How Eating Disorders Affect Relationships

How Eating Disorders Affect Relationships
Iremember speaking with a group of patients about our body checking rituals. We all know what they are. Hands around the wrist. Squeezing the flesh (not fat!) on our thighs. Measuring the waist. I mentioned how I used to find it a comfort to hold my hip bone in bed.  ‘Rather share your bed with a bone than a bloke.’, another patient said, flippantly. But I was struck.

It’s so true. Eating disorders have such a fundamental impact upon relationships. It is often a destructive, negative, limiting and brutal impact, and as relationships and connection are what makes life so worth living, it’s heartbreaking.

Relationships require energy and attention. Not only are energy levels often quite low, particularly for those with restrictive disorders, but all the energy is directed on food, weight and exercise. The mental space which can be used to build connection with others is taken up by thoughts of the eating disorder. A study looking at the treatment of those with severe and enduring eating disorders reports statistics on the subject population that are revealing, and very sad. In this study the average participant was 33 years old and had been ill for over 16 years. Roughly 60% had never married, 28% had children, 61% were unemployed and 51% reported no social relationship.

Eating disorders trigger and are predicated by a tendency for self-loathing and shame. Individuals know that their bodies may not be pleasing to others, or that their habits are not what would be considered normal, and so often put others at arm’s length to resist that judgement that may come. Dissatisfaction with the self may lead individuals to believe that they can not be loved anyway, and so not risk the vulnerability that comes with opening up to another person.

Isolation and separation are both a root and result of eating disorders, as individuals compensate for their loneliness by retreating further into the disorder, and perpetuating it.

Existing relationships will change. Friendships will alter as personality and vivacity start to wither as weight does. Quite apart from the number of social occasions which revolve around food – and no one likes to dine with someone pushing a salad around – people want friends who can engage and interact, rather than those who are obsessive, irritable and lost in their own worlds of the disorder. Judgments will be made about your capability based upon your weight, which causes difficulties at work and opportunities available as a result. It’s not just that friends and colleagues will not be having such an enjoyable time as before, as most people are not so focused on themselves and will try to help and reach out.

But in the throes of an eating disorder encouragement to cease exercising or eat more healthily can be the last thing that we want. Support feels like a challenge to the eating disorder, and so we stop forming relationships and push those we already have relationships with away. Human beings naturally do not want to be rejected, and so the healthy person who has had their support and help rejected time and time again may feel responsible, helpless, that their help is futile, and so give up.

A relationship once based on mutual support can shift to that of a carer-patient role, upsetting the balance of adult relationships, and resulting in unhealthy and stressful attachment.

It’s impossible to control how another person behaves or thinks, and for an illness that is so tied up with control this can be difficult. It’s particularly problematic when it comes to the uninhibited freedom of sex.

Ah, sex. Why is this such a taboo in eating disorder recovery. Literally, the bones become who we want to share a bed with. Many people with eating disorders struggle with sexual intimacy and a reduction in libido. There could be many reasons for this, but two stand out. There’s the emotion of body image, and how individuals who are so aware of their figures may feel about someone else seeing them. With such a distorted sense of one’s own body, it can be very difficult to consider that someone else may find it attractive. (Or just as complex and traumatic can be when someone finds an underweight body attractive, they know they  must gain weight, but are responding to these positive comments with disordered thoughts.) But there’s also very clear physiological reasons.

A starved body starts to switch off the non-essential functions – like the ability to have children, focusing the limited energy resources on heart and brain function.

If the body is barely able to look after itself, it cannot support the growth of another being. One of the key signs of anorexia nervosa in particular, is amenorrhea. The hormones which allow menstruation, particularly estrogen, need fat cells in order to be produced. When the levels of fat in the body fall below the levels needed for women, (21-33% for females aged 20-39 ) the fertility hormones are no longer produced, and as a result the desire for sex also falls. As far as the body can see, if you can’t have children, why do you need to have sex. Sexual satisfaction studies have shown that sexual satisfaction is inversely related to degree of caloric restriction and that the greater the weight loss, the greater the loss of sexual enjoyment. The good news is that increases in sexual drive accompany weight restoration.

It all comes down to priorities. Even if the person with an eating disorder does not explicitly acknowledge that their illness is the most important relationship in their lives, the fact that 90% of their thoughts, feelings and energy goes on it as pretty good indicator of the fact. There’s no room to find connection elsewhere. No space for intimacy. No opportunity to build meaningful relationships.

Which relationships in your life are important? Is the eating disorder the only connection you want? How would recovery improve your relationships? Leave your comments in the comment section below.

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11 Comments

  • I can say I saw this happen in my own life multiple times. Actually my long term high school/college relationship fell apart as my eating disorder started and since then I still haven’t been able to feel comfortable in a romantic situation. I just hope with time I will be able to find that balance and accept love again.

  • I agree this is such a major part of an eating disorder. I am 20 and have still never had sex or any kind of intimate relationship, due to my issues with my body. At this stage I feel like I never will! I really hope we can all find hope and love somewhere soon x

  • This is a really interesting article. I totally feel like I’m coming from the same place as Megan^ in terms of an ED and intimacy. I wonder if different disorders manifest in a variety of ways when it comes to relationships, though. For example, what about the relationship between someone with bulimia or OSFED (or even binge ED) that has to balance that with a toxic internal relationship with how they assume others (especially sig. others) will react to their body. Not sure if that makes sense!

  • I have a binge ED after years of dieting and it all went to hell after one year on and off a very low calorie diet. Now I am in recovery, my habits became much better (im doing intuitive eating) and my energy levels are better, I am working and studying and doing a lot of fun things… I mean Im getting better, Im winning the battle. But I am the fattest I ever been in my life. And I have a partner I love and he supports me but we dont have sex very often. My body image is very poor. I dont know what else to do to improve that. He says I should be patient since I improved so much, and I will get trough this stage too. But I wish more people talked about this because I really miss my sex drive and I havent felt good in so long… If you guys have any advice oor recomendations on books I could read Id apretiate it

  • I completely agree with this article. It’s well written and soooo true. Suffering from eating disorders through such a crucial timefor relationship and sexual development, like puberty and adolescence, I never found someone to be intimate with nor I understood why my friends loved sex so much.. Now that I’m recovered, I STILL don’t know how to trust someone enough to let them see my body, even when my thoughts don’t revolve around eating and calories and exercise, I am still hella insecure about it.

    Could you please write a continuation to this? Like how to develop relationships AFTER suffering from eating disorders ? That’d be great of you, thanks 🙂

  • In deed An eating disorder can affect relationships. And its something that could create conflicts, ruin and end valuable relationships. Thanks for this nice post. This will help people people understand that eating disorders don’t affect the person suffering from it but as well as other people around them.

  • Thank you so much for this article and all of your comments. Having love for my recently departed partner over minor issues and their seemingly frustrations with past and not so healthy choices, has hurt me deeply (I know I could have done more or different . I understand more now and hope she finds her balance and happiness as well as makes healthy choices . Love to all of you and you are beautiful!

  • Thank you for this article. I am actively in recovery, fighting every day. Just started dating a guy for about a month. I feel myself almost hitting a wall in terms of ability to connect because I have not disclosed the information to him yet. I feel myself holding back sexually out of not loving my body and worried what he might think. However, he has exposed issues to me and been very open about his cross he has to wear. So, I feel like a.) he deserves the same openness and b.) he seems like he would be able to understand and not judge. This is what is leading me to disclosing the information to him. I am not my eating disorder. But recovery is my life right now. I go to therapy twice a week, nutrition once a week, MD biweekly, support group once a week. I want to let him into my life and telling him I think is going to be part of it which is another reason to tell him. My third and final reason is this, I pick a happy life. I want a happy life and my eating disorder does not let me have it. This is why I pick recovery. It sucks and I hate it sometimes but I have to do it. And if he can’t be on board for it then it is better that we part ways now.

    It would be a great follow up article to discuss possible ways to open up about it when you are dating someone? Would be happy to contribute articles as well.

    Thank you for the inspiration.

  • Thank you so much for this article. I find touching my collarbones and hip bones reassuring but when my partner touches me I feel my bones and feel repulsed; how could he love this body? I see myself as a fit, attractive and strong (both body and mind) women but that’s not what the mirror or scales show. Sex is such a difficult topic for me having been sexually assaulted at 14 and raped at 18 and that’s without the fact I’m underweight. The thought of having children is so far from reality that it doesn’t seem like a possibility; I have a long journey. I have started the journey and embrace the obstacles which I come up against; recognising that moving forwards is not always realistic and sometimes a sideways step or failure is required to learn to be able to move forwards again. This website is a huge support and Jessica said something great in a podcast today about being fearful of situations and embracing them with a sense of curiosity. This is a warrior moment!

  • Strangely enough my sex drive never went away but actually decreased ss I became healthier and less confident in my recovery body.

  • My marriage has completely broken down after a traumatic 8 month period where ED has completely consumed my relationship with my wife. We have been together 10 years and I have recently learned that we have been living with ED for our whole relationship. We suffered a miscarriage in December last year and from then things have spiralled out of control. Following the miscarriage, my wife has suffered heavy depression and had suicidal thoughts. 2 months ago things came to a head and we made a decision to separate. I love her with all my heart but we are tangled in a web of pain and it feels like there’s no way out. Intimacy has been an ongoing issue in or relationship for the last 5 or 6 years. We always asked each other, is this normal? Do other couples go through this? We had a healthy sex life in the first few years of our relationship but things would go in cycles as the years passed. Sex for a couple of weeks and then months of no activity. For a few years we would still show affection to one another, hugging and keeping in close contact. But as things nose dived we became more distant and stopped opening up, communicating and being intimate. My wife admitted to myself and her Mum about a year ago that she had been taking laxatives to flush out her system. It became apparent that she had been doing this for a long period and it was greatly affecting her health. Over the last year she managed to convince her Mum and I that she could ‘handle’ the illness and was battling it or ‘coping’. How naive we were. We didn’t understand how big a battle she had on her hands. I want to support my wife. I want to have a future with her but it feels like she’s cutting off everyone around her. ED is winning. ED has taken over and I feel helpless. It’s so hard to make sense of what issue to tackle first and how to tackle it. No-one has any answers. Has ED affected our relationship all this time? Would we have encountered intimacy issues without ED? How can we ever rebuild our relationship? It feels almost impossible. I will never give up on my wife but it feels like I will have no choice in the matter. I have become worried about my own mental health in recent times but I’ve reached out and spoken to my family, doctor and I’ve called helplines to clear my head. I have learned a valuable lesson. Don’t bottle things up. Speak out. Communicate. I just wish my wife could accept the hand of help. She feels so distant from us all. It’s heart breaking.

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