When you're in a relationship with a partner who has a history of disordered eating, the only way to know how best to support them is by asking exactly what they need. But it's also important to avoid questions that may trigger them, which could discourage them from opening up at all. And as Carolyn Karoll, LCSW-C, a certified eating disorder specialist, tells Bustle, "that silence unwittingly serves to maintain eating disorder symptoms that may remain active or re-emerged because it perpetuates secrecy, shame, and the minimization of the problem."
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), 20 million women in the United States will struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lifetimes. Disordered eating can be defined as a "serious of conditions related to persistent eating behaviors that negatively impact your health, your emotions, and your ability to function in important areas of life." No two eating disorders look the same, symptoms vary depending on their unique circumstances, and recovery can look more like a cycle than a linear progression. "It can be a timely process involving continual growth, occasional setbacks, and working through feelings of discomfort," Chelsea Kronengold, communications manager at NEDA, tells Bustle. "Relapse is often a natural part of the recovery process; however, positive social supports and healthy coping mechanisms can play a key role in sustained recovery."
If your partner opens up to you about their past experiences with disordered eating, experts suggest practicing empathy by providing them with a space to fill in their story. As they share this part of themselves, active listening can be key. "Don't tread on eggshells because avoiding hard topics is not going to help your partner to feel loved and supported," Molly Carmel, LCSW-R, eating disorder survivor and founder of the Beacon Program, tells Bustle. "When you ask your partner about their eating disorder, be sure to be open, compassionate, curious, and kind."
Once your partner opens up a dialogue, focus on creating a non-judgmental, supportive environment, and avoid asking triggering questions, such as, "How bad did it get?" or "Why couldn't you just eat more?" Provocations like these perpetuate the idea that people can choose to have an eating disorder, Carmel says — even if you're coming from a place of concern. You don't want to invalidate their experience inadvertently.
According to Carmel, you should also avoid making any sort of comments about your partner's appearance — even seemingly positive comments. Complimenting their looks can be triggering because it emphasizes the body and calls attention to their weight. Focusing on your partner's physical traits can be quite emotionally triggering for someone with a history of an eating disorder, she says. Instead, try underlining their resilience and tenacity.
Additionally, questions related to specific behaviors associated with disordered eating might strike a chord. As Liz Motta, licensed mental health counselor and the Director of Education and Resources at The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness, tells Bustle, "It's important to remain mindful of the specific questions you ask and the manner in which you ask them." Every individual's experience with disordered eating is unique and specific to them. By asking about their behaviors, you might be generalizing their experience, or even pushing them to relive a part of that trauma. Consider making affirmative statements that highlight their strength, like, "You’re one of the strongest people I know."
Finally, refrain from asking your partner any questions pertaining to their weight. Motto emphasizes that a person's weight does not determine the severity of their illness. "Many individuals with eating disorders may appear to be in good health when they are actually physically or medically compromised," she says. A number on a scale is not revelatory, and associating a specific numerical value with a universal standard of health isn't just triggering, it's factually incorrect.
If your partner does feel comfortable allowing you to ask questions, consider shifting your focus to how you can best support them. "Whether your partner knows what they need or not, these supportive questions validate their experience because they make them feel seen, heard, and loved," Carmel says. "The best thing you can do as a supportive partner is to listen, comfort, and not try to 'fix'' anything. One of my favorite ways to say that is simply, 'I’m here, and I love you.'"
You can also take time outside of your relationship to educate yourself on the complexities of disordered eating. Resources like NEDA are rich with information and include a helpline you that can connect with a trained volunteer. Additionally, the Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness, another national non-profit, can not only provide you with service and statistics but also connect you with organizers and events in your area. Be proactive, so that burden doesn't fall on your partner's shoulders.
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and needs help, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237, text 741741, or chat online with a Helpline volunteer here.
Carolyn Karoll, LCSW-C, certified eating disorder specialist
Molly Carmel, LCSW-R, founder of the Beacon Program
Liz Motta, licensed mental health counselor and the Director of Education and Resources at The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness
Chelsea Kronengold, communications manager at NEDA