Do you have a husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, son, daughter, best friend, or roommate who has some difficult food issues? Maybe they don’t eat all day – or you never see them eat, but then a whole jar of peanut butter seems to disappear. Maybe they often tell you that they’ve just started a diet – but then you find them alone in the kitchen decimating a birthday cake. Maybe you’ve been saving a special dessert for yourself in the refrigerator and when you go to eat it, you find that it’s gone. Maybe they’ve cried to you about their issues with food. Maybe they’ve even told you that they have an eating disorder, maybe they’ve promised that they’re done with this habit and they’re never going to do it again.
And then it happens again. You overhear them throwing up in the bathroom, you find that all the food in the refrigerator has gone missing — or you cook yet another meal that they just push around on their plate only to throw out later. And you’re so frustrated you don’t know what to do. You feel like you can’t keep anything that you want to eat in your own house, you wish they’d just stop doing this and you can’t understand why they just won’t stop. You wish they could just stop these behaviors.
The mental processes around eating disorders are extremely complicated to understand if you’re not in it. But here’s a way to understand a little better: Imagine saying to a cocaine addict, “you need to never do cocaine again.” And then putting a giant pile of cocaine right under their nose. That’s what it’s like for someone who is battling an eating disorder. Food is their drug. But food is everywhere, so the process of recovery isn’t as simple as just not doing it. It’s hard enough for cocaine addicts to recover without having people pile cocaine under their nose constantly… but for someone with an eating disorder, their drug of choice– food– it’s everywhere. And it’s life-sustaining and necessary. It’s impossible to separate yourself from it completely.
It’s not as simple as just ending your relationship with food because you can’t just walk away from food but you have to fix your relationship with it. Have you ever tried to fix a relationship? It’s hard work. It involves breakups, make ups, fights, lots of open communication, kindness, gentleness, relaxation time, and most of all EXTREME, RADICAL PATIENCE.
So when someone you care about is attempting to repair their relationship with food, they need not just patience with themselves, but they require you to be exceedingly patient with their process. It’s not your job to fix them or their issue, so you can just let go of that. But, it is important that you get your own support while your partner or loved one deals with their issue.
Here are 11 things NOT TO SAY to your partner or loved one with an Eating Disorder
1. Where did that gallon of ice cream go? I just bought it last night!
“You know where it went. I ate it. But when you ask this question—I just feel ashamed and I hate myself. I already feel terrible because I ate a whole gallon of ice cream. I’m so sick I can barely move today, but I’m also feeling like withering up and dying because I feel like such a failure.”
Better Question: Are you okay? Do you want to talk?
2. Have you seen your therapist lately?
“When you ask me this, it throws me deep into my shame cycle and I believe that there is something wrong with me… I’m unfixable… I need help… I’m too much for you. I’m unloveable… I need professional help. I’m beyond help.”
Better Question: I can tell that you are having a rough time right now, would you like to talk?
3. Were you in the bathroom throwing up? AGAIN? Did you eat and throw up that piece of cake I’ve been saving?
“Yes, and I feel mortified that you caught me. I’m so ashamed that I can roll up into a little ball and wither away. And I feel awful. And another thing— why is it that you can keep a piece of cake in pristine condition in the refrigerator for a week? What are you saving it for? It makes no sense to me that you can have a piece of cake in the refrigerator for a week without eating it. It makes me feel like I’m a totally strange and horrible human—because I can’t do that. I can’t have tempting food just in there because it tortures me. And the fact that you’re not tempted or tortured makes me feel awful about myself.”
Better question: Are you okay?
4. Maybe you should give up sugar
“Oh my gosh, how many times have I stopped? And most of the time — It’s all rice cakes and carrot sticks for me. But then—out of nowhere the beast comes out and tricks me and it will ravage you for a case of two-year-old Cadbury Cream Eggs that I can literally break my teeth on. Giving up sugar is not the answer– I am learning how to eat it in a healthy way.”
Better statement: What kinds of things are you working on in your recovery?
5. Have you considered going on a diet?
“Um… when am I not on a diet? I shouldn’t be dieting but I’m terrified not to! It makes no sense. But that’s all part of my disorder. Dieting always makes me act out but I’m afraid if I don’t diet, I’m going to lose all control. Which I do anyway… My mind is playing tricks on me and it’s a constant battle in my mind to figure out what the right thing to do is. Please don’t give me advice, what I need is to learn to trust my inner guidance, and when you tell me to do something else, it will make me believe that my inner guidance is wrong… and my inner guidance is where I will find my recovery. Telling me to diet makes me doubt myself and undoes all the work that I’ve done.”
Better question: How else can I support your recovery?
6. JUST EAT SOMETHING! WHY CAN’T YOU JUST EAT????
“I wish I could just eat like a normal person. But I don’t feel like a normal person. I feel alone, alienated and uncomfortable in my skin. Eating fills me with dread and angst and shame. I’m working on it. I really am– but this journey is so hard.”
Better question: I would really like to learn more about what happens when you think about eating, can you explain it to me? I want to learn more about this.
7. You just need a little self-control. Just don’t binge, it’s simple
“I have so much self-control that I’m frozen with control and perfection. I’m an absolute subservient to my self-control. So much so that eventually I crack and break in half and this sneaky piece jumps out of me and steals all the food when I’m not looking. It’s terrible and it feels awful.”
Better Statement: I know this is hard for you, I’m sad that you are going through this.
8. Do you know how hard this is for me to deal with?
“I know- I really do, it must be incredibly hard for you. But I need you to know that this really isn’t about you. My eating disorder is not about you, it’s about me. You didn’t cause it and you can’t fix it, so please don’t frustrate yourself. I know it’s hard for you to deal with. I know. It’s hard for me too. But please don’t try to make me feel guilty in order to shame me into stopping. I have so much guilt and shame around this and it just throws me deeper into my disorder. I just need your love and understanding.”
Better Statement: I’m here for you. I’m not going anywhere. It’s hard, but I support you.
9. I’m going to help you… just do what I tell you and eat what I tell you to and when I tell you to and it’ll be fine
“I know that you want to fix me because you love me. But it will make you crazy and it will make me feel like a failure and it will ruin our relationship. I’m not going to be able to do what you tell me to do. I have to recover on my own by helping myself. Please don’t try to fix me. It will break us both and we won’t be able to survive it. It’s not your job to fix me. Just love me and support me and be patient with me.”
Better Statement: Just keep going with your recovery- and let me know what you need. I can support you with love, patience, and kindness. If I have trouble with that, we can go see someone and talk it through.
10. Do you think you need to keep eating that?
“Please don’t be my food police. Because what I’m likely going to do is put the food away, die of shame right now, then come back and binge on it later.”
Better Statement: Everything okay? Do you want to talk? (If not– let it go)
11. Why is it taking so long for you to get over this?
“Because recovery is a long process. These patterns and habits and coping mechanisms have been formed for the past (10,20,30,40,50) years… and I have to actively work to change them. I’m frustrated with myself. And when you’re frustrated with me, it’s even worse. I just need your encouragement to keep going. I need your love and support, but most of all, I need your patience.”
What to say:
- How can I support you?
- What do you think you need?
- Should we go talk to someone together? (Like a Licensed couples counselor who specializes in treating eating disorders).
- It’s okay if you fall down—everyone falls down, you’re human.
- Do you need to talk?
- Come on, let’s go take a walk together and look at the trees. We don’t have to talk if you don’t want to. I just want to be with you.
- Are you okay? You seem stressed out—is there anything you want to talk about? How was work/school/your day…
- I love you no matter what. You are perfect, whole and complete and I support you.
What to do:
Ask your partner if there are any foods that they would rather not have in the house. Try not to be resentful if they can’t have say peanut butter in the house. Again—if your partner were a recovering cocaine addict, would you have piles of cocaine on the kitchen counter? Most likely not.
Invite them to have dinner. If they say no, don’t push it, but don’t give up on them.
Don’t engage in “fat chat” if they want to talk about how much weight they’ve gained or if they ask you if they look fat. Just say “I’m not going there.” Don’t corroborate with their eating disorder voice.
Don’t make comments about their body or anyone else’s body or body weight.
Don’t make comments about your own body, your own weight loss or your own eating.
Go in with them to see their therapist or an Eating Disorders Anonymous meeting and learn more about the disorder.
Don’t neglect yourself or your own needs to take care of your partner. Consider groups like Coda so that you can focus on yourself and your own needs rather than your partner. You need to remember your own self-care when you are living with someone deeply entrenched in an Eating Disorder.