Written by: Chris Vara, LICSW, LCSW-C, MDiv (she/her/hers or he/him/his)
Eating disorders are disorders of disconnection. Those who struggle with eating disorders often report feeling disconnected from not only food and their bodies, but also from others.
How Eating Disorders Affect Relationships
Eating disorders, which often occur in combination with other mental health concerns, drive wedges between folx and their loved ones and thrive through disconnection. This can happen for a variety of reasons.
Isolation can sometimes be an attempt to avoid or minimize feelings of shame, guilt and anxiety, especially when someone is actively engaging in eating disorder behaviors. Isolation can also be a way to escape vulnerability. There might be strong urges to hide from friends, supports, and/or partners, both physically and emotionally, due to low self-worth, a diminished sense of purpose, and lack of self-esteem.
And yet, a powerful anecdote to eating disorders and other mental health issues is connection. So, how do we foster connection with people who are emotionally struggling and might be actively pushing others away?
10 Tips When Connecting with Someone in Recovery
Every person is unique, and every recovery journey is different. Here are some ways of connecting with loved ones who are struggling with an eating disorder and/or recovery:
1. Emotion matters more than logic
Remember that eating disorders present differently, but at their root they are all emotional disorders. The behaviors are essentially attempts to cope with or avoid emotional pain. Do not try to combat the eating disorder with logic by engaging in a debate. In doing so, you might unintentionally strengthen their hold onto eating disorder believes. No one wants to be told that their believes are wrong. Focus instead on validating your loved one’s emotional experiences. You don’t have to agree with the eating disorder thoughts to validate their emotional distress.
2. Be patient
Eating disorder behaviors can serve a variety of functions throughout your loved one’s lifetime. The only way to understand what it’s about for your loved one/s, is to be curious, empathic and patient. You may need to sit with not knowing if they do not have words to describe their experience or they simply aren’t comfortable or ready to share. Be aware that the function of the eating disorder may also change and fluctuate over time. If appropriate, express your willingness to participate in family therapy, joint sessions or support groups to better understand how the eating disorder impacts them.
3. They need you to listen, not solve
Although it is tempting to “fix” and it feels good to offer help, sometimes even the best-intentioned suggestion can feel invalidating. Most of the time, your loved one just needs someone to listen without any judgment.
4. Figure out what kind of support they need most
Sit with them and remind them you will be right there to support them in what they are going through. Show empathy rather than sympathy. Support looks different for everyone, so ask how you can support. Support comes in many forms and can be as simple as going for a short walk together or sending an encouraging text message after a meal.
5. Respect the seriousness of the disorder
Remember that eating disorders are not a choice. If wanting to recover and wanting to stop were enough, then treatment centers and mental health providers could close their doors. We can dream of this world, but the reality is that eating disorders cannot be fought with willpower alone. They are complex psychiatric conditions, and the treatment for them is equally complex. Encourage your loved one to seek out professional support, as well as a community of other folx in recovery. They do not have to walk this journey alone.
6. Help find higher level care if it’s needed
Given that eating disorders are not a choice, remember that eating and/or not eating is not a measure of success nor a sign of failure. If your loved one is struggling with reducing their symptoms and stabilizing their health, more structure and support is likely needed. Encourage them to seek professional help and get assessed for the level of care that best meets their needs. Offer to look up assessors or accompany them to their appointment if that would be helpful.
7. Communicate your feelings carefully
When communicating your concerns or expressing your emotions, always use “I” statements. Be mindful that immediately before, during and after meals are typically very stressful times for your loved one, so choose a quiet and calm place to talk about any emotional topics.
8. Know that your loved one is not alone, and neither are you
A lot of people experience similar pain – both emotional and physical. As humans, we need other people. Connection has the power to heal, and this could not be truer in recovery. While encouraging and supporting your loved one to get help from professionals trained in eating disorders, also seek out support for yourself (e.g., friends, support groups, therapists, etc.). Remember that you cannot effectively and sustainably support others if you don’t have your own support system in place.
9. Recovery isn’t a straight line
If your loved one is in recovery, know that recovery is not linear, nor is it perfect… and they do not need to be in order to be deserving of care and help. Slips can and do happen in recovery. Try to respond to these incidents with curiosity and compassion. Be mindful of your reaction when your loved one discloses a setback to you, as the intensity of your response might impact their willingness to share with you in the future. Remind them that these events are valuable opportunities to learn more about themselves and their recovery. Praise them for their honesty and encourage them to process the slip with their treatment team.
10. Do your homework
Educate yourself through appropriate resources. The more you understand about eating disorders, the more likely you will be a compassionate, understanding and supportive presence on your loved one’s journey.
Attempts to overcome the eating disorder alone reinforces isolation and minimizes the universal human need for connection. Eating disorders cannot easily survive when surrounded by a healing community of professional and personal support.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are not yet in recovery, please know that you deserve a supportive community and you shouldn’t have to do this alone. If you are fortunate enough to access professional care, give yourself and your loved ones the gift of asking for and accepting professional help. Let them know you want or need more support than they can offer you, not because they are not enough, but because you know that the appropriate level of care provides the specialized support and structure often needed to break the ED cycle. Your loved one/s can be included in your recovery journey in various ways. While they are being your partner/s and/or supports, professionals can do their job in helping meet you where you are at and get you where you want to go.
DID YOU KNOW…The Renfrew Center offers a virtual, weekly support group for LGBTQIA+ individuals in recovery. For more information about the SAGE (Sexuality and Gender Equality) support group, please click here.