5 Ways To Help A Partner With An Eating Disorder

by Gina M. Florio

Wrestling with an eating disorder can be a lonely endeavor. People coping with eating disorders often feel alone and misunderstood, and it doesn't help that we live in a society that champions a certain body type above all others. When someone suffers from anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder (BED), or another eating disorder, it's of great importance that the people close to them are on board and ready to lend a helping hand. There are 20 million women in the United States who have been diagnosed with an eating disorder — and none of them should have to go down the road of recovery alone.

I've struggled with binge eating disorder (BED) for years and most of my battle was fought alone, in the dark. It is a debilitating feeling, knowing that nobody else could see that side of me. When I finally found someone who could understand where I was coming from — and didn't care in the slightest bit that I wasn't perfect — it changed the way I faced my disease. I suddenly felt like I was capable of so much more.

If your significant other is dealing with any kind of eating disorder, you, like my partner, have the ability to bring light into their life. You don't have to be flawless in order to help them — in fact, you'll probably stumble a couple times and say the wrong thing. But don't let that stop you. You've got lots to offer. Here are 5 ways you can help your SO with their eating disorder, because they need you in their corner.

1. Use Positive Language About Food

When it came to coping with my eating disorder, half the battle has been reframing the way I think about eating. It's an especially tough thing to do when everyone around you is gabbing about weight, body image, and the low-calorie, high-protein, sugar-free breakfast they had that morning. As an important person in your partner's life, you can quiet this kind of noise by using language that isn't destructive. When you talk about food, steer clear of chatting about diets; many experts say an unhealthy way to address an eating disorder.

Speak of food as it's meant to be spoken about — as delicious nutrition that gives us energy. Try not to harp on the list of stuff that shouldn't be eaten; the negative association might make your partner feel guilty about what they previously noshed on or what they're craving now. Dietitian Molly Kimball told the Times-Picayune that partners of people struggling with eating disorder should not to be "the food police." Instead, try to come up with healthy options that your partner can eat. Surprise them with new dishes or make stuff for them you know they will enjoy.

2. Get Help

Support comes in many shapes and forms, whether it's a licensed psychiatrist or a non-judgmental family member. As much as you wish you could take away your SO's pain on your own, you have to reach out and get help in order to give them what they truly need. Contact some professionals in your area and talk to friends and acquaintances who have experienced similar difficulties. Even if your partner doesn't end up seeing a therapist regularly, you can find them a solid group of folks who will encourage them, reminding them that they're not alone.

Symptoms of an eating disorder can be similar to those of clinical depression, including fatigue and loss of interest in everyday activities. This means that your partner may not be in the head space to actively ask for help. Keep an eye out for them — in other words, have their back — and don't shy away from bringing their support system to them.

3. Learn More About The Disease

You don't have to be an expert in the field of psychology to support your partner. It simply takes a little initiative to educate yourself about what they are going through. Although you may never experience one yourself, reading and learning about eating disorders will help you cultivate more compassion and understanding. The first step in helping your partner is understanding that they did not choose this for themselves, just like nobody opts to have schizophrenia or agoraphobia. Unfortunately, many people are still under the impression that people with anorexia or bulimia are attention-seekers; but by filling up with the proper information, you can avoid falling into that mindset.

The National Eating Disorders Collaboration suggests you develop an understanding about the treatment options available. Familiarize yourself with what's out there, and figure out how you can make it accessible for your SO. By taking these initiatives, they will see how much you care, and they might be more motivated than ever before to take action in their own recovery.

4. Shower Them With Love

Your sweetie needs to feel positive emotions now more than ever, so turn on the affection and shower them with devotion. Self-esteem isn't very high when mental illness is strong in someone's life, so do whatever you can to remind them how much worth they have. Tell them all the things you love about them; help them remember that they are not at all defined by the illness that haunts them daily. I didn't realize it until much later, but all the loving things my boyfriend told me ended up being the driving force behind my desire to overcome my illness.

Love doesn't only have to be communicated through words. Try taking your partner out for a spa day or a fun hiking trip. These kinds of activities can also help keep them busy, minimizing the time they spend alone mulling over their struggles. Plus, the more active you both are, the more likely you can both stay on a healthy track.

5. Start A Conversation

There is so much stigma around mental illnesses that we often feel uncomfortable speaking honestly about what we're going through. But talking opens the door to healing. With gentleness and empathy, ask your partner to share what they're feeling with you; remind them that there is nothing they could say to make you love them any less. We need to hear it — I used to be terrified of speaking openly about my addiction to food because I was scared I would look like a freak. As soon as my partner showed me he was genuinely interested in what I had to say, the floodgates opened and I couldn't believe how good it felt to chat about it.

Create a space where they won't feel judged, and listen, listen, listen. Refrain from doling out advice when they're speaking from the heart, because they truly need to let it all out without interruption. By talking about mental illnesses, we can collectively start to decrease the negative connotations that exist in the world. It doesn't need to be a secretive, embarrassing issue, especially between the two of you.

Images: Jenelle Ball/ Unsplash; Giphy (5)