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Educate yourself to understand the illness and learn how you can help, alongside a professional. (Thinkstock/Thinkstock)
Educate yourself to understand the illness and learn how you can help, alongside a professional. (Thinkstock/Thinkstock)

How do I support a loved one with an eating disorder? Add to ...

Is an eating disorder interfering with your marriage?

Is an eating disorder disrupting your family?

Is an eating disorder infiltrating your friendships?

If someone you love has an eating disorder, then you do, too.

Though you may not be directly suffering from harmful food rituals and the accompanying physical symptoms, you’re certainly suffering emotionally. It’s clear you never would have signed up for this, but unbeknownst to you, you’re no longer on the sidelines. You’re in the trenches simply because you love this person. That means you’ll need to do your own work to understand the illness and experience your own recovery.

First off, ask yourself if you understand what eating disorders are: People often think eating disorders are simply eating too much or too little, and believe fixing that will lead to recovery. It’s not that simple. It’s critical to educate yourself because you can’t help someone through this if you don’t understand what they’re suffering. Seeking out a professional who does understand is a good starting point.

Second, ask yourself who you are to this person. Parent, child, spouse? Are you still playing that role or have you become therapist, nutritionist, enabler, detective, guard? You probably have – a common shift for loved ones.

When an eating disorder is present in a relationship, there’s a place for a loved one and a place for professional insight. For example, it’s normal for a husband to feel distraught and helpless as an eating disorder takes away his wife. He knows how to be a husband. He doesn’t know how to be an eating disorder professional, but he tries desperately to keep his wife safe by taking on this role.

Over time, as the eating disorder and the husband-as-professional take on a bigger role in the relationship, the husband and wife drift farther and farther apart. She certainly needs a professional and her husband, as both are critical for her wellness.

It takes an army of experts and loved ones to aid in someone’s recovery. Your work is to do what you do best – play the role that you mean to this person, whether that is spouse or parent or child.

I know what you’re thinking – how can I be that when my loved one isn’t who they used to be? It will feel almost impossible.

So my third suggestion is to work with experts who can help guide this journey for both of you, which often will be more effective than you trying to do so yourselves. Receiving therapeutic support will address the illness’s impact on both of you and your relationship, give space for your thoughts, feelings and experiences to be shared and heard, and offer guidance and direction on how to move forward.

Lastly, deciding to support someone suffering with an eating disorder is a huge commitment. Recovery is so unpredictable and it won’t happen quickly. This explains why taking care of yourself in the process is vitally important. Stay connected to the things that matter to you and recognize that you can’t fix this yourself.

I’ve never in my entire career worked with a family or loved one who wasn’t shattered (if only temporarily) from the presence of an eating disorder in their relationship. In my own family, at the time of my battle with anorexia, the sheer chaos in our home as my parents and brothers fought to keep me alive was indescribable.

In spite of this, people survive and relationships thrive. And though it’s not guaranteed, it’s more likely you’ll move through the presence of an eating disorder in your marriage, family or friendships if everyone does their own work to beat it.

Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging.

Kyla Fox is a clinical therapist and founder of the Kyla Fox Centre, an eating-disorder recovery centre in Toronto. You can find her at kylafoxcentre.com and follow her on Twitter @Kylafoxcentre.

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