Eating disorders are often silent diseases that aren’t truly noticeable in a person’s behavior. Unfortunately, however much a person with an eating disorder may try to hide their condition, it inevitably ends up affecting all areas of their life. One of these areas includes their romantic relationships or dating life. If you’re dating someone with an eating disorder, it’s important to be there for them. Simply asking how they’re feeling or asking what you can do helps make a world of a difference. One study that looked at how women with anorexia nervosa experience intimacy in their romantic relationships found that they all found their partners’ understanding of their conditions to be a key factor. To help, our treatment center in Lake Worth is sharing some tips on how to support a spouse with an eating disorder and ways that their disorder can affect your relationship.
How Eating Disorders Affect Relationships
If you have a partner with an eating disorder, understanding how their condition can affect your relationship is a great way to be prepared to handle any problems that may come up. Additionally, if you aren’t aware that your boyfriend or girlfriend has an eating disorder, then the problems mentioned below can serve as warning signs that something is wrong.
Body Image and Intimacy
Body image and eating disorders go hand in hand. When it comes to people with eating disorders, issues with body image tend to be deeply rooted. This is because people with eating disorders, especially women, are more likely than others to suffer from negative body image. In fact, poor body image is the main criteria for being diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder characterized by abnormally low body weight, compulsive exercising, and a fear of gaining weight. Also called body image disturbance, negative body image and disorders like anorexia nervosa can have a huge impact on romantic relationships, especially on intimacy.
All levels of intimacy, including sexual, can be severely impacted by a spouse’s eating disorder. In women, poor body image and eating disorders can complicate all areas of sexual function, from sexual desire to arousal. This can show up in your relationship in small ways. For instance, your partner may not want to have sex with the lights on. They may refrain from undressing during sexual activities, or they may even get distracted by how they look in the moment. Affirmation and reassurance of your attraction to them can help your partner. While this may not solve the issue, offer your support and encourage them to talk about how they feel.
Food-Related Activities are Stressful
Many romantic gestures involve food – a box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day or anniversaries or going out for dinner on date nights. For people with eating disorders, the mere presence of food can cause fear and anxiety. That’s because people don’t necessarily develop eating disorders due to being underweight or because of beauty standards. It’s usually about their relationship with food. Eating disorders are complex illnesses with biological, psychological, and sociocultural influences which are often related to obsessive and controlling behaviors. That’s why eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorders or anxiety disorders are often co-occurring.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, anxiety disorders occur in 48% to 51% of people with anorexia nervosa, 54% to 81% of people with bulimia nervosa, and 55 to 65 percent of people with binge eating disorder.1 A great way to help your partner is to avoid food-related surprises. Telling the person about your plans ahead of time allows them to mentally prepare and reduces the likelihood of them feeling anxious or fearful.
Trust and Communication
Talking to someone about your eating disorder isn’t easy. From an outsider’s perspective, it can be hard to understand why your partner may not want to be entirely open about their condition. Many people with eating disorders struggle with poor self-esteem, lack of self-confidence, negative body image, and embarrassment as a result of their condition. Mental health stigmas can also make conversation difficult, as well as the fact that people with eating disorders often express insecure attachment. This means that having an honest conversation about your partner’s eating disorder can be tricky.
It’s important to create a safe space where your partner can share their struggles with you. As previously mentioned regarding the study on intimacy in women with eating disorders, most felt that their eating disorders played an important role in their level of emotional and physical closeness to their partners. Moreover, they also felt that being able to discuss their disorders with their partners helped them build trust in their relationships. So talk to your partner, make them feel safe to discuss their disorder with you. You don’t always have to have the right response, but simply being there makes a huge difference.
How to Love Someone With an Eating Disorder: Dos and Don’ts
Dating with an eating disorder can be nerve-wracking for both the individual and their partner. While above are some common ways that eating disorders affect relationships, below are some dos and don’ts on dating someone with an eating disorder.
- Don’t be the “food police.” Don’t question what your partner is eating or how much they’re eating.
- Don’t make dates or hanging out all about food.
- Do communicate openly and kindly.
- Do compliment them and give affirmations based on their character and not physical appearance.
- Do pay attention to and learn how to manage their behaviors.
- Do be patient.
- Do encourage them to find treatment.
If you’re in a relationship with someone with an eating disorder, these tips can help you be there for them. While these tips may seem basic or self-explanatory, it can be easy to become frustrated and forget the importance of simple patience and consideration when dealing with a partner’s eating disorder. Certain behaviors or things they say may frustrate you or even hurt you, but it’s all about learning how to be there for them and build a healthy relationship that doesn’t allow their disorder to take over.
Arguably the best way to support a person with an eating disorder is to help them find treatment. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate out of all mental illnesses, so it’s important to help your loved ones find all of the support they need to recover and stay healthy. Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches offers eating disorder support alongside other mental health services that can help your partner recover. To learn more about our mental health programs, call us now at 561-220-3981.