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Supporting a Partner with an Eating Disorder

It is the season of love and romance, and here at Veritas Collaborative, we are thinking about all the loved ones currently supporting a partner with an eating disorder. Though relationships can be negatively affected by eating disorders, they can often serve as a key catalyst in recovery as well. One study, in fact, revealed that a supportive partner relationship was the most influential positive factor in women’s recovery.

The support of loved ones is essential to the recovery process, but knowing how to best support your partner can be tricky to navigate. In this blog, we focus on romantic partnerships and how they can be affected by an eating disorder, as well as some helpful tips for those supporting a loved one with this illness. 

How an Eating Disorder Can Affect a Relationship

Although a supportive partner can have an incredibly positive impact on one’s recovery, there are also areas of a relationship that can be negatively affected by an eating disorder. Below are some examples of how an eating disorder can affect a romantic relationship:

Communication

Eating disorders can pose many challenges to effective communication in a romantic partnership and in every kind of relationship. Communication can be made difficult when one person in the relationship is completely consumed by thoughts about food and their body. In addition to general communication, the secretive nature of eating disorders can present a challenge when trying to have conversations about them. 

When couples are able to communicate, things that are said can get twisted by the eating disorder’s characteristically cruel voice. The eating disorder “filter” your partner is speaking through can cause you to feel like you are talking to a completely different person than you once knew. If you don’t know your partner is speaking through this filter, you could end up feeling hurt, angry, or confused. 

Emotional Health

Even deeper than hurt and confusion, dysfunction caused by ineffective communication can lead to feelings of helplessness and fear. If these feelings are not dealt with, they can drive a wedge between partners and lead them to question their relationship. This can cause partners to become emotionally distant from each other and can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness, both of which are often already a symptom of eating disorders. 

Sexual Intimacy

In addition to communication and emotional issues, shame, low self-confidence, body dissatisfaction, and negative body image can complicate or compromise physical intimacy. Sexual intimacy can be difficult for someone with an eating disorder because they may be consumed with their perceived imperfections. It can be hard for them to be in the moment and focus on their partner when they are consumed by negative thoughts from their illness. 

From a medical perspective, food restriction can also decrease hormonal functioning, contributing to a decrease in energy, mood, and libido. Research shows that sexual dysfunction is common across eating disorder diagnoses, and women with anorexia, in particular, tend to report lower interest in sexual intimacy.

5 Ways to Support Your Partner with an Eating Disorder

It is so important to understand that you cannot “fix,” heal, or cure your partner’s eating disorder. You can, however, play an integral role in their recovery journey as a source of love and encouragement. Here are five ways that you can best support your partner with an eating disorder:

1. Educate yourself about eating disorders.

Educating yourself on eating disorders is a necessary aspect of supporting your loved one. Researching the basics of eating disorders, as well as the best ways to support a loved one are great places to start. There are many books, podcasts, and web resources that can further educate you about these complex mental illnesses. 

2. Refrain from making comments about appearance.

Even well-intentioned comments like “You look healthy!” can be very triggering for someone with an eating disorder, as they can reinforce a preoccupation with weight and body. There are so many non-physical attributes you could compliment instead. Some examples include their personality traits, accomplishments, or skills.

3. Avoid trying to “fix” or stop your loved one’s behaviors.

Evidence-based interventions suggest that partners of those with eating disorders should aim to support their partner and avoid monitoring or policing their behaviors. While it is wise to watch for and discuss warning signs, refrain from commenting on your partner’s food during mealtimes. The best thing you can do is model a balanced relationship with food yourself. 

4. Shower your partner with love and support.

Your unconditional love and support can be immensely impactful when it comes to your partner’s treatment and recovery. One of the best ways to help is just to listen to your partner and let them tell you what they are experiencing. Another way is to ask your partner what they need from you; they are going to know best what they need. There are general tips for partners of people with eating disorders, but everyone is different, and asking what unique things you can do to make things easier for them will be much appreciated. 

5. Find support for yourself.

Supporting a partner with an eating disorder can be physically and mentally draining. We best help others only when we are taking care of ourselves as well. This includes basic self-care like getting enough sleep and moving your body joyfully, but it could also include attending a support group or individual or couples therapy. Do not hesitate to lean on your own support people around you, just as your partner is leaning on you, but remember that professional help may also be necessary. 

Do you think your partner may be suffering from an eating disorder? You can find information on all the different kinds of eating disorders and their warning signs on our website.

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