July/August 2012 Issue
Couples and Binge-Eating Disorder
Binge eating is often done secretly and like many other shame-based behaviors, it can wreak havoc on a couple’s relationship.
Binge-eating disorder (BED) is often a solo act, so social workers and other clinicians may think of it as a condition or diagnosis that affects only the individual. However, as with addiction diagnoses, BED injures more than the symptom bearer. For a couple, it often has insidious, damaging effects on both partners and the overall relationship.
No matter how successful or attractive they are, how normal their weight, or how happy they seem, individuals with BED are walking “shame bombs.” In their own minds, they are not simply overeaters, sweets lovers, noshers, or mindless eaters. They see themselves as being possessed by a demon, grossly defective, and beyond repair, terrified of being out of control around food. Their inability to do something they perceive as so simple and basic as feeding themselves effectively becomes a life sentence of having a dysfunctional relationship with food and their bodies. It is this self-abhorrence that can corrode romantic (and other) relationships.
Secret eating involves someone intentionally separating him- or herself from the world. By severing the connection with a loved one, people with BED often disconnect from the best parts of themselves because they feel so ashamed of their binges. People with BED who are secret eaters believe that if their partner discovers them gorging on food, the partner will be just as horrified about the behavior as the binger is—too much of a risk to take with even the most kind, compassionate, and nonjudgmental partner.
Compounding the shame and fear of being discovered and consequently rejected and abandoned—which the person with BED sometimes projects—is the guilt and humiliation of keeping this secret from a loved one. As with having an affair, the partner must never find out—or else.
Although the BED secret may never be discovered (I had a client who kept her bulimia secret from her partner for nearly 20 years), once it is, there is a breach of trust in the relationship, even if it’s only one sided. Intimacy that manifests when both members of a partnership are candid and honest with each other dissolves when one partner consistently hides something from the other.
In these instances, the partner without BED has two options, neither of which work well for a relationship over the long haul: stay home or go alone. Even if the partner without BED isn’t a social butterfly, this is the kind of issue that generates power struggles and can become an unresolved conflict that emerges time and again. If the partner without BED chooses to stay home, anger and resentment can curdle positive feelings, compounded by the partner with BED either feeling guilty about ruining a potentially good time or becoming defensive and seeing him- or herself as the victim of a partner who will never understand.
Again, this situation can play out in several ways. People with BED may make excuses about why they do not want to entertain, such as being dissatisfied with how the house looks, time constraints that would make entertaining difficult, or even feigning disinterest in socializing. Partners without BED may be disappointed, feel resentful, and give up trying to plan events or they may override a partner and invite people over anyway. Whatever their response, bad feelings generally linger with both partners, and the issue resurfaces repeatedly, with partners with BED feeling guilty and at fault and their partners feeling marginalized and resentful.
Codependence and Enabling
Codependence puts binge-eating struggles at the center of a relationship. Whether food shopping or eating out, what can and cannot be eaten is a major focus for both partners. The partner with BED can become the other partner’s pet project and may value the help received yet also resent it. The partner without BED may dislike the role of enabler but may believe that opting out will trigger the other partner’s downfall.
Making Food Choices
Sometimes couples end up eating different foods at the same time, and that can be a realistic solution. But it’s equally possible that people with BED will feel (consciously or unconsciously) envious of and angry about the goodies a partner is eating, which may trigger a binge later on. In this situation, the partner without BED also might feel guilty about eating a calorie-laden dish while the partner with BED is munching on sprouts and cottage cheese.
Another type of sabotage occurs when the partner with BED starts to eat more normally and lose weight. If the partner without BED is threatened by this weight loss, he or she may start offering food temptations until the partner with BED finally breaks down and abuses food. This kind of dynamic can also occur intermittently with enabling; that is, sometimes the partner without BED works hard at getting the partner with BED to eat healthfully and then becomes tired of or angry at this role so that he or she ends up consciously or unconsciously triggering the partner’s binge.
The Binge-Eating Couple
Food abuse may be ego-syntonic when it’s a family affair, but what happens when one partner wants out, perhaps to eat more healthfully under doctor’s orders or because of a serious health condition or simply to junk the junk food and lose weight? If both partners are on board for this kind of change, they can offer mutual support; but if only one wants to change, the couple may be headed down a rocky road.
Education and Open Communication
If clients with BED are also secret eaters, this disclosure must be made. People with BED will be frightened about sharing their shame but, more often than not, partners are understanding or do not condemn as feared. When empathy from the partner without BED is received and the secret is out in the open, shame is reduced.
Identify and Assess Behaviors and Underlying Conflicts
The next step involves the therapist noting dysfunctional dynamics in the couple regarding intimacy and power. For example, the wife likes to care for her husband by feeding him, and he rebels by binge eating because she reminds him of his domineering mother. Or he enjoys the power of protecting her from abusing food because it makes him feel needed, which she both values and resents because she knows she needs to learn to manage food herself.
Developing and Monitoring New Strategies
Additionally, it is often necessary for the couple to set aside time each week to discuss how they’re doing on this issue. Partners with BED get to talk about progress (or lack thereof) made in ending binge eating and changing unhealthy couple dynamics, while partners without BED share perceptions and progress (or lack thereof) in engaging in behaviors to truly help the partner with BED.
— Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, MEd, is an international author and national expert on the psychology of eating. Her books include The Rules of ‘Normal’ Eating and What Every Therapist Needs to Know About Treating Eating and Weight Issues.