A client of mine was in my office this week in tears because she felt like she was having to choose between her eating disorder and her marriage. For many this seems like an easy choice, your marriage is something you want, an eating disorder is not. Those struggling often feel the same way but the way out doesn’t seem as clear. Struggling with an eating disorder feels like being in a relationship with an incredibly intoxicating yet abusive partner; it promises to make all of life’s hardships disappear right after it delivers yet another life-threatening blow. It is like your best friend and your worst enemy all at once which means it isn’t as easy as simply walking away and choosing your marriage. It may be simple in theory but in practice it feels like being told you need to climb Mount Everest unassisted and without proper gear. You understand the goal is to get to the top but you just can’t comprehend how to get there.
So do relationships ever end because of an eating disorder? The answer to that is yes and no. Relationships end for all kinds of reasons, just like they successful for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes the effects of an eating disorder can take a really significant toll on a relationship. It is painful to see someone hurting themselves day in and day out and feel powerless to your partner’s suffering. This can be true for any mental or physical illness and eating disorders are no exception. They can cause conflict because there are many moments of connection that are denied in a relationship because the person is engaging in behaviours that prevent him/her from being present and responsive to the needs of the relationship.
I think the best thing to do if you find yourself in this situation is to be really clear and communicative about each person’s boundaries. From my experience, recovery is made more possible when the person struggling knows their boundaries and the boundaries of their loved ones. This is very different than someone trying to take control of their partner’s disorder. Typically when this happens, the person struggling has a strong reaction to their partner and it only strengthens their alliance with their eating disorder. Being transparent about your limits, including when you feel you would have to walk away, creates a clarity that makes both people feel more safe in the relationship. You don’t need to threaten to leave your partner (again this isn’t healthy or constructive) but everyone needs to know when to put their own wellbeing first. Drowning alongside your loved one doesn’t help him or her get to shore.
If your relationship is being affected by an eating disorder I would highly recommend you seek out a trained professional who can help you navigate your way forward. It is never a choice to struggle with an eating disorder but you do get to choose to be well. If you or your relationship is struggling the best time to tackle it is right now. The sooner you prioritize the wellbeing of yourself and your relationship, the more successful your connection will be.