The Recovery Bean
Supporting your partner through an Eating Disorder
Today I wanted to share with you a slightly different post, this time aimed at anyone currently supporting an individual with an eating disorder, specifically those in relationships. I want to talk about some of the ways me and my partner worked through the difficult times in the hope it can help some of you. There are increasingly more resources available for parents of sufferers for example support groups, articles and blogs which is amazing of course, but there isn’t much available to help those who are dating. Therefore I wanted to create this resource, and have done with the help of my girlfriend so you can learn from our experiences and help protect yourself, your partner and your relationship as best as possible.
The first and most important thing I need to say is that if you are supporting someone with an eating disorder you need to prioritise your own mental health and well-being above all else. This is because it can be incredibly stressful, confusing and draining, especially if you are also someone who could also be vulnerable to disordered eating. This is not something we always found easy, but it essential for all parties involved and to help you maintain a healthy relationship. I guess it goes back to the saying ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’ - you need to look after yourself in order to have the capacity to care for someone else. The loved one you're looking after may not be in a place whereby they can offer you mutual support and in this case, it may be better for both of you to take a break and return at a later date. This does not mean you have failed, nor have you given up on the relationship, you are simply making the right choice in response to your current situation. There is no guilt in taking time to yourself, this is not a 'normal' relationship and as a carer you deserve periods of respite.
During the time you do spend with your partner, it can be hard to know what to do or say in any situation, especially if you have never faced similar difficulties. This is because it can be near impossible to tell what your partner is thinking, and so doing some research could be a good place to start. As I said a minute ago, the resources available are limited, however it may be useful to read content such as my blogs to gain a better insight into the mindset of someone facing an eating disorder. The BEAT website (https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/) contains lots of useful facts as well as having helplines available, but what may also be beneficial is looking at recovery based social media accounts to see how others are managing their recovery and the challenges they are facing.
One thing that can be very tough to deal with is the loss of your partner's identity. The eating disorder thoughts they are having can be very loud and obstruct their true values and beliefs causing them to appear a different person than you thought. In the depths of my illness and even in early recovery this meant I sometimes lied to my girlfriend as well as my parents about my intake, as I desperately wanted to avoid being made to eat more. This is obviously toxic to a relationship as it removes the trust which is so crucial to your bond, and whilst it is the illness rather than your partner which is causing this, that does not mean they are exempt from responsibility, and they need to be willing to work on honesty in order to maintain the relationship. In our experience this is crucial, as if the individual suffering is hiding information or their feelings from you, then seemingly unexplained changes in their behaviour can be impossible to manage. Consequently, it could be beneficial to tell your partner about your need for open communication and explain how it makes you feel when it is lacking.
Throughout all this it is important to remember that you are not your partner's therapist, and so encouraging them to seek professional support where possible may be very useful. One thing we found useful when I was seeing my therapist was to discuss my goals for the week after each session. For example, I would tell my girlfriend any changes to my meal plan that I needed to follow, and any foods or behaviours I wanted to challenge. This worked for us as whilst it was important I was responsible for my own recovery, my girlfriend was able to keep me accountable, and it also improved our understanding of each others position. This is because it helped her gain a better insight into what I was facing as well as how she could best support me through it.
When assessing whether this approach is right for you and your partner, you need to look at the boundaries set, whether this information is safe for you, and how big a role you will play in enforcing it. This is because any attempt you make to help them in their recovery will be an attack on the eating disorder, and so it may cause them to act out against you. This is obviously very unpleasant and will seem like a massive slap in the face when you're trying so hard to do the right thing, and so again I want to remind you that if it is damaging your relationship or well-being you can step away from it for a while. You love this person but you are not responsible for them.
Another thing to consider is that date nights may not be an option for you right now, as restaurant settings can be inappropriate and your partner may struggle to engage with other activities. This can be a tough one, especially when you're watching your friends in relationships do all these things and you're not able to. Advice here would be to minimise comparison where possible, and try not to become too frustrated with your partner, as whilst you can support them in overcoming these challenges, you cannot force or rush them. The chances are they wish they could join in too and feel guilty that you're unable to, so have open and honest conversations and set goals between you.
I really hope something in this post can offer you some guidance or at the very least make you feel less alone in your situation. Caring for your partner can be quite isolating, and so I would encourage you to speak to others about what you're going through where you can. This is not a breach to confidentiality, you are just seeking the support that you need.
More from me soon,
Mais// The Recovery Bean <3