Some say that love can conquer all. But a couple struggling with the effects of the pressures of an eating disorder may need a little outside help. Though eating disorders are more frequently reported in women than in men, they occur among both genders. The most commonly seen are anorexia (starvation) and bulimia (binge eating and purging food). There are many reasons that people struggle with these disorders, which include, but are not limited to:
- Weight control
- The positive response that both men and women receive when they lose weight
- Emotional control — the ability to control food intake even if a person cannot control other aspects of their lives. Many anorexics say that they had a lack of voice in their families and interpersonal relationships, and that they were able to find power in their ability to restrict food and become thinner and thinner.
There are signs to watch for that may suggest your partner has an eating disorder. Signs of anorexia include:
- Extreme weight loss
- Excessive working out
- Food restrictions
- Avoidance of social interactions (usually as a way to avoid eating in front of others)
- Extreme fear of weight gain
- Decrease in physical intimacy
- Mood changes
Signs of bulimia include:
- Large amounts of food disappearing in a short period of time
- Frequent bathroom breaks after meals
- Laxative use
- Weight fluctuations
Also note that people who are dealing with eating disorders often become preoccupied — even obsessed — with food, and can feel overwhelmed in situations where food is presented or is the focus; for example, a date night at a restaurant or a birthday party with cake, where they might feel they'll be "forced" to eat.
In addition to food being an issue, working out can become a major obsession as well. For example, anorexics may often work out for hours, pushing their bodies over the limit — especially given their limited caloric intake. You may see a bulimic doing a 10-mile run after a binge-eating episode, or begin a risky diet to help prevent weight gain.
Tips for how to treat a partner with an eating disorder:
1. Watching these things happen to someone you love is difficult, but don't become a "food cop" and intrude into your partner's eating habits, force-feed them, punish them with a lack of emotional support, or threaten to leave.
2. A better plan is to have a conversation about what you're noticing and to suggest third-party professional help. Find out what support your community may have by calling local hospitals and treatment facilities, and be willing to go with your partner to establish treatment. You may want to consider a support group for yourself, too.
3. Be careful of your words when dealing with someone who has an eating disorder. When a person suffers from body image issues, the smallest comments, even well-intentioned ones, can trigger a downward spiral or feelings of a lack of emotional control that feed the compulsion to control body weight. How one sees their own body becomes a major problem, and negative comments or jokes can contribute to extreme behavior.
4. Remember to weather the storm! A major issue for the partner of a person who battles an eating disorder is often the decreased desire for intimacy. Instead of feeling supportive and wanting to help, many partners feel rejected and unloved. This may cause them to miss the bigger picture, and not notice the depression and anxiety that can exist alongside an eating disorder — both of which contribute to emotional distance. Loving someone means that you are there through thick and thin. You can do it, but you don't have to do it alone.
Remember: Couples can love and persist through mental illness. Recovery from an eating disorder is possible with the right attitude and support.
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