Written by: Ashley Moser, LMFT, CEDS (she/her/hers)
Clinical Education Specialist, The Renfrew Center
Realizing your partner may have an eating disorder can be a terrifying experience. But the good news is that, as their partner, you are in the best position to help them get the help they need. Here’s how to start the conversation.
Approaching someone who exhibits symptoms of an eating disorder is a delicate task and can be especially so if that person is your partner.
Fear of how your partner will react and the impact on the relationship can often keep individuals from speaking up about their concerns. Though these fears exist, it is important to understand that eating disorders are one of the deadliest psychiatric disorders. These conversations, although often extremely difficult, are crucial.
In this post, we will review warning signs and symptoms to look out for and provide recommendations on how to be a supportive partner and address concerns from an emotionally-focused perspective.
Look For Signs & Symptoms of Eating Disorders
Eating disorders often hide in plain sight, so much so, that even partners in the most connected and committed relationships report not seeing the signs and symptoms early on. In addition, the pervasive messages from diet culture make it difficult to discern when the pursuit of health becomes excessive and even harmful.
So how do we know if our partner is struggling with an eating disorder? While not all individuals exhibit the same symptoms, here are the top warning signs to look out for:
- Obsession around food, weight, and shape.
- Distorted or negative self-image.
- Withdrawal from normal social activities, including meals with others.
- Unusual food rituals including cutting food into small pieces, eating slowly, eating unusual food combinations.
- Changes in mood including irritability, mood swings, depression, anxiety, or restlessness.
In addition to these behavioral signs and symptoms, partners may notice changes that impact the relationship. Eating disorders are disorders of disconnection and partners are likely to notice this shift. Below are a few additional warning signs that occur in relationships and may be an indicator of disordered eating.
Additional Signs and Symptoms in Relationships
- Changes in routine
- Disconnection or distance in the relationship
- Avoidance of physical touch and/or intimacy
- Changes in priorities
Connect & Attune to Your Partner
If you believe your partner has an eating disorder after reviewing the signs and symptoms, the most important next step is a ‘how’ and not a ‘what’. Most want to rush to intervene but miss the opportunity to create the foundation of emotional support needed to be effective.
Many who struggle with eating disorders feel guilt, shame, and alone in their disorders, making it difficult to disclose their struggles or converse openly about their symptoms. Creating a sense of emotional safety is important in any relationship but especially so for someone struggling with an eating disorder.
Below are a few ways to increase emotional support when you suspect your partner might be struggling:
- Notice: Feeling seen and heard are two primary and basic human needs. Share what you’re observing and check in with them about how they’re feeling. When you show your partner that you’re paying attention and you’re curious about what they’re experiencing, you’re meeting their needs and creating an environment of safety and connection. If you notice they are struggling, say so.
- Be Present: Let your partner know that you are here for them. That may look like sitting down next to them, holding their hand or verbalizing “I’m here for you”. Actively listen and validate their emotional experiences without judgment. Offer compassion and empathy for what they’re going through.
- Don’t Fix: Resist the urge to fix or rescue your partner from their emotions or disordered eating. This can unintentionally invalidate and discourage them seeking your support in the future.
How to Broach the Topic of a Possible Eating Disorder
Equipped with the knowledge of eating disorder signs and symptoms and increasing emotional support, will facilitate more effective communication when addressing concerns directly. Here are a few recommendations to start the conversation.
- Set The Stage
Talk to your partner in a calm state and free from distraction or interruption. Being empathic and caring is just as important as the content of the conversation itself. Choose a time outside of mealtime.
- Share Your Observations
Mention specific observations or instances that suggest your partner is struggling with disordered eating. Do not focus on appearance or weight; instead, focus on their emotional wellbeing and your care and concern for them. Be mindful not to assign blame for any impact on you or the relationship.
- Talk About Change
Help identify the positive reasons to change and the negative outcomes of staying the same. Change is difficult; focusing on what your partner values may be helpful in building motivation.
- Offer Help
While a strong support system is extremely valuable, professional help is recommended to address the eating disorder and any medical issues it has caused. If your partner is fortunate enough to access care, encourage your partner to utilize these services by making an appointment with their doctor and speaking with a professional to schedule an eating disorder assessment. Offer to help them look for qualified providers, and/or offer to accompany them to a therapy session or on a tour of a treatment facility.
- Be Patient Yet Persistent
Do not give up. Eating disorders do not develop overnight and breaking through denial can take time. Continue to encourage professional help and point out the benefits of change. This process might take more than one conversation. Consider seeking out the guidance of an outside expert for an assessment or intervention.
Approaching a partner with a concern is a delicate task regardless of the issue. Eating disorders can be challenging to address due to their ability to hide in plain sight and disconnect from even the most committed relationships. If you notice changes within your partner and relationship it is important to trust your instincts and address them. Taking an emotionally-focused approach will allow for the conversation to be more effective and help your partner accept the support they need.
The Renfrew Center is here to help. If you are someone you know is struggling to be an effective recovery support, there are resources and services available. Here are a few ways The Renfrew Center supports partners: