In the more than a decade that I have been working with eating disorders, I have been struck by the parallels between them and abusive relationships. Indeed, an eating disorder is an abusive relationship within. I have often used the metaphor of an abusive partner to help a client observe and gain insight into the role of an eating disorder in their life. This blog is an overview of what I see as being striking similarities (I am primarily referring to eating disorders characterised by restrictive eating, which may/may not lead to binge-eating or compensatory behaviours).
Please note: I have never met anyone who has deliberately or knowingly chosen to enter an abusive relationship, nor develop an eating disorder. This is neither weakness nor attention seeking. Both are potentially fatal.
|Features||Abusive Relationship||Eating Disorder|
|Initially intoxicating honeymoon phase||May seem perfect; intimacy escalates quickly; control communicated as love & desire to take care of you.||Powerful feelings of achievement, control & pride. Feel special, Calm & strong. ED wants you (initially) to be healthy & your best self. Others make positive comments about initial weight loss|
|Develops under cloak of secrecy (inc. the person themselves)||Abuser may seem publicly doting & kind||Significant efforts to conceal eating patterns|
|Preoccupation||Constant calls & texts; monitoring movements; wants to know everything about you & always be with you||Obsessed with food, recipes, calories, weighing/body-checking behaviours|
|Hyper-critical||Unrealistic expectations & harsh criticism across many domains||Perfectionistic, vicious name-calling (especially fat, lazy, weak). Tormenting & relentless|
|Unfavourable comparisons to others||Anything that will undermine your sense of worth & increase dependency||Others of same gender perceived as being thinner/fitter – in public, tv & social media|
|Minimisation||"They can be so caring, they’re under a lot of stress, it doesn’t happen all the time"||"I'm just being healthy, everyone skips meals sometimes, I can control this."|
|Discourages meaningful activities (threats to control)?||Denigrates, sabotages, prohibits or makes it difficult to participate in & enjoy||Convinces person it is unimportant; creates apathy, malnutrition also affects attention, concentration & energy|
|Obedience is path of least resistance||Attempts to avoid escalation; keep the peace||Keep ED at bay, achieve peace from relentless inner criticism|
|Changes the rules||Gaslighting; undermining, manipulative & deceptive||Constantly changes goal-posts, e.g. "lf l just get to 50kg l will be happy" (Spoiler alert: you won’t)|
|Interpersonal behaviour changes||Jumpier, less confident, decisive & expressive||Uncharacteristically deceptive, impatient, intolerant. Indecisive, especially around food|
|Isolation from & denigration of others||May seem protective initially; questions others’ motives; hypercritical; jealous; discourages/prevents contact||Sees supportive efforts as unnecessary & controlling; questions others’ motives; devalues professional opinion; decline invitations|
|Others' unhelpful reactions||"Why don’t you just leave?"||"Why can’t you just eat?"|
|It will not stop if you stay. Change is daunting & hard to achieve alone||Please seek support if you recognise any of the above characteristics in your relationship.||Please seek support if you recognise any of the above characteristics in your life.|
If you need help breaking free from an eating disorder (i.e. any abusive relationships with food), Dr Angela Morgan can help.