Partners: What do you do?
Chances are, if you've noticed your partner is actively eating-disordered (as opposed to being in recovery), you feel a mix of emotions: anger, resentment, sadness, self-incriminaton, self-doubt and helplessness. You can't get a word in about your partner's eating disorder; zie just closes up on you immediately. If you try to open up and talk to zem about zer eating disorder, zie misunderstands and assumes that you are berating and/or blaming zem for their illness, which leads to zem closing up out of shame.
Frustrating, isn't it? There are things you can do, however, to make communication easier. Truth is, people with eating disorders don't find it easy, if even possible, to ask for help. Eating disorders self-perpetuate by working off of an internal environment barraged by shame and, coming out of that, an intense urge to remain secretive and silent about one's eating disorder. In fact, this urge is so strong that those suffering from eating disorders often find it physically impossible to ask for help - like there's a barrier there keeping the words from coming out of their mouths.
One of the most effective ways to get around this is to take a step beyond simply being open to conversation - you need to initiate it, instead. Many if not most sufferers of eating disorder have such a sense of worthlessness that they do not express their feelings or any yearning for help and/or support because they feel that they don't want to burden the one who they would most likely tell. That is exactly how they think of it: they would be putting too much of a burden on their confidant.
A beginning strategy to help your partner divert the stream of self-incrimination is to speak your feelings in sentences beginning with 'I' instead of 'you'. Contrast these two sentences and see how they feel to you:
1. I'm worried that you're falling too much into your eating disorder.
2. You're falling too much into your eating disorder, and it's worrying me.
The first is relatively innocuous and places the emphasis on your care for zem without sounding - to a person suffering from an eating disorder - as though you're being accusatory. Because of the shame inherent in living with an eating disorder, if a struggling someone hears that zie is doing something and that is the cause of your pain and hurt, zey are automatically going to blame themselves. That is what it's like living with an eating disorder: everything that anyone says is automatically warped into being the sufferer's fault. It is not your fault, but the fault of the eating disorder.
Another of the things that would be helpful for you to do is to get specific. It's perfectly fine to ask, 'Can I help?' but most people do not know how to answer that - either because the sheer amount of things you could do boggles the mind, or because the answer is yes, but among the things you can do that wouldn't help it's negligible and hard to pick out. So next time, instead of asking if you can simply help, ask if these things would help:
- Sitting with zie quietly while zie is going through a rough time.
- Being with zie and holding them while zie eats.
- Doing shopping for zie so zie will not get overwhelmed.
- Backing up zie when zie does not feel comfortable confronting someone manipulative or abusive (alone or even at all).
- Talking with zie while zie does something that usually results in self-negative thoughts.
- Encouraging zie when zie eats or does something equally self-positive (such as throwing out 'thinspiration clothes').
- Defending zie when someone says something triggering or even derailing the conversation.
- Giving heartfelt, original compliments, e.g. "Your eyes get so shiny and happy when you eat enough. It's beautiful to see."
- Ask things like, "How are you feeling?" if zie doesn't seem to be happy.
- Don't comment on food intake, but on the pattern of moods that follow.
- Remind zie that eating is OK and follow up with an un-loaded compliment, e.g. "I love you and it makes me happy when you are happy."
- Ask if zie needs to talk without comment and then just listen.
- Validate zer feelings, e.g. "You are absolutely right to feel that way," in regards to feeling angry, slighted, etc.
- Ask if it's OK to touch zer.
These are all things that can go a long way to help, and there are still more depending on the individual personality of your partner. But equally important, doing these things will give you a feeling of being worthwhile and helpful - probably one of the best things you can do for yourself. A relationship where you feel useless is not going to be a happy one, unfortunately. However, there will always be things you can do; just ask.
This is Part I. Part II is soon to come.