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When Food Hurts Relationships


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Alexandra and James*

James is awake staring at the ceiling, feeling lonely and confused. Alexandra is beside him, facing away, sleeping soundly. He keeps replaying the evening over and over again in his mind.

When did things go wrong?

They went out for a romantic dinner with the intent of coming home and being intimate. He thought Alexandra looked great in her new dress. He remembers her asking him, “Does this dress make me look fat?” He knew she had gained weight during the past year, but it made no difference to him. He loved her body and told her so.

They had a delicious dinner at a favorite Mexican restaurant with lots of chips and great food. Then they stopped for ice cream on the way home. They both enjoyed large waffle cones with double scoops of ice cream. He remembers laughing as they drove home. As he got ready to make love, he thought he heard her in the kitchen, but figured she was cleaning up.

He heard her come upstairs and approached her with anticipation, only to have her say, “I don’t feel good. I am sorry, but I just can’t do it tonight.” James felt angry and could feel himself shutting down. This was not the first time this had happened. In fact, this was happening more and more often.

All he said was, “Fine,” but this one word shot out like an ice dagger. She got the point. He went to bed and she laid down beside him shortly.

What happened? Alexandra was already feeling uncomfortable in her body before going out to dinner. She ate way too much at the restaurant, continued with the ice cream, and then ate more when she got home.

Feeling ashamed and embarrassed of her behavior and of her body, the last thing she wanted was to have her husband touch or see her body, especially her stomach. She felt fat and physically sick from eating way too much food. Her thoughts were consumed with eating as little as possible the next day, then starting a new diet.

Alexandra has binge eating disorder. She has tried talking to James about it, but, every time, he says, “Just eat less.” As a result, Alexandra shuts down. Now, Alexandra and James cannot discuss this issue with the result being an increased distance in the relationship.

Cho and Chin*

Chin and Cho were invited to go to dinner with friends on Saturday at 5 PM. Chin was excited to go out and do something fun. Cho was less enthusiastic. She explained she would still be at the gym, then asked where they would be going. Chin said he would find out. He later informed her they would be going to the new, local Italian restaurant. Cho left the room, and when alone, immediately searched for the restaurant online and looked at the menu. She quickly saw that the limited menu items were highly caloric. She panicked.

Not wanting Chin to know the truth, she said, “I really don’t want to go. You can go without me.” Chin angrily replied, “All we do is the same thing every weekend… and when it comes to food, you eat the same thing every day. Why can’t we change it up a little?” Cho replied, “Fine, I will go if we can go to the Korean place instead and if we can go at 6:30. Can you ask them?” Chin barked, “No, I will not ask them. They asked us and it was their idea. Why can’t you be flexible? Who cares if you work out all day? Can’t you skip it for once? This is why we don’t have any friends. Forget this! I will just tell them no.”

This interaction between Chin and Cho could indicate that Cho has an eating disorder. Chin noticed that Cho lost some weight, but has no idea how consumed she is with counting calories, exercising, weighing, and comparing herself to people online. Cho does not share these compulsions with him, afraid of his judgment or that he will want her to stop exercising and/or gain weight. They do not know how to talk to each other about any of this.

*Not their real names

Subtle Signs That an Eating Disorder may be Impacting a Relationship

  • Avoidance of sexual intimacy
  • Reluctance to eat out with friends or at another’s house
  • Making time to exercise a higher priority than time together
  • Excluding food groups or high calorie foods from the diet
  • Rigidity around food or exercise
  • Decreased energy to interact or engage in usual rituals of connection
  • Taking showers after meals or spending more time in the bathroom than usual
  • Change in dress: typically wearing baggier clothes or not caring about appearance
  • Preoccupation with body checking. Looking in the mirror a lot, pinching skin, peering at reflection in store windows. Sometimes this includes vocalizing things like, “Do I look fat?” or “Is ______ thinner than I am?”
  • Spending hours on social media following people who post about food restriction or weight loss related topics
  • New interest in excessive exercise that seems all-consuming
  • Consistent weight gain
  • Food “disappearing” from the refrigerator or pantry
  • Bags from fast-food restaurants “hidden” in the outside trash

These signs may or may not indicate the presence of an eating disorder, but they will create distance if not talked about whether caused by an eating disorder or not.

Once it is determined that a partner has an eating disorder, whether anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder, that in and of itself does not magically improve communication.

In fact, things often get worse at this juncture. The person with the eating disorder often feels scared and too vulnerable to talk openly with their partner. The person without an eating disorder, despite good intentions, often says “the wrong thing” out of ignorance of how to talk about the issues.

About Gottman-RED

Gottman-RED is a new form of Gottman Method Couples Therapy designed to strengthen the relationship when one person has an eating disorder. Developed by Kim Lampson, PhD, CGT, in collaboration with Drs. John and Julie Gottman and The Gottman Institute, this innovative therapy offers a collaborative approach to support eating disorder recovery.

Pilot Study Information. We are seeking married couples from Washington state in the U.S. where one person has binge eating disorder, bulimia, or anorexia nervosa. Couples who participate receive 20 free couples therapy sessions: 10 sessions implementing traditional Gottman therapy and 10 sessions implementing Gottman-RED interventions. If you are interested, please complete the Screening Form to see if you qualify or email [email protected].

Register for the webinar When Food Eats Away at Love on Thursday June 9, 2022 and Learn how eating disorders affect couples and how you, as a professional, can address them in counseling sessions. Comes with a demonstration of one new Gottman-RED intervention. Reserve your spot today!

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