National Eating Disorders Association

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Girlfriend is struggling with bulimia


This is my first time posting in these forums, so I'd like to start off by saying "Hello"!

My girlfriend, who I have been with for about two and a half years, was diagnosed with bulimia nervosa about a year before I met her. She told me about her diagnosis after we had already been on a few dates together, and I really appreciated that she had the courage to share her condition with me.

She has been actively seeking treatment for at least three years. She was in an inpatient program in another city for a few months before I met her, and when we started dating, she was just about to graduate from an IOP (intensive outpatient program). Since then, there have been a lot of ups and downs. She has relapsed several times, but I understand this is often a part of the recovery process, and that disordered behavior isn't always a good indicator of progress in recovery. About six months ago, things started to get really bad for her again, and she decided to go back into another IOP (which she also graduated from). In between all of these experiences, she had been regularly seeing a therapist who specializes in eating disorders. However, this therapist left the company she was working with to start her own private practice elsewhere, and my girlfriend has been affected by this. I guess I wouldn't be making this post if things were going smoothly, but if it wasn't already clear: I'm worried about her right now. I think she's going through a really bad relapse and it's extremely challenging to be her boyfriend at this time.

Before I go any further, it might help if I summarize what I understand about bulimia nervosa in general (I'm still learning, as always) and what I understand about supporting someone who suffers from it, and then I'll get into how I'm feeling now.

First and foremost, I understand that her eating disorder is not my responsibility, and that it is never my fault if she relapses or acts out on her eating disorder. Secondly, I understand that bulimia thrives on secrecy, and that it is at its strongest when nobody knows about it. Therefore, I don't take it personally when I find out that my girlfriend has been hiding her disordered behavior from me. It's not that she doesn't trust me or wants to deceive me, it's that she's sick and that her illness keeps her sick by shutting other people out. I also understand that, for many bulimia sufferers (my girlfriend included), bulimia is about avoiding difficult feelings. My girlfriend has experienced a great loss in her life (there was a suicide in her family before I met her), and often times her bulimia is a (unhealthy) method of coping with the pain of that loss (among other challenging experiences). As far as supporting her goes, I know that I ought to educate myself on bulimia as much as I can. Therefore, I attended a friends-and-family session at the treatment facility where she sees her therapist, which was incredibly useful. I learned that people with eating disorders have a lot of trouble distinguishing between emotional needs and physical needs (especially when those physical needs involve food). I learned that eating disorders are the deadliest mental illnesses in the world. I learned that the *majority* of people who struggle with eating disorders experience significant recovery with continued treatment over several years (that fact brings me a lot of hope). I learned about what sorts of things can be triggering for someone with an eating disorder. I learned that I can support my girlfriend simply by being a good role-model with my food habits (cooking meals regularly at home, not dieting or talking about body image, and eating meals with her regularly). I learned that one of the best things I can do to challenge her eating disorder is to expose it and point it out for her when I see her talking about herself in a disordered way, since eating disorders thrive on secrecy.

I've learned a lot about eating disorders during my time with my girlfriend, but there's still so much I don't understand, and I'm starting to feel exhausted. It's particularly difficult to go through a time like I am right now, where she is binging and purging a lot and doesn't have any professional help (she has a plan to find another therapist, but in the meantime it's really tough).

The most difficult part for me right now is the lack of intimacy. I am talking about more than just sexual intimacy. There are many different forms of intimacy. There's intellectual intimacy, which is where we share thoughts and ideas freely and openly with one another. There's experiential intimacy, where we do things together as a couple (like going for walks, going on dates, spending time with one another's friends and family, etc.), sexual intimacy (not only intercourse, but also cuddling, hugging, kissing, and touching), and other types of intimacy as well. When my girlfriend is really caught up in the depths of her eating disorder, I have a difficult time finding ways to be intimate with her at all. I feel like she has no interest in talking to me about anything serious, doing anything with me other than something that doesn't require much energy (like watching TV or napping), or being physically close with me (she will often pull away from me, even just from hugging or a kiss on the cheek). I feel like she doesn't have any energy when we spend time together, and sometimes it feels like all the energy that she typically puts into our relationship is instead being put into using her eating disorder and keeping it secret from other people.

I don't want to sound completely hopeless about things. At the very least, I'm grateful that it's not a secret right now. I know that she's been binging and purging because she told me that she has been. I don't know how often it is, and I don't know how severe her condition is right now, but I know that the fact that she told me about it is a good sign, and that it means she is still (at least partially) recovery-oriented.

I feel exhausted. I want to support her, but I'm running out of steam myself. Every time she talks to me about her eating disorder, I feel a strange mixture of emotions. On the one hand, I'm relieved that she trusts me enough to tell me about it and that she is open to talking about it. On the other hand, I feel scared that she's suffering as much as she is. I try to listen to her, reflect on what she's said to demonstrate that I understand, empathize with her, and offer feedback in a non-judgmental way, but there's only so much that can do to help, and it takes a lot of my own energy. Sometimes, I feel like the moments where we are the most intimate with one another are the moments where we're talking about her eating disorder, and sometimes that makes me feel more like her therapist than her boyfriend. I'm just not getting the intimacy and closeness that I want from my relationship with her, and it feels like her eating disorder is this monster body guard that prevents me from getting close to her.

This is getting rather long, so I'll wrap it up. Here's where I'm at, overall: I love my girlfriend. I know she's working on her recovery and she's made a lot of progress since I first met her. I'm also very exhausted from supporting her. I feel like I'm not getting everything out of my relationship with her that I want to, and I'm painfully aware of the role her eating disorder plays in that experience. I'm not giving up on our relationship right now, but I'm very tired and I feel like I need some support of my own. Thanks for taking the time to read this. I appreciate any responses you all might have.

Hey Sam


Yes, welcome to the world of EDs. They can be just like you are seeing them to be, and as partners we can have your same feelings, and experience what feel like the same sorts of rejections too. At the same time, I hope that you won't spend too much energy worrying about whether you are being an effective partner or not. You really sound like you are doing a good job to me.

Your GF sounds like she's being responsible too, which is always a positive thing. So that puts you guys ahead of a lot of folks. So I hope you can take comfort from that part as well.

But yes, the intimacy thing. A whole lot of partners in your position talk about that part. The emotional withdrawal particularly. It's one of the most common things that happens it seems.

And there are a lot of reasons for that. They can worry that you have expectations. Expectations that are not unreasonable, but which (in the depths of their ED) they believe that they may never be able to fulfill. As you can imagine, feelings of that nature can put a real damper on intimacy.

There's the self-hate thing too. Which results in feelings of unworthiness. Then there's the "shame" part as well. Many bulimics feel a sense of shame over their binging and purging.

In any case, all those feelings can begin to add up, and can have a real effect on intimacy. It takes feelings of self-worth for there to be intimacy I think.

And very little of this comes from anything that you did or did not do. In fact, sometimes the nicer we are to the person, the worse things start feeling to them. So yeah, it can be a dilemma for sure.

Sometimes I think the best approach can be validation. Yes, I know - We're supposed to accentuate the positive. But I think it can be of help to the person if we let them know that we understand all the negative things that they may be feeling about themselves too.

In a sense, discussions about things like that are a very intimate thing too.

Keep writing ?