National Eating Disorders Association

Stories of Hope

Relationships, Communication, and My ED
By Adam Pope

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Last month my fiancee, Caitlin, and I were at a marriage preparation retreat offered by the Catholic Diocese of Minnesota to couples getting married in the Church within the year.

Although I'm not a Christian, I was looking forward to the retreat. I thought, 'Hey, I get to spend the weekend with my fiancée, meet other couples, and get some good advice about married life.'

Sure, most was God centered, which was to be expected, but marriage can be hard work so I'll consider advice from anywhere. One of the host couples talked about non-verbal signs – some obvious, some not. Basic things like when your partner gets angry, are they withdrawn or aggressive or what physical signs does your partner give when they want to initiate sex? As a couple, we notice similar movements and expressions more often. Ultimately, the goal is to anticipate or at least understand the ways my partner communicates non-verbally.

All of this is well and fine, and mostly straight forward – except when someone in the relationship is struggling with a mental illness. Caitlin would ask if I wanted to go out to eat. I would say, “I'd rather not.” Not because I didn't want to get dressed nice and spend time with her, but because I didn't feel like eating or did not know how to count calories at the restaurant. I loved going on dates, but my eating disorder was ruining our communication and leading her to believe I didn't want to spend time with her.

Another ED-related communication issue was trust. “Adam, did you eat today?” she’d ask. “Of course. I had cereal and a bagel for brunch,” I'd reply. She saw through me quick. Although these blatant lies and attempts at deception were exclusively ED-related, they found their way into other conversations we would have about trust and honesty.

Sex was easier to explain, but more difficult to believe. Did I want sex? Yes. But I allowed my body image to dictate when I was willing to allow my girlfriend (now fiancée) to see me naked. Generally, if one recoils when touched by another it's a strong signal they're not interested in you. In the case of those with poor body image, they're not interested in themselves. Before I was able to share with her that I had an eating disorder, she felt rejected, unattractive and silly when she tried to initiate intimacy. This is just a whole other level of non-verbal communication complication.

To navigate this minefield of false signs and miscommunications, be honest. Whether it's you or your partner who is struggling, be open, don't judge and listen. Even when it doesn't make sense (we're dealing with mental illness so a lot of times it won't), remember it's a disorder.

I cannot believe I'm inherently deceptive. I was sick.

I still have days I fight. And some of those days I win.

But I share my struggles, and rarely discount sound advice.

Two things we've got are respect for each other and a willingness to talk through tough problems.

Our host for marriage preparation retreat remarked sarcastically toward the end of the first night: "I can see by all the faces that you'd much rather be out at a game or dinner and a movie than listening to some guy about how you can improve your marriage." He obviously hadn't seen my face. 

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