually authentic and open dialogue and revelation of self with their partners.

Communicating Feelings

However, many women with anorexia nervosa are not able to adequately communicate their feelings and reveal their true selves to their partners, likely because of insecurity within themselves.  Thus, many women with anorexia feel that their relationships are inadequate to meet their emotional needs or those of their partner, but they lack the skills or ability to share themselves on the deeper level where greater emotional intimacy is required.

Couple in the shadowsA 2007 study by Hopwell, et al. found that individuals struggling with bulimia often displayed unhealthy interpersonal interactions by acting non-assertive, socially avoidant, vindictive and / or domineering. Another study found that many bulimia nervosa sufferers had inadequate emotional support from friends and family.

This combination of lack of healthy relational interactive skills and an insufficient emotional support system can spell trouble for the relationships of those practicing bulimia nervosa.

Those suffering from binge eating disorder are often overwhelmed with shame and embarrassment over the large quantities of food they consume and often the subsequent extra weight they may carry.  It is often hard for these individuals to feel equal to their partners or deserving of love and respect because they have such feelings of self-repulsion due to their binge eating.

These individuals are vulnerable to forming co-dependent relationships that lack the true give and take necessary to maintain a healthy relationship.

Emotional Intimacy

Emotional intimacy in relationships is not always easy or comfortable.  Sometimes we experience bitter disappointment in the very relationships we need to provide us the love, support and companionship for which our hearts long.  But, often, we also get to experience joy, security, connectedness and love.  It has been said that it is about an 80/20 ratio of 80% good feelings and 20% painful feelings in any healthy long term relationship.

However, relationships are an essential healing element of eating disorder recovery allowing sufferers to meeting the deep longings in the heart for love and companionship with others.

Couple enjoying emotional intimacyIt may be helpful for the anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder sufferer to accept that sometimes relationships will not adequately meet their needs, but the relationships will do so much of the time if these relationships are forged with friends and loved ones who demonstrate the authenticity, honesty and kindness that good relationships require.

In recovery, one must become a relationship warrior willing to take the risk of REAL relationships, with all the highs and lows this involves, over the fleeting and unhealthy isolation that disordered eating brings.  Meaningful relationships fill the void that the eating disorder miserably failed to do.


[1] Hopwood, C., Clarke, A., Perez, M. (2007). Pathoplasticity of Bulimic Features and Interpersonal Problems. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 40, 652 – 658.
[2] Newton, M., Boblin, S., Brown, B. & Ciliska, D. (2006). Understanding intimacy for women with anorexia nervosa: A phenomenological approach. European Eating Disorders Review, 14(1), 43-53

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 March 23, 2015.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on March 23, 2015.
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