Awareness that eating disorders do not just affect teenaged, white females is growing. Your partner–male or female–may have struggled with an eating disorder as a young person, which puts them at risk for re-developing symptoms when faced with challenges as an adult. Or your partner may develop an eating disorder for the first time as an adult in an attempt to cope with something overwhelming, such as a traumatic event or a loss, whether that be of a person, job, ability, or something else that was significant for them.
A new study from researchers at the University of Minnesota has shown that eating disorders can be triggered by lack of support following traumatic events such as bereavement, relationship problems, abuse and sexual assault.
They identified six major events that commonly are associated with the development of eating disordered behaviors: school transition, relationship changes, death of a loved one, home or job transition, illness/hospitalization, and abuse/sexual assault/incest.
What might this look like for your partner?
- School transition: The study included people with eating disorders in the age range of 17 to 64, so some of them were school-aged. However, in terms of relapse potential, your partner may have had an eating disorder triggered by a school change or school stress when they were younger. Also, if your partner returns to school for an advanced degree, the stress of balancing the demands of adulthood with being in school can be very challenging, leading to possibly development of eating disordered behaviors for the first time, or relapse into old patterns.
- Relationship changes: As a child, your partner may have been affected by a parental divorce and/or remarriage. Your partner may have experienced being pushed aside or ignored in the face of their mother and/or father developing a new relationship, or may also have had to contend with step-parents and step-siblings. Now as an adult, your partner may struggle with any sort of discord in your relationship because of fears that what they witnessed as a child may play out again in their own lives. Even if your partner was not the product of a divorced household, they still may have insecurities about relationships that affect their behaviors with food. Previous bad relationships, poor social skills, history of abuse, etc. can all impact how your partner copes with changes in your relationship.
- Death of a loved one: Many people don’t know how to deal with grief, and find themselves feeling isolated and alone after the death of a loved one. Our society does not do a good job of supporting those who are grieving, and so your partner may turn to eating disordered behaviors in order to manage the psychic pain.
- Home or job transition: Being in a state of upheaval is unsettling for most people, but for those with eating disorders, it can be much worse. When moving to a place where you don’t know anyone, isolation and loneliness can lead to either restricting food or bingeing in an attempt to “fill” the empty places inside. With job transitions, being overwhelmed by having new responsibilities, learning names, and figuring out who is who and what is what can also trigger compensation through food manipulation.
- Illness/hospitalization: This event can to lend itself towards the development of anorexic behaviors because some of the study subjects said that after an illness that resulted in them losing weight, the positive feedback they got encouraged them to continue losing. Also, when some of the subjects said they felt as if they had no control over their illness, engaging in eating disorder behaviors gave them a sense of control. Another direction this can lead is if your partner’s illness is of the type where food monitoring is important, such as in diabetes or hypoglycemia: this can lead to obsessions about food and weight, which could look like strict rules about what to eat and how much, or bingeing on “forbidden” foods.
- Abuse/assault/incest: If your partner has a history of being abused as a child, or has experienced a sexual assault as an adult, they (yes, this includes men and women) may try to make their bodies unattractive in an attempt to protect themselves from further attention or future attacks. Again, for some this may mean dieting to extreme thinness, or overeating to the point of obesity.
A common thread in all six of these events and the resulting eating disorders is that the people involved felt they did not have the support they needed to weather these circumstances. As a caring partner, educate yourself about eating disorders, be on a watch for concerning behaviors, and talk to your partner about what they need.