After about six months of seeing Michael and Claudia for couples counseling, Michael called me up crying, "She won't stop, no matter what I do, I can't get her to stop, she's going to die! Please help me, how can I get her to stop? " Michael and Claudia, both 35 years old with two children had been together since they were 17 years old. Claudia had been bulimic for the past twenty years, but despite them being together for more than half their lives, Michael had only recently found out about her eating disorder, which is what brought them to me. He was angry, depressed, and felt utterly betrayed and helpless. He couldn't believe that Claudia had been holding this secret from him the whole time they'd been together.
It seems unlikely, insane even, that someone could actually hide an eating disorder from their partner for so long, but it's actually fairly common. Eating disorders notoriously thrive in isolation, so the eating disorder itself is going to make sure that it has vast amounts of privacy. It does anything it can to protect itself. However, if you find out that you've been in a relationship with someone who has an eating disorder, you might feel betrayed, helpless, angry, scared and a whole host of other emotions. That's normal.
Here are some important dos and don'ts for dealing with the situation.
1. DON'T try to fix it.
You, your relationship and your partner will all suffer if you take on the task of trying to fix them. You might be tempted to take on the role of Drill Sergeant, closely monitoring what your partner is or is not eating, noticing when he or she gets up to go to the bathroom, or even following your partner to the bathroom and trying to physically restrain him or her from vomiting. If your partner is under-eating, you might try to push him or her into eating, yelling at them or threatening them to start eating. This is not your job. This is going to create a huge amount of codependency in your relationship. It is also going to catapult your partner into a shame spiral, which will make his or her eating disorder worse. He or she will then become more isolated and in their behaviors while trying to hide it from you. This will pull you apart even more.
2. DO participate in couples or family therapy with an eating disorder specialist.
In my book Reclaiming Yourself From Binge Eating, I discuss how sometimes the eating disorder becomes triangulated into the relationship and gives the couple something else to focus on besides each other. Sometimes couples use the eating disorder as a way to avoid the health of their relationship. Couples counseling will help you focus on your relationship as well as teach you how to best support your partner through this. It will also help your partner understand how his or her eating disorder is affecting you. Your feelings and needs must to be addressed as well. Check out EDReferral or Something Fishy to find an eating disorder specialist.
3. DO encourage your partner to get individual help.
But don't force it. Just as you cannot fix your partner, you cannot force them to get help.
4. DON'T mention Your partner's weight or appearance.
Don't tell them that they have gained weight or lost weight. Aside from the "you're beautiful and I love you no matter what ..." don't engage with their eating disorder. Let them know that you won't be playing the "do I look fat?" game with them. Tell them that that is their eating disorder talking and you won't be answering. If your partner says "Do I look fat in these pants? Do you think I'm fat? Have I gained weight? I'm so disgusting ..." Just simply tell them that you love them very much but you are not going to be engaging in that line of questioning. It doesn't go anywhere and it just feeds eating disorder thinking and you are choosing not to align with their eating disorder. Keep Reading ...
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