From deciphering the true meaning of that unhinged-ex story to assessing the safety of going home with someone you’ve known for exactly two rounds, early dating can be stressful for anyone.
Now throw an eating disorder (ED) into the mix. So much of dating revolves around food and drinks. Sex can heighten body insecurities. Arguments or ghosting can be triggering. For someone actively struggling with an ED, the disorder itself is their main relationship, leaving their partner (or potential partner) more akin to a side piece—along with, for many, secrecy and feelings of shame.
To be clear: Having a healthy relationship is entirely possible. But as with other mental health conditions, dealing with disordered eating requires an added layer of mindfulness.
Bringing Your ED To Dinner
A mental health advocate with a history of anorexia, Joss Walden would quickly turn mathematician when she received a dinner invite, mentally calculating how to make the date work calorie-wise. “I’d try to save up all my calories for the evening,” she says. “There was definitely a lot of calorie-compensating going on.”
For Hope Virgo, a mental health advocate who struggled with anorexia, fears before a date could be all-consuming, followed by days of rumination afterward. “Dating with an eating disorder or when in eating disorder recovery throws up so much panic and frustration,” says Virgo, author of You Are Free (Even If You Don’t Feel Like It). “I would think about what I ate and just not feel good enough.”
When a person is actively dealing with an eating disorder, they are typically so consumed with thoughts about food, eating, exercise, body image, and weight that they have little time or energy to devote to anything else, including dating, says Jordan Hubchik, LPC, a licensed counselor with specialized training in eating disorders. To wit, says Walden, “for people with an eating disorder, it becomes your identity,” pushing life goals and interests to the backseat.
Even at the beginning stages of eating disorder recovery, a dinner date can be anxiety-inducing, so much so that Hubchik believes it generally isn’t ideal to start a new relationship during this time. “Recovery requires a significant time commitment, including many appointments with doctors, nutritionists, therapists, and an established support network of friends and family,” she says. “Trying to date at the same time could distract from a person’s recovery goals and further delay their treatment progress.” Hubchik recommends waiting at least two months before starting to swipe right.
For Walden, figuring out who she was without her eating disorder—which involved lots of therapy—was a key step in preparing to date. “I had to reclaim my identity and get comfortable in my own body,” she says. This involved traveling, creating vision boards, and journaling—all ways to actively reflect on what she wanted her future to look like…and the type of partner who could be a part of it.
When she felt ready to date, Walden still had to remain vigilant to potential triggers. If she started falling back into calorie-calculating, she’d bring it up with her therapist and, together, they’d work to replace the instinct with more empowering thoughts. “Now, I’m quick to challenge that old way of thinking, and I remind myself that it’s tied to diet culture and isn’t reflective of who I am as a person,” Walden says.
She also became more mindful of the people she pursued relationships with. Take the bodybuilder she started seeing; she realized his obsession with food wasn’t good for her own, so she broke it off.
When Your ED’s a Third Wheel
So dating with an active ED or at the beginning of recovery isn’t the best idea. ’K. But what if you’re already boo’d up? It’s important to know that an ED can sometimes feel like the threesome you didn’t ask for. (This section is going to sound pretty negative, but we want to give you the facts—just keep reading, because you can get through this.)
To start, if the eating disorder is a secret, it immediately creates a block in communication and intimacy, says Harriet Frew, BACP, an accredited mental health counselor and host of The Eating Disorder Therapist podcast. You’re not only masking a big part of what’s occupying your mind, but you’re also likely hiding related behaviors, such as lying about having already eating or bingeing after a meal. This, Frew says, brings secrecy into a relationship that wouldn’t otherwise be there, which can prompt feelings of shame.
An ED can also create anxiety around socializing or even leaving the house, because any social gathering involving food can be stressful to navigate, especially if you’re trying to obscure your behaviors. Your mate, then, may wonder why you aren’t interested in going out more. This can be compounded by low-self worth, prevalent among people with an ED and a roadblock to communicating your needs effectively, says Frew.
And not to pile on, but we should talk about physical intimacy. Poor body image, a common issue for many people with an eating disorder, can make sex and other types of physical affection difficult. Triple that with low energy, trouble concentrating, or constantly feeling cold—typical ED side effects, per Frew—and you try feeling sexy!
On the flip side, when a partner thrives on taking care of you, it can create an unhealthy dynamic. “A partner could be drawn into a fixing or caring role if someone is very unwell, which may not be very healthy,” Frew says. Be on the lookout for signs your partner relationship has morphed into a caretaker/care receiver one.
Handling Triggers, Moving Forward
No partner can compete with the overwhelming amount of attention that an eating disorder requires. But let’s move to the hopeful: Once you’re in a healthy place with your eating disorder recovery, casual dating and healthy long-term relationships are absolutely possible.
In both cases, it’s important to be aware of your triggers, which could lead to a re-emergence of past behaviors. “To avoid food triggers at restaurants, it can be helpful to look up the menu in advance, discuss it with a nutritionist or eating disorder therapist, and develop a plan about what to order before the date,” Hubchik says. This makes menu choices less overwhelming and increases the likelihood you’ll order a nourishing meal in line with your recovery goals, she explains.
In fact, dates involving food can actually help when you’re in eating disorder recovery. “When a person is in their eating disorder, food is often controlled or limited to a few ‘safe’ foods that the person feels comfortable eating all the time,” Hubchik says. “This way of eating becomes boring or anxiety-provoking,” yet not sticking to “safe” foods can also spark worry—with a looming fear that deviating will somehow lead to bodily harm.
But a meal during a date can offset this because the focus isn’t solely on the food—it’s on the sparkling human on the other side of the table. “Distraction is often a helpful intervention for someone with disordered eating habits,” Hubchik says. “When eating with someone else, even on a date, there is typically plenty of good conversation to distract from the fears of food.” Distraction, she says, can make eating less fear-based than dining alone.
How else can you work toward enjoyable eating? Hubchik recommends expanding food variety within the scope of what is already deemed “safe.” For example, if your safe food is a specific type of cereal and milk, expand to different types of cereal. You can also frame new ingredients as “food challenges.” “The more food challenges a person completes, the more confidence, spontaneity, and fun can be gained,” Hubchik says. “Doing these food challenges while on a date can feel extra rewarding to be able to celebrate little wins with a romantic partner.”
Of course, triggers can extend beyond food, and not all are avoidable—why it’s important to continue working with a therapist so you can strategize together about how to cope if a trigger reappears. How long you’ll need to stay in therapy varies greatly and depends on the severity of their disorder, but Hubchik generally recommends committing to at least two years to learn and reinforce healthy coping mechanisms. For instance, if stress is a trigger, an argument with a partner can lead to skipped meals. It’s important to recognize this type of behavior and put an end to it before it becomes a regression.
“The reality is there are so many triggers in life, from diet conversations to comments on food and bodies,” says advocate Virgo. For her, what’s most important is how she deals after being triggered. “This means having mantras in place, distractions, and reminding myself why I am pushing on with recovery,” she explains. Two mantras she likes to use: I am so much more than my weight and Thinking something does not mean that it’s true.
Your ED, Your Partner, The Talk
When is the right time to open up to a partner (or potential partner) about disordered eating? As with any difficult piece of your history, it’s a judgment call that comes down to a feeling of trust. “Relationships can be hugely beneficial and supportive in eating disorder recovery if there is good communication, warmth, love, support, and encouragement,” Frew says. “However, unhealthy relationships can also bring the opposite impact and can create additional stress, which can hinder recovery.”
An example: Eating disorders typically develop from a need for control or safety in a person’s life, says Hubchik says, so a partner who is manipulative, over-controlling, criticizing, abusive, or narcissistic will likely exacerbate eating disorder symptoms. Being picky about who you let into your life with an ED isn’t just good advice, it’s a health decision.
If you have been hiding your eating disorder from your S.O., reflect on why. “If a partner is going to respond by critiquing or shaming the person, then there are probably good reasons for not being open,” Frew says. If this sounds all too familiar, there’s a good chance you’re not in a healthy relationship. On the other hand, say you’ve got a great partner. You might not be discussing your ED because of internalized shame, says Hubchik.
Ready to talk? Remember that there’s no right or wrong way to go about it, though Frew does recommend chatting when the vibe is calm and there’s an opportunity for true listening. (A.k.a. not in the middle of a group dinner at The Cheesecake Factory when your partner is confused why you’re annoyed that calories are listed on the menu.)
Here’s some good news: “When a person decides to tell their eating disorder story to another person, this fosters a sense of [harmony] that typically leads to developing stronger attachment relationships,” Hubchik says. “By sharing, the person also reduces their shame about the eating disorder, which improves the relationship they have with themselves. Vulnerability can be a superpower in all interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships.”
In Virgo’s case, she opened up to her now-husband in increments as their relationship progressed. She started by being direct (“I used to struggle with anorexia”) and over time, shared more details about how, specifically, it affected her—and the ways it continues to.
Walden says she’s been fortunate that both of her previous partners have responded supportively when told about her history with disordered eating. “The first boyfriend I opened up to struggled with depression and anxiety, and I think that made him more understanding of what I had experienced,” she says. However, she believes this also may have been the downfall of that twosome: Bonding over past traumas and mental health struggles led to an unhealthy codependency.
There are ways to avoid this, says Hubchik. “When choosing to share a trauma story with someone, it’s important to have strong relationship boundaries and open, honest communication to mitigate the risk of retraumatization and trauma-bonding,” she explains, recommending therapy to anyone who has experienced trauma. “A therapist can help individuals share their trauma narratives within the safety and security of a therapeutic alliance. After doing the trauma work in therapy, a person is usually more equipped to share their trauma story from an internally grounded place.”
Now that Walden is single, she’s more discerning about who she gives her energy to romantically. “Instead of bonding over past traumas,” she says, “I focus on if we have shared values, goals, and interests.”
Bottom line: It’s 100 percent possible to date and have a robust romantic relationship with a past ED history. Your disorder can’t rob you of that unless you let it. But, as with any mental health condition, what’s most important is getting healthy with yourself first. After all, your relationship with you is the only one guaranteed to last. That sounds like a friggin bummer, but there’s a shinier lining: Liking and caring for yourself = an increased likelihood of finding romance, ED or not.
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