‘You look lovely in that dress – it highlights your tiny waist.’ Do you respond: ‘Thank you, this dress is one of my favorites. As for my waist, I can thank my genes for that.’ And think nothing more of it. Hopefully. But if you have an eating disorder, the internal dialogue may be: ‘See, the hard work is paying off – I must keep going to the gym, and keep counting the calories. I need to work harder to feel I am worthwhile. Losing weight helps me feel I’m in control, helps me feel confident and that I’m an okay person, that I am worthy of being invited on a date or offered a promotion, and deserving of getting to where I want to go. That guy’s comment inspires me. I can do it! I will eat less, exercise more, every day, and good things will come my way.’
How we interpret what we hear is really important. It helps if we can say to the person: ‘I understand that you are saying this and this, is this correct?’
Saying ‘You are looking really well today,’ is a real no-no for people with eating disorders. Triggers will go off in their brain and resonate loudly. You may feel shocked and hurt by their reaction. The person with the eating disorder will think you are saying ‘Gee, you are looking fat today’, or ‘Gee, you are looking awful today’.
It is important to check when we feel hurt by what someone says to us, or when someone looks
hurt by what we say to them, because an eating disorder can magnify things and distort things that we say and hear, way out of proportion. This is why ‘Ed says U said’ is becoming a really popular book. It is packed with examples of how an eating disorder can distort and translate what people say, even when they have the very best of intentions.
At the very least, this can cause an argument, or slamming of doors. At the worst, it can cause total relationship breakdown.
Communication and knowing how to understand the ‘language’ and nuances of eating disorders is one big reason why I encourage partners of people with eating disorders to participate in therapy sessions. Uniting Couples (in the treatment of) Anorexia Nervosa (UCAN), a program developed by Prof. Cynthia Bulik and her team, is a wonderful step forward.
I wish for all people who are in relationships and suffering an eating disorder, to have opportunity to work together in regaining a) health and b) relationship. Let’s face it. Two is company and three is a crowd. There is no room in a healthy relationship for ‘Ed’. There was no opportunity for couples therapy in the 1980s, when I was seeking help for my eating disorder, and I lost my marriage to my illness. My husband for ever more has blamed the psychiatrist for our marriage break down. If he had the opportunity for inclusion, for being part of the treatment team, if we had the opportunity for ‘couple therapy’, there is every likelihood we would have beaten Ed together.
The partner needs and deserves the opportunity to learn skills so that they can help fight the illness. They need to understand how to be aware, how to stop inadvertently and ignorantly feeding and supporting the illness behaviours, so they can give the person with the eating disorder the support they need.
Talking is good, to know how to say it, and to understand what is being intended, is even better.