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How Can You Navigate Binge Eating Disorder and Relationships?

BED can make romance complicated, given how important recovery is, but don't rule out dating.

Author: Kate Daniel

Published: December 03, 2023

Key Points

  • Binge eating disorder (BED) is a serious and common condition that can infiltrate every aspect of a person's life.

  • Dating and intimacy can be challenging for people with eating disorders, including BED.

  • Understanding how romance and BED affect each other can aid in binge eating recovery and strengthen relationships.

Sarah-Jane Clarke was barely a teenager when she began routinely using food for a sense of control and comfort rather than for nourishment. She started puberty much earlier than her friends, and to chisel her curves she tried various restrictive diets, each of which stoked unrelenting cravings, seemingly unstoppable binges, and a surge of shame and self-reproach.

The cycle persisted through her 20s when she binged to find solace—it was always fleeting—from domestic abuse.

Clarke, a resident of Swindon, England, and the founder of Step by Step With Sarah-Jane, eventually escaped that relationship and the binge-restrictive cycle. The effects of binge eating disorder (BED), however, have remained a prominent part of her life and relationships.

Although her experience is unique, her story is familiar.

"BED, like other eating disorders, often serves as a maladaptive means of achieving a sense of control, comfort or relief from emotional turmoil," said Louisa Beckford, M.B.B.S., a consultant psychiatrist at Orri Eating Disorder Treatment Clinic, in Royal Leamington Spa, England.

The journey to stop binge eatingMayo Clinic defines it as frequently consuming large quantities of food and feeling unable to stop—can be a Herculean effort. Given the ebbs and flows of romance and the unease it can provoke, it makes sense to focus on recovery rather than romance for some. However, giving up on dating isn't necessary.

"It doesn't mean one can't date or be in relationships. It will just be very important to be aware of the impact that relationships have on these eating behaviors and vice versa," said Allison Chase, Ph.D., the senior clinical advisor at Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Mood and Anxiety Center in Denver. "Understanding connections between thoughts, feelings and behaviors is important to help better understand patterns and ultimately to shift unhealthy behaviors."

How can BED impact sexual, mental and emotional health?

The distress associated with BED extends beyond the physical act of eating and affects how people perceive themselves, according to Kaila Peak-Rishel, L.C.S.W., L.M.F.T., the clinical director at Eating Recovery Center in Denver.

People with BED tend to experience intense shame, guilt and stress in response to bingeing behavior and its physical consequences, including bloating, discomfort or pain, weight gain, and acne.

"This emotional turmoil isn't limited to their behaviors. It also extends to how they perceive their own bodies and how they anticipate others will perceive them in turn," Beckford said.

She noted that people with BED can develop a "deeply negative" body image. They may view their bodies as the embodiment of their bingeing episodes, causing them to experience intense shame and self-criticism. The powerlessness people with BED can feel concerning their disorder can compound negative self-perceptions and anxiety over others' potential judgment. All of this can intensify self-isolation and pose significant barriers to intimacy.

"Unaddressed shame is very corrosive in relationships—platonic or romantic," Peak-Rishel said.

Moreover, many people with BED contend with co-existing mental health challenges, such as trauma, depression or anxiety. There's also a correlation between PCOS and eating disorders, especially BED.

"These conditions may perpetuate eating disorders and worsen because of them, further fueling negative emotions that can erode a person's belief that they are deserving of love, kindness or sexual attraction," Beckford said.

5 tips to keep in your BED dating handbook

Together with her ex-husband's abuse and a preexisting sense of never being "good enough," BED decimated Clarke's self-esteem and confidence. The disorder also made her fearful of the uncertainty and lack of control dating could cause.

"To say that I was scared to start dating again was like the biggest understatement of the year. I was literally petrified," she said.

Among other tactics, including prioritizing self-care, here are the five tips that helped Clarke get back into the scene without sacrificing her recovery.

1. Be kind to yourself

For many people, online dating is depressing, and repeated let-downs and rejections can begin to feel demoralizing, even for those with a solid sense of self-esteem. Bear in mind that neither your dating luck (or lack thereof) nor BED is a reflection of your attractiveness or value. You wouldn't—or shouldn't—put up with judgment, impatience or hostility from a partner, nor should you accept it from yourself.

"Kindness and self-compassion are vital for recovering from an eating disorder and developing strength in relationships," Beckford said. "See challenging moments as opportunities to rally around yourself and develop an inner, compassionate voice that cheerleads for something better for you."

2. Communicate

Suppressing your feelings can harm your health and relationships, particularly if you have a history of eating disorders. Along with the secrecy associated with bingeing, this may lead to tension and misunderstandings.

Communicating openly with your partner allows them to support you while decreasing your dependence on food for emotional respite.

For Clarke, transparency has been vital to maintaining her binge eating recovery. Straightaway, she informed her current partner she can't have sweets in the apartment since they significantly increase the risk of a binge. She is upfront when struggling, asking her partner to assist with tasks that could trigger a binge impulse, such as grocery shopping.

"He is so supportive and understanding," she said.

Beckford recommended that when the thought of vulnerability sparks anxiety, challenge your impulse to retreat and instead consider how you can communicate safely and authentically.

3. Reflect

You know that dating and relationships can be stressful and potentially trigger the impulse to binge.

When these moments arise, take stock of your emotions and express these to your partner or another trusted confidante instead of turning to food, said Ashley Moser, L.M.F.T., a Charlotte, North Carolina-based clinical education specialist at The Renfrew Center. When binges occur, reflect on what factors may have contributed and try to mitigate these in the future.

"Despite how they appear, eating disorders like binge eating disorder are not just about food," Beckford said. "Often, they have more complex roots that link to past experiences or challenging relational dynamics that have impacted our sense of self and ability to care for and nourish ourselves. As such, maintain a curiosity toward how you show up in relationships."

She recommended you ask yourself a few questions:

  • What fears do you have?

  • What seems to awaken an impulse to binge?

  • What are your self-beliefs and internal narratives for how you see yourself in the world?

"These are all really important questions to hold in mind as part of taking control back from the illness," she added.

4. Plan ahead

Chase noted that dinner dates can be awkward for anyone, but food-based outings tend to be acutely distressing for people with eating disorders or a history of eating disorders.

"I could never share food or go out for 'sweet treats' like ice creams or desserts with friends because I knew once I had one bite, it was uncontrollable," said Tommy Hatto, a BED survivor in Swindon, England.

Of course, being transparent is best, but if you don't yet feel comfortable disclosing your BED, consider suggesting alternatives, such as going for a walk or seeing a show, something that doesn't revolve around a meal.

5. Ask for help

You wouldn't expect a person with a broken leg to set it themselves, and there's no reason to believe you should be able to address your eating disorder solo.

"Eating disorders are complex and, left untreated, can result in relationship challenges among many other consequences," Moser said.

Beckford recommended an eating disorder specialist who could help you alleviate symptoms, address the underpinnings of your condition, and improve your relationships with yourself and others.

How can you better support a partner with BED?

Recovery from binge eating disorder can be long and arduous, but friends and partners can alleviate some of the strain.

If you find yourself being drawn into the inner circle of someone with BED, give the following four strategies a try.

1. Don't try to 'fix' things

When a loved one is struggling, it's natural to want to "fix" everything, Peak-Rishel said. However, this isn't always helpful in BED recovery.

"Be open to listening to them about how they feel and how hard their journey is," she said. "Hard as it may be, refrain from giving advice or commenting about behaviors they should change. Just be there to listen and hold space for their experience."

2. Stay neutral

Peak-Rishel suggested avoiding judgmental language around food, including that consumed by yourself or others.

"Part of diet culture is villainizing some foods and putting others on a pedestal. This is the exact opposite of what needs to happen in binge eating recovery," she said. "This is also very hard for someone in recovery to do consistently on their own. When discussing food, don't use terms like good, bad, healthy, unhealthy, junk food, superfoods and so on. Use neutral terms. Be the reminder that all food is good food when incorporated into a balanced diet."

This notion that no food is inherently "bad" is helpful because most people with BED forbid themselves from consuming "unhealthy" foods and then binge on these items. Often, these products are high in carbohydrates, fat, or salt and elicit a higher dopamine response than others.

Incorporating a moderate amount of these items into a balanced diet may help nourish a healthier relationship with food while preventing overwhelming cravings.

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3. Educate yourself

Eating disorders can be confusing for people who've never experienced them.

"There are a lot of misconceptions about BED and the treatment of it. Be open to new information, join family support groups and get information from credible sources," Peak-Rishel said. "This can help you understand the process, better know how you can provide support and take the burden away from your loved one to educate you."

4. Look after yourself

"It is vitally important that you recognize and look after your own needs, as well as the needs of those around you. As the saying goes, 'one cannot pour from an empty cup,'" Beckford said. "We can only support those around us if we have enough in the tank."

She recommended that, besides setting boundaries and allocating time for self-care, it may be beneficial to find a support group or counselor.

"It can be incredibly hard to witness someone you care about going through pain, so if you're being significantly impacted by someone's illness, remember that you can also reach out for help," she said.

Some eating disorder organizations provide resources for people with a history of eating disorders and their loved ones. Some are targeted to specific age groups, some provide the opportunity for online chats and video meetups, and many have free helplines you can call anytime.

These seven organizations are worth a look if you or someone you know needs help with binge eating disorder:

The bottom line

Moser noted that all eating disorders, including BED, are psychiatric conditions. They are not moral deficits. If dating and relationships affect your health, or vice versa, there's no shame in asking for help.

"Binge eating is serving an emotional function. You are coping with inherent emotions and stressors associated with relationships in the best/only way you can right now," she said. "Relationships are hard, and binge eating is working in the short term to help navigate the 'hard,' even if it has obvious long-term consequences. There is hope and help for breaking this cycle and learning a new way of coping so you and your relationship can be healthy."

Author:  Kate Daniel

Published: December 03, 2023

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