Article Contributed By: The Castlewood Staff
The support of a spouse is one of the most valuable resources an individual with bulimia can have available to them. If you have never struggled with an eating disorder, it can – at times – be confusing and frustrating to understand.
When someone we love is sick, we want to know why and what we can do to help them, but with an eating disorder, there is no single cause or cure. There are, however, ways to help your partner, and strengthen your relationship, by coming to terms with the condition. As a spouse, educating yourself about the facts is an important first step in understanding and caring for someone struggling with bulimia.
Knowing the Cycles and Symptoms of Bulimia
An eating disorder is an illness that causes serious disturbances to every day diet, characterized by extreme emotions, attitudes and behaviors relating to weight and food issues. Bulimia nervosa is a serious and potentially life-threatening eating disorder with recurrent episodes of binge eating followed by compensating behaviors such as self-induced vomiting.
These cycles can do significant damage to the digestive system, and purging behaviors will lead to electrolyte and chemical imbalances, which can seriously affect the heart and other major organ functions.
Bulimia is a complex, emotionally based psychological disorder, which can affect people of any ethnicity, gender or age as well as social or economic background. If you are a stranger to disordered eating, one of the first things to recognize is that this is not simply a matter of being insecure about looks.
You cannot force a bulimic to stop purging, and it isn’t a matter of exerting more control or willpower.
The Mental Causes of Bulimia
The underlying basis of disordered eating behavior relates to psychological conditions such as depression and emotional stress, which can be related to major life changes, social adjustment or the loss of a close friend or relative. Disordered eating, bingeing and purging are attempts to cope with emotional pain and stress. In addition to stressful events, family history may also be a cause.
Someone struggling with bulimia will commonly feel ashamed of their behavior, sometimes recognizing it to be unhealthy and unusual.
Don’t Take Their Actions Personally
It’s important to understand that although your partner may have been hiding their bulimia from you, it is not an indication that they love you less or that they do not trust the relationship. Find out that your loved one has been keeping their disease from you can be a challenge when you have been married for several years, and it’s normal to feel:
Remember, bulimia is defined by shame, guilt, hiding and secrecy. Try to separate the eating disorder from the person you know and love, and recognize that those with the disorder may seek to hide, minimize and/or lash out in frustration.
Eating Disorders Are Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms
Similarly to the way addiction operates, eating disorders are negative coping mechanisms that can begin to take control of an individual; it’s not uncommon for bulimia to be co-occurring with substance abuse issues. Your spouse may be struggling to maintain a facade of normalcy, while still hanging onto the disordered behavior out of familiarity.
The recovery process requires the individual to learn to evaluate the contributing factors and to develop positive and healthy coping skills to replace the old ones. Without treatment, therapy and a program of recovery, it will be difficult for someone with bulimia to simply stop.
Talking and Showing Support
If the subject of your partner’s eating disorder has already come up in the relationship, it may be a strained issue, but remember, more opportunities will present themselves for you to talk constructively and show support.
If you have yet to confront your spouse about your concerns, make sure you are aware of (and possibly list out for yourself) the signs and symptoms that are concerning you. Recovery is impossible in an atmosphere of denial, and talking about it in a loving manner can be an essential step in taking back control.
The Key Points of Supporting Your Loved One
When speaking with your spouse, there are a few key points to be aware of that will promote a constructive conversation. Remember, they’re likely to be ashamed and possibly afraid or threatened, so it’s important to maintain a non-judgmental and supportive attitude.
Use “I” sentences and facts when speaking: “I am worried about you because I’ve noticed you seem unhappy.” Trust and integrity will return when you are able to establish a dialogue with your partner, one in which they feel they are safe.
Finding help for yourself, either by talking with a supportive friend or a professional about your concerns can give you an objective perspective to organize your thoughts and feelings. Be prepared for your spouse to be uncomfortable or even angry.
Being Prepared for Their Reaction
Your attempts to help might be refused or met with denial. This is another reason to get help for yourself; your spouse isn’t the only one who will need support! ANAD and NEDA are excellent resources for family and loved ones looking for information and support groups.
Try to encourage your partner to seek the professional help that will allow them an opportunity to overcome their bulimia. You will want to have resources available and treatment options ready when he/she decides they are ready to get the help they need. While you can do the research, be supportive, listen and encourage your partner toward recovery, in the end, it is your spouse who needs to make the decision to pursue it.
If your spouse is experiencing any of the following signs, you may need to encourage them to seek medical treatment immediately:
- Blood in stool or vomit
- Chest pains
For many cases of bulimia, the course of treatment will usually begin with stabilizing the patient’s health, followed by a structured treatment program.
While bulimia is a complex and damaging disorder, it is possible to achieve recovery with the help of an experienced treatment center.