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Strong support systems are crucial for eating disorder recovery. The people in someone’s life can play a big role in helping them get through the often-difficult process.
But unfortunately, the impact of many eating disorders can lead someone to push people away or seek out secrecy and solitude, leaving the people most in need of help without anyone to help them.
Loneliness, coping strategies, and caregiver burden are some of the factors that play a part in eroding emotional connections. Still, it may be possible to learn how to look for and address these effects, in order to rebuild relationships.
Why Do Eating Disorders Affect Relationships?
Relationships are the core of human existence.
Whether with family, friends, or a significant other, healthy, positive relationships can give us secure foundations from which to grow and thrive. These types of bonds require effort and work from all parties involved to continue flourishing, but countless benefits are reaped from the connection.
When someone struggles with an eating disorder, they often become preoccupied with inward thoughts and feelings. Often overwhelmingly negative, these points of focus can consume an individual, filling them with unhelpful thoughts and emotions.
As the preoccupations involved with an eating disorder develop and progress, they can eclipse the time and space someone once dedicated to building and maintaining outward relationships. Relationships with family members and loved ones may become strained, and gradually diminish.
Further, there are some specific aspects of many eating disorders that can have a particular effect on outward relationships.
Eating disorders are inherently lonely. Not only do people with these conditions face a social stigma, many also self-isolate, in an attempt to hide their disordered eating behaviors.
The negative body image and poor self-esteem that uphold nearly all of these conditions can lead to feelings of worthlessness, or make a person feel unlovable.  And the difficulty around food and eating may lead many people to avoid a number of different social gatherings.
In many cases, eating disorders develop as misguided coping mechanisms. In fact, many people who go on to develop eating disorders experience trauma earlier in life.
The behaviors, no matter how unhelpful, may help someone feel a sense of control. The focus on food, weight, and body shape offers a type of tunnel vision, allowing the person to leave any unpleasant feelings or situations outside of their perspective.
Even if someone with an eating disorder has a loving partner, they might be prone to push them—or anyone else willing to help—away, in order to maintain their unhelpful patterns.
Privacy Is Required
Many eating disorders are driven by behaviors that require privacy.
Someone with bulimia nervosa, for example, needs to step away to purge after a large meal. Someone with anorexia nervosa may skip out on social engagements involving food, to cover their eating rituals. And someone with binge eating disorder may eat food privately, to avoid the judgment of others.
The more time someone spends on their disordered behaviors, the less time they likely have to maintain their relationships.
Eating disorders are notoriously difficult conditions to overcome. Recovery may take years, and instances of relapse are not uncommon.
In fact, researchers say people helping someone with an eating disorder have a higher caregiver burden than people dealing with other serious psychological conditions, including helping someone with schizophrenia. 
On the outside, the vicious cycle of an eating disorder is frustrating and complex to understand. Watching someone slip into such dark shadows of despair is painful, and bystanders may feel unable to help.
Someone battling an eating disorder may feel unreachable, or it may feel as though the disorder has taken the place of a friendship. Eventually, it may just seem easier to walk away.
Misunderstanding the Severity
Aside from being unable to stop the destructive behaviors of an eating disorder, a friend or loved one may fail to fully understand how deeply the psychosis is rooted.
Encouraging someone to “just eat” or refrain from binging and purging might seem obvious, or like the appropriate, supportive response. But these statements grossly simplify the condition, and miss the point of the disorder entirely.
Minimizing what someone is going through, even unintentionally, can cause further rifts in relationships, especially since so many people struggling with an eating disorder already feel hopeless or misunderstood.
How to Help the Person You Love
If you feel at a loss when attempting to help a loved one with an eating disorder, you’re not alone.
The confusion and hopelessness that may arise from being unable to help a loved one through an eating disorder are enough to break even the strongest relationships.
But even in situations that seem hopeless, it’s still possible to find help, for both the person struggling with the disorder, and yourself. Some suggestions include:
- Entering therapy: Some research suggests that failing to change the dynamics of a relationship could help uphold the unhelpful behaviors connected to eating disorders.  Therapy can help you recognize and improve these dynamics, in ways that are healthier for both your loved one, and yourself.
- Showing real support: Peers, family members, and friends have a deep influence on how people feel about their bodies.  Introducing more supportive behavior and language to your interactions could help spread a positive perspective to your loved one.
- Following the treatment plan: Many eating disorder programs involve family and friends, precisely because of their importance and potential influence during the recovery process. If you’re invited to join, take part. Attend every session, do your homework, and be part of the support team.
Most importantly, know that there is always hope for recovery, no matter how deeply someone is affected by their condition. Even though you may feel displaced, your continued presence in your loved one’s life can make all the difference.
If you are at a loss for words or unsure of how to talk to a loved one with an eating disorder, choose instead to commit to love the person, despite the difficulty of the situation. This can be the encouragement they need to fight for their life.
While the process of repairing relationships is not easy, it is one of the most beautiful aspects of recovery. It is some of the deepest work of the healing journey, and could very well help save someone’s life.
- Levine, M. (2013). Loneliness and Eating Disorders. Loneliness Updated; 1:15.
- Martín, J., Padierna, A., van Wijngaarden, B. et al. (2015). Caregivers consequences of care among patients with eating disorders, depression or schizophrenia. BMC Psychiatry; 15(124).
- Arcelus, J., Yates, A., Whiteley, R. (2012). Romantic Relationships, Clinical and Subclinical Eating Disorders: A Review of the Literature. Sexual and Relationship Therapy; 147-161.
- Quiles Marcos, Y., Quiles Sebastián, M.J., Pamies Aubalat, L., Botella Ausina, J., Treasure, J. (2012). Peer and Family Influence in Eating Disorders: A Meta-Analysis. European Psychiatry; 28(44):199-206.
Page Last Edited and Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on March 7th, 2023
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com