National Eating Disorders Association

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MAFSA
Did bulimia play a big role in my breakup?

I started dating a woman three months ago. I'm in my mid-30s, she's in her mid-20s. It went exceptionally well - I'm not sure I've ever clicked with anyone quite as well in my whole life. Smart, funny, just full of energy and enthusiasm. Things went super fast, we spent a huge percentage of our time together. I was smitten on day one and more smitten every day since.

I figured out pretty fast she was bulimic, basically by overhearing the purges. She admitted as much a little after, although she never really talked about it at length. She'd drop a depressed "I can't keep anything down today" in a text, or occasionally a "I haven't thrown up in a week!" but it didn't seem like questions were particularly welcome, and they generally went unanswered anyway. I tried to be supportive in a broad way, while not making comments about food or her appearance other than to say she was beautiful (not hard, it's true). She said the bulimia was recent development, about five months old now, and that I was the only person who knew. (I think she only used the word "bulimia" once, come to think of it.) The impression, to me, was that this was a bad thing, but maybe not the end of the world? In retrospect that was a pretty silly thing to think, with her throwing up multiple times a day!

One strange thing about our speedy romance was that the rush forward was punctuated by occasional comments from her about too much commitment. She'd say she was falling in love with me, that I was the nicest man she ever met, but then she'd say she wanted to slow down, or that she was afraid she'd turn toxic and hurt me, or she was worried we weren't compatible. We were never, technically, exclusively dating, although she told me that she'd "withdraw so fast" if I went out with anyone else. I'm generally easygoing about these things, and she was very recently single before we started dating, so I chalked it up to her wanting to just ease into things or having some lingering insecurities, which seems normal enough.

At one point about a month in she actually dumped me out of the blue. I said something that rather inexplicably frustrated her (I mentioned her recent breakup to a friend, which she told me was very private). The next day I received a bizarre text, almost written like a job rejection letter, saying it was nice to know me but she didn't think it was going to work out. I was shocked. She came over and we had a long talk. The main thing I remember from that was her flat, almost irritated affect, while I was very emotional and teary and confused. I couldn't understand where the energetic, expressive person I cared about had gone. Eventually she said she wanted to go slower (this seems to be have been the real issue all along) and things pretty much went back to normal. In fact, nothing seemed to slow down at all - she seemed more excited about the relationship than ever.

Fast-forward to two weeks ago. Suddenly she begins not really responding to my texts or calls. I've dated enough people to know SOMETHING is up, although I can't really say what. I'm starting to get paranoid. We aren't seeing each other quite as much, and she's not staying over very often. Being an idiot, I start to worry she met someone else she likes more - remember, we're technically not exclusive.

A week ago she says she wants to slow down, and makes a few comments that vaguely suggest she is dating other people. I get very upset - not mad, but emotional, very sad, very confused. For the record, I feel terribly guilty for expressing such intense emotions, I think in retrospect it was the exact wrong approach. But I didn't understand why she'd withdrawn so quickly and I became worried maybe the feelings she'd expressed weren't real, and I'd been played for a fool somehow. Over several days of emotional conversations - well, emotional on my part, she never indicated much emotion at all at this point - I make the huge stupid mistake of asking her outright if she's been using me. She's very upset by this and wants to end things.

So she does. She picks up her stuff and we have a long conversation, which pretty much goes the way of the rest - me very upset and confused, trying to explain how much I care about her and how baffled I am, and her, again very flat, talking about how she's disappointed in me ("not mad," she says) and wishes me the best. She tells me she doesn't owe anyone honesty - not me, not her friends, no one. She says we're not compatible and I'm just a lonely person who needs company, who needs to deal with my insecurities. I know I'm not perfect, but I swear, it felt so much like she was LOOKING for things to blame me for, and had no interest in working past them once she found them. It felt like she was looking for any door out she could find. The phrase I kept using with friends afterwards was "like someone flipped a switch" - the loving, wonderful woman I knew just deleted. She argues with me about gifts I've given her. I want her to take them, she doesn't want to "owe" me anything. Then she leaves.

Naturally I was devastated, confused, and despairing - I feel like I've inexplicably screwed up the best relationship of my life. It at no point occurred to me at all that any of this might have anything to do with her eating disorder. Then I had a conversation with a friend who had struggled with similar issues, and she said: "I was pretty sure this was going to happen eventually." I googled it, found this forum, and found post after post describing bizarrely similar breakups and conflicts.

Okay, apologies for the long, long story. Here are my questions:
-Am I crazy for suddenly thinking that a lot of the inexplicable stuff in our relationship, and maybe even the breakup almost in its totality, was the result of her bulimia? I know there's a danger here because I am very sad, and searching for any explanation, and this is one that lets me off the hook while even getting to believe that she really meant all the nice things she said. And during the relationship I never ascribed that much importance to the eating disorder, which felt like a separate, private thing of hers (albeit one I privately hoped very much she could address). But the pattern is so similar to the other stories here!

-Reading this forum has also made me very worried about the safety of my ex. She's moving into a new place by herself in a few days (something that was already causing her a lot of stress) and she's estranged from her family (for good reasons). I don't think she talks about any of this with her friends. She has some preexisting mental health issues on top of the eating disorder, and I worry that this move will just make it easier to avoid seeking any help. Is there anything at all I can do? Even if things between us are done, I want her to be safe, happy, and healthy, and most of all, to see some kind of professional. I worry she is isolating herself.

-Do people who have experienced similar things have any guess about what happens next? Is she going to ghost completely (I asked her this and she said "I don't know, I can't predict the future")? Or is the desire to pull back something that comes and goes and waves? I know there's nothing I can do about it either way, but I guess I'm curious, as a person whose mental energies are currently heavily occupied by this.

BobJ48
MASFA

"I googled it, found this forum, and found post after post describing bizarrely similar breakups and conflicts."

Yes, how about that ? I've worked here for about 7 years, and on another site for 10 years before that, and you really do hear this same story over and over. The authentically wonderful person, who in a moment of intimacy shares their secret, and rather than the relationship benefiting from the shared closeness, things inexplicably fall apart instead. And really, what sort of fellows show up on a forum like this ? Not jerks - it's the good men like yourself. In fact, it's almost like being a good fellow puts a guy at higher risk for something like this. Which also often seems to be the case with people who get EDs themselves. It's often as though being a good person is also a risk factor for having an ED. So…a lot of things going on underneath the surface I think.

" Am I crazy for suddenly thinking that a lot of the inexplicable stuff in our relationship, and maybe even the breakup almost in its totality, was the result of her bulimia? "

No, I don't think you are crazy for thinking so. As you said, you hear about this same mysterious pattern over and over. Everything seems fine and even wonderful, and then once the cat's out of the bag, suddenly it's not.

"-Reading this forum has also made me very worried about the safety of my ex. She's moving into a new place by herself in a few days…"

Yes, situations like that can be legitimately worrisome. Just the person and their ED, alone together. Some people can hold things together better than other people can, but if she's at a point where sometimes she goes on a binge and purge run that can go on for hours, that's not an encouraging place for a person to find themselves in.
What can you do to help ? My sense is that it will hinge on what she will allow you to do. Which may be nothing, if she has truly cut you off. Which can be an awfully helpless feeling, when we feel nothing but authentic good-will towards the person.

" -Do people who have experienced similar things have any guess about what happens next? Is she going to ghost completely (I asked her this and she said "I don't know, I can't predict the future")? Or is the desire to pull back something that comes and goes and waves? "

You'll just have to be patient I think. I think you can be certain that she knows that you care about her, so I'm not sure that you need to emphasize that. Plus she also understands that she's treated you in ways that you don't deserve. It's pretty likely that she understands that he ED is not a positive thing in her life. So despite her distancing herself from you, I think you can be sure that she understands all these things. How she decides to put this all together…well, it's a difficult thing to try and put together, so it may indeed end up being a back and forth sort of thing. Or not, depending on how frustrated she gets with herself. So for now, as much as you may hate it, you may need to back off and simply see what sort of openings she presents you with. If you are OK with that I mean. As a caring person, you don't want to find yourself a slave to her changing emotions.

Because from a "looking out for our own health too" standpoint, that should not be your reward for caring, you know ?

In any case, if you find yourself being confused, it's because situations like these are truly confusing. Please try not to blame yourself, or spend too much time worrying about "if I'd only done this instead of that". I think you've done pretty well already.

But yeah, eating disorders. People may think they know something about them, until they find themselves dealing with them in person. They are complicated things, and the ways that both sufferers and loved ones go about navigating the waters is often unpredictable and uncertain.

Keep writing ?

MAFSA
Thanks for the reply, Bob -

Thanks for the reply, Bob - somehow I figured you'd be on top of this. I showed this to my friend who first suggested this was a problem and she and I both agree you're incredibly good at this. I hope you know it's appreciated.

It sounds selfish, given the gravity of what she's going through, but some of the toughest stuff here, for me, is knowing what was real and what wasn't. She was so cold and different when she dumped me. I was desperately looking for any sign that, even if her mind was made up, the relationship ending was affecting her too. But there just wasn't any. She erased me with the same kind of vague frustration you might exhibit if you tried to cancel an internet subscription and it was taking too long.

I asked about a few things we did - things at the time that seemed to bring her obvious joy - and she said "That was nice of you!" or "That was a nice day, yes." But she said she'd been caught up in the moment (for months??) and after thinking on it a few days, wasn't interested anymore. She denied remembering some of the things she said to me, most notably that she was falling in love, although she shrugged and said that she might have said them, and was sorry for that.

I've been assured that this was the ED talking, almost like a separate entity living inside her, but it's hard to shake the feeling that I fell for a mirage or performance -- or alternatively, that people's feelings are so ephemeral and impermanent that it's effectively the same thing, and so many close and wonderful moments together can just evaporate in a few hours. I know it isn't healthy but I sit around and wonder if she's given me two moments' thought or even remembers much about the relationship, a week later. Which is almost more unsettling than believing I'd been had.

BobJ48
MAFSA

Thanks for the compliment. Many years ago I had a friend who passed away from her eating disorder (as well as a lot of other issues) so that's how I ended up involved in all this.

You wrote :

"…. or alternatively, that people's feelings are so ephemeral and impermanent that it's effectively the same thing, and so many close and wonderful moments together can just evaporate in a few hours."

Yes, that part is strange, and I think you are right in assuming it's not the normal way with people. With most people that is. The apparent coldness and the air of detachment I mean. That's not always the way with eating disorders either. People can push us away, but even so, usually there are some feelings and emotion that's involved.

"I've been assured that this was the ED talking, almost like a separate entity living inside her, but it's hard to shake the feeling that I fell for a mirage or performance."

It's interesting to hear you say that, because some people really do have an unstable "sense of self". They can take up a persona and play it out well, but there's really no consistency to their internal construct. And you do hear people talk about this. About how they don't have a reliably stable sense of who they are. Which can be an unsettling thing for them.

So in that sense, the person you knew may have disappeared. And now she's trying to assemble a new person for herself. One that doesn't contain the challenges of a complex and caring relationship.

Again, this is all complete speculation, but "sense of self" issues can be a very real thing for some people. Borderline Personality Disorder is a diagnosis that has a huge stigma around it, so it's not a term to throw around lightly, but folks who have that can have some real sense-of-self problems. You mentioned that things took off super-fast between the two of you, which is also something that can happen with folks like that. They can also be prone to black-and-white thinking ; One day you are the greatest guy in the world, and the next day they can't imagine what they ever saw in you. So interpersonal relationships can turn out to be a difficult matter with them. These folks can often have EDs too.

Again, it's probably not fair to speculate, but it's been my experience that if our instincts are telling us that something strange is going on…then it probably is.

Anyhow, just some other things to consider in trying to make sense of this.

MAFSA
An update

Resurrecting an older post here, but there are some new developments. I spent a lot of time researching BPD and realized that it was a perfect match with my ex - not just the ED, but the fluid identity, self-harm, fear of abandonment, very strong and changing emotions, were all obviously present, although she did an excellent job of keeping this stuff hidden or downplaying it when I was around. I did quite a lot of reading about BPD. One thing I learned is that after leaving BPD sufferers often come back to old relationships.

And that's exactly what happened. Six months after we broke up, almost to the day, she called me and asked to get dinner. On one level, I was shocked - I was still blocked on a lot of social medi and there wasn't any sign of a thaw. On another, I had read so much that I almost expected it.

Anyway, long story short, she and I have reconnected some. We still get along extremely well, so well that it's been almost too easy to forget about the six-month absence. She's been more open about her mental health issues, and has received some additional therapy and treatment, although she hasn't mentioned BPD (and I'm not going to mention it before she does). For my part, the reading I've done has helped a lot - there are a lot of strategies for dealing with BPD-style emotional volatility and they've been very successful.

Okay, here's the problem: despite all this, the bulimia still seems quite bad. She's told more people about it, including her doctors, therapist, and a number of friends. She has some medication for it. And she seems more comfortable mentioning it to me. But ultimately she still throws up fairly frequently after meals, especially when she's feeling anxious or bad about her life otherwise. In fact, if anything, she seems a little more fatalistic about the situation.

Is there anything I can do at this point? I care about this person, and she clearly wants to be part of my life again, at least for now. I know that BPD means she's going to necessarily be more volatile and unpredictable than most people, and any relationship with her is at a higher risk of collapse, but I've arrived at some acceptance of that reality. But the bulimia is different - it's really hard to accept someone who is a significant presence in your life harming herself like this so frequently.

BobJ48
MAFSA - BPD

Good to hear from you, and interesting to hear that you read up on BPD. Not that many people are familiar with the condition, so it's something that you checked it out. And yes, it can ring a lot of bells, and explain a lot of things.

Good to hear that your friend seems more comfortable mentioning her issues. As you said, you may not want to bring up BPD unless she does, but it's possible that she has some awareness of it herself. It used to be felt that people with BPD were unable to have any personal insight into their condition, but I can assure you that that's not the case at all. The stigma around the diagnosis seems to be a little less too, now that the profession has some therapeutic tools to work with. DBT being the main approach now.

But yes, the Bullimia. Like you've noticed, it can ramp up during times when the person feels there are things happening which they have no control over, or during times of stress just in general. Plus (yet again) the whole "good enough" thing.

"I can imagine you must be feeling anxious" or "Things really are difficult I know" where she can trust that you know how she's feeling are probably the best responses. They don't actually "fix" the situation it's true, but people can feel less stressed and less alone if they know that others have an idea of how they are feeling.

Also, keep in mind that most people with bulimia are not happy about their condition. Sure, they seek the behavior in order to feel better in the moment, but in the long run they usually hate the idea that they are a slave to the thing.

This is probably not a very helpful note I know, but I'm glad that you wrote, and I do hope you'll feel OK about sharing your feelings as matters progress.