For anyone in a relationship with someone with or recovering from an eating disorder it can feel like there’s a third wheel in the relationship.
This is hard. Quite often the person you fell in love with disappears before your eyes. Quite literally at times. Eating disorders change our personality’s. Often we are very good at putting on a facade and this means intimacy and connection can suffer. It’s difficult to let people in.
My eating disorder had a huge impact on the relationship with my husband. I will expand a little on how shortly. However, navigating recovery together has strengthened our relationship.
Relationships are based on trust. They need honesty, vulnerability, availability and intimacy. But eating disorders chip away at each one of these values.
Honesty is important to us both. But eating disorders thrive on secrecy and shame. The longer time went on the more secretive it became and more shame I felt. As I fell deeper, vulnerability was replaced with a false exterior.
For pretty much the entire time my partner has known me, I have had some form of disordered eating. For a very long time I kept it secret. Which is preoccupying in itself. Navigating how to hide this part of me, prevent it being part of our relationship, inevitably meant with time it became the third person in it.
Why do we keep our eating disorder from you?
I hid my disorder, firstly because I thought I was in control and it “wasn’t a big deal” and secondly because I was afraid of his reaction. We often talk about our “disordered eating” to friends or colleagues by that I mean dieting, but it’s boring and so it was also something I didn’t think should be discussed at home. Diet talk is boring, so we probably spare our partners from this, until it escalates. I guess there was a part of me that did not feel open to the kindness he later showed me when I did share. It felt incredibly shameful. The longer it went on, the more shameful it felt and impossible to admit. Externally like many, I felt like I was doing ok until I wasn’t and so to admit “the failure” I was experiencing was too much. I saw myself as a high achiever, my relationship was part of this achievement. And so part of the secrecy is fear, which is complex and deep routed. But he has been patient. So so patient. Like saint status in terms of patience and that has given me space and time to be vulnerable again.
I count myself as incredibly fortunate, that once I shared what was going on with my partner he worked really hard to educate himself about eating disorders . He was so understanding and not once did he use unhelpful terms or statements such as “why can’t you just eat” This helped so much.
Obviously I can’t share his side but I can share what he did that really helped me with the hope it helps others finding themselves in a similar situation.
I think it’s important to know, it was not ever about trying to look good for him.
It is rarely about that, if you are a partner reading this. We are not starving ourselves, or whatever dysfunctional behaviour for anyone else. The never ending strive for perfection is for our own sense of control. If you’ve read my about page you’ll know it was a perfect storm that started my eating disorder and really about ‘control’.
I would compare myself relentlessly to others, colleagues, celebrities, public figures on tv, people in the street, friends or family members and ask him to assess (this was a big telltale of my body dysmorphia and preoccupation). It was infuriating to him, because even when he told me I was perfect, I never measured up to that image internally.
Now comparison is something we do not engage in. He does not entertain it if I ask a stupid question. He has responded with very helpful challenges such as “who am I speaking to, you or HH, what’s driving that” which often diffuses the thought. Helping me to see it’s disordered.
Even at my most resistant times towards treatment or moments where anosagnosia were prevalent, he never judged me. He saw me for me, and that I was being overshadowed. He separated me from my eating disorder which I reckon is hard at times. Not feeling judged is huge fear this. He probably did judge me at times internally but externally he never did.
Living with a partner with an eating disorder, poses many challenges. If I were a child, living with my parents, I would have likely been force fed. This dynamic is very different in an adult setting. Instead I had to be my own parent and he was my biggest support when I was literally shaking putting fork to mouth. He was brilliant at distraction. Distraction is a great tool. He would sit and chat rubbish, or make me watch something to grab my attention. Or just hold my hand.
We have navigated the challenges as a team. So I wanted to share the things that have helped me, because there is a paucity or resources or information for people living with someone as an adult with an eating disorder.
I know, I am lucky with my husband but if you’re reading this as a someone wanting to support someone there are things you can do to help. But also if you are that person, good luck and don’t lose hope.