Dr. Dana Harron is a practicing psychologist in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington DC. She is the founder and director of Monarch Wellness & Psychotherapy, a boutique practice that specializes in mind/body problems such as eating disorders, anxiety, trauma, fertility issues and depression. Dr. Harron enjoys working with couples and helping partners individually to understand eating disorders, find healthy boundaries and clarify communications (among other things). In this week’s blog post, Dr. Harron discusses what to do if your romantic partner has an eating disorder.
What can you do to support your spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend when they are dealing with an eating disorder? It seems like an impossible question. But there is actually a lot that you can do to be a loving and supportive presence as your partner heals.
It seems trite to say, but self-care is a mandate. Picture the time that you were your nastiest, worst self – yelling at customer service or hurting the feelings of people you care about. Think about what kind of care you were taking of yourself at the time. I bet you were tired, hungry, lonely or dealing with feelings you hadn’t processed, weren’t you? Now think of a time when you were your “best self’ – generous, loving and open. I bet your basic needs for self-care were met. Self-care needs include:
- Eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full
- Getting as much water as your body needs
- Getting as much sleep as your body needs
- Keeping your physical environment comfortable
- Time alone
- Time with friends
- Paying attention to your feelings
Understanding Your Partner
Learning as much as you can about your partner’s eating disorder will go a long way towards knowing how to be helpful. Understand the diagnosis, but don’t put too much stock in the label – many people have more than one eating disorder throughout their lifetime or don’t fit neatly into one category.
Instead, learn what types of behaviors your partner is prone to. Eating disordered behaviors might include not eating enough, eating too much, and eating bizarrely or non-food behaviors like changing clothes a lot, over-exercising, or looking in the mirror too much.
Don’t stop there, though. Talk to your partner about the emotional pieces of the eating disorder. These diseases are often tied to very difficult feelings such as shame, sadness and overwhelming anxiety. The emotional landscape is a little bit different for everyone, so the best way to learn is to talk to your partner about their particular experience.
Helping & Having Boundaries
It may seem like you should do everything you can to make your partner comfortable and happy, but some strategies of helping actually backfire and give the eating disorder more power. One common mistake is trying to reassure your partner about his or her beauty/thinness. It seems like a good idea, but actually this reinforces the idea that beauty and thinness are of ultimate importance. Instead, it might be good if your partner asks your opinion to ask if you can help them to soothe anxiety some other way like watching a movie or taking a walk.