Helping Your Partner with an Eating Disorder

Here is what you can do as a concerned partner

Zeynep Demirelli

8/15/20210 min read

I had struggled with my eating disorder for at least 3 years before I started dating my current boyfriend (of 4 years). It wasn’t my first relationship, but he was the first person to stand next to me in my battle with my eating disorder.

Not to say that we did not experience any difficulties, but there were many things that my boyfriend helped me a lot with. Even at the time, I knew he was helpful but looking back now I see how much he has helped me and I can understand how they all contributed to my well-being and recovery. I wanted to gather all the little things that helped me to make an issue about it, as I receive many messages from concerned partners.

1. IT IS NOT ABOUT YOU. Read that again.

First things first, understand that this struggle has nothing to do with you. It crucial that you understand this, because as you will be experiencing their problems with them on daily basis. There will be times that they feel like they cannot even get out of bed because they feel horrible about themselves. There will be times they drive you crazy because you cannot decide what to eat for 45 minutes. And there will be times where you feel like they have recovered, because they went 3 days without doing anything disordered or unhealthy. To maintain your patience and preserve your relationship, you need to constantly remind yourself that their behaviors are not a consequence of yours or their low mood is not caused by you. They are struggling with a mental illness.

2. Accept that you cannot fix them, but you can only be there for them.

I know this is a hard pill to swallow but you cannot fix them. They don’t need a savior, they need therapy and lots of social support. You cannot fight their disorder for themor you cannot do all the work that is needed for them to recover. But you can be their source of motivation; a shoulder to cry on when they feel like the world is going to end because they just binged, arms to hug when they go through difficult moments in their therapy session and their guidance when their inner voice is harassing them, telling them that they have gained weight. They will have to go through this, but youcan hold their hand through it. And that is enough.

3. Educate yourself but don’t forget to listen to your partner’s perspective too.

As eating disorders are complicated mental illnesses, it is important to know more about them if a loved one is suffering. But they are also very personal, everyone experiences them differently. While keeping yourself educated, listening carefully to your partner's experiences is the best way to go!

4. Validate, validate, validate!

When you are hating the world because you saw that you have gained two pounds over night, the last thing you want to hear is ‘‘It is nothing to be sad about’’. This may discourage them from sharing their feelings and thoughts with you. So I cannot stress enough the importance of validating their feelings. You may not understand how they see the world. Things that upset them may not make sense to you, and that is okay, but they need someone to roughly tell them ‘‘I can see how you would feel that way, it is completely understandable that you feel that way’’.

5. Ask your partner what they expect from you.

You may find yourself feeling distressed, as you will be hearing a lot of upsetting things and most of the time, they will not be able to be the most cheerful person on earth. When you watch someone go through these and try to be there for them, because you love them so much, you may quickly find yourself feeling overwhelmed. This feeling particularly gets worse when you simply do not know what to do or what is expected of you. Sometimes when people tell us about their problems, we assume that they want to hear a solution or a logical explanation of what is going on or what they should do. And with good intentions, we try to meet these expectations. But in this case, as I previously mentioned, there will be no clear ‘‘solution’’ you can offer to them. So instead of assuming what they expect of you, you can directly ask them ‘‘I love you, and I want to be there for you. What can I do to help you?’’ in a loving tone. This will not only decrease your stress levels, but it will also show your partner once more that you want to be there for them.

6. Do your best to choose your words carefully.

We all grew up in an environment where diet talk is constant and thin-ideal is internalized. Diet culture and fatphobia is very much embedded in our lives. It might feel, for example, normal to compliment on weight loss and it can even feel like a positive thing. You may feel like you are helping them when you say ‘‘Maybe it’s better if you do not eat this right now, as you may feel bad later’’ but it is not the best thing to say. You might sound insensitive or you might upset them without intending to. Do your best to be sensitive. Avoid making any comments on their physical appearance or any remarks about the way they eat. However, this does not mean that you have to tiptoe around them of course!

7. Act NORMAL around food.

This may sound counterintuitive, as you may want to make things easier for them around food. It is important to be sensitive, but not too sensitive that it makes everything unnatural, thus more stressful. Around food, their mind are probably already anxious around food and their mind is racing, so it's better if you make them feel normal. For example, do not keep them from eating something or do not force them to eat. Unless your partner asks for the opposite, act as if you didn't know anything about their ED around food. Sometimes after a long day of struggling with their body image and their diet, all they need is to feel ‘‘normal’’ again.

8. Love unconditionally.

One of the biggest mistakes that are made is saying things like ‘‘If you love me, you won’t purge anymore’’, ‘‘If you don’t eat, I won’t eat either’’, ‘‘If you care about me, you will stop binging’’. These come mostly when people feel absolutely desperate, from a place of love with good intentions. However, they do more harm than good because they give the message that your support comes with conditions. As they are struggling with loving themselves and their body the way they are, at that moment knowing that they are loved unconditionally will be tremendously healing, as cheesy as it sounds. Try saying ‘‘I know you are having a hard time eating right now, but I want you to know that I love you no matter what’’ or ‘‘I understand how difficult it is for you to stop binge eating and I am here for you’’.

9. Finally, know when to separate yourself from them.

I know you are trying to help, and just the fact that you are reading this shows that you are a caring partner. Helping a loved one with a mental illness can be very challenging, upsetting and draining. It's important to know where it becomes too much for you so that you can take a step back. This does not make you a selfish person, there is nothing to feel guilty about. But if you lose yourself trying to be there for them, you will be unable to help them. To be able to help someone, you need to be mentally healthy and strong yourself. When you feel overwhelmed, take a step back and consider asking for professional help.