National Eating Disorders Association

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Sidelined during recovery – an uncertain future

Hi there! So glad I stumbled on this forum - reading the stories from selfless partners/spouses and the heartfelt responses has made me feel far less alone in my situation.

I’m currently having difficulty with my relapsed girlfriend who is nearing the end of her ED treatment. I know I should be grateful for her progress and honesty but she recently requested for space saying that she is unsure on the future of our relationship together. This is hugely conflicting because not only have I supported her through her previous recovery, and despite making my love and care for her known, she appears to have consciously moved away from giving our relationship any of her energy. I do understand the mental and physical demands of treatment and the sheer effort her recovery takes. Likewise I don’t begrudge her for putting her health first. I just want to be there for her and support her through this journey as best I can without being viewed as a taxing commitment.

To give some background, my girlfriend (24) and I (28) live with our respective parents only 15 mins away from each other. We’ve been together for nearly three years. Both relatively inexperienced in relationships, we had a long period of infatuation that possibly bordered on codependency. From the start she was very forthcoming about her struggles with her ED (atypical anorexia nervosa) and other health issues such as depression and anxiety. In 2017, briefly before we met, she came out of inpatient treatment and was tightly sticking to a set dietary standard. For all intents and purposes she had it under control. It was challenging but knowing it what was keeping her well was enough for her to take it seriously, and for me to be enamoured with her strength, willpower and confidence.

Problems arose in August 2020 when a diagnoses of CFS/ME, meant that maintaining her commitments became more and more hard work. Not even she knows the exact trigger, but this fuelled her eating disorder and old habits of over-exercising, calorie-counting and general dissatisfaction around her body image arose. New professionals told her that this diet she kept was actually a form of restrictive eating and exacerbated the disorder. She was now conflicted, frightened and unable to get treatment freely as our health service prioritise ED support almost solely on weight. In short, she did not look sick enough to help.

Fast forward to Feb 2021 and she sought support for herself from private day clinic. She took time off work and began with video calls five days a week for a few weeks (owing to COVID-19), but has more recently scaled down to weekly sessions of one video call day and one in-person day at the treatment centre. This treatment is due to finish next week and a new hour-long therapy session per week has been arranged going forward.

While it’s incredibly encouraging that a good portion of ‘normality’ has returned in her life - she is back at work, finding freedom with food, going out with friends etc - our connection only seems to have only degraded. Our frequent messages, calls, FaceTime’s and trips out just a few months ago, have fizzled to just a couple of paltry texts a day. I try my best to encourage her with affirmations and token gestures, but I am now starting to worry about the impact of this long-term lack of intimacy and communication.

There have been points in our relationship where my naivety to ED’s and relationships in general has verged on insensitive. One instance recently I candidly told her that my needs weren’t being met. My intent was not to prompt shame or disregard the severity of her own situation, it was just my way of trying to keep the communication between us open and honest, despite it being confronting. This upset her massively and I’m regretful of how I handled that situation. I feel like this is partly why she is now reaching out to friends rather than me for support. I should be grateful that she has such a supportive team of people, but I can’t shake the feeling she is rallying the troops for a difficult conversation that may lay ahead. Maybe she is viewing recovery as a form of self-renewal and believes I was in love with the ‘still unwell’ version of herself. Or perhaps she genuinely does feel like she cannot give me what I need right now so has taken the decision to put the relationship on ice to work through what she wants.

Either way, I have no idea how long I’m going to be waiting, what exactly I’m waiting for, or what to do for the best. I want to remain loyal to her request for space because ultimately I love and respect her in her entirety, ED or not. I don’t want to risk a knee-jerk reaction by demanding a conversation for fear of jeopardising progress in both our relationship and her recovery. However my support network are quick to point out the effects that this situation has had on my own mental health and that my needs do require being met for the relationship to work.

It’s worth noting that not only did I lose my job at the beginning of the pandemic, I also lost a close relative and another suffered a brain injury. This has led to me putting a lot of pressure on my partner for my own happiness. While aware it was unhealthy, the relationship provided a sense of escapism which I think added to the the stressors and pressure which I am now missing an outlet for.

Currently I’m working on bettering myself and hitting personal goals, but putting my future in my partner’s hands is proving increasingly difficult to manage.


If you've read some notes here, I suspect that you've seen that this "pushing away" thing is super-common. We can beat ourselves up over small comments we've made, and try and discover what we may have done to cause it. But really, you've probably also noticed how kind and caring most of the guys here have been, when they write and mention their situations. So it would probably be wrong to try and take on too much responsibility for what's happened, or get too wrapped up in "if only"s.

This is just a guess of course, but she may be feeling tentative and doubtful about her recovery, even though she's getting therapy, and etc. I may be wrong about this, but it's possible. People in that position aren't looking for affirmations, or " I know you can do it !". They are often uneasy, and worried about what their future may be. While I know you are trying to avoid being demanding, she may hate the idea that she has to live up to anyone's expectations, either positive, or negative or whatever. What I mean is, your only sin may be that you are another human being.

Probably the best thing you could say is "I know things may be rough for you now." Because they probably are.

Which that's what you are looking for now ; things that you can agree on, you know ?

And ugh, sorry to hear about all the things you have been through yourself. It's not out of line for you to hope for some support from her, and I'd not be surprised if she's been trying to give you some. If anything, people with EDs often understand hard times, so hopefully she's not been turning away from you where that part is concerned.

Otherwise, you may just have to wait out this phase of things. Perhaps she'll want to break up, or maybe she'll what to stick with things. But it sounds to me like things aren't being all that great with her recovery, and when people are unsettled in that situation, it can be hard for them to commit to anything.

Keep calm and carry on

Thanks BobJ, I really appreciate your response.

I totally get the ‘pushing away’ thing. It’s a tough situation, especially when it feels like you’re the only one it is happening to. I seek solace in the fact that it’s not likely to be personal and that this is behaviour typical of someone in my partner’s position.

Truth be told, I don’t know a huge amount about what is going on in her world or her head right now. And because that communication isn’t currently there, I can only follow her lead and reciprocate contact from an ‘outsiders’ perspective. Following your response I’m holding back on the affirmations and mainly just focussing on acknowledging her situation to make her feel heard when she does message. Even then I feel like I’m overthinking my responses, but I’m endeavouring to keep things light and in the present.

In the meantime, I’m willing to carry on waiting and trust that I will know when it’s time to adopt a more proactive response to the distance. I have been focussing on the image of that unwavering redwood you mentioned elsewhere. I’m also finding the advice that you gave about being responsible for only 50% of the relationship incredibly helpful in processing my responsibility in all this too. Many thanks again.


"Following your response I’m holding back on the affirmations, and mainly just focussing on acknowledging the situation to make her feel heard when she does message. "

Yep, I think that's the best approach. "Being known and heard" is what I think people are mostly looking for when things aren't always going so well.

"Even then I feel like I’m overthinking my responses, but I’m endeavouring to keep things light and in the present."

We can strive for the perfect answer it's true, but sometimes that's a good exercise too. Like it can help us adjust what might be our normal approach, so we end up learning things too.

As to what's going on in her head, a lot of self-doubts, probably. EDs tell a person that they absolutely should be doing one thing, while their rational mind lets them know that they should be doing another. The clash between those two things can be really unsettling for the person, and when people are unsettled…that's when ED loves to pounce. Which can make for some really tangled feedback loops.

Loops which are hard for outsiders to influence, and where " I know things may be difficult now" can often feel like the most understanding response.