Eating disorders are incredibly complex illnesses that infiltrate every area of the person’s life, and by default this means they also have a significant impact on the people around them.
Being in a relationship with somebody with an eating disorder can be very challenging, as I’m sure my boyfriend can attest to having gone through this relapse/recovery cycle with me several times now! I thought it might be helpful to put a few tips together that might help anybody out there in this situation, based on our experience as a couple over the last few years.
Learn about eating disorders.
Finding out about symptoms, thoughts and feelings, behaviours and triggers is likely to make a significant difference to how you can support your partner. It also is likely to make you feel less helpless, and also will show them that you care and want to support them.
Relapses are likely. Although this is understandably incredibly frustrating for the people watching on, please don’t blame your partner. Recovery is not a straight line and relapses are not as simple as them just not trying hard enough. All journeys to wellness have their ups and downs, and assigning blame will only make them feel even more guilty than they already do.
It’s not your fault. It is easy to look inwards and wonder if it’s because you haven’t been attentive enough or supportive enough, or maybe you feel like you haven’t told them enough times how much you love them as they are. It’s natural to want to save someone from pain, but eating disorders are incredibly complex and very rarely is love enough to pull someone through without some sort of professional intervention. Please don’t blame yourselves.
It’s not about you. Just as somebody having an eating disorder isn’t your fault, it also isn’t about you. There is a misconception that eating disorders are rooted in a desire to be more attractive and this simply isn’t the case. It’s not as straightforward as wanting to be thinner to impress you, even though on the surface this might seem like the most simple explanation.
Their personality might seem to change. But this often returns with nourishment, and it’s so, so important to keep hold of the fact that the person you love is still there, underneath the disorder. Eating disorders can be completely all consuming and starvation does funny things to the brain, often making people withdrawn, irritable and depressed. These changes are not permanent and can be reversed with recovery. Please don’t give up on them.
Be patient with them.
Recovery takes time and progress can be very slow at times. Please give them space and don’t pressure them, these things take time.
Ask how you can help.
They likely have their own ideas about what would and wouldn’t be helpful, and they might not tell you unless you ask. It’s okay to feel stuck and helpless – ask them what it is that you can do.
Intimacy can be a struggle. This could be due to a number of reasons, including body image issues and not feeling deserving of any sort of affection. Please be patient with them.
Look after yourself. Being in a relationship with somebody with an eating disorder can be incredibly challenging and very, very draining. It is common to spend so much time and energy trying to keep them afloat that you forget about your own needs, but you can’t pour from an empty cup and it’s so important to take care of your own wellbeing too. You still matter.
There is always hope. No matter how long someone has had an eating disorder or the severity of their illness, there is always capacity to recover. However, it is often a long a difficult journey. Don’t give up on them.
Readers, is there anything you would add to this list?