This blog is for partners of adults with eating disorders. However, I’m writing it from the perspective of a person with an eating disorder.
I was a person with an eating disorder who loved her partner, but there were times when my actions might have given the opposite impression. So, a lot of what I am going to try and explain here is based around trying to help you understand why your partner, like I did, may at times seem unable to tolerate you touching them.
If you are a partner of a person who has an eating disorder, I am going to make some assumptions about you that I want to disclose. I am going to assume that you care about and love your partner. I am going to assume that you are not abusive and never have been. I am going to assume that you want nothing but full recovery for your partner. I am assuming these things, because why else would you be bothering to take the time to read this blog if that were not the case?
M: “I’m on my way home, see you in 10”
Me: “Can’t wait to see you babe.”
That would be a fairly common text message conversation between my partner and I. I meant it. I was looking forward to seeing him. Very much so.
However, I would hear the key turn in the lock and my hackles would immediately come up. I would go from looking forward to seeing him to already anticipating not wanting to be touched in a nanosecond. He’d come in, and try and hug me, and I would wiggle away immediately. I might even snap at him and say something mean. Usually it would be something completely unrelated, such as “You didn’t make the bed this morning.” It didn’t matter what it was specifically that I said, the desired effect would be to get him to move away from me. I don’t care about the bed being made; it were as if my brain was plucking for anything that could be aggressive and create distance.
That’s not cool. Is it?
I knew it wasn’t cool. I didn’t like my own reaction there either. This, thank goodness is one of the things that certainly got better as I recovered. I no longer shy away from being touched. Nor do I pick arguments for the sake of it. Since recovering I have put a good deal of thought into why, when I was sick, I was such a … meany … a lot of the time.
1. Well duh, when a body is under-resourced it doesn’t fancy any hanky panky
I don’t need to explain why when a brain thinks that food resources are scarce that brain might not be prioritizing reproduction, right? Sex and intimacy are associated with one another so while a kiss on the cheek and a hug doesn’t hold much threat alone, the brain may be wanting to signal general disinterest in those types of things. That doesn’t mean that your partner is no longer interested in you.
Think of the times when you might have lost your sex drive. Usually it is when you are stressed and tired, right? Well a body in malnutrition is in energy deficit, and that means it is stressed and tired all the time.
When my body was malnourished I certainly lost my sex drive. But I also was at times aggressively opposed to intimacy and affection. Not logically. Logically I knew I liked both of these things. The reality was no matter how logically I was on board with intimacy, my reflex reactions told a different story. The brain stem area doesn’t use logical thinking, it reacts. Hence this may explain the incongruence here.
2. Prefrontal cortex regions are not always consulted when we react
No two people with a restrictive eating disorder are the same. I’ve learned from lived experience that within the same person. the reason for not wanting to be touched can vary. At least, the logic that our brains use to excuse the reactions that we have to touch, can vary. What I understand to be true is that when our brain stem area is reacting, our prefrontal cortex is not consulted. This leads to us trying to make logical sense of our reaction after it has already happened. As humans we want to know why we did something. I think that most of the time the “why” = malnutrition. However, the catch is that many people who have anorexia have anosognosia which makes them believe that they are not really in malnutrition, so the logical brain tries to come up with all these other explanations as to why one feels narky.
I’m making this point because often other people may have projected reasons for my reactions onto me. Such as I was reacting that way due to trauma or fear of intimacy. I don’t believe it was either of these things, because as soon as I was out of malnutrition, I stopped having these reactions to intimacy. But when one has anosognisa, and one cannot see malnutrition in oneself, it makes these other “reasons” seem more attractive. Then we start barking up the wrong tree so to speak.
For me, when I was very underweight, the logical reason I thought I hated to be touched because I hated being thin and being touched reminded me that I was thin. Then, as I gained weight, I figured that I hated to be touched because I hated to be reminded that I was gaining weight. However, in the moment, I would feel like I didn’t want to be touched because I was annoyed with ther person trying to touch me. For what? For not making the bed? For leaving dishes in the sick? Nah.
Because I think that the aversion to being touched was a brain-stem response, I don’t now believe that any of the logical reasons my higher brain projected onto it are really true. I think my reptile brain was just saying “no way no how” and my higher brain was throwing out reasons to try and make sense of something that didn’t make sense — I loved my partner so it didn’t make sense I did not want him to touch me.
I also know that my hyper-awareness of my own body made all this a lot worse. I didn’t have huge negative body image problems other than those anorexia created. For people who do have a high level of negative body image thoughts, this can make everything in the intimacy and touch department much worse. Even without negative body image, anorexia heightens ones awareness of one’s own body changing and gaining weight.
Luckily, and ironically, that hyper-awareness lessened the closer I came to my recovered weight.
Eating disorders are complicated and confusing. Listen, do you best, and encourage recovery
We area all very different. You have to know your partner in order to figure out how you can be the most help to them.
For example, for me, it helped if my partner drew attention to areas like my stomach and told me he wanted it bigger. This, in a sense, gave me permission to eat more. For many people, this would not help and would make them even more self-conscious of an area they are not yet ready to talk about. The only right answer is treating a person as the individual that they are. Also, within the same person the situation can change as they progress in recovery. So that makes the “right” respond a bit of a moving target.
Initially when I got together with my partner, I was very self-conscious about being touched in fleshy areas. As I progressed in recovery, and in confidence in our relationship, I grew to like being touched in those areas. That’s a hell of a lot of change in one person and I don’t expect any partner to be able to get this right or be a mindreader because half the time I couldn’t even get it right myself. For that reason there is no “here is the answer and how-to guide.” I went from radiating “you can’t touch there” to “touch me there!” as my body and brain came out of malnutrition. And the trouble is that you can’t tell if a person’s brain is coming out of the famine mindset by looking at them. So you can’t assume if a person is recovered or not from their bodyweight. You just have to listen and be patient.
One thing I do know that my partner did perfectly was he always encouraged me to eat without restriction. He always encouraged me to gain weight. He always told me he wanted more of me. He was incredibly persistant and consistent with this message and it really, really helped me. That was what I know about me and what was helpful to me. So again, not a how-to guide. Just some information that you may or may not find useful.
If you know your partner and love them and are willing to try and work out in any one moment how to be the most helpful to them, you can be instrumental in their recovery. I can’t tell you how to navigate what the right thing to do is in regards to intimacy if your partner has an eating disorder. Good news is I don’t have to. Because you are smart. You will work it out. Listening and being sensitive is a good start. I have one, single, piece of advice that is going to make this easier for you:
Don’t. Take. It. Personally.
Ha. I’m such a hypocrite for writing that because I cannot imagine coming home and trying to hug my husband and him brushing me off and me not taking it personally.
I want you to know that the shrug off is not about you. It is not that you are unattractive. It is not that you are not good enough. It is not that you are not loved. It is important that you understand that. It is important that you remember that.
That’s why I am writing this. You are going to have to be told, sternly, honestly, and bluntly that this is not about you. You didn’t do anything wrong. You couldn’t change this by doing things differently. This is not a reflection on whether or not your partner loves you. It is not about them not being attracted to you anymore. It is not anything about you.
This is an eating disorder. This is malnutrition. This is an incredibly stressed mind and body. This is a reptile-brain reaction from your partner that their logical brain is not in control of.
This is not about you.
What can you do?
Other than not take it personally, you can encourage unrestricted eating. Because your best bet at getting your partner back mentally and physically is to get them fully nutritionally rehabilitated in a way that convinces their reptile-brain that food is abundant. When the brain thinks that food is scarce (and restricted eating leading to energy deficit gives it that impression) then all hell breaks loose for a person with eating disorder genetics. We need to convince their brain that food is abundant and that normal, happy, functioning can resume. Not stressed out, irritable, meany functioning. (Yes, anorexia turned me into a meany.)