9 tips for supporting your spouse with an eating disorder

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An eating disorder can put stress on our relationships, but relationships can also be incredibly healing and helpful throughout eating disorder recovery. As the partner of someone in recovery, you are an integral part of the process, and can be an important source of support, encouragement, and empowerment.

As your partner goes through the process of recovery, which may include inpatient or outpatient treatment, you may be left wondering what your role is in their recovery and how you can best support them. Here are nine tips for caring for your spouse and yourself.

Last updated on 
September 7, 2022
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1. Educate yourself about eating disorders

If you haven’t already, you’ll want to educate yourself about eating disorders in general, as well as your partner’s specific eating disorder. You can find a wealth of information for free online—plus, you can seek out podcasts and books that can provide you with invaluable information about eating disorders. Educating yourself can help take the burden off your spouse to have to teach you about the basics while in early recovery.

2. Avoid blaming yourself for their eating disorder

It’s common for people to blame themselves for their spouse’s eating disorder, but this type of thinking is unhelpful and can hinder you from providing your partner with much-needed support. 

Remember, one person cannot be responsible for someone’s eating disorder. These conditions are complex and caused by a myriad of risk factors, both genetic and environmental. Instead of blaming yourself, be kind and compassionate with yourself, as well as your partner. Their eating disorder is nobody’s fault. Instead of dwelling on what you could have done differently, move forward with care and generosity.

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3. Refrain from commenting on their appearance or anyone else’s 

It may be difficult at first to unlearn the habit of commenting on your partner’s appearance, but it’s very important that you commit to this. Even commenting and telling your partner that they look good or healthy can have negative effects on their mental health or recovery since it can trigger obsessive thoughts about appearance or weight. Instead, focus on complimenting other non-appearance traits, such as their personality, strengths, or accomplishments.

And when it comes to discussing others, whether strangers on the street, friends, or celebrities, train yourself to stop commenting on their appearance. This behavior can be triggering for your spouse—plus, it can serve to reinforce society’s unrealistic ideals about attractiveness and perpetuate weight stigma. 

4. Ask your partner how you can best support them

Your partner doesn’t expect you to have all the answers or know what to do at all times, which is why communication is so essential. You aren’t a mind-reader so don’t try to be. Ask your spouse what you can do to support them. And while asking them too frequently can be overwhelming, checking in every now and again can be helpful because their answers may change based on their recovery or how they’re feeling. When your partner does disclose what they need from you, you’ll want to make sure to receive this information with an open mind and heart. 

5. Be a safe space for them to express themselves

Make sure your partner in eating disorder recovery knows that you are a safe space for them to express themself whether those feelings are positive or negative. They may not always need a solution from you—sometimes they may just want to vent about their day or process a trigger that came up for them. 

6. Understand that you can’t control their recovery

Let go of the impulse to control their recovery. Monitoring their disordered eating behaviors or forcing them to eat is not the answer to lifelong recovery. In fact, it will likely cause tension in your relationship as your spouse may attempt to hide behaviors from you instead of trusting you enough to disclose them to you. Instead of trying to control their recovery, provide encouragement and empowerment, reminding your partner just how proud you are of them.

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7. Avoid judging or blaming your partner if they slip up

Once you accept that you can’t control your spouse’s recovery, you will be able to approach any slip-ups with compassion and empathy. Remember, recovery isn’t a one-time event. Just because your partner has started the process of recovery or sought out treatment doesn’t mean that there won’t be ups and downs along the way. If your spouse engages in a disordered eating behavior, such as skipping a meal or purging, avoid blaming them. They may already feel ashamed and what they need during this stressful time is a nonjudgmental partner they can trust.

8. Model intuitive eating and a positive relationship with your body

One of the best ways you can support your spouse is by modeling non-disordered eating behavior yourself. If it’s possible for you, practice intuitive eating, which involves listening to your body’s hunger cues and eating what you want and how much you want, until you feel satiated. It means being in tune with your body’s needs and attending to them. Intuitive eating also centers the joy and pleasure of eating. By engaging in this eating practice, you can model for your spouse what it can look like to have a non-disordered relationship with food. 

Likewise, just as you should avoid commenting on your spouse’s appearance, you should also avoid criticizing yourself and your own food choices. This may be something you’re unaware of until you make a point to notice it, but once you do, you’ll come to realize just how ingrained self-criticism is in our daily lives as well as how harmful it can be. It can benefit you and your partner for you to center comfort and joy in how you eat, dress, and if and how you engage in movement. Express gratitude for how you show up in the world and all you have to offer.

9. Find support for yourself

Supporting a partner in eating disorder recovery can be emotionally trying and exhausting at times. Set yourself up for long-term success by taking care of yourself so that you don’t get burnt out. You can’t adequately take care of someone if you aren’t caring properly for yourself. This means getting enough sleep, meeting your nutritional needs, engaging in joyful movement if and how it is appropriate for you, and doing things you enjoy, such as hanging out with friends, playing sports, or making art. Self-care may also include attending a support group for partners or attending therapy. Just as you are part of your spouse’s support system, you too need a support system.

It is also important for you to recognize what your capacity is to support your partner in their recovery process without triggering yourself, experiencing burnout, or damaging the relationship. If your partner is working with a therapist or has other supportive friends and relatives, it can be helpful to discuss together what role each of you can play in providing support within your capacity. You and your partner can discuss mutual boundaries for your role in their recovery process. For example, they may need to set a boundary about you not commenting on their food choices, even if it is well-intentioned, and you may set a boundary around them needing to check in with your emotional capacity before processing a trigger with you. 

It’s a journey, not a destination

Change doesn’t happen overnight. Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that can have profound effects on your partner’s mental and physical health. If your partner is getting formal treatment for their eating disorder, remember that it is not a magic cure—rather, it provides them with coping strategies and emotional regulation skills they can use when triggered. However, recovery can be an unpredictable process full of triumphs and disappointments. And while you may find yourself discouraged at times, remember that there is hope for your partner.

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Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

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