How Eating Disorders can Starve Relationships

Eating Disorders 

Eating disorders (ED) occur when there are interruptions in an individual’s behavior and feelings related to food, weight, and body image. Although both women and men can have an ED, they most often develop in women, during adolescence and young adulthood.  

In the U.S., 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinical ED at some time in their life, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. 

As a marriage and family therapist and health and wellness specialist, I have helped treat those who struggle with ED. I have witnessed the damage it can leave behind—not just in their lives, but also the lives of their loved ones.  

Anorexia nervosa is defined by extreme weight loss through self-starvation and/or through purging, which includes: vomiting, using laxatives, and exercising excessively.

Bulimia nervosa is defined by cycles of binge eating followed by purging through vomiting or excessive exercise. The individual’s weight may range from below to above average.  

One  may have symptoms of anorexia and/or bulimia without having enough qualities for either diagnosis. For example, individuals may engage in compulsive overeating or binge without purging. They may be also be preoccupied and distressed about their eating habits and they may gradually gain weight until they become obese.  

Eating Disorders “Starve” Relationships 

ED consumes one’s life through obsessive, negative thinking and behaviors. As a result, the ED starves the individual’s relationships with loved ones. This is partially due to the effects of starvation. When people are not sufficiently nourished, aside from thinking about food constantly, they suffer with depression, isolation and lethargy. This results in isolating, being  physically drained and compelled to engage in ED behaviors. 

Loved ones find ED extremely difficult to understand as they witness self-harming and starvation. Oftentimes, people in their life begin to become intrusive to try to get the person to eat or to stop purging. They are often met with resistance and resentment. In an effort to keep their weight and/or shape they pushed loved ones away. 

ED can develop when a person feels there is no other way to express their feelings. It becomes a way for them to avoid facing problems more directly and gives them a feeling of being in control when the rest of their life feels out of control. 

Feed Your Relationship by Getting Help 

Although ED can vary from mild to life-threatening, it’s rarely overcome without help. Yet, it’s commonly accompanied with crippling fear of getting help, as a result of the shame that person may feel. Loved ones can help free them from shame by encouraging them with love. 

Serious Distress Signals 

Distress signals can be identified as: fasting/restricting food intake; hiding/sneaking food; spending excessive time in the bathroom after meals; vomiting, taking laxatives, diet pills or other medications to lose weight; significant weight loss; fatigue; depression; lack of concentration; irregular periods, swollen glands/joints, broken blood vessels or bloodshot eyes; wearing layers of clothes—even in warm weather; and fainting. 

What Helps? 

Eating disorders need a multi-faceted approach, including individual family and group therapies, nutritional counseling, and medical monitoring. Depending on the severity, inpatient treatment may be necessary. Immediate treatment can expedite recovery. Treatment has a 75 percent recovery rate; the remaining 25 percent can result in chronic illness or fatality. Family’s participation in therapy can significantly improve the recovery, as their understanding and support is vital. The ED is a way to cope with complicated feelings, illogical thoughts and behaviors, and a way to try to gain a sense of control. The support of family and loved ones, combined with treatments, can offer hope to the individual suffering from ED, and help ensure their recovery. 

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Written by Whitney Hebbert, MSm LAMFT

Whitney is a therapist at the Spanish Fork Center for Couples and Families. She received masters degrees from BYU in Exercise Science and California Lutheran University in Counseling Psychology with an emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy. Whitney ran cross country and track at BYU and is an avid runner. She lives in Utah County with her husband and three children.