A spark of hope; a light at the end of a very dark tunnel; a wish that the walls would come down, allowing connection to flourish again. This is what it feels like when a person you love is seeking treatment for an eating disorder
Treatment is very hard work, and not just for the person with the eating disorder. Partners and parents struggle tremendously as their loved ones get well.
Those of us who have loved someone with an eating disorder know just how painful this can be.
Growing in the shadows of disconnection, eating disorders can create walls
instead of bridges between you and the person suffering. When an eating disorder affects someone you love, walls can build between you and others in your life as well.
It’s stressful to watch your loved one navigate the twists and turns of recovery, and particularly so when you when you’re navigating all of this too. For instance, it’s not easy when:
- A team of professionals asks you to do new and unfamiliar things
- You pick up extra responsibilities that your loved one can’t manage while in treatment
- Being in treatment poses financial challenges for you and your family
Add to this uncertainty, fear, and desperately hoping your loved one gets healthy; you’re left in a state of utter exhaustion.
And one thing is for certain: exhaustion is not an ideal state in which to cultivate a healthy relationship.
So how can we strengthen our relationships with our partners when it is our partner or our child
who is in treatment?
What to do when your child is in treatment
The first thing that we must acknowledge is that parenting a child with an eating disorder is not normal parenting.
Even if you and your partner have raised this child or other children together for years, you can go ahead and throw out the playbook.
Expectations are going to have to change when your child is undergoing treatment for a serious illness.
Previously, you may have had routines and systems that helped your family run like a well-oiled machine, or maybe you never even needed them. But when a child is sick, appointments, meal structure, and, yes, general chaos, will throw the system – or lack thereof – out of whack. This is absolutely okay.
It’s important to remember that this will not be forever. Most kids get well and stay well, and your family life and partnership can resume in a very functional way.
In the meantime, though, it is so important to develop and maintain rituals with your partner to protect and preserve your connection — a connection that may be vital when it comes to co-parenting an ill child.
Rituals you and your partner can try include:
- Spending ten minutes a day asking about the most rewarding and most challenging parts of each other’s days
- Watching a favorite show together
- Simply giving one another a hug before separating for the day
Date night might feel out of the question at this point, but consider whether it has to be. Prioritizing time together is part of helping your child heal, because it will strengthen your bond and allow you to effectively tackle the eating disorder together.
It’s okay to have feelings of guilt about enjoying yourself or spending time away from responsibilities. Give guilt a seat at the table – just remember to focus on your partner across from you as well.
When raising a family, it takes a village. You and your partner don’t have to go it alone. Enlist the help of family and friends to remove extra burdens if they can:
What to do when your partner is in treatment
- Accept the meal your neighbor made
- Ask your sister or a neighbor if they can help with after school activity drop-off
- Hire a babysitter — even if you just go on a walk
When your partner is working toward their recovery
, you might feel a range of emotions, from proud to frustrated to hopeful to disconnected. If your partner is away from home at treatment, these feelings might be even more amplified. These feelings are common and 100% acceptable.
The distance or process may feel like it’s pulling you and your partner in different directions, but you can choose to stay grounded knowing that recovery will lead to a deeper and more genuine connection between the two of you.
As hard as it may seem, you can choose to use this time to restore yourself
. The eating disorder has likely taken a heavy toll on you as a partner, and the opportunity to recover the lost or broken parts of you is invaluable. This might seem extremely difficult if your partner’s treatment is requiring you to “pick up the slack” at home, but it’s still possible to find ways to nourish yourself. You could try:
Whatever nurtures you will not only serve you, but will ultimately strengthen your relationship as well.
- Going to counseling during this time
- Reconnecting with old friends
- Reading a book that’s been stuck in the drawer of your nightstand
Practicing gratitude with your partner can also be a wonderful tool for connection. You might:
- Place a jar in your bedroom where, daily, you each put a slip of paper that shares what you are grateful for that day.
- Verbally share a part of your day where you learned something with one another.
Finding opportunities to build connection around gratitude and meaning can deepen your relationship.
During the process, keep in mind that the eating disorder may be keeping your partner from being able to fully receive or communicate love. But that doesn’t mean that your compassion and care are not having an impact. Stay grounded in the fact that your love is important and meaningful to your partner.
And lastly, recognize that the goal of treatment is actually not to get back the person that you once knew, but in fact to fall in love with a healthy, vibrant person. For some, the illness has been going on so long that the relationship was established with someone who was already very sick. Recovery means that your partner may change — sometimes, quite a bit. Use this as an opportunity to discover new and exciting things about one another.
You are not alone
Our hearts go out to the partners and parents who are holding families together so tightly while their loved ones are in treatment. This journey is hard, yes, but with faith and commitment and hard work, recovery is possible.
One of the best gifts of recovery is that it allows us to uncover the most genuine versions of each other — enhancing our ability to connect.
Ashley Solomon, PsyD, CEDS is Executive Director at Eating Recovery Center, Ohio.