Feeding Relationships in Eating Disorder Treatment
Typically, as an eating disorder grows stronger within a person, relationships with family members and loved ones can become strained and gradually diminish. In addition to the disordered eating behavior patterns that characterize an eating disorder, anorexia and bulimia nervosa also often carry with them a burden of shame and isolation.
Those suffering from these disorders hide their disordered behaviors, making excuses for awkward disappearances after mealtimes or not participating in mealtimes at all.
Hiding an eating disorder requires a great deal of secrecy. This can create social barriers between the person with the disorder and loved ones. Individuals with an eating disorder may distance themselves from those who may notice a problem if they are allowed any insight into the daily efforts to control weight levels.
An increasing number of physicians realize that it is not enough to simply help patients regain the weight they have lost. We have to help our patients recognize and cope with the psychological and relationship stressors that are common with an eating disorder.
Treat the whole person, not just a symptom
A unique study by Drs Ulrike Schmidt and Janet Treasure recently examined the range of interpersonal problems in patients with various types of eating disorders both before and after they participated in an intensive hospital-based treatment program.
The researchers recruited a total of 208 participants who had been diagnosed with restrictive anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa of the binge/purging-subtype. The participants were examined for eating pathology, symptom severity and interpersonal patterns, both before and after treatment.
The results of the study showed that there was a pattern exhibited among patients with eating disorders when it came to interpersonal relationships:
- Patients with eating disorders tended to display a nonassertive, submissive interpersonal style
- Patients diagnosed with anorexia of the binge/purging-subtype exhibiting more difficulties with social inhibition and nonaffiliation
- The patterns discovered among the patients were not constant, but changed over the course of the treatment
These findings highlight the importance of understanding interpersonal challenges and the importance of treating the whole person, rather than simply treating eating disorder symptoms.
If we can help patients to be successful in relationships during treatment, this may aid them in their recovery and help to reduce relapse rates after treatment ends.
Maintain your love and commitment
There is always hope for recovery for those you care for, no matter how deep in their eating disorder they may be.
Even though you may feel displaced in the relationship you once had, your continued presence in your loved one’s life can make a significant difference.
If you are at a loss of words or unsure of how to talk to a loved one with an eating disorder, choose to love and be committed to the person and NOT the disease. This love and commitment can be the encouragement they need to fight for their life.
The process of repairing relationships during eating disorder treatment can be a healing journey and is one of the most meaningful aspects of recovery.
Ileana Calinoiu, MD, is an Adult, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at Eating Recovery Center in Washington.