“My girlfriend is struggling with an eating disorder and I have no idea what to do. SOmetimes it feels like I am making it better and other times I feel like I am dealing with it all wrong. What do I do?”
Having a loved one struggle with an eating disorder is an incredible challenge – not only do you feel like you have to witness their struggle but you too can end up feeling helpless to the disorder that is running your loved ones life (and therefore sometimes your own life as well).
The first thing that is important to know is that you can’t force someone to get well. What this means is that there isn’t one (or 10) magical things you can do that will convince your partner to focus on recovery. In the end, it is up to her to decide if she wants to and is ready to get well. In fact, trying to make her be well (whether that be by making her eat, trying to convince her to seek treatment etc) may actually cause her to turn towards her eating disorder even more. People turn to their eating disorder to escape their painful feelings, if we put pressure or expectations on our partner, more of these feelings are going to come up which means it may have the opposite effect.
So what do I recommend when you have a loved one who has an eating disorder?
Firstly, I would try to educate yourself on eating disorders as much as you can. Often we have our own beliefs about eating disorders and it is valuable to try to understand what it is your loved one is going through. After you have done your own reading up on eating disorders, I would encourage you to try to talk to your loved one about what they are going through and try to understand her eating disorder in particular. The purpose of this is to understand her – not fix her, not rescue her, just understand her.
Next, try to remember that this is a journey. Sometimes it will feel like two steps forward and one step back, other times it will feel like one step forward and two back, and still others will feel like you are staying still. This is all normal and part of the process. People don’t recover overnight so take the pressure off yourself and off your loved one too to be moving forward at a certain pace. How quickly you move through recovery is not an indicator of a successful recovery. Create a check in process where you touch base with your partner on a regular basis (around once a month or so) about what is going well and what struggles seem to be the most overwhelming at the moment. This not only decreases isolation (something that allows the eating disorder to thrive), but also creates an open and honest relationship which is important when someone is going through recovery.
Finally, start setting boundaries for yourself. Everyone has a limit, and it is important that you know your own. Your own self care has to take precedence so that you don’t completely exhaust yourself trying to take care of your loved one. If you feel it is needed, seek your own external support even if she won’t. This has an impact on you as well and your wellbeing matters just as much. So be sure to listen to what you need and prioritize that.