Dana Harron, PsyD, joined us for an interview on her book, Loving Someone with an Eating Disorder: Understanding, Supporting & Connecting with Your Partner. What follows are our questions in italics, and her thoughtful responses.
What are some indicators that an eating disorder is affecting one’s relationship with a loved one?
As is often the case in life, your own feelings can be a good indicator about what’s going on in your relationship. If you notice that you feel tense, worried, angry or resentful about someone’s food behaviors, it’s a good bet that disordered eating may be affecting that relationship. Other signs include dreading food situations, finding yourself feeling responsible for someone else’s food behaviors, and arguing about food-related issues such as groceries and meals out.
Please normalize the feelings of fear and anger that can be active when a loved one has an eating disorder.
It’s natural to want to protect the people we love, and to rage against anyone that we feel would do harm to them! But when the person we love is the person doing harm, of course our feelings get complicated. It’s quite normal to be angry at a loved one when they are hurting themselves, and also when their behaviors are hurting you. It also makes a great deal of sense to have fears about the consequences of disordered eating; these behaviors are quite dangerous and can have serious health repercussions. Because intense emotions are such a normal part of supporting a loved one with an eating disorder, it’s vital that you get your own support as well.
Can you offer suggestions regarding comments about weight, appearance, and food?
Many people think that if they could just convince their loved one that she is beautiful or he is handsome enough already, the eating disorder would go away. This seems to make sense until you learn that eating disorders are only partially about outward appearance. Actually, even positive comments about appearance often have the opposite effect of what was intended! Any time that you are focused on weight or appearance, even in a positive way, the eating disorder has an opportunity. The words that you are saying get twisted until what your loved one ends up hearing isn’t what you meant at all. Until you know a lot about eating disorders, it is hard to see the harm in something as reassuring as saying “You look amazing!” But comments like these can have disastrous consequences for a person with an ED because they feed into the eating disorder in unexpected ways. The same goes for comments about food choices– attempting to reassure someone what they’re eating or “educate” them about nutrition are only likely to backfire.
How can boundaries in a relationship support recovery?
Healthy boundaries protect relationships by preventing guilt and resentment. If you are regularly doing things for your loved one that, deep down, you’d rather not, eventually your chickens will come home to roost. One client I worked with was consistently going to a grocery store two towns over in order to get his wife a particular granola bar. He hadn’t really examined his feelings about it, so he convinced himself he didn’t mind – until one time when he got home and his wife hadn’t tidied up like she had said she would.
My client completely lost it – his reaction was totally disproportionate to the situation because of his built-up resentment and it really harmed their relationship.
Please explain some of the ways an eating disorder can impact sex and intimacy?
Eating disorders can negatively affect sex and intimacy both emotionally and biologically. Sexual desire is largely based upon chemicals in the brain and body, and having a very low or high body weight can decrease the production of these chemicals. So can poor nutrition, even if a person is at a healthy body weight. These same chemicals result in vaginal lubrication for women and, without them, sex can become uncomfortable or even painful. Problems with these chemicals in men can cause them to have difficulty maintaining erections. Feeling bad about your body, of course, can also make it tremendously difficult for people with eating disorders to have an uncomplicated relationship with sexuality. To remedy these issues, I suggest a mindful focus on sensations, rather than visual stimuli, during sexual encounters.
It is appropriate to talk about one parent’s eating disorder to the children of the couple?
Children are often much more perceptive than we give them credit for, and it’s likely they have some idea that something is going on. By talking with them about it, in an age-appropriate way, you can control the narrative and make yourself available to answer any questions they might have. A key term here is “age-appropriate” – a mature teenager might be ready to hear that a parent has been diagnosed with an eating disorder, but a younger child might only need to know that the parent has some trouble eating well and, importantly, is getting help for it. It’s always helpful to emphasize there are competent adults handling the problem and that your child doesn’t need to take any of it on themselves.
Please share some thoughts for loved ones when there is a relapse.
It’s important to remember that relapses are quite expected, and that they can actually be an important part of the recovery process. A relapse points to where understanding or healing may have been incomplete in the first stages of treatment. Maybe a significant relationship was left unexamined, a traumatic experience was not processed, or not enough support was put into place. A relapse is like recovery saying, “Hey, you missed a spot!” It can be difficult to support a loved one through a relapse because it often feels like your loved one is back to square one – it’s important to have your own support system in place to help to remind you that you are not, and to continue to prioritize taking good care of yourself.
About the author:
Dana Harron, PsyD is a practicing psychologist in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington DC. She is the founder and director of Monarch Wellness & Psychotherapy, a boutique practice that specializes in mind/body problems such as eating disorders, anxiety, trauma, fertility issues and depression. Dr. Harron enjoys working with couples and helping partners individually to understand eating disorders, find healthy boundaries and clarify communications (among other things).
Dr. Harron completed her doctorate at Widener University’s Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology, where she was also the honored recipient of the Neubauer community service scholarship and the Empathy and Caring Award. She completed internships at the Renfrew Center and the Belmont Center, both in Philadelphia.
Since then she has engaged in a wide variety of professional activities ranging from co-leadership of a unit at the state hospital of Delaware to college counseling and eventually to private practice. She is currently dividing her time between writing, speaking, clinical supervision and direct client work.
Dr. Harron has lectured at facilities such as Temple and George Washington University, where she is also currently serving as associate clinical faculty. She lives in Virginia with her husband and daughter where she enjoys knitting and hiking, but not at the same time.