eating disorders and relationships

remember last week i asked people to be interviewed about eating disorders? well, some people volunteered. today i am happy to introduce you to joanna poppink, MFT, a long time private practice psychotherapist in los angeles specializing in eating disorder recovery. her blog is at stop eating disorders.

joanna will talk about how eating disorders affect relationships. she has a lot of very interesting things to say, so we’ve decided to present her wisdom in two parts. i’ll be posting part two by sunday.

isabella: i am often contacted by people whose boyfriends or girlfriends suffer from anorexia or bulimia. they want to help and have no idea where to start. what advice do you have?

joanna: i’m a trained licensed psychotherapist in practice since 1980. i’ve specialized in treating people with eating disorders since about 1984 and have attended countless 12 step meetings. and, helping someone with an eating disorder is still challenging for me.

so, then, what can a loving friend or family member or caring colleague do to help?

first is to separate the person from the illness. you support the person you care about, but not the eating disorder. you make no special arrangements to defer to the demands of the eating disorder, don’t make special foods, avoid certain restaurants, keep secrets for the person or go against your own values and principles to help them feel better.

the best thing you can do is let them know you care about them while you continue to live a healthy life yourself. let them meet you in health. let them be inspired to find their way to recovery so they can join you in a healthy life. let them see what they are missing when you don’t compromise your values to accommodate the eating disorder.

you can’t force a person into recovery. but you can show them the benefits of living a healthy life and perhaps, by so doing, inspire them into recovery.

isabella: once a person starts on the road to recovery from anorexia or bulimia, how does that impact on their relationships – romantic and otherwise?

joanna: anorexia and bulimia are illnesses that affect a person’s body, mind, heart and soul. a person with an eating disorder often believes her perception of herself, her values, her strengths and weaknesses, her intelligence and even her loves and hates are her own. she doesn’t realize that all these aspects of her lived experience are powerfully influenced by her eating disorder. her dreams and visions for herself are limited and distorted. she doesn’t know who she is, and she thinks she does.

everyone, and i mean everyone, in her life is present in a relationship with her based on who they think she is. many are in relationship with her because of who they need her to be.

when she moves into recovery mode, her genuine personhood begins to appear. her taste and preferences become clearer. she is surprised by her strengths, and often, so is everybody else. instead of trying to please or deferring out of fear, she finds herself saying, ‘no,’ where she used to say, ‘yes.’

some people benefited from the gifts she has but never used for herself, like intelligence, creativity, education and various skills. some needed to be with a dependent and frightened person so they could be in the powerful, rescuer/savior role.

the people who can grow themselves, who can live a mature and responsible life with respect for another’s boundaries, goals and lived talents as she follows her heart can remain in relationship with the recovering person. the relationship will become more equal.

but it’s difficult for people to grow and change if they are set in their ways and committed to a particular way of life and sense of themselves. many will not be able to tolerate the recovering person’s emerging self and her self respect.

a challenging part of recovery involves dealing with the shock and pain of discovering how vested others were in the eating disorder symptoms. when the symptoms fall away and the true person emerges, many old relationships fall away.

the new relationships are based on who the recovering person is now. people who are attracted to a sick person are different from people who are attracted to a healthy person.


  1. Isabella/Joanna

    Joanna, thank you for sharing this.

    I find your last point particularly interesting, about some old relationships falling away during the recovery process.

    I guess that whilst a person is in sickness, a certain balance develops in his or her relationships, particularly those to whom the person in question depends on to an extent. As the person progresses throughout the recovery process, it makes sense that his or her relationships will require a certain degree of realignment in order to reflect the new reality and new balance of the relationship.

    One could imaging this process of realignment causing a some degree of strain, and your comment that some relationships fall away during this process does not surprise me.

    Andrew’s last blog post..Employee rights and responsibilities part 11: How big is the gender based pay gap?

  2. Dear Andrew,

    Thank you for your comment. I’m grateful to Isabella for asking these pertinent questions.

    And yes, some relationships fall away. But not all relationships end because a person finds her recovery path do so gracefully.

    Some relationships end with bewilderment, pain and/or punishing accusations. This creates more challenge for the person in recovery. She (or he) learns to respect and honor her authentic self despite pressure to return to old unhealthy ways.

    Recovery work has many unexpected challenges.

    Best regards,


  3. I noticed you were new to Netchick’s Meet and Greet so I thought I would come by and say hi 🙂

    I have had problems with eating linked to depression and self-image which continue to this day.

    Issues with eating never go away, they change, mutate or recede, but like all addictions the problems or characteristics that developed them are still there and the knowledge that you can slide back is a constant companion.


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  4. @david i have met numerous people who are struggling with overeating for whom food is the last addiction they are wanting to get rid of. regarding anorexia, all that comes to mind now is a metastudy on men with anorexia, and there seemed to be fewer drug and alcohol problems than expected.

    @craziequeen – yes, for many people, these challenges don’t go away for good. like many mental health issues, it is often a chronic condition – in fact, one of the other interviews in this series will talk exactly about that.

    thanks for coming to visit from netchick! she’s so cool and smart, and i love her various socializing ideas 🙂

  5. Please is there someone out there who could help with my eating disorder I don’t know what I am eating next there must be someone out there who could help me

  6. Maybe I can help you….I have suffered with an eating disorder for 36 year…I am 46.

  7. I am really sad a my eating order nobody can help me nobody is helping me just giving out tablets. I feel that I am going to kill myself.

  8. Hi Sandie,

    I know how overwhelming this problem can be…and sometimes I wonder how I keep going each day….but you must have HOPE!!!

    Talk to me…..tell me what your thoughts are….I have some ways to cope that help me.

    There have been days when I just didn’t think I could live with this illness one more day…but here I am 46 with 3 wonderful sons and I am still struggling every day.

    Talk to me….don’t give up

    Have faith!!!!

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