Partner Abuse, Trauma and Binge Eating Disorder

Two major interpersonal factors can contribute to the development of eating disorders:

  1. disturbing family and interpersonal relationships and
  2. a history of sexual or physical abuse (1)

Domestic violence can be defined as a pattern of abusive behavior used by one partner to gain or hold power and control over his or her partner (2). The abuse can be physical, sexual, emotional or psychological; including any behavior, or threats of behavior, that manipulate, intimidate, humiliate, isolate, terrorize, denigrate, coerce, blame or hurt someone (3).

An episode of binge eating must include 2 elements-

  1. eating in a discrete period of time, a quantity of food that is larger than what most people would eat during the same time period and under the same circumstances;
  2. feeling out of control while eating(4).

Once the above criteria are met, a person must exhibit at least 3 of the following 5 items.

  1. Eating quickly.
  2. Eating until physically full, discomfort.
  3. Eating despite lack of physical hunger.
  4. Eating alone because of embarrassment.
  5. After eating, guilt/depression is felt (5).

Other features of BED include:

  1. Distress over the binge-eating
  2. Binge-eating happens at least once a week for 3 months.
  3. No compensatory behaviors (e.g., vomiting, laxative/diuretic use) (6).

How Binge Eating Exhibits in Victims of Trauma

BED’s connection to partner abuse and trauma is typically that the eating disorder develops as a way to manage an unmanageable life or situation. Here are some examples of how bingeing may serve those who are victims of abuse or trauma.


Binge eating can be a way for people to escape emotional turmoil. Through binges, people can check out from the reality of the situation. For example, if a partner emotionally or physically abuses them, they might look to food to escape/numb out from the hurt or humiliation. Numbing through binge eating can mask feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness.

Taking Control

One way to gain control and take action is to eat. Binge eating can be thought of as an act of defiance. Abused partners may experience binge eating as a way to have control in a world that feels out of control.

They can do something without the partner knowing- a feeling of control and decision making is experienced. Abused partners may think- “I can make my own decision about what I eat. No one tells me what to do.”

A sense of accomplishment and action is achieved. Rather than taking an assertive stance with the abusive partner, they assert themselves in the domain of food– taking and consuming what they want.

Feelings of Unworthiness

Victims of partner abuse begin to think that they are worthless. The behavior of the abuser reinforces this belief.

Since they don’t feel worthwhile or as if they matter, binge eating can be seen as a way to confirm this belief. Since they are unworthy, they don’t care for themselves- binge eating is the manifestation of not caring about self- confirmed and reinforced by the abuse.

This is a vicious cycle of “I must not matter or else this person wouldn’t hurt me. So if I’m treated poorly, then I must deserve it?” Binge eating ensues.


Self-Abuse: Binge eating can be understood as a self-harming behavior. Physical and psychological trauma is enacted on the body when large quantities of food are ingested.

By eating excessively, often to the point of physical discomfort and pain, abused partners are re-enacting the abuse they experienced from the abusive partner. The binge eating is a re-traumatization of the original abuse.

Confirmation of Abuse

A person may say, “I deserve to be abused, look at my eating. I am disgusting.” Abused partners may attribute the abuse to the fact that they cannot control the food consumption. A cycle of binge eating spins with the belief that because binge eating occurs, the abuse is deserved. And the abuse itself fuels the binge eating, creating a feedback loop of desperation.

Using Food to Self-Soothe

People may turn to food to comfort and soothe themselves. They may experience a sense of calm during the binge-eating episode. During these eating episodes, food may take on the role of comforter and friend, something they may not have in the real life situation.

Summary and Treatment

When abuse is experienced in an intimate relationship, people’s sense of self and safety are shattered. Binges are an attempt to seek comfort, punishment and control. Binge eating can also be a re-enactment of abuse and give a framework to abused partners as to why their partner is hurting them.

Seeking help is critical. It is important to talk about any abuse history or current abuse in order to begin to understand how abuse and binge-eating disorder are linked. Often, eating disorder treatment includes trauma focused work because a correlation appears between abuse and disordered eating.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

As this article states trauma and eating disorders can often go hand in hand, seeking help is critical. If you or your loved one has experienced this, what types of treatment have you found helpful in your healing process?


  1. National Eating Disorders Association. (2012). Retrieved from
  2. Office of Violence Against Women. (2012). Retrieved from
  3. Office of Violence Against Women. (2012). Retrieved from
  4. American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (Fifth Edition). Arlington, VA: Author.
  5. American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (Fifth Edition). Arlington, VA: Author.

Contributor: Anne C. Cercone Jones, MA, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker/psychotherapist and employee of Structure House, a residentially-based management treatment program in Durham, North Carolina


Anne C. Cercone Jones, MA, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker/psychotherapist and employee of Structure House, a residentially-based management treatment program in Durham, North Carolina. She is a member of the Clinical Treatment Staff. She provides individual, couple & family therapy (including continuing care therapy via the phone).

She facilitates support groups and teaches classes on relapse & recovery, mindfulness, self-monitoring and interpersonal effectiveness. Anne’s areas of interest include binge/emotional eating, food addiction, mindfulness & meditation, focusing, internal family systems, trauma and grief.

Anne earned her BA from Smith College, her MA from Middlebury College and her MSW from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She completed 2 clinical internships in eating disorder treatment (in 2009 at Structure House and in 2010 at Eating Disorders Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).

She is a member of the National Association of Social Workers.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on February 16th, 2015
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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.