What to say to someone with food issues

When I was in high school, my best friend teased me out of my eating disorder. The cross country team was having a sleepover in the high school gym. We were whispering about something, trying futilely not to keep others awake. She cracked a joke about how I like to starve myself. I laughed. I did love to start myself. Friendship: 1. Anorexia: 0.

To my knowledge, she did not know what it is like to have an eating disorder -- but she didn’t need to. With a single joke, she said, “Your disease is weird and pointless. I’m kinda over it and I’m waiting for you to be over it, too. But in the meantime, I still like you.”

That's a pretty good thing for an eating disorder to hear. The last thing it wants to be is boring.

Years later, I went on a walk with an old friend, someone very familiar with my tendency to revert to weird food rules when the going gets tough. "I'm having relationship troubles, and I'm worried about my career prospects" I told him. "I'm thinking of going on a diet about it."

He laughed drily. "Apply for the job. Have the conversation. Skip the diet."

Same concept.

That type of experience is more rare than it would seem. It’s rare for someone who doesn’t understand eating disorders to say anything genuinely helpful. Because here’s the thing: “Please eat something" doesn't help. “You’d look better if you were bigger” doesn’t help. “You're beautiful just the way you are" doesn't even help. The most thoughtful partner can logic his way into the right thing to say - and yet, if rationality were the name of the game, nobody would be starving themselves.

There may not be a lot right to say, but there are certainly misfires. “You look like you’re gaining weight” would make things much, much worse. Because the worst insults are the ones we fear are true. Someone could tell me I’m lazy, and I would not be insulted. But someone could tell me I’m selfish, and I’d dissolve. Because I know I’m not lazy, but I kinda think I’m selfish.

In the same way: I will always kinda think I’m fat. I just will. And so if someone told me that was true, part of me might believe them. I once told a very healthy, non-eating-disordered friend that if a boyfriend was ever ready to break up with me and didn’t know how to do it, he could just insult my body. I’d break up with him without thinking twice. She laughed and told me that that is wild, perverse, hilarious, and incredibly superficial. I agreed, and I stand by it. Anyone who talks to me the way I talk to myself absolutely must go.

So what can you say if you love someone with food issues? Unsurprisingly, it’s not too different from loving an addict. In the world's least-sexy threesome, you are vying with the addiction for first place. And as long as “eating” and “not eating” are also on the table, you’ve got some stiff competition.

Here's what you do: figure out your boundaries. Identify how much space the eating disorder is allowed to take in the relationship. For example, if the eating disorder says the two of you can’t go out to eat, and going out to eat is important to you, that’s a boundary. If the eating disorder says you can’t have sex, and having sex is important to you, that’s a boundary. If the eating disorder makes her bitter, sullen, and disengaged - and if having a happy partner is important to you -- then that’s a boundary. Be clear about what you are willing to tolerate.

Ultimatums get a bad rap. In reality, they are nothing more than stating a boundary. An effective ultimatum helps someone find their bottom faster: "I wasn't going to get sober until my wife threatened to take the kids." "I wasn't going to get help for my eating disorder until my boyfriend threatened to leave." "I wasn't going to change until it became too painful to stay the same."

The eating disorder is half of the problem. Tolerating the eating disorder is the other half. It takes two to tango, and you're in command of your own two feet.

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