January 24, 2018

“I’m a Binge Eater and My Partner Does Not Support My Recovery” – Dr. Ashley Solomon

get partner support in eating disorder recoverySeeking help for binge eating disorder often involves overcoming feelings of shame, isolation, and, perhaps worst of all, the fear that there is no end to this cycle.

Once you’ve recognized and begun to address your binge eating behaviors, it’s reasonable to want the people in your life closest to you – especially your partner – to support those efforts.

So, what do you do when your partner shows up after work with your go-to binge food? Or leaves you alone during what you’ve already told her is your most vulnerable time for binge eating? Or even tells you that that if you just applied some of the willpower you put towards your hobbies to your eating, this wouldn’t be such an issue?

For most of us, these behaviors by a partner elicit some serious frustration, or even resentment. They can even trigger the shame spiral that can be make further binge eating more likely: If he doesn’t even care about me and my health, then why should I?

We all know that that this defeatist self-talk isn’t helpful in moving toward recovery, but what do we do?

In working with patients with eating disorders and their families over the years, I’ve found that a few key strategies can help to reduce conflict and increase support for recovery.

1. Avoid assigning intention to behavior

Think about the behaviors that your partner does that trigger difficult feelings for you.  Try to distinguish the action from your interpretation of the intention.

You might even write this out to make it more clear to yourself. For example, you might write, “He doesn’t care about my goals and would rather watch TV than hear about the work I’m doing in treatment.” If you remove the intention, you might change this to, “He got distracted by the television when I was telling him about my session today.”

The purpose of this is not to let your partner “off the hook.” It’s only to acknowledge that when we start mind-reading and making assumptions about the intention of someone else’s behavior, it can create a really unhelpful narrative in our mind. That narrative makes it hard to work on solutions.

For example, if you believe that he doesn’t really care, you might not want to invite him to work on communication. But, if you acknowledge that you don’t know if he cares (maybe you haven’t even discussed this) — and all you know is that he left the room when the two of you were talking, you at least have a starting point for solutions.

When it feels appropriate, find time to communicate to your partner what you observed (the action) and how you felt. If this feels too tricky, or if you feel like your discussions end up in circles, consider meeting with an individual or couples counselor.

2. Recognize that your partner is also carrying a host of emotions

The four most common emotions that I hear from partners and loved ones of those struggling with eating disorders are these:
  • Fear
  • Shame
  • Hopelessness
  • Helplessness
These emotions are often understandable; watching your loved one suffer can be devastating.

Because most of us have not had great training in how to express our emotions, these feelings can end up being expressed in ways that just make things worse.

Fear can turn into denial that there is even a problem. Helplessness can turn into avoiding interacting. Shame can turn into expressions of resentment.

You aren’t responsible for your partner’s emotional reactions to your problem. And still, it can be helpful to you to remember that their behaviors may not be what they first appear to be.

Once you’ve acknowledged your partner’s feelings, it can help you build empathy and connection. If your partner’s feelings are impacting your relationship or her wellbeing, encourage her to access her own support.   

Encourage your partner to get coaching — to be an effective ally

Hopefully you’ve had the opportunity to read about binge eating disorder, work with a treatment team, and talk with others who are also struggling with this disorder. It’s likely that your partner hasn’t had this same chance. Your partner will need both education and direct coaching on how he can help you most directly.

For some, a partner might be highly involved in supporting their loved one’s nutritional goals, offering direct feedback or reminders. For others, a partner might need to learn to validate emotions and ask the right questions. No matter the specific role, you’ll need the opportunity to discuss what this will look like — together — and for your partner to learn the skills needed to implement what you decide. Family therapy with an eating disorder specialist is a key opportunity for this kind of guidance.

Resist the urge to do this on your own

For many, the instinct when faced with a seemingly unsupportive partner is to isolate their recovery efforts. Keep in mind that no one ever recovered in isolation! Eating disorders thrive in the darkness.

If you need support while your partner is getting up to speed or you are working through the challenges together, get the support you need. This could mean engaging in an online support group (like our Binge Eating Connection Facebook page), utilizing a friend or other family member as an ally, or seeking a more intensive treatment option.

Have hope that recovery is in your grasp

Recovery from eating disorders is admittedly hard work and often necessitates shifts in relationships. The hopeful news is that most people with eating disorders share that their relationships significantly improve with treatment. Finding support for both you and your partner can lead to brighter futures for you both.
 
Ashley Solomon, PsyD, CEDS is Executive Director at Eating Recovery Center, Ohio. 
 
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