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How to be a supportive partner when dating someone with bulimia nervosa

A strong support system is one of the most important tools a person can have when recovering from an eating disorder. And a supportive partner can be one of the strongest pillars of that system.

But navigating a relationship with someone while they are being treated for bulimia nervosa (BN), or any eating disorder, can be challenging to navigate. 

Still, there are some tips to keep in mind to help ensure the partnership is positive and healthy for everyone involved.

Last updated on 
November 20, 2023
Loved one with bulimia
In this article

1. Educate yourself about eating disorders

A good place to start is by educating yourself about eating disorders. That can include learning about eating disorders in general, as well as bulimia nervosa specifically. Learning things like what is helpful to say and do when your partner is struggling with an eating disorder, as well as what to avoid and how to take care of yourself, too. 

Also, try to understand your partner's specific eating disorder and their history with it. Perhaps your loved one has an immense fear of gaining weight, or their previous eating disorders played a role in previous breakdowns of their past romantic relationships. They may also have co-occurring conditions that play a part in their eating behavior, such as anxiety disorders or depression. The more you understand their condition, the easier it will be to develop a supportive and healthy relationship with them.

2. Be thoughtful about food-related activities and dates

Going out to eat and cooking together are two of the most popular activities for couples and with good reason. Food-related dates can be a sensual experience involving wonderful smells, touches, and tastes and a natural place to foster conversation and shared experiences. But meals can be some of the most sensitive—and potentially harmful—times for someone struggling with bulimia nervosa or even someone in recovery from BN.

If you’re dating someone with bulimia nervosa, you might do well to avoid any food-related gifts. People in recovery from BN likely also have a lot of stress about meals, so try to give them plenty of time to prepare for any food-related dates you two may plan. And talk to them about their specific needs or necessary boundaries when it comes to meals.

Even dates that don’t revolve around food specifically can involve it in some way—think, a bucket of popcorn at the movies. Try to keep all these potential situations in mind and gently support your partner as they need it on your dates.

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3. Be patient with intimacy

Although healthy relationships are built on honesty and openness, it can be very difficult for someone struggling with an eating disorder to share their true feelings. Bulimia nervosa is an extremely emotionally charged condition, and eating disorders—and mental health in general—have a social stigma around them. 

Studies show that many people struggling with bulimia also exhibit an insecure attachment style, which makes it more difficult for them to build emotional connections with others.1 And sadly, women with bulimia nervosa have a much higher likelihood of having experienced trauma or abuse in their past. (2)

Understand that it may take time to rebuild the emotional and physical closeness that you may have had before the eating disorder developed.

If you’re dating someone with bulimia, it’s important to be patient with them as your relationship progresses. Let them know you’re open and available to talk about their disorder or what they’re going through. Oftentimes, just listening can be the best and most supportive action.

4. Be respectful of their boundaries

Setting boundaries is an important part of recovering from any type of eating disorder. In fact, most forms of therapy currently used to treat people with bulimia nervosa and other eating disorders teach that healthy boundary setting is one of the best tools for sustained and long-term recovery.

People struggling with BN may need to draw lines around certain conversations, activities, or even people they find triggering or negative. It’s important to understand and respect where and why they make these calls and honor them when they occur. 

Of course, as in nearly all aspects of a relationship, communication is key. So if you’re dating someone with bulimia and want to know more about why they feel a certain way about things, it never hurts to ask.

Dating someone with bulimia nervosa

5. Be supportive of self-care

Perhaps the best way to support someone with bulimia nervosa is to support the idea of them supporting themselves.

Self-care is another important lesson often imparted on people in recovery from bulimia. The idea goes hand-in-hand with setting boundaries—and, in fact, setting boundaries is one of the best ways to practice self-care.

Whether it’s indulging in a favorite hobby or taking some time to themselves, self-care can be a crucial part of the healing process. And that’s not just true for your partner.

6. Be aware of what to avoid

Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses that can have serious complications. Recovery is very possible, but relapses can occur. While you mean well, avoid making any comments about appearance, even if they may seem positive to you. This can be triggering for someone who has an eating disorder, as they can bring attention to the person’s weight and body.

It’s also important not to monitor or comment on their food and eating behaviors.3 It’s common and normal for people to relapse during recovery, especially in times of high stress, as it is a lifelong journey.4 Try to meet them and support them wherever they are on their recovery journey.

7. Be sure to take care of your own needs

Dating someone with bulimia can be emotionally challenging, as it can be hard to watch someone you love struggling with an eating disorder. Supporting your partner is a huge help to their mental health, but it’s also important to support yourself.

Eating disorders affect relationships in different ways. Taking care of yourself is important when you support someone else in their recovery.

Make sure not to forget about your own needs in this equation. Keep doing the things you need and love, and be sure to set your own boundaries. If you need extra help, there are support groups for people dating someone with an eating disorder. You and your partner may also find couples counseling a helpful option.

Regardless, the one thing that will help the most when dating someone with bulimia is commitment: Commitment to their care, commitment to yourself, and commitment to a happy and healthy future for both of you. 

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.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Tasca, G. A., Ritchie, K., & Balfour, L. (2011). Implications of attachment theory and research for the assessment and treatment of eating disorders. Psychotherapy, 48(3), 249–259. 
  2. Utzinger, L. M., Haukebo, J. E., Simonich, H., Wonderlich, S. A., Cao, L., Lavender, J. M., Mitchell, J. E., Engel, S. G., & Crosby, R. D. (2016). A latent profile analysis of childhood trauma in women with bulimia nervosa: Associations with borderline personality disorder psychopathology. The International Journal of Eating Disorders, 49(7), 689–694. 
  3. Recovery & relapse. (2020, February 6). National Eating Disorders Association. Retrieved July 6, 2023.
  4. Grilo, C. M., Pagano, M. E., Stout, R. L., Markowitz, J. C., Ansell, E. B., Pinto, A., Zanarini, M. C., Yen, S., & Skodol, A. E. (2011). Stressful life events predict eating disorder relapse following remission: Six-year prospective outcomes. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 45(2), 185–192.

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