Repairing Broken Friendships in Eating Disorder Recovery

Contributor:  Carolyn Labrie, MPH, PhD(c), Center for Discovery

two beautiful young womenFriendships require attention, time, and nurturing to grow. When someone has an eating disorder, relationships can suffer as the illness causes withdrawal and isolation. A person with an eating disorder becomes consumed with behaviors and social activities, many of which center around meals, fall by the wayside. As isolation grows, friends become confused and hurt by the apparent loss of their friend.

Recovery brings a renewed sense of commitment to relationships. The person no longer has to hide in the eating disorder and wants to regain a social life. By this time, some friendships may have faded due to the lack of communication and withdrawal that occurred at the height of the eating disorder. Repairing these friendships is a recovery priority as health improves and self-esteem grows.

The First Step: Communication

student girls looking at notebook at schoolHow do we work through relationship challenges when one or both parties feel hurt and neglected? It all begins with communication.

Reach out! A fresh beginning starts with naming what’s been bothering you. Have an open mind and heart.

Consider both sides of the friendship. If you have a friend with an eating disorder and have felt neglected, communicate that. Then hear what your friend has to say. If you are in recovery from an eating disorder and have been withdrawn, talk about what that experience has been like.

Talk about needs. What do you each need from the other? Do you need help understanding the struggle? Do you need more support from your friends? Communicate it!

Make amends and move forward. If apologies need to be made, make them. Be open and honest. Then make a plan to move forward together.

Setting Boundaries

Teenage Girls Drinking at BarEating disorders can wreak havoc on self-esteem. When we feel empty and lost, the eating disorder fills the void. It becomes a best friend. Forsaking all others, a person with an eating disorder may lie, manipulate, or be downright mean in an effort to hang on to their secret friend.

In recovery, the loss of the eating disorder can sometimes leave us floundering for the familiar comfort of an old friend. Repairing relationships during this time can be very fulfilling, but can also cause tension due to the changes in the people we once knew so well. You may be making positive changes in recovery, but in doing so your friends may not feel sure of how to interact with you. This is why setting boundaries is so important.

Cute teenage best friendsSetting boundaries sounds intimidating and may initially feel like you are pushing your friends away. In reality, being able to set healthy boundaries is a sign of healthy self-esteem. You care enough about yourself to communicate your needs.

If you are the friend of someone with an eating disorder, you also need to set boundaries. If you need more time with your friend, or more help understanding the illness, say it! If you don’t want to engage in unhealthy conversations about food or weight, let your friend know. When someone you love is in recovery, it is natural to want to help but also just as natural to be at a loss of HOW to help. You want to be encouraging of the recovery process and not enabling of unhealthy behaviors.

When to Move On

Woman carries your luggage at the airport terminalHave you ever heard the saying: “What appears to be the end may really be a new beginning?” Sometimes relationships need to end in order to open the door for growth. People with eating disorders may have friends who also struggled, setting up a competitive, unhealthy atmosphere. Still others may be drawn to those who don’t treat them well because they don’t feel they deserve better.

Just like the eating disorder, we have relationships that served a purpose at one time in our lives. In recovery we may realize that these relationships are no longer healthy. If communication and setting boundaries fail, or if friends cannot accept the changes that come with recovery, it may be time to move on from the relationship.

Recovery requires letting go of the past and of old ways of thinking and behaving. This may mean letting go of people who are part of the illness or those who cannot support recovery. Sometimes these people may be family members. With the help of a treatment team and an eye on the future, the pain of letting these relationships go can be eased and new, hopeful relationships can be formed.

Back view of a teen girl walking towards the schoolWe humans are community-oriented and social beings. We are not meant to live in isolation. Eating disorders set up a wall between the sufferer and his or her relationships and can cause cracks that are difficult to repair. Open, honest communication can build the bridge to a repaired relationship in recovery, and setting boundaries can keep communication about needs flowing. Knowing when to let go of a relationship and move on to healthier friends is also a way to honor your needs and recovery goals.

Recovery is a beautiful time of renewal and growth. People with eating disorders and their friends and families can thrive during this time with the right support. Be present together on the journey, ask for help, and participate in this incredible community of the world around you.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What has been your experience with rebuilding relationships in eating disorder recovery?  What situations sparked you to set boundaries?  What advice do you have to share with someone newly into recovery?


About the author:

Carolyn has a background in public health and nonprofit fundraising and management. Prior to joining Center for Discovery, Carolyn worked for an educational nonprofit as a case manager and development associate. Currently Carolyn is a doctoral candidate at Saybrook University, completing her internship requirements for a PhD in Clinical Psychology.

Carolyn has a passion for helping individuals who are struggling with eating disorders. Her own personal experience with anorexia has been the catalyst for her desire to make sure people have access to the treatment they so critically need. In addition to her clinical roles, Carolyn serves on the boards of several eating disorder and mental health nonprofit organizations in order to provide advocacy and awareness in the community.

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 a 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.  

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on August 28, 2015. Published on