Supporting a partner with an eating disorder

If your partner has an eating disorder, you may be feeling lots of guilt, frustration and stress. You may also feel pressure to keep an eye on your other half’s eating habits and behaviours, and feel guilty and responsible if they have a relapse.

If you don’t have an eating disorder yourself, you may also feel isolated and confused about the situation and its effect on you and your relationship [1] [2]. There are some things you can do to help.

The term ‘eating disorder’ covers a range of conditions, including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder. They can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender or background [3], and can have a physical, psychological and social impact. However, it may help to know that you can play an important role in supporting your partner and possibly in helping their recovery [4].

Eating disorders can affect couples in a number of ways. Concerns about body image can lead to anxiety around sex, and reduced sexual desire [5]. Your social lives may also be negatively affected, particularly when planning activities that involve food (like going to the supermarket, preparing a meal or choosing a restaurant to go to). Your partner may worry about who will be at social events, what food will be available, who will see them eating, and the body sizes of those present [6].

But there are ways you can help your partner deal with these difficulties. Couples who educate themselves about eating disorders can learn to understand the experience better, and may be better able to support each other. Focusing on positive communication skills, such as listening, being open and being understanding, also helps. It is much better to use “I-statements”, than “you-statements”, as they will make your partner feel less judged. For example, try saying, “I’m worried about you” instead of “You are making me worried”.

Your partner may have received some support for their eating disorder (whether that’s therapy or less formal support), but partners and loved ones rarely report receiving help for themselves [6]. Beat currently provides fortnightly online support for loved ones aged 18 or over, as well as a Youthline for those under 18. Beat also has a useful and comprehensive guide on supporting a partner with an eating disorder

Although there are significant challenges for couples dealing with an eating disorder, it may help to know that others who have been through the recovery process as a couple have found that the experience has brought them closer together [6].

More information


Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity: https://www.b-eat.co.uk/

Adult Carers Online Support: https://www.b-eat.co.uk/support-services/online-support-groups/adult-carers-support-group

Youthline: https://www.b-eat.co.uk/support-services/helpline

Guide to supporting a partner with an eating disorder: http://tedsuk.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Supporting-a-partner-with-eating-disorder.pdf.

References


[1] Highet, N., Thompson, M., & King, R. M. (2005). The experience of living with a person with an eating disorder: The impact on the carers. Eating Disorders, 13, 327–344.

[2] Huke, K., & Slade, P. (2006). An exploratory investigation of the experiences of partners living with people who have bulimia nervosa. European Eating Disorders Review, 14, 436–447.

[3] Cosford, P., & Arnold, E. (1992). Eating disorders in later life: A review. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry7(7), 491-498.

[4] Tozzi, F., Sullivan, P., Fear, J., McKenzie, J., & Bulik, C. (2002). Causes and recovering in anorexia nervosa: The patient’s perspective. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 33, 143–154

[5] Pinheiro, A. P., Raney, T. J., Thornton, L. M., Fichter, M. M., Berrettini, W. H., Goldman, D., et al. (2010). Sexual functioning in women with eating disorders. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 43, 123–129

[6] Linville, D., Cobb, E., Shen, F., & Stadelman, S. (2015). Reciprocal Influence of Couple Dynamics and Eating Disorders. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 42(2), 326-40.

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