Is Binge Eating Disorder Affecting Your Relationship?

By Julie Kabat Friedman

Binge Eating Disorder doesn't just affect individuals, it affects relationships. When Binge Eating Disorder is left untreated, it can even destroy a marriage. The longer this behavior continues, the harder it is to stop. Take action today to take care of yourself. Take action today to support your partner.

Binge eating disorder doesn’t just affect individuals, it affects relationships. When binge eating disorder is left untreated, it can even destroy a marriage.

I work in a higher level of care setting (residential and partial hospitalization program) in which every patient is required to participate in couples and/or family/support person therapy.

Through the privilege of doing this work, I frequently see the devastating impact that eating disorders have on couples.

Binge eating disorder (BED) affects relationships in ways that are similar to substance use disorders – however, my patients often have little insight into the potential impact of the eating disorder on their relationship.

  • Binge eating disorder and substance use disorders are both correlated with mood and anxiety disorders. In fact, 85 percent of BED sufferers will have a comorbid mood, anxiety, or substance use disorder.
  • Binge eating and substance use are often used as a means to numb or avoid negative emotions and distressing thoughts.
  • Binge eating and substance use often feel out of a person's control and feed shame and guilt by inciting shame following engagement of the behavior which feeds the need to continue the behavior to address feelings of shame and guilt.
  • Patients sneak, lie about and hide behavior use and evidence of behavior use to keep their binge habits secret from the ones they love — similar to those with addiction problems

From a partner’s, husband’s, or wife’s perspective, this secrecy can cause significant trust and communication issues between the partners.

I often hear that partners want to help and/or be supportive, but have no clue how to do this in a way that does not incite conflict or embarrassment. Much of my initial work involves educating a partner about the disorder, improving communication and rebuilding trust between the partners, teaching means with which to effectively resolve conflict, and teaching partners how to better tolerate one another's negative affect by listening and supporting vs attempting to "fix" or solve their problems.

This initial work features the following foundational belief:

Patients have the power to heal and can harness that power when they are well supported and have appropriate care.

Binge eating disorder is about so much more than food and weight. There are so many components to BED, including emotional, physical, behavioral, medical and nutritional factors.

It is also highly treatable — with the majority of patients being able to sustain long-term recovery following appropriate treatment.

Below, we share tips for those struggling with binge eating and tips for their partners.

To those struggling with binge eating disorder

Believe that you can get better

Binge eating is very difficult to stop on your own and tends to cause problems with day-to-day life. In some cases, depression and body image issues become so pronounced that individuals neglect their own self-care. This combination of negative emotions and changes in behavior can reduce sexual desire, reduce physical intimacy and reduce emotional closeness — affecting you and affecting your partner. If you have given up hope that you can overcome binge eating — or if you have given up on your relationship, we encourage you to start small and tackle one step and issue at a time.

Let your partner know how they can help you

Often, your partner is willing to support you in getting the help that you need. Start a conversation to let your partner know how they can help you. A professional at an eating disorder clinic can help facilitate this conversation in session if you can not do this alone. Take steps today to get the help you need.

Start to build trust again

Binge eating is often done in secret and there is a lot of shame surrounding binge eating symptoms. Partners often pick up on this secrecy, causing damage to the relationship. I’ve seen husbands monitoring their wives’ weights. I’ve seen wives check their account balances to monitor spending on food. This level of secrecy destroys trust and often leads to both partners harboring resentment towards the other's "sneaking around" or "seeing and not caring." This can be incredibly difficult for both partners.

How to help a partner with binge eating disorder

Comment on behaviors and feelings, not weight

If you are a partner reading this, you may wonder how you can begin to address binge eating habits in your partner in a supportive, compassionate way. One of the best ways to support your partner is to not talk about weight. Commenting on your partner’s weight often puts them on the defensive, and they may further withdraw from you. Instead of talking about food or weight, try supportive statements like,

  • “I want to support you and I need you to tell me how I can do that"
  • “I’m concerned about you.”
  • “I’m worried; how can I help?” 

Don’t let your partner isolate

Individuals with binge eating disorder can be secretive and may begin to isolate and withdraw. If your partner starts to withdraw, your reaction may also be to withdraw. This is the time in which your partner needs you to approach — not avoid them. Let your partner know how much you care and do your best to be supportive.

Remember: you are not your partner’s therapist

If you are reading this, you may already suspect that your partner is struggling with binge eating. One of the best ways that you can help your partner right now is to be there for them. Listen to them and offer your support. But don’t try to rescue them or change their behavior on your own. Your job is to support your partner; a therapist’s job is to help your partner make positive, impactful change. Help your partner find a qualified therapist that is experienced in treating binge eating disorder.

Binge eating disorder requires long-term treatment

Overcoming binge eating disorder is not something you can easily do on your own. Just as people need specialized treatment to overcome severe depression and anxiety or a substance use disorder, people with BED need specialized treatment from eating disorder professionals skilled in working with this specific condition.

Above all, encourage your partner by validating their concerns, showing them that BED is a "real": disorder and not a byproduct of their lack of willpower. Encourage them to get treatment as quickly as possible vs. waiting for the disorder to get worse. The longer this behavior continues, the harder it is to stop. Take action today to take care of yourself. Take action today to support your partner.

Written by

Julie Kabat Friedman

Julie Kabat Friedman, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

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