When we struggle with an eating disorder there are usually many other areas of our life that struggle as well. The given is our physical health and then of course our mental and emotional health, but with this month being February, I am going to jump on the Valentines day bandwagon and have this month’s topic be Relationships and how an eating disorder affects our all of our relationships (family, friends, partners).
While there are many beautiful connections that can come from being open and asking for support when it comes to your eating disorder (some of our most enriching connections can come when we are authentic and let people know who we are and what we are facing), for the purposes of this blog I am going to speak to the ways in which eating disorders can prevent us from connecting in a healthy, fulfilling way.
The main areas where I see eating disorders affect relationships are:
Conflict: Nobody likes to see someone they care about struggle with an eating disorder. Most people don’t know how to react to it or how to “fix it” and so they offer any and every solution that they can come up with, the most common one being to just sit down and eat. I can’t say how many times I have heard people say that the solution to an eating disorder is to just “sit down and eat a bowl of pasta.” This can cause a lot of conflict. As loved ones try their hardest to take the eating disorder away, the person struggling usually works twice as hard to hold on to it. Outsiders don’t usually know how to deal with an eating disorder in a helpful way. The struggle comes because usually the person who has the eating disorder only sees the anger and not the fear, sadness, concern and love that is the real emotion behind the anger.
Intimacy: I have heard this frequently that people with eating disorders who are in intimate relationships find it incredibly difficult to have any form of sexual relationship with their partner. The idea of being naked and exposed and touched can be too much for someone with an eating disorder to handle and so they start to create barriers to prevent the intimacy from happening. This can take a toll on a relationship, because any kind of touch is a form of connection. If you struggle with this, then try to find some form of intimacy that you do feel comfortable with, whether that be kissing, holding hands, or cuddling on the couch. As that becomes more and more okay, slowly challenge yourself to take it one step further. It is normal to experience anxiety around this, but you want to push yourself to a place where the anxiety is tolerable and not completely overwhelming.
Socializing: Let’s face it, most social activities take place around food and for someone with an eating disorder this can be too much for them to handle. So what is the solution that is often come up with? I just won’t go. While this makes complete sense to the person struggling, it has a very significant impact on your relationships. Friendships start to dwindle because you always cancel plans, your partner gets tired of never getting to go do things with you and you are left isolated in a time when you need people to be there for you. Just like with intimacy, find the social activities you feel okay with and start asking people to do them with you. When those become okay, try adding one more to your list and go from there.
Being Vulnerable: An Eating Disorder is a coping mechanism that is used to deal with the feelings that somewhere along the line you taught yourself were too hard to experience. It helps build a wall up so that it feels like you can’t be touched. The challenge with this is that as human beings we all crave closeness and to be connected. If we don’t share our true selves with those we love then it becomes difficult to ever really be known and to ever have relationships of real depth. This is a very difficult step to take on your own and while it is really helpful and helps a relationship grow, overexposing your inner self in a moment can sometimes make you shut down even more afterwards. So start by just engaging in more meaningful conversations. The topics can be safe to start off but in time you want to build on the depth and significance of the conversation.
An eating disorder can become such an integral part of one’s life that it often can act as a buffer between you and the world. From the inside it can seem like the best friend that will never leave you and that will protect you from the things you fear the most. From the outside, it becomes very evident just how abusive that relationship is and how it is robbing you of all the things that make you you. Try to take a stand against your eating disorder and for your relationships. I can’t promise you it will be easy, but just as with any abusive relationship, it is always worth it to walk away and turn towards those that can show you real love.
With Valentines Day coming up, try to think of one thing you can do where your eating disorder takes a back seat to your relationships, even if just for the day!