At first glance it might seem like there could not be any possible connection between struggles with food/ weight/ body image and personal relationships but I have yet to see a client struggling with disordered eating who doesn’t also have issues in their relationships or issues with their lack of relationships.
Following are some client examples of the above. Names/stories have been altered to protect identity:
“Ice cream is my best friend”
One of my clients Laura calls ice cream her “best friend” and claims that as long as she has a good movie and her ice cream she doesn’t need anything else to entertain herself in the evenings and during the long weekends. This habit started after a painful break up. She since has put on so much weight that she doesn’t feel confident enough to go out. Instead she stays home and eats. Laura is caught in a self-perpetuating cycle of social isolation and comfort eating.
“Bulimia has taken over our marriage!”
I also work with a client couple who struggle in their unhappy marriage. The husband Bob complains about the lack of touch or affection in their relationship; “She doesn’t need me. She doesn’t want me! I think she’s happier when I’m not around.”
The truth is that his wife Sue turns to food, not to him for comfort. Research shows that the binge purge cycle releases serotonin “a feel-good hormone” that is produced naturally during hugging and cuddling. Sue has learned to turn to food for all her needs related to comfort and soothing and thus has taken these needs out of her marriage. It is slowly dying as a result.
Let’s not put all of the blame on Sue. There are other complicating reasons that food became a “safer option” than her husband for meeting her emotional needs. Furthermore, this is complicated by a pattern that Sue is repeating from her childhood where she learnt not to depend on unreliable, alcoholic caregivers for comfort.
So how do Laura, Bob + Sue break out of these destructive cycles?
Step 1: Breaking Free from Shame and Secrecy
Laura took this first important step when she broke out of her denial that ice cream could replace her need for relationships and sought guidance. Bob and Sue took this first step when they realized that their marital issues weren’t going away by themselves and decided to seek professional help. Coming out of denial and actively seeking assistance is an enormous step because it sets in motion the wheels of change.
For Sue, there was also the added step of letting her husband in on her “secret.” Although he already knows about her binging and purging, I encouraged her to be more open with him about her triggers to “act out.” For instance she could let him know when she feels the urge to binge or share it with him after the fact.
This is important because it starts to break the shame and secrecy that keeps the eating disorder in control behind the scenes. Laura and Sue are breaking the power their eating disorder has over them by bringing it out into the open. This is often the most difficult step.
Step 2: Got support?
Support is crucial to keep the ball of recovery rolling and there are a myriad of ways to get this reinforcement. Initially Laura, Bob and Sue all chose therapy. Laura also found an eating disorders support group to supplement her individual therapy. She was really motivated and wanted to speed up her recovery. Other ways that Laura got support was by developing a network of people she could call when she felt she was in a dangerous place. She arranged to have a friend she could walk with after work and before it got dark. This had previously been her time to buy ice cream and choose her movie.
Laura started to feel that she had more options. She found more walking buddies. Sometimes she would go out for dinner with a walking buddy or invite them over for a movie. She began to break the isolation her eating disorder demanded of her.
She started to feel better about herself and go out more. Without dieting, Laura’s body started to correct back to her ideal weight. Laura began to feel more confident about herself and as a result became more social. She was on the road to recovering her life and relationships.
For this step Sue learned to enlist the support of her husband by sharing with him when she felt the urge to binge. He could then remind her of other ways to soothe besides turning to food. Sometimes a hug or cuddle with him was enough or they would go for a walk together until the urge was gone.
It was extremely vulnerable for Sue to let her husband support her in this way. She had always feared his judgment around her eating issues and was surprised to find that he actually welcomed this opportunity to support her!
Bob appreciated feeling less shut out by Sue. Inadvertently, by Sue trusting Bob enough to let him in on her “deepest, darkest secret”, more intimacy started to develop between them. It was enough to give them a taste of something different and now they wanted more!
I hope that in sharing these stories you are encouraged to explore the link between your relationship with food and how it might have parallels to other relationships in your life… In closing let me leave you with these two questions to consider:
1) Do you have a nurturing relationship with food?
2) Do you let your relationships nurture you?
Please share your thoughts and ideas on this important topic…