Content warning: This article discusses disordered eating in a way that some readers may find distressing.
Joel was at work when he received a Facebook message from his girlfriend, Emma. In it, she had mustered up the courage to text him and tell him that she had bulimia.
That was three years ago, but reflecting on it now is still difficult. Joel tells Refinery29 Australia that he remembers having to sit down to process it, before pulling out his phone and Googling bulimia.
“It was pretty full on, really. I think part of me was [wishing] she told me in person so I could just give her a big hug but I knew that… she didn't feel like she was able to tell me in person,” he says.
He eventually wrote back, telling his now-wife (the pair have been married for six months) that he was grateful that she had opened up to him, and that he’s here to support her. Joel admits that he knew very little about bulimia before this text exchange — “I [thought] that was the one where you throw up after you eat but that was as much as I really understood it,” he says.
“How do I chat to my partner if I’m worried about them?”
Misconceptions flood our perceptions of eating disorders. According to the Butterfly Foundation, only one in ten Australians can recognise the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder, while one in four Aussies believe eating disorders are a choice (as opposed to the serious psychological and physical illnesses they are).
Having a loved one open up to you about a worrying personal issue can be difficult news to take on. Whether the illness has been disclosed to you or if you’ve taken notice of your partner’s abnormal behaviour, Danni Rowlands, Butterfly’s National Manager of Prevention, stresses that it’s important to act as soon as you can.
“Early intervention can have a marked difference on an eating disorder’s severity and duration,” she tells Refinery29 Australia. She points to three important considerations before starting these conversations: being informed, caring and non-judgemental.
“Learn what you can about eating disorders — you don’t have to have all the answers, but being informed can help you understand what your partner might be experiencing. Try to avoid bringing up your concerns over mealtimes, around other people or during stressful situations,” Rowlands shares. “Avoid making comments about their weight or appearance and instead focus on what is worrying you about the changes you’ve noticed in their mood and behaviours.”
A way to do so is to use self-centring statements about how you feel. “Using ’I' statements rather than 'you' statements (e.g. 'I am worried about you' as opposed to 'You are worrying me') can remove the blame and shame from the individual,” Rowlands says.
“The secrecy of the illness is hurting the trust in our relationship.”
For Joel, one of the most difficult parts of coming to terms with Emma’s diagnosis was grappling with the secrecy of the illness.
“The secrecy was certainly pretty hard to deal with at the start. It was quite challenging for me to understand that [it] was the eating disorder [being hid] from me, not her lying to me,” Joel says, adding that he had to work on realising that there wasn’t an erosion of trust in the relationship.
Relationships are built on foundations of trust and honesty, and eating disorders can often feed off the opposite of this.
“Your partner might be more secretive because they are ashamed or confused about their behaviours. Eating disorders can be all-consuming and it's not uncommon if you feel your partner's personality has changed. They might be more anxious, stressed, irritable or frustrated,” explains Rowlands. She recommends remembering to separate your partner from the eating disorder itself.
“I just want to fix it.”
When faced with a difficult situation, some partners immediately go into action mode, wanting to ‘fix’ the problem at hand. Joel is one of those people — he understands that eating disorders never fully go away, but found solace in helping out with the practical side of support.
“I was the kind of support person that helped seek out a doctor and arranged the appointments. Encouraging your partner to get professional help and supporting them through it [is important] because it can be even scarier than their illness,” he says.
Rowlands points to research that shows that having a supportive partner can be a “driving force” in recovery — but emphasises that that’s what it is, assistance, rather than a reason to recover.
“Aim to provide support without over-monitoring or policing them — simply being there through treatment and recovery is enough,” she says.
“My own mental health is taking a toll now.”
Throughout our call, Joel continually stresses how appreciative he is to be Emma’s support person, though he does give a peek into the unique mental health hardships that come with taking on a role like this.
“I’m the type of person who just kind of bottles things up and doesn't deal with [them],” he says. “More times than not I’ve gone, ‘This is for Emma. Joel, you just need to suck it up and move on.’ It's definitely hard for partners.”
This experience is far from uncommon — a 2020 study saw almost 64% of carers admit that they need psychological help themselves, but often don't seek it because they believe they should prioritise the person with the eating disorder.
“It’s natural to feel scared, worried, hopeless and frustrated, and sharing your feelings is really important,” Rowlands says, adding that carers should seek support from other people in their lives, rather than their partner who is focusing on recovery.
“It can also be beneficial to connect with other carers who know what you are going through, and who have seen their loved one recover. This can provide hope and support from people who 'get it’."
If you or anyone you know is struggling with disordered eating, please contact the Butterfly Foundation at 1800 33 4673. Support and information are available 7 days a week.