National Eating Disorders Association

The Language of Partners

Emily Farquharson, NEDA Navigator

I was raised with the belief that language is important.  I was taught that that the precision of my words could greatly affect the impact of what I say. When I first met my partner a little over two years ago, one of the main things we bonded over was our love of language. A creative writer herself, I could see how carefully she spoke. On our fourth or fifth date, with such precision, she nervously told me that she had an eating disorder, that she’d struggled with anorexia for almost a decade and that she had problems with over-exercising.  She told me about her treatment team and her experience with programs in the past. She told me that she was in recovery, but that recovery was a long process. My reaction was rather confused. I didn’t know very much about eating disorders at all. Initially, all I could say was that I was sorry she had to go through all that, and that it was okay.  

In the following months, I was overwhelmed. I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone. Language became more difficult. I was scared to talk to my new girlfriend about it. That was the hardest part. I had no idea how to communicate with her. I also knew that as a gay woman, she had probably faced many of the obstacles that members of the LGBT community face, obstacles that I had faced: the added pressure of even more stigma, potentially lack of family support, and an even more difficult time with self-acceptance. This meant that at the time that she was going through the process of accepting her own sexual orientation and coming out to her friends and family, she was struggling with an eating disorder as well. I knew that could not have been easy. How many times would she have to come out? How many times would she have to have such carefully worded conversations?

Communication felt like an obstacle, a hurdle that I had to get over. I felt immense pressure to “say the right thing.” Of course, this meant that I often felt like I said the wrong thing. However, I soon realized that I needed a balance. I had to stop being so afraid of saying the wrong thing – it’s going to happen sometimes, and that’s okay. However, that didn’t mean that I shouldn’t be mindful of what and how I communicate. I realized, too, the importance of being open and honest about both my concerns for her.  I decided that, when I’m worried, I just have to tell her how I felt in the most supportive possible way at the moment that I’m feeling it. For example, if she made a disordered comment about her body while we’re out to dinner, I would tell her that the comment made me nervous or that it scared me. I would remind her that those comments are the product of her disorder, that I don’t see what she sees. I’d tell her how beautiful she is, inside and out. And, then we’d continue on with our dinner, talk about other things. Don’t ignore the symptom, but be able to move on after addressing it. Letting go of the conversation - being mindful that we can’t fix everything right away - are key to maintaining our relationship. That style of our day-to-day communication allows the focal point of our relationship to be the fact that we love each other; that we love each other’s company. The focal point doesn’t have to be her eating disorder, and it isn’t. 

Aside from changing the way I communicate in a relationship, I also changed the way I communicate to others. Prior to meeting my partner, I wasn’t all that mindful of my vocabulary about food or my own body.  I now know how much it matters. It matters because the way that I talk about food and myself sends a message to her. The all-too-casual conversation of negative talk about food content and body image are no longer acceptable for me. I have completely eliminated that kind of speech from my vocabulary. And it’s amazing. This altercation of my language was initially for the benefit of my partner, but it truly has benefited me. By changing my outer dialogue about my body, I’ve changed the inner dialogue about my body. I love living this way. It’s so freeing.

When a person is concerned about a loved one who struggles with an eating disorder, it is so easy to be at a loss for words. All I can say is that whenever I feel at a loss for words, the following truths suffice: “I love you,” “I believe in you and your strength,” and “I’m here for you.”