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For Those Who Want to Better Understand Their Significant Other’s Eating Disorder

I dated a woman with an eating disorder for two years.

I loved her deeply and thought she was perfect in every way. We loved each other, and when it was good, it was very good.

I knew she was sick, depressed and insecure. She had an eating disorder, anxiety, depression and later we learned also borderline personality disorder. However, she was also very intelligent and self-aware. She made it her business to understand her illness. She had that going for her, and she had a loving partner who supported and encouraged her.

It broke my heart to see that despite being smart, educated and beautiful, she was completely consumed by her illness during her bad periods. She thought that she was “stupid,” ugly and undesirable. She was often depressed and withdrawn. She would sometimes despair of her condition. She had enormous difficulty understanding, facing and expressing her feelings. And when she hated her body, she would ignore its needs.

As her partner, I felt responsible for her. I wanted nothing more than for her to be happy and to see herself as I saw her.

However, I quickly came to understand that, as much as she appreciated my support, there was very little I could do to help, and that almost nothing I said or did could change things for her.

Her battle was her own to fight and understanding and accepting that was very difficult for me.

When you’re trying to support someone who has an eating disorder, helping starts with making sure that you, yourself, are OK, secure and that your needs are met. Eating disorder or not, relationships have two people in them. If you are in a relationship with someone with an eating disorder, you need to understand that you are important, too.

Be mindful of the line between helping and enabling and between helping and controlling. Make sure you understand the difference. Support means helping the person to stand on their own two feet and not to make everything right or better (which is impossible).

Try not to make the eating disorder the central focus of the relationship, for the relationship’s sake. But also realize that it might feel like the feature of her life (and will likely be an enormous part of yours for as long as your relationship lasts). And when I say that it’s the biggest feature of her life, that likely includes you and the relationship. This is nothing personal. 

Early on in the relationship, I would cover mirrors in my apartment so my girlfriend’s body dysmorphia wouldn’t make her uncomfortable. This seemed obvious to me, but when she later shared this in her support group, literally nobody (the professional facilitator included) has ever heard of a partner doing this. This speaks to how poorly understood eating disorders can be by those who don’t have them.

This is exactly what makes dating someone with an eating disorder hard. Hard, but not impossible. And if my relationship is anything to go by, it is profoundly worthwhile, if you are strong, brave and focused on her and supporting her in her recovery.

Firstly, make sure that your partner has the proper medical and psychological care and a support network outside of yourself. Eating disorders are very serious conditions and are often co-morbid with other conditions such as depression, bipolar, borderline and other mental illnesses. They are very often life threatening and can severely impact the person’s health and life.

As supportive and as informed as you may be, you will not be able to help your partner on your own. If they are not already, they should see a psychotherapist regularly. Eating disorder support groups may also help and are usually free or more affordable. However, professional help is essential and should not be considered an option. If they have stable, caring and understanding friends, enlist their aid and support.

Be mindful of feelings of shame they may feel at sharing their disorder and of getting help. People they have known for years, possibly even friends and family, may not know that they are ill, and they may be actively hiding it or in denial. Opening up about their illness will likely be a big step for them.

You won’t always get it right. Don’t try to handle things perfectly. Rather, as much as you can, try to handle things with grace. Eating disorders can be chaotic. They make people act in ways they can’t control and don’t understand, let alone in ways that someone who doesn’t have an eating disorder can understand. You will probably feel as if you have no control. You will feel fearful of doing or saying the wrong thing. And, although it’s a good thing to be sensitive and mindful of your partner, don’t expect to always know what to say or do.

Human beings are imperfect. Eating disorders are often obsessions with perfection and control. When you can, try to model that imperfection is OK and that letting go with grace is often the best thing to do.

Be wary of the subject of weight and food. When it comes to these, there is often no right thing to say.

“You’re not fat — you look great!” might sound innocuous, but to someone with an eating disorder, a comment as innocent as that can cause doubt, hurt, confusion or worse. They might think you’re saying, “You’re not fat, you’re actually too thin.” People with eating disorders can have very distorted images of themselves. They may have been worried that they haven’t been eating enough, while at the same time being terrified of gaining weight. You might think to encourage them by saying something like, “You’re looking much healthier than last week, I can tell you’re not as thin as you were.” All they will hear is, “You’ve gained weight.”

When in doubt, don’t say anything… And even better, communicate that you don’t know what to say, because you don’t want to upset or hurt them.

It never hurts to tell them that they are beautiful. They may not believe it or feel it, but sometimes that is what they will need to hear.

Show them that you are trying to understand. Eating disorders are lonely and isolating. If you can help them to feel understood, this will help them more than they will probably realize.

Consider attending open support group meetings for eating disorders. Listen to the stories and see how many forms eating disorders can take and how unique and yet how similar their battles are.

Try to understand the conflict and the difficult relationship they have with food. Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine how it must feel to know that you need food to live and flourish, but hate and fear every bite.

Lastly… understand that if you care about your partner, are serious about the relationship and determined to see it through, you will need to be brave, sensitive, stable, optimistic, considerate and empathetic.

Love fully and unreservedly. Despite it being the hardest relationship I have been in, it was also the best, most healthy and most rewarding. It challenged both of us in ways we were not expecting. We learned to communicate and understand ourselves. We both grew. I would do it all again if I could.

Gettyimage via fizkes