The Do’s and Don’ts of Helping Your Spouse Cope With an Eating Disorder

Living with a partner who has an eating disorder can be very challenging and emotional. People affected by this illness tend to have extreme eating behaviors, from following rigid diets to binging on food in secret. But the worst thing is that these individuals often feel alone and misunderstood. 

Based on my psychological practice, most individuals diagnosed with eating disorders use food to cope with and handle unpleasant feelings. In other words, an eating disorder is a severe mental health condition rather than an unhealthy dietary habit.

If you want to help your partner and prevent them from damaging their health, consider this list of dos and don’ts I have developed based on my professional experience.

DO educate yourself before taking action

Considering that mental health issues are widespread and found in every community, country, and continent, you’ve probably heard about eating disorders. But is this information enough to support your partner in their struggle or recovery?

Did you know that eating disorders have the highest risk of death of any mental illness? Were you aware that only 1 in 10 people with an eating disorder ever receives treatment? 

For example, one of my clients recently accused his wife suffering from an eating disorder of making up this illness to attract more attention. In reality, an eating disorder is not a choice; it is a severe condition that develops due to a combination of biological factors and genetics. 

So, before taking any action, make sure to educate yourself on this topic. Currently, there’s an abundance of research, support groups, and books providing information on how to support a spouse with an eating disorder. By getting acquainted with this illness, you will be able to bring light into your life with a loved one.

DO communicate with your partner

As you know, talking opens the door to healing, right? Even though mental illness carries a stigma that makes most people feel uncomfortable talking about their condition, we still need to create a space where they can share what they are going through.

Do not force your partner to speak about their battles in detail. Instead, simply ask them with gentleness and empathy how you can help. Keep in mind that eating disorder family support is one of the critical elements on the way to recovery.

DO avoid activities involving food

Another helpful recommendation on how to help your partner with an eating disorder is avoiding food-related activities requiring your partner’s participation. Most people do not feel any stress when it comes to a box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day or a date at a fancy restaurant. For people struggling with eating disorders, these activities can be extremely triggering. 

Several months ago, I was counseling a couple who had many interpersonal conflicts ruining their relationships. But the last straw was when the woman got angry at her man for buying her a giant birthday cake. That’s when I received a message from him saying, “My girlfriend has an eating disorder. Should I leave her?”

Fortunately, the man noticed the signs that his girlfriend had an eating disorder in time and offered psychological help to his significant other. So, if your partner has extreme disturbances in eating behaviors, try to avoid activities involving food when with them.

DO show your spouse unconditional love

A relationship with someone with an eating disorder might be complicated because they place a high value on their body shape and weight when determining their self-worth. Simply put, it is very common when a person affected by this disease engages in behaviors such as dieting and obsessively counting calories to ameliorate dissatisfaction.

In this case, all you have to do is show your spouse unconditional love and support. For example, remind them about everything you love about them and highlight that they are not defined by the illness that haunts them daily. Everything, from phone calls to congratulatory surprises as your spouse achieves treatment goals, plays a vital role.

DON’T expect a rapid change

Usually, it takes years to develop an eating disorder, and healing can often take just as long. The thing is, treatment of this illness requires a combination of psychotherapy, nutrition education, and if needed, medications. Thus, it can take months or years from the first thought, “My wife has an eating disorder,” to the day your spouse overcomes this illness.

During this period, you should reassure your loved one that recovery is possible and make it clear you care. Plus, instead of always thinking about a food disorder, you can take your partner out for a spa day or a fun hiking trip. It can keep your spouse busy, thereby minimizing their time alone thinking about their struggles. 

DON’T try to “fix” your beloved one

Some people still consider an eating disorder an unhealthy dietary habit, so they try to “fix” it. As a psychologist, I regularly meet people forcing their partners suffering from anorexia to eat. Besides, some spouses blame their partners for eating too much, hoping it can normalize eating behavior in their families. 

Both these tactics are wrong and should not be used in the context of eating disorders.

If you want to help your wife/husband with this illness, it is better to contact an eating disorder specialist who can give professional recommendations on what measures to take next.

DON’T ignore your partner’s eating disorder

There are also groups of people who prefer ignoring their partner’s problem due to the fear of complicating the situation even more. However, ignoring this illness can ruin relationships and cause additional medical complications, including low heart rate, loss of menstrual periods, irritable bowel syndrome, pelvic floor dysfunction, liver and kidney dysfunction, dehydration, fragile skin, hair loss, and so on. 

So, make sure to join therapists, counselors, and psychologists in supporting eating disorders treatment prescribed to your partner. It can help your spouse get their life back on track as soon as possible.

DON’T forget to take care of your own health

Taking care of someone suffering from an eating disorder can be mentally and physically exhausting. On the one hand, you must be a strong support system for your loved one. On the other hand, you might face an increase in home responsibilities and child-related duties.

During this challenging period, do not forget about yourself. If you feel overwhelmed, do not postpone a meeting with a physician. Otherwise, you may develop depression or other mental health issues.

Don’t give up on your spouse

Understandably, maintaining relationships with someone who has an eating disorder is not easy. You might get tired of your partner’s mood swings and extreme eating behaviors. But, do not leave your spouse during this challenging time where you can be their biggest support.

For example, I know a case where a woman left her husband once she realized he had anorexia. In turn, his anorexia worsened after the breakup and caused anemia, heart problems, and gastrointestinal issues. Eventually, the man recovered and took control of his life on his own. 

Thus, by educating herself on the connection between anorexia and romantic relationships, the woman could have saved this marriage. Just like you can save your relationship if you gain enough patience and knowledge on this topic.

A Final Thought

I hope that the phrase “My partner has an eating disorder” does not make you feel lost and confused anymore, now that you are aware of the main tips for supporting a spouse with this illness. And remember, one of the most important things you can do for your significant other is gain your own support so that you can provide it in turn.

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