Eating disorders can range vastly in how they take hold and take a toll on someone's life — but the one thing they have in common is that they can be all-consuming, isolating illnesses. Beyond affecting someone's relationship with food, they can also have quite an impact on their relationships with loved ones, too. Fortunately, experts say that having support from a loving partner can actually be immensely beneficial to your recovery process. If you're wondering how to maintain a healthy relationship if you have an eating disorder, here's the most important thing to remember: maintaining an open line of communication will be crucial to protecting your bond.
According to Dr. Jennifer Rollin, a clinical psychotherapist and founder of The Eating Disorder Center, an eating disorder can start to feel like a third party in the relationship, depending on where you're at in your recovery.
"When you have an eating disorder, often it takes up a lot of your brain space," she tells Elite Daily. "So, there is a lot less space left to think about other things, including your relationships."
Not only that, but she notes that since enjoying food together is a significant aspect of any relationship, the disorder may get in the way of bonding over cooking or dining together.
Lauren Breithaupt, PhD, a psychologist and clinical fellow with the Eating Disorder Clinical and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, also adds that disordered eating behaviors thrive in isolation and secrecy — which can obviously pose some challenges given that healthy relationships require honesty.
For these reasons, experts say that talking to your significant other about your specific triggers and coping strategies can be helpful. For example, if numbers that relate to body weight are triggering for you and your partner has a scale in your shared bathroom, that would be something to share with them. Or, if there are certain words, phrases, or topics of conversation that may be harmful to your recovery, it's important to let them know so they can avoid accidentally triggering you by bringing any of them up.
"Partners can be a great resource," says Dr. Rollin. "I think that having open and vulnerable conversations about what you are struggling with and how you are feeling can be so important when it comes to strengthening the relationship."
Chelsea Kronengold, communications manager for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), says that discussing your experience with your partner may provide essential comfort and direction on your road to recovery. Specifically, she recommends first establishing a safe, private, and comfortable environment in which you can speak freely with your SO about what you're going through. She also suggests educating your partner — such as by letting them know what you need from them, and updating them as those needs change throughout your recovery. You could also equip them with educational resources about eating disorders because it's likely that the more they understand about what you're going through, the more compassionate and helpful they'll be able to be.
The process of recovery is far from linear, and there may be times when you experience setbacks during your progress. So, it's normal for your partner to feel a bit helpless or frustrated at times when they see that you're struggling. With that in mind, you might want to remind them that their only job is to love you and encourage you — and ask for their patience as you gradually attempt to make positive changes.
"It is important to keep in mind that a partner should never feel like they have to 'fix' or 'cure' their loved one's eating disorder — although they can certainly play a crucial role as a supporter," says Breithaupt.
Across the board, experts agree that one of the best things you can do for your relationship while you're still coping with an eating disorder is going to therapy.
"In individual therapy, individuals may work on communication skills and to be better able to access interpersonal skills in certain moods," explains Breithaupt. "Learning to interact with others helps us communicate what we need and want, and maintain self-respect. In couples' therapy, couples may work on communication and improved intimacy, both of which are often affected by the eating disorder."
Obviously, therapy is not a one-size-fits-all solution. But fortunately, Kronengold points out that there are a number of different types of psychotherapy — many of which specifically involve exploring and strengthening interpersonal relationships. Better yet, she says these efforts to improve your relationship may actually support your recovery process.
"Since interpersonal dysfunction may be related to the onset and maintenance of eating disorder behaviors, healthy relationships and improvements in interpersonal functioning are known to be linked with eating disorder symptom reduction," Kronengold explains.
If you don't have access to therapy due to your insurance, financial constraints, physical location or other challenges, Kronengold suggests looking into virtual treatment options — some of which may be available on a sliding scale. The National Eating Disorders Helpline is always available to provide support, resources, and treatment options, whether you're looking for an individual or couple’s therapist.
According to Rollin, individual therapy can help you to challenge disordered thoughts and behaviors, reconnect to your true values, and also address any ways in which the eating disorder may be impacting your relationship.
"Therapy can also help people who are struggling to let go of some of the shame that they might be feeling around struggling — and any guilt they may feel if the relationship is being impacted," she tells Elite Daily.
While you are in no way obligated to include your partner in your therapy sessions, Rollin notes that you may find it helpful to bring them into a session if your relationship is being negatively affected in any way due to the disorder.
"Your therapist can help facilitate a conversation around how your partner can best support you," she explains. "It can also be helpful in providing education and helping the partner to learn how to separate out their loved one from the eating disorder."
Since there are no hard-and-fast rules as to when a person can or should attempt to date after beginning their journey to recovery, NEDA recommends consulting with your treatment team before incorporating new potential stressors (like dating) back into your life.
"Eating disorders take place 24/7, and being able to sometimes rely on a partner when things feel tough can be so valuable," explains Rollin. "Healthy relationships can help to enhance motivation for putting in the work on recovery. Also, being in relationship with people who have a healthy relationship to food can provide a powerful source of modeling for the person in recovery."
Maintaining a healthy relationship while you have an eating disorder is certainly possible — and in fact, your partner's support may play a critical role in your getting well. As long as you can continually communicate your needs, triggers, and what's most helpful for you, your relationship is primed to thrive — and potentially even strengthen you along your journey to recovery.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) is here to help. Call the toll-free, confidential helpline at 1-800-931-2237, or click to chat with a NEDA Helpline volunteer. For crisis situations, text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at Crisis Text Line.
Dr. Jennifer Rollin, clinical psychotherapist and eating disorder specialist
Chelsea Kronengold, eating disorders advocate for the National Eating Disorders Association