Protecting the Eating Disorder- Forgotten Struggles of the Spouse.

by Elizabeth on March 18, 2013

Hello again! Thank you all for the positive feedback and encouragement last week. If you missed the post you can find it here. Your kind words help me to continue with our story. Sharing this vulnerable part of our relationship is not easy for me or Elizabeth, but we hope to encourage and enlighten people who may be struggling with a similar situation.

So, back to where I was? Elizabeth and I got married and moved into our first apartment. I was already working, and Elizabeth was looking fiercely for his first nursing job. Finding a nursing job in Houston was strangely difficult because the only positions that were open required 3-5 years of nursing experience. In my mind, this was the perfect opportunity to jump into therapy or treatment of some kind since she was basically a stay at home wife with no kids and no house to take care of. It seemed as if she would finally have that break that she was looking for to take some time for recovery.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth was constantly stressed out because she had put forth so much effort to finish nursing school and the search for a job felt hopeless. After a few months, Elizabeth finally made the decision to see a therapist once a week about the eating disorder. This was a first-time experience for both of us, and I learned a lot from going to a handful of ?family? sessions. The therapist asked Elizabeth to see a dietician once per week as well, but I could probably count the number of times on one hand that she actually went to talk to the dietician. This ?once-a-week therapy? was a far cry from the necessary treatment for Elizabeth, but in my eyes, it was at least a start. Looking back, we were blessed to have gotten this pause in life where Elizabeth finally felt like she had time to breathe. Had she landed a job right out of school, I highly doubt there would have been ?time? for therapy. I will dive further into the progression of the eating disorder, and the lessons that we eventually learned from Elizabeth?s first therapist in my next post.

For now, I would like to focus on some of the overlooked struggles that a spouse and/or close family members deal with while caring for a spouse or loved one with disordered eating. Elizabeth and I had been together for almost four years when we got married. I consider myself a pretty observant person, and after four years of studying Elizabeth?s habits, I became intimately familiar with exactly how to ?protect the disorder? to avoid unnecessary conflict. We are both fairly non-confrontational, so the easy way out for me was to learn exactly what Elizabeth?s eating disorder could tolerate, and live my life within those boundaries.

Let me give you an example. My best friend invites me and Elizabeth over for dinner on a Friday with the expectation that we will go out on the town afterward. He knows that we don?t have plans because I just got through telling him we have no plans. My mind immediately starts racing to figure out how I can fit this change of plans into the eating disorder?s agenda. [Someone struggling with anorexia typically does not cope well with change. Change in plans, change in surroundings, change in general. There is loss of control in change.] The following is a typical chain of thoughts immediately after receiving that invitation:

  • ?That sounds awesome, but I doubt Elizabeth will want to do something this last minute?
  • ?This is going to be a fight because I really want to go, and I know that she would rather not.?
  • ?I wonder if there will be food that Elizabeth can actually eat??
  • ?There will be alcohol involved, and I know that the stress of this last minute change of plans combined with Elizabeth?s inability to control the food that is served could lead to excess drinking.?
  • ?Forget it I will just tell him that we are going to pass so that I don?t have to deal with all of this.?
  • ?No screw that? I want to go, and this is so unfair that we have to reject invitations to dinner because it causes grief!?
  • ?I know, I will just suggest that we go out to eat instead so that Elizabeth can order something that she can eat.?

You can see how stressful something as simple as a dinner invitation can be to a spouse let alone the person with the actual eating disorder. We still struggle some with finding a balance between going out with family and friends and spending an evening at the house. I am sure that you can see how Elizabeth finds a certain comfort in preparing our own food, in our own home, and escaping the feeling of ?all eyes on her? while at the dinner table, while as someone with a different relationship with food might not be affected like this. As the recovery process progresses, the more comfortable we both feel with dinner outings and social functions, and the easier it gets to balance our relationships with friends and family. I am thankful for this aspect of recovery because it has certainly lightened the burden on me personally.

The only other thing that I want to touch on briefly is communication. Obviously communication is the foundation to any relationship. For me, it was always easy to play the role of the accountability partner, however; we learned later that this is not a healthy role for the spouse or the parent. Instead, a therapist and dietician should be the ones to hold Elizabeth accountable so that it does not further stress our marriage or the relationship with her friend or family member. It?s easy to encourage Elizabeth to eat a more challenging meal, but what is difficult for me is to come out and express my frustrations. At times, it feels like I have to walk on egg shells to discuss my feelings. I feel selfish to share my frustrations when I know that Elizabeth has so many struggles of her own. I often try to put myself in her shoes when I feel angry or upset about the effects of the eating disorder on my life, and my problems seem miniscule compared to the feelings and thoughts that she constantly deals with. The truth is though, my struggles and my needs are equally important as Elizabeth?s. Instead of adding more pain and hurt to Elizabeth?s life, she can usually validate my frustrations and empathize with my needs. Each time we have those heart to heart discussions, there is a weight lifted from my shoulders, and I believe it opens her eyes to the struggles that I deal with on a daily basis.

A healthy marriage always requires balance and selflessness, but when dealing with an eating disorder, there is a fine line between protecting the disorder and acting selflessly. Whether you are trying to find a way to fit the eating disorder into your dinner plans, or how to carefully bring up a frustration in conversation without feeding the disorder, keep in mind that the eating disorder needs to be exposed instead of being constantly protected! Forgive me for preaching, but hopefully you can see where I am coming from.

Anyway, back to the story line. As the disorder continued to progress, it took me several months of watching Elizabeth spiral downhill before I finally came to my senses [with the help of my family and friends] that it was time to take action beyond a one-a-week therapist. My next post will include the story from before and during the hospitalization phase. Certainly the most difficult time in both of our lives, but I am also excited to share some of the God moments that I experienced during that dreadful time.

Just to clarify, Elizabeth has come a LONG way in her relationship with food. Often times, it seems like we gather with family and friends around a meal, and what’s different now is it is more about connecting with others, and less about the food. We will get further into her ?wellness triumphs? in a later post. That will be a fun one! In the meantime, please continue to involve us in your lives friends and family! This post is meant to heighten awareness not to suggest never inviting us over for dinner again :-)


If anyone has questions specifically for me, let me know and I will try to respond to you directly or in the following post. Also, Elizabeth wants people to also feel free to ask her anything you might have questions about regarding what was going on during this time. Our main purpose is to help and share knowledge we have gained during this process! Thank you for reading.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Alex @ therunwithin March 18, 2013 at 2:59 pm

This is such a great topic to hit on. I think I have seen a lot of relationships torn because of that role distinguishing that was hard to find with the ones you love. again, thank you for sharing so much of this journey.
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2 Cori @ olivetorun March 18, 2013 at 3:00 pm

This is GREAT to see and I truly appreciate you sharing this part of your relationship. I’m sure it isn’t easy but just know that your story is touching the lives of others.
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3 Amy N. March 18, 2013 at 3:23 pm

Great post! Although addictions (an eating disorder is very similar to an addiction) vary the emotions are the same. It’s great to see words put to something that isn’t often discussed, the spouses point of view.
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4 Amy March 18, 2013 at 3:27 pm

I am incredibly impressed with your insight. The eating disorder is an unwelcome “3rd party” in the marriage, and as much as I think it’s my problem to deal with, there is suffering on all sides. What a wonderful support you must be to Elizabeth…I am happy to see your family doing so well.


5 Alyssa @ See This Girl Run March 18, 2013 at 3:53 pm

These posts are wonderful! I love how honest and willing you are to share your experiences with this trial. Hiding problems never helps and this is such a great way to share and create awareness. You two are amazing!
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6 Thetinyrunner March 18, 2013 at 4:33 pm

I am definitely learning a lot from these posts! Thank you so much for sharing your experience!
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7 Laura @ RunningJunkie March 18, 2013 at 4:43 pm

Wow. Elizabeth is very lucky to have a husband who is so open to discussing this sensitive topic. It really opens my eyes to how my actions can affect the people who love me (and I don’t mean that negatively).
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8 Sandy March 18, 2013 at 4:48 pm

Again this is such a great thing you are doing to help others who may be in a similar situation. You are such a patient and loving husband! I think this is a hard thing to do and share so it is much appreciated and respected.


9 Chelsea March 18, 2013 at 4:51 pm

Thank you both so, so much for being willing to share your story so honestly and openly. It can be very, very difficult to talk about a relationship with food that’s not a healthy one, and I think its incredibly brave for you to share so candidly! Its great to hear somewhat of a different perspective on the story, and I’m really looking forward to the rest of the posts in this series!


10 Rachel @ Undercover Diva: A Sitcom March 18, 2013 at 5:03 pm

This is so honest and so eye-opening. I don’t think I have ever read about the struggles of a family member/spouse/friend as told from that person. Every time I have read someone’s story of overcoming their addiction, I have only read about the struggles of others as told by the person with the illness. I am very thankful that both of you are brave enough to share your story. Thanks, Joe! You have me hooked.. I can’t wait for next week!!
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11 Jackie Hollowwa March 18, 2013 at 5:38 pm

Thanks for your posts Elizabeth and Joe. It is amazing to see how far you have come, Elizabeth. And to Joe, you are a remarkable husband and it speaks volumes to your character that you stood by your wife and helped her every step of the way. It is not an easy journey for either of you… But you will be better for it. Keep up the great work. I am so proud of both of you… Especially Elizabeth. You are one tough woman!


12 Nelly March 18, 2013 at 7:19 pm

LOVE this again…I am interested to see how getting pregnant and the details with that!
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13 [email protected] March 18, 2013 at 7:21 pm

You are both so brave for being so honest, and I think you’re helping more people than you’ll ever know… Not just people with eating disorders but also with any type of addiction or other struggles in life. Thank you!


14 Debbie @ Deb Runs... March 18, 2013 at 7:24 pm

Thank you for this series that will touch far more people than you will ever know. Many runners and fitness enthusiasts deal with eating issues. Perhaps they are not as serious as Elizabeth’s was, but the information you are sharing is valuable to everyone.
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15 [email protected] March 18, 2013 at 11:54 pm

You are both so incredibly brave and selfless for engaging this blogging world with your story. You should consider writing a book. I’m saying this because I feel like a story like this ~ played out in so many peoples’ lives who think they are alone ~ might be served well by being published in book form as well as in the blogging world. You are both charismatic, likable people who write well and write honestly.
Thank you for inspiring me!
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16 Nelly March 19, 2013 at 2:58 am

totally agree!
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17 Megan March 19, 2013 at 4:26 am

Thank you for another great post! I think it’s so important for those who struggle with an eating disorder (myself included) to recognize their struggle(s) are not isolated; the struggles affect everyone involved. Thank you for sharing…I look forward to Mondays to read more :)


18 Emily @ Maple Miles March 19, 2013 at 6:42 am

I think it is such a wonderful thing that you two are sharing your story. Although I have ever struggled with disordered eating, I can see how your story can help so many others. It’s so clear to see how much you two love each other and how strong your relationship is after going through all if this together!
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19 Emily @ Maple Miles March 19, 2013 at 6:42 am

I think it is such a wonderful thing that you two are sharing your story. Although I have never struggled with disordered eating, I can see how your story can help so many others. It’s so clear to see how much you two love each other and how strong your relationship is after going through all of this together!
Emily @ Maple Miles recently posted…Calories Don?t Count on Birthday WeekendsMy Profile


20 Rebecca H March 19, 2013 at 8:52 pm

Thank you so much for opening up about something so personal. You both are amazing and strong people. God bless you and your family.


21 Kim March 23, 2013 at 10:49 pm

This perspection is great, but were there ever issues? Or did you always know about her eating issues and hide behind it?im not trying to be rude, but my husband was oblivious (or chose not to acknowledge issues). Did your parents know? Your wife seems to be extremely skinny…my in laws say the same about me even though I have forgone my old lifestyle. How do you deal with family thoughts?


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