February 26th through March 3rd is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and the posts on Partners in Wellness this week will address how eating disorders may be impacting your partner and your relationship.
The theme for this year’s NEDA Week is “Everybody Knows Somebody.” As the incidence of eating disorders increases, it is likely that everybody knows somebody who has (or has recovered from) an eating disorder, whether that is anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, or an eating disorder that doesn’t meet the full criteria for a specific diagnosis (called Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified, or EDNOS).
If your partner has an eating disorder–diagnosed or not–your role as their partner is essential for recovery, but it is also an extremely challenging one. No one can recover from an eating disorder alone, nor should they try to. It takes a team, which includes mental health professionals who specialize in eating disorders, and supportive, educated family and friends.
Essential information for partners of people with eating disorders:
- Your partner may be hiding their behavior from you. Shame and guilt are usually present for people who have eating disorders, so they do their best to hide their behaviors, such as binging and purging in secret, or making excuses about having eaten elsewhere when they have not. You may not notice there is a problem until the disorder is obvious, whether that is because of a significant weight change, or you catch your partner doing something like vomiting or using laxatives. Or maybe you have noticed a change in your partner–such as less interest in intimacy, a sudden obsession with weight or food or exercise, or mood changes. All of these are red flags.
- It’s important to NOT subscribe to the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy: Eating disorders are the deadliest of all psychiatric disorders, and not addressing your concerns is putting your partner at risk. Not knowing what to do is not an excuse, either–there are many resources available online (see below), or you can meet with a mental health professional yourself to get advice about how to approach the topic, and how to support your partner.
- Be prepared for resistance when you bring up your concerns. Eating disorders are insidious diseases. When you confront your partner (in a caring, loving manner, of course!), it’s likely that your partner will deny having a problem, and will be resistant to your suggestions that they seek help. It’s also likely they will be ashamed of their behavior, but also terrified of giving up the perceived “control” they have. It may take a long time before your partner is ready for treatment. Don’t give up, and get support yourself.
- Remember that only your partner can make the decision to seek treatment and work for recovery. Yes, you can and will be an integral part of that process, but in the end, it is up to your partner to make the decision to do what it takes to recover. Shaming, blaming, bribing, etc. are not effective ways to get your partner to cooperate. Part of why professional help for eating disorders is so essential is because the root of the problem is never about food: there are emotional issues that need to be addressed as well. Once your partner starts to untangle the feelings and emotions that got them to where they are now, eating behaviors can improve. In the end, though, it is up to your partner to make good choices.
“Bringing Partner Into Treatment May Aid in Recovery”: An article about the UCAN program at UNC-Chapel Hill