The most devastating impact my Eating Disorder has had on my life has been within my marriage. Of course, the toll the disease has had on my body is disturbing. The healing my spirit and mind have required has been exhausting and intense. But the affect the disease has had on the most sacred and precious relationship in my life – my marriage – has been the most unexpected upset.
When Eating Disorders begin to take root nobody warns you that your relationships will suffer and that you will lose touch with Love. You find that out in the most inopportune moments – like on your honeymoon, or shopping as a couple, or when you get pregnant, or when your child indulges on your trigger food. These are the moments when you realize the breadth and depth of this disorder and how it impacts those around you.
As single individuals, Eating Disorders instill a rhythm into one’s life that is easily confused with normal. When two lives become one, the individual with an Eating Disorder begins to realize this rhythm is not normal as these patterns begin to impact the relationship.
Eating Disorders attack the character and identity of the spouse without an eating disorder unlike any other mental illnesses because they cause us to shut down and shame sexuality and pleasure.
Within every relationship we participate in a dance. There is an ebb and flow – a give and take – a rhythm to how we interact with one another. For instance, in marriage, we are designed to pursue and to be pursued. To express and to listen. To give and to receive. To romance and to be romanced.
Marital discord is a sign that this dance has taken an unhealthy turn. It is a sign that one partner is stepping on the other partner’s feet, or that one partner is remaining a wallflower instead of participating in the dance, or that one partner is dominating and controlling the other rather than allowing a shared expression of the dance.
Eating Disorders cause this dance to take a dramatically unhealthy turn. By recognizing the unhealthy steps, it becomes easier to change the habits and move in a direction of relational healing. If we do not work to fix these steps, we will dance ourselves into heartache and isolationism.
Individuals who are suffering from an Eating Disorder and their spouses typically engage in at least one of the following “unhealthy dance steps:”
The pursuit and the retreat:
The partner without an Eating Disorder leans in and shows interest and attraction.
The intended recipient feels uncomfortable with the attention and unworthy of the pursuit so he or she retreats.
The pursuer feels embarrassed and off-put by the retreat and eventually begins to recoil as well, creating a ravine in the relationship.
The verbal expression and the withdrawal:
The individual without an eating disorder shares intimate details of his or her life and compliments the partner who has an Eating Disorder.
Because the individual with an Eating Disorder does not believe the positive feedback about him or herself, the comments are usually brushed off, ignored or outright rejected.
The partner without the eating disorder quickly withdrawals upon sensing the rejection and insensitivity of the intended recipient, magnifying the relational ravine.
The gift and the rejection:
The partner without the eating disorder will desire to give gifts to his or her loved one in an effort to show affection. Gifts require self-sacrifice and investment, showing the recipient their value.
Individuals with an Eating Disorder do not value themselves and, thus, will feel uncomfortable receiving such a token of affection. They will either outright reject the gift, or sheepishly accept it.
Unfortunately, such rejection often feels disrespectful and re-enforces the notion that the recipient is not interested in the pursuer.
In reality, this dismissal is not a reflection of their feelings toward their partners, but rather a reflection of how they under-value themselves.
The romance and the shame:
The partner without an eating disorder attempts to draw the other near by demonstrating special (often sensual) attention. Romantic gestures require vulnerability and commands one to connect with the depth of one’s soul unlike other expressions of affection.
The intended recipient feels required to expose himself or herself in a vulnerable situation, causing him or her to end the romantic moment (sometimes through sub-conscious efforts or disassociation).
The partner with an Eating Disorder is incapable of acting as the focal point of such special and intimate attention because it would require exposure and vulnerability. Potential of a loved one’s rejection carries great weight and threatens his or her perception of security.
From the perspective of someone with an eating disorder, it feels impossible and painful to allow someone else to enjoy our bodies. The impulsive response upon sexual or romantic pursuit is to withdrawal or shut-down.
Unfortunately, this behavior often shames the pursuer’s sexuality – the most special and protected place within him or herself. The individuals with an eating disorder questions why the pursuer would ever want to enjoy something so “revolting” as their body, thus shaming their sexual desire and interest.
Romantic and sexual rejection is often the fundamental place of dis-connectivity that causes the greatest level of discontent and heartache in marriages.
More will be written about sexuality and eating disorders in a future post.
For men who are pursuing women with Eating disorders, this unhealthy dance dismantles and offends the power of masculinity. Within the DNA of a man there is a desire to pursue, to romance, to give and to express love. By rejecting his attempt at a healthy relationship-dance, women are rejecting the man’s assignment and his role. She is shaming the desires of his heart. She is telling him that his efforts are meaningless and that his desires are reprehensible.
For women who are attempting to love men with Eating Disorders, this dance dismantles and offends the power of femininity. Within a woman’s DNA is a desire to be pursued, to be romanced, to give, and to listen. It is their desire to provide a resting place and a safe space for a man’s heart. When men have Eating Disorders, women are often required to initiate the dance, and quickly become tired and disheartened because they have to operate outside of their natural propensities. Women typically want to be initiated with, so requiring initiation with the probability of rejection creates space for boundless relational discord.
If we are not careful, and if we do not identify and pursue healing, this dance will quickly become an unhealthy rhythm in our romantic relationships and will threaten the strength and sustainability of our most precious partnerships.
Choosing to identify the healthy patterns and fix the dance will be instrumental in healing a marriage tarnished by an Eating Disorder.