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Repairing Personal Relationships Through Eating Disorder Recovery

Repairing Personal Relationships Through Eating Disorder Recovery

Anorexia or bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), or even unlisted disorders like orthorexia nervosa – it doesn’t matter the type of eating disorder, it can have an effect on personal relationships with other people. Although it’s often less prioritized than the physical and behavioral effects of eating disorders, a decline in the ability to maintain a social life and personal relationships is a major consequence of eating disorders. Changes in weight or appearance due to disordered eating behaviors can make a person feel uncomfortable engaging with their friends and family, and the behaviors themselves often generate a sense of shame.

Food and eating are central parts of every person’s life and a major way we build relationships and socialize. If a person is uncomfortable eating, so many aspects of life can be affected. Think of going on a first date, having a family picnic or Thanksgiving dinner, or even making eggs in the morning with your family. These central tent poles of our daily lives are disrupted by a disordered relationship with food and eating.

People with eating disorders tend to isolate themselves to accommodate their behaviors. As an example, a person suffering from bulimia nervosa o binge eating disorder will repeatedly and compulsively binge eat. However, they are often publicly “on a diet” and won’t eat regularly at meals, instead saving space for a binge eating episode in private. This leads to discomfort at meals and a weakening of their relationships as secrecy and isolation take over. These disruptions in social comfort and relationship-building can lead to newly-developed depression and anxiety, or exacerbate them, which in turn worsen the symptoms of the eating disorder.

Thankfully, eating disorder treatment programs normally include cases on social rehabilitation as part of a complete continuum of care. Through the self-improvement lessons learned through specialized eating disorder treatment, people in treatment will learn a lot about how to break through those social relationship challenges and discover how interpersonal relationships can be improved. Check out some of the ways to enhance your personal relationships in conjunction with the treatments received at an eating disorder treatment center.

Group Therapy Helps to “Re-Normalize” Social Relationships

At the beginning of treatment, the other people in group therapy may be total strangers. On the other hand, they will often have things in common with you and understand you in ways that others cannot. At virtually every one of the best eating disorder treatment facilities, group therapy will be provided or a requirement. If you want to see your personal relationships with others get better, taking part and being active in group therapy activities can be hugely beneficial. During group therapy, there are usually programs involving:

  • Developing new communications skills that can be used in personal and professional settings outside the treatment program
  • Building confidence in yourself about your sense of self and your self-esteem
  • Find new, more positive ways to express your thoughts when conversing with others

An eating disorder psychologist will normally lead the sessions, which may also alternate leaders among the participants. They will guide the conversations, but they will also allow time for discussions between group members to help encourage the development of those social skills that may be lacking.

Family Therapy Is a Key to Rebuilding Relationships

Family therapy is an integral part of treatment for many mental health disorders, and for good reason. Eating disorders don’t affect only the person with disordered behavior; those closest to people with an eating disorder also experience a kind of peripheral suffering, watching their loved one struggle. Having your family work through the issues relative to the disorder is part of every complete continuum of care for eating disorder treatment. Once you get out of treatment, your family will be the people you rely on to help you when you have a tough time with recovery.

Family therapy consists of several different types. At the beginning of treatment, the family is usually interviewed along with the client to determine personal, medical, and eating history; this allows the treatment team to design the client’s treatment program more appropriately. After the client has entered treatment (this is true in both residential and outpatient settings), they will take some time to acclimate and stabilize medically if needed.

At this point, family group sessions can begin in earnest. If the client is an adolescent, the parents or guardians will always be present, and any siblings. For adults, spouses and partners are usually present, as well as close family and occasionally very close friends. First and foremost is education about eating disorders and meal planning, so the client can return to a living situation that can provide support for their recovery. But interpersonal relationships among the family and the client are also a prominent point at these sessions. The groups can be cathartic, as breaks in their relationships are explored and the family opens up emotionally. The therapists will guide this process, fostering open, honest yet non-judgmental communication.

Families also sometimes meet with the treatment center’s therapists, nutritionists, and dietitians without the client being present. These sessions are focused on teaching the family how to provide practical support for a person in recovery. This support might include emotional support lessons such as how to avoid triggers for relapse and how to avoid sounding critical or judgmental. Meal planning and scheduling are also very important, especially if the client is not the one who prepares the meals for the family. They may also link up with family support groups for relatives of people with eating disorders – after all, eating disorders affect everyone close to the induvial as well.

Opening Up Can Bring People Closer Together

Those who spend some time with an eating disorder psychologist often find themselves facing difficulties in their personal relationships because their disorder has affected the way they act and feel about themselves. After so much time in secrecy, it can be tough to increase transparency but expressing one’s feelings, thoughts and fears often brings a person closer to the people they care about.

Opening up to your loved ones about thoughts and feelings surrounding a disorder shows that you are building an open and healthy foundation for a life in recovery. Whether it is your parents, siblings, or significant other, these people will be able to help you more when they understand what you have been through with your eating disorder. They will feel validated that you trust them, also – and this brings your even closer.

Eating Disorder Treatment Can Improve Relationships

An eating disorder is a condition that is oftentimes so private and very often involves a sense of guilt or shame. The good news is that while these personal feelings can easily affect how individuals interact with the people around them, the behavior isn’t set in store. Through treatment and therapy, people with eating disorders will learn how to open up and rebuild those relationships that may have suffered throughout their illness.

If you know someone who’s experiencing the symptoms of an eating disorder, it can be easy to lose hope – especially if they are becoming distant and your relationship is suffering. If you are experiencing self-isolation and deteriorating relationships as part of your own eating disorder, it can be even easier. However, eating disorder treatment centers can help – your relationships can come out of treatment even stronger than ever. Reach out today and get started on the road to a full recovery.

Melissa Spann, PhD, LMHC, CEDS-S

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.


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