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Supporting a partner with an eating disorder

Tags: eating disorders awareness week, eating disorder, bulimia, anorexia, binge eating disorder

If your partner has an eating disorder, you may be feeling lots of guilt, frustration and stress. You may also feel pressure to keep an eye on your other half’s eating habits and behaviours, and feel guilty and responsible if they have a relapse.

If you don’t have an eating disorder yourself, you may also feel isolated and confused about the situation and its effect on you and your relationship [1] [2]. However, there are some things you can do to help.

Eating Disorders Awareness Week runs from 27 February to 5 March. This is an international awareness event which challenges the myths surrounding eating disorders. You can find more information about the week and about eating disorders in general at the website of the UK eating disorder charity, Beat.

The term ‘eating disorder’ covers a range of conditions, including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder. They can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender or background [3], and can have a physical, psychological and social impact. However, it may help to know that you can play an important role in supporting your partner and possibly in helping their recovery [4].

Eating disorders can affect couples in a number of ways. Concerns about body image can lead to anxiety around sex, and reduced sexual desire [5]. Your social lives may also be negatively affected, particularly when planning activities that involve food (like going to the supermarket, preparing a meal or choosing a restaurant to go to). Your partner may worry about who will be at social events, what food will be available, who will see them eating, and the body sizes of those present [6].

But there are ways you can help your partner deal with these difficulties. One study found that couples who educate themselves about eating disorders understand the experience better, and may be better able to support each other. Focusing on positive communication skills, such as listening, being open and being understanding, also helps. It is much better to use “I-statements”, than “you-statements”, as they will make your partner feel less judged. For example, try saying, “I’m worried about you” instead of “You are making me worried”.

Your partner may have received some support for their eating disorder (whether that’s therapy or less formal support), but partners and loved ones rarely report receiving help for themselves [6]. Beat currently provides fortnightly online support for loved ones aged 18 or over, as well as a Youthline for those under 18. Beat also has a useful and comprehensive guide on supporting a partner with an eating disorder

We encourage you to check out Beat.co.uk and find out more about Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Although there are significant challenges for couples dealing with an eating disorder, it may help to know that in recent research studies, people have reported that going through the experience and recovery process as a couple has ultimately brought them closer together [6].

More information

Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity: https://www.b-eat.co.uk/

Adult Carers Online Support: https://www.b-eat.co.uk/support-services/online-support-groups/adult-carers-support-group

Youthline: https://www.b-eat.co.uk/support-services/helpline

Guide to supporting a partner with an eating disorder: http://tedsuk.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Supporting-a-partner-with-eating-disorder.pdf.

References

[1] Highet, N., Thompson, M., & King, R. M. (2005). The experience of living with a person with an eating disorder: The impact on the carers. Eating Disorders, 13, 327–344.

[2] Huke, K., & Slade, P. (2006). An exploratory investigation of the experiences of partners living with people who have bulimia nervosa. European Eating Disorders Review, 14, 436–447.

[3] Cosford, P., & Arnold, E. (1992). Eating disorders in later life: A review. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry7(7), 491-498.

[4] Tozzi, F., Sullivan, P., Fear, J., McKenzie, J., & Bulik, C. (2002). Causes and recovering in anorexia nervosa: The patient’s perspective. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 33, 143–154

[5] Pinheiro, A. P., Raney, T. J., Thornton, L. M., Fichter, M. M., Berrettini, W. H., Goldman, D., et al. (2010). Sexual functioning in women with eating disorders. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 43, 123–129

[6] Linville, D., Cobb, E., Shen, F., & Stadelman, S. (2015). Reciprocal Influence of Couple Dynamics and Eating Disorders. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 42(2), 326-40.

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