When collaborating with the partners and loved ones of my clients, I’m often asked: “What can I do to help?” As a clinician, I could not appreciate this question more- it suggests my client has a motivated and willing support system on their side, which can be invaluable to a lasting recovery.
Who better to answer this question then someone who’s actually been there? In hopes of shedding some potentially helpful insights and conversation starters, I asked the partner of an adult in the later-phases of eating disorder recovery to share some of what he's learned about supporting a loved one through treatment. Here’s a look into what he had to say:
1) Communication is everything. Talk openly with your partner about helpful questions to ask or feedback to give. Sometimes what you think will be the most helpful thing to say may in fact be the most triggering.
2) Do your best to separate your partner from their eating disorder. Recovery can and will do a number on your partner emotionally, which for my partner manifested as occasionally “lashing out”. It was helpful for me to recognize this as her “eating disorder voice” taking over. This didn’t excuse hurtful comments, but it helped me hold important recovery boundaries and avoid personalizing certain reactions.
3) In our particular case, it was helpful for me to have some awareness of the basics of her meal plan. This way I could notice when she may be cutting corners, compassionately check-in with what was going on for her, and how I may be able to support her around that.
4) Remind yourself your partner has to want to get better. You cannot take ownership of his/her recovery, and you cannot work harder they do.
5) Find what motivates them. Eating disorders are largely about “control," so avoid trying to coerce your partner into doing recovery-oriented actions as much as possible. Try instead focusing on what motivates them. Have a conversation about what values, goals, and dreams inspire them to want to get better, especially those that may not be possible if they continue with disordered patterns.
6) Reinforce that you love them no matter what. It may be obvious to you, but your partner is going through a lot of emotional and physical changes which triggers a lot of fear and insecurity. Hearing that you love them and are proud of them can sometimes be the extra "push" of validation they need. *Pro-tip: When body image issues come up, it can be helpful to turn the focus toward what their body enables them to do (e.g. walk up stairs, take in beautiful sights, embrace loved ones, etc.), vs aesthetics. Or, have a conversation ahead of time about helpful ways you can encourage them to distract themselves away from these types of negative thought spirals.
7) Celebrate the small victories. Recovery can feel like a never-ending series of challenges and setbacks, and your partner may struggle with feeling like “you don’t get it”- which you don’t. Finding a balance of acknowledging how difficult you imagine the process must be, and pointing out ways they’ve made progress can be the extra “push" of validation they need.
8) If your partner struggles with compulsive exercise like mine does, support them in holding healthy boundaries. Explore with them if the exercise is motivated by enjoyment or if it’s a form of “punishment” or compensation for food.
9) Practice patience. For yourself and your partner. In recovery you’ll hear the terms “journey" and "process" used a lot. This is because recovery takes time and needs to run its course. But remember, a lot of this is temporary, and, in the end, it'll be worth it for both of you.
10) Take care of yourself, too. Though in a different way than your partner, this process will be challenging for you, too. Make sure to prioritize your own self-care, checking in with your own emotional and practical needs. You’re no good to yourself or your partner if you lose care for yourself.