Eating disorders can greatly impact relationships with significant others. For many people, a new romantic relationship can serve to temporarily decrease eating disorder symptoms. For others, a new relationship may bring up unmanageable fears and anxieties, and with them, an increase in eating disorder symptoms.
As a relationship goes on, there are many different ways an eating disorder can impair healthy interactions with a partner. People with eating disorders typically have a low sense of self worth and to have difficulty asking for what they want. The eating-disordered partner's may be overly concerned with the other person's needs at the expense of his or her own. Over time, both partners may have a sense of the relationship being "fake" or "empty." Also, the secrecy of the eating disorder tends to create an emotional distance in the couple. Only the eating-disordered person may know the cause of the distance, the partner might just have a vague sense that something is “off” or missing.
On a day-to-day basis, an eating disorder can cause an individual to be distracted and disengaged while thinking about calories, weight, and food. He or she may have extreme mood swings due to feeling fat or thin, to food restriction, to exhaustion from over-exercising, or to guilt and shame over binging or purging. This can be confusing for the partner. Even if the partner is aware of the eating disorder, he or she may find the constant upheaval draining and may at times feel impatient. The person with the eating disorder may feel misunderstood and alone within the relationship. Yet, when they open up to the partner, they may feel like "the sick one" in the couple.
Social events that involve food or getting dressed up can be very stressful for the couple especially when they are getting ready to go. Sometimes anger and frustration that is inside the eating-disordered person on such occasions can be translated into arguments with the partner. Even going out as alone as a couple can be difficult to enjoy for both parties because of issues with food and appearance.
Finally, the couple's sexual relationship can be greatly influenced by fluctuations in mood and body image. This may lead to feelings of rejection by the partner and to further withdrawal by the eating-disordered individual.
In a meaningful relationship, it is important to address the ways that the eating disorder impacts the couple so that both partners get their needs met and so that the relationship can be a source of happiness, support and growth. Open discussion within the couple can often bring about greater understanding and solutions to problems. At times it may be helpful to seek the help of a couple therapist to sort out more complicated or emotionally charged issues. Alternatively, the individual therapist of the eating disordered person may provide a few sessions for the couple.
For more information on couples treatment for eating disorders, or to schedule an appointment, call us at 773-525-3322, ext. 42.