Supporting a Spouse/Partner with an Eating Disorder: 10 Things I’ve Learned
Watching my wife struggle with her eating disorder was devastating. When she made the decision to enter residential treatment thousands of miles from our home, I felt helpless but hopeful. I had no idea what to expect. I had never been through anything like this before.
I wanted to be as supportive as possible during her recovery. Trial and error played into the process as we both navigated this journey.
Here are 10 things that I found to be most helpful during her stay in treatment:
1. Communication is going to be more important than ever.
Your spouse is going to be in a highly scheduled program all day, and she isn’t always going to be available or necessarily have time to talk. This is all part of the intensive therapy process, and it’s a good thing, but at times it might make you feel disconnected. Don’t take it personally.
It’s going to be difficult maintaining a sense of normalcy in your marriage because this isn’t a normal situation. Treatment is challenging and exhausting. Your spouse is going to spend all day talking about uncomfortable things, so keeping conversation light and positive is going to be really refreshing. Your spouse is also going to be living with roommates and trying to form positive relationships with them outside of program... give her some space to unwind with them as well. Scheduling a regular time to talk will be helpful for both of you because it can be hard to coordinate, especially if your spouse is in treatment in a different time zone.
2. Educate yourself about eating disorders.
An eating disorder is really complex, and origins can vary from person to person. Understanding how the eating disorder affects your spouse is really important because you are probably going to be their primary support. Your spouse’s eating disorder probably didn’t begin in your marriage, but there might be dynamics in your relationship that contribute to that struggle whether you realize it or not. Educate yourself about PTSD, and what recovery in a trauma-informed environment should look like because it’s only going to make recovery faster and easier when all of these factors are being addressed by her support team.
3. Take full advantage of your treatment center’s family therapy.
If your spouse’s treatment center has a family therapist that wants to work with both of you, do it. Inpatient treatment is going to present a lot of challenges, and a good family therapist can offer you invaluable help navigating them. Think of it as an opportunity to really improve your marriage.
4. Find a therapist and support for yourself as well.
A marriage is a partnership. Your spouse might be the one in treatment, but you’re in this together. The treatment center’s family therapist can be a huge asset for the two of you together, but you need someone you can vent to and get guidance from specific to your own needs as well.
This is going to be a challenging time, especially if children are involved. You’re going to need all the help you can get because your spouse needs the freedom to take care of herself right now so that you can all move forward together.
Guilt and self-punishment are intertwined with an eating disorder, so try to keep from dumping things on your partner, especially at this critical time. She already knows leaving you and your family is a burden, so take those daily challenges to your own therapist and people who support you. Giving your spouse the freedom to get the help she needs without adding to her stress is going to get her home to you faster.
5. Learn to be flexible. Recovery can be unpredictable at times.
Learning to adapt to changing situations on the fly is a really important skill. Eating disorders involve a lot of rigidity and adherence to rules, so exemplifying flexibility to your partner is only going to help her incorporate more of it into her recovery.
6. Leave treatment to the professionals.
One of the best ways to support a spouse in eating disorder treatment is to be her partner, not her therapist or her dietitian. Encourage her to reach out to those professionals if she is struggling with behaviors or nutrition. Don’t be the food police.
7. Warning: memory loss may occur.
Depriving the brain of proper nutrition can have some lasting effects, including memory loss. Don’t take it personally if your spouse forgets things. Gentle reminders without judgment are really helpful.
8. Give your partner some grace and remind her to give herself some, as well.
Eating disorder recovery is a messy and nonlinear process. There are going to be ups and downs along the way, but with the desire to get better and the right support team it’s an absolutely achievable goal. When things are trending in a negative direction, remind your partner how far she has come and how much she has already accomplished.
Relapse is not failure, nor is it starting over from scratch: it’s simply picking up where she left off. Remind your partner that you’re a team, and that she has your unconditional support.
9. Keep a sense of humor.
Your partner has sought out inpatient treatment because things have reached a crisis situation. Bringing some levity to a serious situation can help ease some of the tension. Some subjects are no laughing matter, so ask your partner if it’s ok to joke about something if you aren’t sure. Giving them something to smile about during a time like this is invaluable.
10. Remember that this too shall pass.
Things are difficult right now, but nothing stays that way forever. Remind yourself that when the going gets tough, the tough get going — and remind your partner of this when she’s having a difficult patch in her recovery. You can do this, and so can she. It’s easier when you do your best to work together.
While I never expected to be supporting a spouse in eating disorder treatment and recovery, I had no idea what would be needed to make our way together as she admitted herself to a treatment center. I just knew I wanted to give her all the support I could. Figuring out how to best do that was not easy and I often found myself frustrated with the process.
The patience required to see my wife through treatment and into recovery was great. I can see now that giving her the best possible support has strengthened not only her recovery but our relationship.
Dylan writes to advance the conversation about the importance of partner support in eating disorder recovery. He has been married to Vanna for 11 years and they continue to walk through recovery as a team.
Vanna works as a contributor for The Alliance for Eating Disorder Awareness, Project Heal, The Mighty, and NAMI. Follow her journey on Instagram. Read more from Vanna here.
Editor's note: This topic is relevant to all couples, regardless of marriage status or gender identity.