How Does Bulimia Affect My Relationships?
Bulimia is sometimes referred to as a relationship disorder because it does, to a large degree, disrupt normal, healthy relationships. Individuals with bulimia gradually withdraw from others until their obsession with food becomes practically the sole one. Also, most of our beliefs about ourselves, like whether or not we are good people or if we have to be thin to be loved, are born in our most important relationships. The eating disorder primarily serves as a protective device which insures that past hurts on these intimate issues are not remembered or repeated in the present.
As children, the ways in which we are treated by our parents, other adults, our peers and our community-at-large tell us something about us. These relationships are the foundation for our feelings of significance, competence, and ability to be loved. Unfortunately, many of us have been abused emotionally and physically by the very people entrusted with our lives. With our child’s mind, we cannot believe that the fault lies with our caretakers, so we blame ourselves. We even have a hard time believing that our culture, the largest family of all, might not be such a good one.
This is not to imply that eating disorders develop only in households where there is violence or physical abuse. Being repeatedly ignored or undervalued can be as damaging to a child’s self-image as being incested. Children who do not feel loved or safe in any type of family don’t trust their own actions. They will then look outside themselves for cues on how to behave. As a result, their relationships will be “other-directed” and founded in low self-esteem.
Bulimia, which often begins as an innocent attempt to gain thinness and thus please others, is an example of this other-directed behavior. The person with bulimia is not following her own heart, she is reacting to what is going on around her. While it appears to be protecting her by preserving a false front and a sense of safety, it also keeps people at a distance. Bulimics interact with people knowing that they can withdraw at any time to their familiar, repetitive behaviors. Even when a bulimic appears to be present in conversation, her mind can be light years away, in the last or next binge.
Certain aspects of bulimia are particularly detrimental to forming honest, fulfilling relationships. Obviously, maintaining a happy, competent facade on the outside, while feeling anxious or depressed on the inside, is an effort and a distraction. The binge and purge behaviors are done secretly, usually shrouded by feelings of guilt and shame. Mood swings and lying are common characteristics. Stealing, which was mentioned by 37% of the people who answered our survey, reinforces low self-esteem and hiding. Focusing on thinness encourages competition between women instead of support, and emphasizes the sexual nature of relationships with men instead of affection or respect.
Over time, a bulimic’s relationship with food will come to supersede all other relationships. As one person who responded to our survey said, “Bulimia is a friend who does not criticize, judge, compete, or reject.” However, bulimic behavior cannot love us the way we need to be loved. It does not nurture, support, or fulfill us and the deepest inner level, as anyone who has gorged and purged themselves over and over will testify. It is a tenuous short-term solution for buried long-term pain, creating loneliness and isolation in its wake.
Giving up bulimic behavior is extremely frightening for someone who has little experience being close to others. It means risking rejection and facing feelings of worthlessness, but the payoffs are obvious—honesty, trust, fun, intimacy, and love. As the section in this book on getting support emphasizes, an open, trusting relationship with even one person can be a crucial factor in recovery. Many people found this trust in therapy; others found it with parents, lovers, spouses, and friends.
The very nature of an eating disorder prevents the development of relationships. How could I have a relationship with someone based on honesty and truth if I was constantly lying about how much I ate, didn’t eat, exercised, or purged?
When I am in love or working on intimacy, my eating habits normalize, but when I have no close relationships or involvement with others, I feel like I am starving. Food reduces the anxiety, and masks the feelings. Only working on intimacy stops this pattern. For me, relationship-building is essential to recovery.
Basically, my life became a massive cover-up. Any lie or deception that protected my freedom to binge-purge was okay, and I’d always placed a high value on honesty prior to this! My relationships with my family members deteriorated as they caught me in numerous lies. They couldn’t trust most of what I said. I actually believed that the reason my sisters were tracking me around the house, in an attempt to stop my vomiting, was because they were jealous that I was finally thinner than they were!
When I went out with friends, I was so detached from what was going on that all I could do was calculate how fast I needed to get to the bathroom to vomit. I had no real interest in the people around me; but, through therapy, that’s all changing now.
I recall on many occasions, turning on my answering machine, settling down to plates of my favorite binge foods, and listening to friends leave messages, while I frantically shoveled in food. Food had become more important than my friends. Food was my BEST friend.
As I became more comfortable with myself, I saw my life change in many ways. I found myself surrounded by friends who really liked me. And they were happy people, not miserable and depressed like my old friends.
I have learned how to say “no” to people, and earned a lot of respect for doing so. I was always afraid of what would happen if I disagreed or wanted something to be different. Now I feel worth having an opinion.
Reprinted with permission from Bulimia: A Guide to Recovery
By Lindsey Hall and Leigh Cohn
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