Young Man Seeks Help for His Anorexic Girlfriend
A young man wrote asking how to help the woman he loves. She is anorexic. They've been together for a little over a year. He says one good thing about the situation is that she is aware of her condition and has begun to talk with him about it.
He is combing the Internet and bookstores, reading hundreds of stories and medical write-ups about eating disorders and anorexia in particular. He feels that the more information he has, the better he can behave toward his girl.
I'm trying here to give you the message and tone of his letter without giving you his exact words. Those words belong to him. But the message within his words applies to many young men (and not so young men) who are in a relationship with an anorexic woman.
The Personal Side
He and his girlfriend have begun to have wonderful conversations about her condition. He feels these conversations are a good sign because she is not getting upset as they talk. He wants to do the right thing, be supportive and help her get well.
He tells her that the two of them can get through this problem and that he will remain committed to her no matter what. He says that he never has loved anyone as much as he loves her. Throughout his letter, he repeats in many ways that he feels good about her turning to him for help. He wants to make sure he is doing everything possible for the woman he loves to help her get well.
I am the only person he has spoken to about his girlfriend. Her condition is a secret. He wants to honor her secret as he helps her get well.
My heart is touched by his plea for help. I only hope I can help you see what I see in his bittersweet request. At the end of this post is my answer to him. I stand by what I said.
What I didn't say is this:
Resistance to Help
Anorexia is a profound illness that affects the mind and spirit as well as the body. A person who is anorexic denies herself in many ways. She is often unreachable by any form of nourishment, emotional as well as nutritional.
A person who is in the throes of anorexia is like a starving person standing before a feast, pleading for food. Generous people offer her food, but the starving person pushes it away, throws it away, spills it, can't hold the plate, can't hold the fork, can't deal with the temperature or consistency, can't swallow properly, and on and on.
The people at the feast, who do not understand her illness, will meet each problem as it comes with a solution. They will hold the plate, change the temperature, provide more comfortable utensils, find ways to help her throat function with massage or medicine or hospitalization, and on and on. The staring woman will see flaws in each attempted solution. She can't take in the nourishment on any terms caring and concerned people offer.
She may cry, complain, suffer and plead for help. But she cannot accept help. Eventually she will be visibly angry and actively spurn attempts to help her or criticize the people trying to help her for being invasive, critical, bossy, controlling, selfish, and on and on.
This is only part of the picture of a person deep in the illness that is anorexia and is what concerns me regarding the young man's request for help.
Risks in Trying to Save Someone from Her Anorexic Symptoms
The young man sounds to me as if he feels that all his love, energy and intellectual prowess, if rallied properly, will save his beloved. He doesn't know that he can be drained while his efforts somehow continually fail to reach her in a healing, nourishing way.
I hope you understand that I am describing the symptoms of a serious eating disorder. This is not about the authentic woman living under the burden of the anorexia. That authentic woman is barricaded within herself by the illness. The ardent boyfriend is confronted with more symptoms than he knows. I fear for both of them.
Possible Path to Healing
Still, there is a way out. Healing can happen if both people recognize that some of their feelings and behaviors are a direct consequence of the anorexia and must not be given power. Then he can support her efforts to find her eating disorder recovery path and support her work with a psychotherapist who understands eating disorders. The couple may be able to sort out the boundaries of their relationship and recognize that they are a romantic and loving couple, not a patient and clinician.
Specific Suggestions to The Young Man:
Dear Young Man,
- Encourage your girlfriend to work regularly with a mental health professional who has expertise in treating eating disorders.
- Go to Overeaters Anonymous meetings occasionally, and listen to people talk about their experience in suffering and recovering from eating disorders.
- Let your girlfriend know you are doing this, and let her know you would go with her to an OA meeting or two to get her started if she were willing to go.
- Go to Al-anon meetings yourself and learn the basics about being in relationship with someone who has a disorder similar to addiction.
- Let your girlfriend know you are doing this because her being at risk from this illness causes you great concern. Let her know you want to know how to help yourself deal with your own suffering as well as help her.
- Make sure you take care of yourself. You might consider getting supportive counseling for yourself.
Getting too involved in her recovery can cause problems for you and your relationship. You need all the support, knowledge, patience, self respect and self-confidence you can rally and develop to see this relationship through. Keeping her condition and your worries a secret only burdens you both and gives the disorder power.
It takes skill and attention to boundaries and self care to learn how to be in relationship with the person you love and not be in relationship with the disorder.
Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.
Written by Joanna Poppink, MFT. Joanna is a psychotherapist in private practice specializing in eating disorder recovery, stress, PTSD, and adult development.
She is licensed in CA, AZ, OR, FL, and UT. Author of the Book: Healing Your Hungry Heart: Recovering from Your Eating Disorder
Appointments are virtual.
For a free telephone consultation, e-mail her at