6 Ways Eating Disorders Can Affect Your (Romantic) Relationships

2016-08-18-defectivebarbie-originalDysregulated eaters often believe that their eating disorders hurt no one else. “Who am I hurting but myself” they may try to convince themselves. That is one of many falsehoods that underlie eating disorders. The self-deception that no one is affected by our food and weight related obsessions and compulsions fuels these behaviors and makes recovery nearly impossible. In fact, one of the most powerful motivators for recovery is how having an eating disorder may negatively impact our love relationships.

Romantic partnerships cannot flourish if we already have a main squeeze called dysfunctional eating or weight obsession, particularly if the disorder is severe.

Eating disorders promote unhealthy thinking, behaviors, and emotions. And, when we are in the throes of such dysfunction, no matter how functional we are in other areas of life, our chances of developing and maintaining emotionally healthy romantic relationships decreases.

Here’s how eating disorders effect relationships:

1. Social situations

When in an eating disorder, we often make decisions about socializing that hurts our relationships. For example, we may refuse to go to events that will have food because we fear eating out of control, even if we really wish to attend. If we can’t be honest with our partners, we may make up an excuse for not going. They may be hurt or angry and may not understand what’s really going on because we’re not telling them the truth. Even if we do tell the truth, they may not think this is a sufficient reason to forgo an event that they think is important. Whether it’s an office party, dinner out with the gang, or a birthday celebration (yours or theirs) at a favorite restaurant.  

This dynamic is true of all shame-based “addictions.” They get in the way of intimacy.

We can’t give ourselves wholeheartedly and be present to our partners (or ourselves) if we are ruled by what we can or can’t eat and what we should weigh.

In fact, an addiction may be our way of preventing deep intimacy which we long for but also fear.

2. Secrecy

Secrecy destroys trust and lack of trust destroy relationships. If we’re going out of our way to hide our bingeing, calorie-counting or purging from our partners, we’re keeping a very important part of ourselves from someone. Not being honest usually speaks to a fear of being judged and possibly of being rejected. The truth is that sometimes we are secretive with eating or weight behaviors because we suspect our partner would disapprove and even be disgusted by knowing the extent of our dysfunction.

Other times, we imagine a partner will feel sorry for us and we don’t want what we perceive as pity. Because we’re so hard on ourselves, we may even be uncomfortable when a partner is compassionate and forgiving and really wants to understand our damaged relationship with food. Whatever we fear that generates secrecy, we are not engaging in true intimacy which is what makes romantic relationships so meaningful and worthwhile.  

3. Shame

Dysregulated eating and weight obsession almost always cause shame. This  shame may actually keep us from sharing our “secret” with our partner. Living in shame builds walls around us and erodes self-esteem. Although our partners may not know about our secret eating or constantly weighing ourselves, they may sense our dissatisfaction with our bodies and how critical we are of them.

Shame goes hand in hand with dysfunctional behaviors. Generally, people who were raised in shame-based families unconsciously hold onto a shame-based identity when they become adults. In this case, we bring shame into our romantic relationship via disordered eating.

Ironically, being open about our struggles with food or the scale may actually deepen intimacy and help erase our shame.

4. Food and weight talk

We may talk endlessly with friends about what and how we eat because they have problems similar to ours. But generally our partners may not be all that interested in hearing about our day-by-day fluctuations on the scale. Or what we ate and didn’t eat, the binge we just had, the newest diet fad we’re embarking on, or our ongoing laments about wanting to be thinner or fearing getting fat. They most likely have full lives and may listen to us with impatience, frustration that we won’t stop talking about our disorder. They may tune us out or walk away. Additionally, they may feel there’s no room for them or their problems in our lives because of our eating and weight preoccupations.

More likely, they may feel extremely helpless and not know what we want from them when we talk incessantly about food and weight: reassurance, help, a place to vent, or for them to take over our feeding. We may even give them confusing double messages: help me/don’t help me. The ongoing helplessness a partner feels may lead to him or her resenting and pulling away from us. Generally, we’re not even sure what we want from them other than perhaps reassurance that we’re going to get better or that we don’t look as terrible as we think we do.

5. Choosing dates or mates

If we’re not yet in a relationship, our choice of dates or mates might be skewed by our eating disorder. If we’re of a higher weight and binge eat a great deal, we may want a partner who also engages in similar behaviors so that we have a nonjudgmental “partner in crime.” We may not consider other important qualities and, therefore, choose partners who aren’t great relationship material simply because we’re comfortable with them and how they enable our eating disorder.

Or, we may choose someone who eats very healthfully, hoping that his or her habits eventually will rub off on us. We may even choose partners who have other “addictive” behaviors such as drinking, drugs or gambling so that we’ll feel more comfortable with our food and weight obsessions. Moreover, we may choose these people because we feel that we’re at least “not as bad as they are.”

6. Low self-esteem

If we’re mired in struggles with weight or food, we may fall into the trap of letting them shrink our self-esteem. We may think less of ourselves for our crazy seeming behavior: One day we’re on top of the world because we lost two pounds. The next day, having gained them back, we mope around the house, grousing at our partner. Sometimes we can’t stand our obsession let alone exposing someone we love to it. When we act out inappropriately, we may feel even more devalued in our own eyes.

People who continue to binge, purge or rigidly control their food intake may be high achievers in other arenas. But their self-esteem will remain low unless they change their approach to food and their bodies.

So often, we don’t feel proud of anything we do because we believe we’re defective due to our eating problems. We also may convince ourselves that our low self-esteem is a result of how we look or eat, and that it will rise when we’re eating “normally” and at a lower weight. Generally, this is not the case because low self-esteem is more often than not a pre-cursor or co-occurring issue.

These are just some of the insidious ways that  eating disorders affect our relationships.

Although the dynamics are different in each relationship, we can be sure that where there is an eating disorder, shame, and low self-esteem will be part and parcel of the fabric of daily living no matter how much love is shared between partners. If you need another reason to learn and practice “normal” eating and loving your body at any size, improving your romantic relationship might be a great motivator.

Artwork by ©2016 defectivebarbie

More from Karen R Koenig, LCSW, M. Ed.
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  1. says: Marie

    This article is spot on. When I was anorexic, my relationship with my boyfriend was such a terrible mess. Grocery shopping or trying to decide on what to order at a restaurant or cafe was excrutiating. I can’t even imagine what I put him through. Anorexia DOES effect those in your life, not just you. Your whole way of life changes and these changes are constantly clashing against those around you.


  2. says: natalie gold

    Great article. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve linked it on my website, http://www.changehappens.ca, (on the binge eating files, under eating disorders) so that I can more easily refer my clients to it! I also know from personal experience how binge eating disorder and food addiction played havoc with all relationships — not just romantic ones. Your article is highly relevant, Thank you.

  3. says: Becky

    Fabulous article! I’d like to point out that when I was dating while recovering from Bulimia, I remember staying in an abusive relationship because I seriously believed no one else would ever love me because I was overweight. I’m still medically overweight but I’m in a much healthier relationship than I once was.

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