Watching someone you care about struggle with an eating disorder, such as anorexia, bulimia, or Binge Eating Disorder, is difficult. It can be a helpless feeling to see them struggle with their body image and relationship with food, and you may feel like there’s nothing you’ll be able to do.
If you’re in a relationship with someone who has an eating disorder, which commonly co-occurs with Borderline Personality Disorder, here are five ways you can support both you and your loved one:
1. Don’t tell them to “act normal.” It’s true that their eating disorder behavior is abnormal. But telling them to “get their act together” is not going to work. Their tendency to overeat or starve is often rooted deep in their psyche and will require professional eating disorder treatment to overcome.
“You cannot force an anorexic to eat, a bulimic to stop vomiting, or a binge eater to stop eating huge amounts of food,” says Ellen Golding, MFT. Unhealthy eating behavior usually doesn’t go away without eating disorder treatment.
2. Arm yourself with knowledge. As with any other psychiatric disorder, it’s important to educate yourself on the eating disorder your loved one is struggling with, as well as eating disorders in general.
“There are many books written for loved ones filled with information on eating disorders and also tips and advice on how to best support someone with an eating disorder, what to say and do and also what not to say and do,” says Golding. “Eating disorders are still very misunderstood in today’s culture. A little education can go a long way.”
3. Remember the positives. There are pros and cons in every relationship. “It can be a natural tendency to want to ‘fix’ the issues that are causing discomfort; however, it is also important to emphasize the positive aspects of the relationship,” says Golding.
Your loved one’s eating disorder may be putting a strain on your relationship, but there’s a good chance your partner has positive qualities you can always bank on. Maybe they have a great sense of humor and can make you instantly happy when you’re down. Perhaps they’re a great cook and fix you dinner when you’re too busy.
“This balanced approach will help evaluate the relationship realistically, recognizing the negative impact their eating disorder has, while reminding them of the positive aspects they bring to and derive from the partnership,” says Golding.
4. Get support. It’s not just the person who is suffering from an eating disorder that needs support. The people around them need support too. Find a support group near you through the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) or seek help from a private therapist.
5. Encourage them to get eating disorder treatment. It’s hard to convince a person with an eating disorder to get treatment because they may not realize there is anything wrong with them. However, professional eating disorder treatment is the only way they are going to be able to overcome their eating disorder.
“While you think a loved one may need help, the person struggling will not, and sometimes cannot see this to be true. Try not to lash out with frustration, and understand that it is a very complicated disorder. It is normal for the person struggling to not want help, be unwilling to stop behaviors, and get very angry at any suggestion of help,” says Golding.
Making a relationship with someone who has an eating disorder work can be challenging, but optimism and understanding on your part can be helpful in sustaining it. “In the end, loved ones need to be mindful of their words, their actions, and their own eating behaviors, because they influence those around them, and can often add to the struggle of the person with an eating disorder,” says Golding.
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The difficulty usually lies in seeking help, as people with bulimia often feel profoundly ashamed of their eating habits and worries that if they do seek support, their problem will be dismissed. After all, how can one suffer with an eating disorder if they don’t appear emaciated or massively overweight? Sometimes the process of becoming bulimic is a slow one in which a person eats too much in one session, feels uncomfortably full, and purges in order to feel better.