What should I do if I think my partner has an eating disorder?
Eating disorders are serious psychological and physical illnesses that can be all consuming.
If you think your partner is engaging in disordered eating behaviours, or has an eating disorder, it can be a confusing, scary and frustrating time. We’ve put this guide together to help you approach your partner and ultimately support them through their recovery.
I think my partner might have an eating disorder or is engaging in disordered eating behaviours. How do I bring this up?
Disordered eating behaviours can often be difficult to notice, as many of the practices and attitudes are normalized in our society or seen as healthy. However, any change in behaviour or attitudes that negatively impact one’s life and their ability to function can be dangerous for their mental and physical health. Commons sign of disordered eating include:
- Fasting or chronic restrained eating
- Skipping meals
- Binge eating
- Self induced vomiting
- Restrictive dieting
- Unbalanced eating (e.g. restricting a major food group such as ‘fatty’ foods or carbohydrates)
- Laxative, diuretic, enema misuse
- Steroid and creatine use – supplements designed to enhance athletic performance and alter physical appearance
- Using diet pills
Disordered eating is one of the biggest risk factors in developing an eating disorder. If you think your partner is experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to not dismiss your concerns and act as soon as you can. Early intervention can have a marked difference on an eating disorders severity and duration.
It’s natural to feel concerned or worried about what to say or how to approach the person you love about what you are concerned about. It’s also natural to wonder… What will their reaction be? Will they agree or disagree? How will it affect your relationship? What happens next?
First, increase your knowledge base and learn what you can about eating disorders. You don’t have to know all the answers, but being informed can help validate your concerns, while also ensuring you approach your partner in an empathetic and understanding manner. These Butterfly resources are a good place to start:
- Unpacking eating disorder myths and misconceptions
- Understanding eating disorders
- Podcast: How do you know it’s an eating disorder?
When bringing up your concerns avoid blaming or offering simple solutions such as ‘just eat’. Avoid making comments about their weight or appearance (‘You’ve lost/gained so much weight’) and instead try to focus on how you feel and what is worrying you about the changes you’ve noticed in their mood and behaviours.
Using ‘I’ statements rather than ‘you’ statements (e.g. ‘I am worried about you because…’ as opposed to ‘You are worrying me’) can help remove the blame and shame from the individual. Let them know they are deserving of your love and companionship, and that you want them to be healthy and happy.
What should people know about eating disorders before approaching their loved one?
Eating disorders are wildly misunderstood in society; only 1 in 10 Australians can recognise the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder, and one in four Australians believe eating disorders are a choice and people could stop if they truly wanted to. These misconceptions are damaging and prevent many from believing they have a serious illness or seeking help.
Understand that eating disorders are so much more than food and weight.
Everyone’s experience of an eating disorder will be deeply personal, unique and how they develop is complex. For many people, eating disorders often develop to manage or mask emotional pain, and can be used to help the person cope or offer them a sense of control. They also can be a form of self-punishment.
Be mindful of your language and words and try not to oversimplify recovery
Within our society, disordered eating behaviours (i.e. restrictive eating, rigid exercise patterns) and attitudes (i.e. thin/more muscular is better) are often considered ‘healthy’ or ‘normal’. Weight and appearance are highly valued and weight loss is typically celebrated or encouraged. Experiencing an eating disorder and recovery in a society that tightly connects weight to worth is challenging, so it’s important to be patient – recovery takes time and won’t happen overnight.
Let your partner know you are concerned about them and they might really benefit from seeking professional help. A useful place to start is a GP, and you can offer to attend their appointment with them. You might need to visit multiple health professionals. If you are concerned about their safety (medically or mental health) it is important to take them a professional service immediately.
How might an eating disorder impact a relationship?
Every experience of an eating disorder is unique as is every relationship. How a couple navigates this challenging and often enduring experience will also be different, but be prepared that the eating disorder may change the dynamics of your relationship.
Eating disorders thrive in secrecy and this can be challenging when the foundations of a healthy intimate relationship involve honesty and vulnerability. Your partner might be more secretive because they are ashamed or confused about their behaviours.
Many people may also face ambivalence to recovery, as their eating disorder can serve as a coping or control mechanism for stressful or anxious situations. It is important you remind yourself that your partner is not their eating disorder, and this is not something they are choosing to do. Carers reiterate the importance of separating the individual from the illness.
Eating disorders can be all consuming and it’s not uncommon if you feel your partner’s personality has changed. They might be more anxious, stressed, irritable or frustrated, exhausted and they also might push you away or reject your concerns. This can undoubtedly place strain on even the healthiest of relationships. Remember there is a healthy self still within your loved one, and that within time, full recovery is possible.
Working to keep the lines of communication open, finding non-food or exercise related activities to do together as a couple and seeking support for yourself can help.
What advice do you give to people who have a ‘fix it’ mentality?
Eating disorders are complex in how they develop, and treatment is also not simple. There isn’t a quick fix, and the experience can occur over many years. For those who are desperate to help, they may try to oversimplify recovery or not fully understand just how challenging it is to recover from an eating disorder. It is important to see your role as the support person, rather than the person who can fix the situation.
Ultimately, you can’t force someone to recover and recovery from an eating disorder is driven from within, with the support of carers, friends and health professionals. Recovery also isn’t a linear journey, there will be ups and downs, better days and moments and hard days. Accepting that this is their experience and asking your partner what they need during this time may help them.
Research demonstrates that having a supportive partner can be a “driving force” in recovery, however there is also the potential for the relationship to place more stress on the individual, which can exacerbate eating disorder symptoms.
Aim to provide support without over-monitoring or policing them, and avoid giving simplistic suggestions such as ‘just eat’. While effective communication is absolutely necessary, it might just mean that you ask your partner what they need, and let them know you are for them.
If you are feeling helpless, hopeless and frustrated, sharing your feelings is really important, but it’s advised that this is with other people in your life, rather than your partner.
If you’re not sure where to turn to, reach out to Butterfly’s National Helpline on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) – our counsellors are available 7 days a week, 8am-midnight (AEST).
Being a carer can be overwhelming. Look after your own mental health, too.
Make sure you take time out from your caring role to focus on yourself and the activities you enjoy. Engage in self-care and seek your own psychological support if necessary. Work hard to push feelings of guilt aside, if you need to take time away from your partner to rest and recharge – you’ll be able to care for them much more effectively if your own oxygen mask is fitted first.
Research demonstrates almost 64% of carers feel they need psychological help themselves, but often don’t seek help due to believing they should prioritise the person with the eating disorder. 75% of carers also said that their caring role had an impact on their relationship, and 83% said it impacted their mental health.
It can also be beneficial to connect with other carers who know what you are going through, and who have seen their loved one recover. This can provide hope and support from people who ‘get it’. Butterfly runs a number of online support groups for carers, family and friends. Butterfly also has lived experience videos from carers discussing overcoming guilt, addressing self-help and insights to help you feel not alone.
- Butterfly’s Carers Need Care Too 2019 research
- Conversation starters – how to approach someone
- Eating Disorders Families Australia – EDFA runs support groups for carers, run by carers
- Podcast – Sex, intimacy, dating and body image
- Lived experience blog: How I supported my partner through an eating disorder
- Butterfly’s Referral Database – search for eating disorder professionals closest to your area