Overcoming an Eating Disorder in Mid or Later Life - Part 2 - Partners & Spouses
Updated: Oct 28
This is the second post in the series about overcoming an eating disorder in mid or later life and the different considerations you might have to factor in. If you would like to read part one which was an introduction to the topic and covers the importance of self-belief, trusting you are not 'too old' and the identity crisis that you might face, then you can do so by clicking here. This post covers the extra considerations or possible challenges there might be if you have a partner or spouse, which I know that many of you do. And for those who are single and living alone—in a future post I'll talk about the specific extra considerations you might be facing, so please don't feel ignored if that's you!
For those of you then with a partner or spouse to consider as you are also working hard to overcome a restrictive eating disorder, let's be real for a moment… the addition of your other half can probably act as a help or a hindrance depending on the situation and day of the week. But in all seriousness, whether it's easy to recognise and admit to it or not, the eating disorder will have a big impact on your relationship and effect the dynamics within it.
How an Eating Disorder Can Impact on a Relationship with a Partner or Spouse
Eating disorders can impact on a relationship with a partner or spouse in a number of ways, some of which you might be able to recognise in your own relationship and others you won't. Below are just a few ways that your relationship might be effected:
Food is a key part of day to day life for any healthy individual and sharing food and meals in a home and as a couple is a very normal thing to do. It can be a way to relax together, de-brief on a day, perhaps enjoy pizza while watching Netflix or have a lazy breakfast in bed on a Sunday morning. When you have an eating disorder, so much of this can be effected. Meals can be occasions of high stress; you might unwittingly be very controlling over the food in the home and particularly over your own meals and portions. Movement compulsions might also make sharing a meal on the couch or breakfasts in bed an impossibility. All this can make your relationship less flexible and 'easy' than it might otherwise be for both of you.
For some, an eating disorder can put pressure on your partner to take on more of a carer's role, providing support with each meal and snack. In addition, it might be that you find it very hard to eat more than your partner or eat if your partner isn't and this can then put pressure on them to eat more than they might otherwise. This can quickly become unrealistic and unsustainable when you are abstaining from all restriction from your energy deficit state and eating your way to energy balance and health!
Eating disorders, particularly when you are going through the process to overcome one, with the withdrawal symptoms and effects that can occur as you do so, can turn you from a normally seemingly calm person into a snappy and unpredictable fireball of irritability and agitation at times. This might be worse in moments when food is around or when you are really trying to push yourself to eat more or to stop other compensatory behaviours, which is pushing your brain into a heightened state of 'threat response'. When one partner in a couple is in a constant state of high anxiety, with coinciding irritability, it can put pressure on even the strongest of relationships.
When you have an eating disorder, 'date nights' can become a threesome as the eating disorder tags along and helps determine what and where the date will be, what foods will be consumed and whether it will involve much in the way of sedentary-ness. This means that what you do together as a couple is often dictated by you (and the eating disorder) rather than by what your partner or spouse might really enjoy.
A key part of many romantic relationships is sex. A lot of people with eating disorders (irrespective of gender) who are in a state of energy deficit can experience a dramatic drop in libido. If this is the case for you then it can put a strain on your relationship if your partner then feels rejected. Or, even if your libido remains healthy, you might feel more self-conscious in your body, especially when it's changing with the necessary weight gain as you are emerging from energy deficit and finding your set point weight, which then impacts on your willingness to be intimate.
Eating disorders turn most into little balls of being constantly on the go—doing the housework, sorting the children out, taking on the household admin, walking the dog—all in ways that are compulsive and very hard to stop but which many don't recognise as being a part of the eating disorder. Your partner or spouse might have become very used to you doing so many of the chores and home or family responsibilities. It can then be a shock to them and hard to adjust when you are overcoming the eating disorder and necessarily stepping back to abstain from more of these chores and responsibilities that you used to do so compulsively and effectively. In this way, dynamics in the household and the general sharing of responsibilities between you as a couple might need to shift, taking adjustment and acceptance from both of you.
Where you do need to take a step back from doing the housework and other chores that involve a lot of lower level movement or if you need to take time out of work in order to focus on overcoming the eating disorder, it might leave you feeling that you are putting more pressure on your partner or spouse to do more of the chores or be the breadwinner for a time, perhaps creating feelings of guilt or strain on you, which can then impact how you feel in the relationship.
If you engage in behaviours such as purging or laxative abuse, your partner or spouse might find it very hard to understand. Restriction and exercise can often be wrongly encouraged or 'applauded' by family or society, even when part of an eating disorder, but purging through vomiting or laxative use is rarely understood and can even be met with anger by a partner who just doesn't 'get it'. This can then add to a sense of shame that you might experience and create more tension within your relationship.
The scarcity mindset can also impact on a relationship. Perhaps you are very controlling of the money that you have as a couple and how you spend it. Or it might be that you try to control the household use of food or other resources, even when you can afford them, which can also add more strain onto a relationship.
It's also important to be aware that your spouse or partner might well be feeling unsupported themselves. Support is available to individuals with eating disorders if they choose to find it and to parents of children with eating disorders. But the partners of adults with eating disorders face very unique challenges, trying to support their loved one but not knowing if they are 'doing it right' and often they will experience high stress and emotions of their own as a result.
There are many ways that an eating disorder can impact on the relationship with your partner or spouse, and it's important to remember that you are on the same 'side' when it comes to you overcoming the eating disorder and finding more life freedom, not just in your own life, but to you as a couple and family too.
So, how do you manage these very unique challenges that can arise from being in a romantic partnership when also juggling the process to overcome the eating disorder?
Tips to Manage Overcoming an Eating Disorder When You Have a Partner or Spouse
Firstly, don't expect your partner or spouse to 'get it'. Many people with eating disorders can recite eating disorder 'recovery' information very impressively as a result of consuming so much content from different sources and platforms in a bid to 'think' their way to being recovered. Your partner doesn't consume this information in the way you do because, despite it being a key concern for them, it isn't their primary concern in the way it is for you. Don't expect them to always know what you 'should' be doing, the right thing to say or how to guide and support you. Someone who who has never had an eating disorder can't begin to understand how complicated and bewildering an eating disorder brain is to live in and your partner just can't know. But they also don't have to. Your partner or your spouse is your partner or spouse. They are not your carer, coach or therapist. Keep them on an equal level of partnership, stay empowered and avoid putting pressure on them to 'treat' you through this process.
Self-empowerment and its importance when overcoming an eating disorder is something I write about often. As the one ultimately 'doing recovery', it's critical to hold onto your self-empowerment and to own your process. You decide what this process will look like, what support you need and how you will get that support and use it. Discuss these things with your partner and educate them so they understand why your not going for a walk right now does matter and does make a difference. Help them understand why you do need to keep eating what might seem 'extreme' amounts and that weight gain to a 'healthy' BMI is not equal to being recovered physically or mentally. They need to understand these things but at the end of the day, whether they can 'get it' or not, this is something you have to find the strength to do anyway.
Discuss the changes you need to make for your process to recover with your partner because, whether you want it to or not, it will impact both your lives. It's likely to change some of the household dynamics when it comes to roles and responsibilities for a while. While going through this process, you are also likely to become an emotional rollercoaster at times—swinging between high anxiety with irritability and possible anger, tears and low mood, indifference and feeling very flat, as well as times of being more upbeat in mood and exhilarated than they might have ever seen you. Warning your partner that these emotional changes are to be expected is going to be important and reassuring them that if you do get snappy or irritable, it is not really them you are mad at—it's just that you will be feeling overwhelmed and threatened by small things while your brain tries to adjust to all these changes being asked of it in the eating disorder-bashing process.
Avoid putting the burden onto your partner to 'make you better'. Your recovering or not is not down to them. Decide the changes you will put in place to ensure you can start to abstain from restriction and other compensatory behaviours and talk to your partner about what support from them would help and is practicable for you both. But then you own it and if they forget or can't put in the support that you wanted or feel you need, avoid getting angry at them or blaming. This is a hard and emotional process for them too and they also have their own emotions and stressful lives to manage.
Don't expect your partner or spouse to eat to match your eating or to rest as much as you need to in the process you are going through to overcome the eating disorder. When you are abstaining from restriction and compulsive exercise and movement habits in order to emerge from energy deficit and reprogram your brain, your needs will be greater than your energy balanced and non-disordered spouse or partner. You need a lot of food and rest to heal. They need what their body is asking them for. Many people have been so used to eating less than or the same as their partner for so many years, that to suddenly be eating a lot more is an extra layer to the feelings of 'wrongness' that come from eating much less restrictively. You are going to need to accept that you will be eating the most in the household for a good while if you are to get out of energy deficit and respond to all your hunger. This might feel 'wrong' but you can do it and be proud of your appetite! The same for exercise—your partner doesn't (presumably) have issues with compulsive exercise and movement tied into a powerful eating disorder. You do. If they usually enjoy exercising as a way to get time to themselves or to move their body then they can do that without it harming them mentally or physically. You don't have that luxury right now. So, as hard as it might be to watch them go off for a run or to the gym while you are having to stay on the couch with more food and hard to tolerate exercise withdrawal symptoms, you are going to need to accept that it is what it is and if you can get through this, you will be bulletproof in future.
If your libido has been low or up and down, reassure your partner that it's not them that you are avoiding but it is part of the eating disorder, a response to energy deficit, and that going through this process to overcome it will bring back your sexual appetite, as well as your appetite for all kinds of things! Have those conversations with them about the intimacy side of your relationship so they don't feel rejected and hurt or think you find them less attractive than you once did. And perhaps warn them that the libido revving up again for some people can be powerful so they might need to be prepared!!!
If you do need to take time from work and that impacts the household income, avoid engaging in feelings of guilt or shame about this. This is a brave choice and a very necessary thing that is likely to positively impact whether you do make progress to overcome the eating disorder or not. Remind yourself (and your partner) that this time out is needed so you can be and do so much more in your future for and with you both.
Another thing to remind yourself of is that as you are rewiring your own brain to overcome the eating disorder, your partner needs to rewire theirs too. This sounds odd but it is very much the case. It might be that you have had an eating disorder impacting on how you behave, think and look for years while being with your partner. Perhaps your partner has never known you without an eating disorder impacting on your identity. They will be accustomed to automatically thinking that 'Alex doesn't eat cakes', 'we can't eat at fast food restaurants because Alex won't' or 'Alex will be going for a long walk with the dogs round about now'. In fact, they probably don't even have these as conscious thoughts anymore and they are more likely to be hardwired expectations because it's what has been the 'norm' between you for so long. Therefore, you need to forgive your partner if, when they are busy and distracted, they forget that you are trying to change. Don't get mad with them that they forget to invite you along to McDonalds when they are taking the kids, when perhaps you haven't joined in with them once in the past 5 years. If your spouse is sitting at home and assuming you will be walking the dogs, don't get annoyed and instead gently remind them of the agreement you had that they would do the dog walking for now. Over time you will find that their brain's rewire to the new you and probably faster than yours does but it will take some reminding from time to time and avoid letting yourself fall into rabbit holes of thinking they don't care because they still 'expect' you to be as you were with the eating disorder.
If they are open to it, give your partner or spouse information about why you might be acting in the slightly 'crazy' ways that you are—many don't realise that a scarcity mindset and difficulty spending money or using other resources is a key part of an eating disorder. Your partner or spouse might never have had information about what drives a person to purge through vomiting or use laxatives as part of a restrictive eating disorder and the fact these behaviours are very addictive to someone effected. Help them understand by giving them resources that will help them to understand why you do some of these things that just seem a bit 'crazy' or controlling to an onlooker. I know that many spouses and partners doing all they can to support their loved one also read my blog to inform themselves, and so if that is you -you are incredible and your partner is a lucky person!
Allow your partner or spouse time out and check in on how they really are too from time to time. It can be lonely to have an eating disorder when no one else 'gets it' but it can be lonely too to be the partner or spouse trying to support someone with an eating disorder, scared to be 'getting it wrong', exhausted by the ongoing emotional energy it can take. Encourage your partner or spouse to talk openly with you and for them to take time for themselves when they need it too, doing things they enjoy to decompress…. and don't forget to tell them you love them and appreciate them as often as you can - we all need to hear that.
One more thing to mention is that many people going through the process of overcoming an eating disorder, will start to connect more deeply to their authentic selves and parts of themselves that they might have kept suppressed for years through the eating disorder numbing them and not allowing themselves to show the world who they really are and want to be. Therefore, as you overcome the eating disorder, it's possible that you will grow as a person and become who you always should have been but that connecting to the real you will impact on your identity, personality and characteristics. This is hopefully only going to be a positive thing in your relationship with your partner or spouse too as they feel they are finally knowing the person they had never been allowed to have a full connection with before but it might be that it can create more challenges in the relationship. In a few cases, you might begin to wonder if the relationship is right for you or for your future and for a minority of you, the eating disorder might have been numbing the fact that you were unhappy in your relationship and maybe even felt trapped. Where this is the case, I would say, don't make any quick decisions about anything regarding big life changes while still gong through the hard process of overcoming the eating disorder, reconnecting to your authentic self and your true inner values and wants. But if you do think that you might want to separate from your partner and that is going to be key to your recovery, then perhaps consider a time out while you do reconnect to what you really want, rather than cut everything in the relationship when you are still unsure… The caveat to that advice would be if you are in an abusive relationship, in which case, please get out and seek support from the right people.
This point above isn't there to bring a downer on the post at all but just to say that your individual authentic self is likely to evolve and thrive to fill the gap as the eating disorder is pushed out and that will hopefully be a wonderful thing for and your partner too but it might also pose more challenges to navigate as a couple, which I don't doubt that you can.
This has been a lengthy post as there is a lot to consider when you are overcoming an eating disorder and you have a partner or spouse. The information here has only scratched the surface of everything that might need to be considered in your case.
When I was preparing to write this, I did ask the partner of someone who has an eating disorder and is going through the process to overcome it what they have found to be helpful and tips they would give other partners in this situation. Their advice was to give your partner space. Allow your partner the space to own their recovery and to understand that you can't do it for them… that you can help when needed and call it out when you notice the eating disorder is getting the upper hand but ultimately, it is up to your partner to do their recovery and nagging them won't help. I think that is very wise and critical advice and it will help protect both of you in the relationship and so you both have clarity on responsibilities when it comes to eating disorder-bashing. The partner with the eating disorder agreed with this and also highlighted the importance of allowing yourself to be vulnerable in your relationship and have open and honest conversations as a couple about the eating disorder, the recovery process and the impact it is having on both of you. You both matter equally and as I said at the beginning, it's important that the two of you are the team in this and on the same team in beating out the unwanted third party in your relationship—which is the eating disorder.
**For more information on eating disorders and how to overcome one, please don't miss my newly available books,
The information for this post was largely taken from Addicted to Energy Deficit.
If you like to listen, as well as (or instead of read!) then this blog post is the transcript of a podcast episode which you will find on my podcast series,
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