For Partners and Loved Ones
by Ilene Fishman, MSW, LCSW
Eating disorders can be all-consuming for the person who is struggling, as well as for the people around that person. When someone you love has an eating disorder, it is often overwhelming. Here are four areas that can be helpful in navigating the challenge.
Understanding and Knowledge
The more you understand the issues involved both generally with eating disorders and specifically in the case of your loved one, the more you will be able to successfully offer your support during treatment and long-term recovery. Eating disorders defy logic and nature, which is why when you deal with them, you need specialized education. Your loved one believes she or he needs the eating disorder to function. This will, of course, be paradoxical to you, but if you can try to understand it, you will be better able to deal with the conflict between the disorder and the person who has it. It is important for you to remember that eating disorders are not a choice and they have come into being in your loved one for some very important purpose and needs that you can’t readily comprehend. As difficult as it may be to understand, eating disorders are a desperate attempt to feel better about oneself. They are an attempt for higher self-esteem. In addition, eating behaviors are a way to manage feelings, emotions, and conflicts. Restricting food (anorexia), bingeing and purging food (bulimia), and binge eating (binge eating disorder) are all painful and unhealthy ways your partner uses as a means to cope. Your partner may be stuck and unable to find a better way. The more you understand, the better attuned you can be in both listening to and hearing what your partner is feeling and trying to tell you.
It is challenging to feel as though you have to walk on eggshells when trying to deal with the irrationality of an eating disorder. I often see families frightened to say the wrong thing, fearing that it could cause harm or a relapse. There is a great fear of making everything worse while trying to help. But by learning to take risks, you can improve your essential communication and attunement skills. Eating disorders are actually a form of communication, and in psychotherapy, your loved one is learning to communicate with words instead of the illness. This is an important aspect of good treatment. Once sufferers understand more about what they are feeling underneath their eating disorders, they can then figure out how to feel more empowered to communicate with the people in their lives. Being able to communicate honestly, authentically, and with attunement is critical for you and for your partner. Listen carefully to what your loved one says and how she or he responds to what you say. For example, if you tell your loved one, “You look healthy,” that person may hear, ”You look fat.” Understand that you are interacting not only with your loved one, but also with that person’s eating disorder, which is a very powerful force. You may hit a great deal of resistance, but in time, your loved one will come to appreciate your efforts. It is great role modeling to show how you can stretch and rise to the challenge of this eating disorder, as full recovery requires ongoing stretching. As you stretch yourself along with your loved one, you may be surprised at how this uncomfortable process can lead to a healthier relationship for you both.
What are boundaries and where do they lie, especially when you see your loved one suffering and struggling in the illness? What does a partner do with the desire to help? An individual struggling with an eating disorder is really struggling to develop a healthy relationship with self, so boundaries are very significant. As the emerging, developing self is learning to exist without needing the eating disorder, she or he must also learn how to manage comfortable and safe boundaries. Knowing the difference between what is too much or too little, what is taken in and kept out, is an ongoing challenge in your relationship. We often make the mistake of not wanting to say the wrong thing for fear of making it worse, or crossing some line. The opposite is generally true: Better to risk saying it than to have it brewing and living hidden under the surface. Try to respectfully hear each other while always trying to better understand your loved one’s struggle and where the healthy boundaries are for each of you. I sometimes hear partners and families say that the sufferer’s problem is not theirs. Even if you have never sought professional help before, once you are dedicated to helping your loved one, specialized help for you, even briefly, can be quite beneficial. I also encourage you to be included as a guest in your partner’s individual treatment whenever possible.
Self-care is critical for the first three goals to be achieved. You are responsible neither for your partner’s eating disorder nor that person’s recovery. You are, however, responsible to be the best partner you can be, which includes taking care of yourself. It is counterproductive to take care of your partner at your own expense. Your loved one may even feel worse seeing your pain and suffering in response to the eating disorder. Guilt only complicates the sufferer’s plight, so maintaining your health is one of the best things you can do to support your partner. Think about what we hear every time we fly—that we must put on our own masks first. We can’t take proper care of someone else if we are not taking care of ourselves.
Full recovery from an eating disorder is possible—and worth it. It requires enormous commitment and resources on many levels from both of you. It can be achieved if you keep your eye on the ball and get as much good professional and personal help and support for yourself as you can. Take care of yourself and take care of your partner. Good luck.