Jennifer Rollin MSW, LCSW-C

Mindful Musings


Relationships and Intimacy in Eating Disorder Recovery

Navigating the tough stuff in recovery.

Posted Nov 07, 2019

Common Use Image
Source: Common Use Image

Eating disorders isolate you. When someone is deep in an eating disorder, it often becomes their primary relationship-to the detriment or exclusion of other relationships.
However, as you work on recovery, brain space can open so that you have more room to think about relationships.
The following are a few common struggles for some people in recovery as it pertains to relationships and intimacy. However, it’s important to note that everyone’s eating disorder is unique and this won’t apply to everyone.
Relationships in Recovery
Feeling like a burden to your partner
This is a common challenge that I hear all the time with clients. Many people in recovery struggle with this concept of ‘feeling like a burden.’ Someone might feel like they bring ‘too much baggage’ into a relationship (spoiler: there is no such thing as ‘too much baggage’ and if someone feels that way they are not the right person for you). Others express that they feel badly for their partner ‘having to deal with’ their eating disorder.
Something I like to say to clients-is the same way someone in a relationship might get cancer and this is not their fault, struggling with an eating disorder is in no way your fault.
Part of being in a relationship is standing by someone through joyful moments and supporting them through the difficult ones. Someone who is truly meant to be in your life will not view you as a burden and will be happy to support you. Are they still human? Yes. Is it possible they will feel frustrated at the eating disorder (not you) sometimes. Sure. But you are in NO WAY a burden.
People with eating disorders are ultimately some of the most resilient, brave, intelligent, compassionate, and amazing people that I know. There are other qualities that you bring to the relationship which have nothing to do with your eating disorder.
Body image and intimacy
Something that isn’t talked about enough is how negative body image can impact intimacy in relationships. Some people who are deeply struggling with body image can have difficulty when it comes to undressing in front of a partner, having sex with the lights on, or engaging in sexual contact at all.
If this is a struggle for you, it’s important to note that you are not alone in dealing with this and there are things that you can do to work through this.
The first step is having the courage to discuss with your therapist, partner, a friend, or family member how you are feeling about your body and the ways that this is impacting intimacy in your relationship. When we bring difficult thing to the light it helps to take away some of the sense of shame and isolation.
It can also be helpful to write out a hierarchy of different situations that provoke anxiety/shame etc i.e. undressing in front of my partner, taking my shirt off, having sex with the lights on, and then to work to very gradually challenge them (ideally with professional support) while also addressing the thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
The problem isn’t your body. It’s the stories that you are telling yourself around your body. Through therapy we can work to create new narratives and help you to challenge the behaviors that keep you stuck.
If your partner is open to joining you in a therapy session to discuss this, that could also be a helpful stage of your healing process.
Trauma and intimacy

Many individuals struggling with eating disorders have also experienced trauma. For some trauma survivors, it can be very difficult to engage in sexual activity without feelings of anxiety, panic, or shame.
Trauma therapy (EMDR, CPT, Prolonged Exposure) can be a really important step in your healing process. Through trauma therapy, you can build distress tolerance skills (i.e. grounding techniques for dissociation or intense emotions) and then work to gradually exposure yourself (in a hierarchy) to situations that invoke anxiety and/or shame. For instance, one step on your hierarchy could be talking about the idea of being intimate with your partner in a safe space (ideally with a therapist), another step could be lying in bed with your partner fully clothed.
If you are struggling with this, you are definitely NOT alone. You are not broken and you can 100% heal your relationship with sex and intimacy.
Difficulty eating with your partner or someone you are dating
One reason that eating disorders love to isolate you is because relationships and dating often involve eating out, eating food that you haven’t prepared, and flexibility-which are things that eating disorders often hate.
It’s important to challenge yourself in a way that feels uncomfortable but not unsafe.
Try to reframe these experiences as opportunities to kick your eating disorder to the curb.
Each time you break an eating disorder rule it will get easier (even though it feels hard as hell at first).
Your payoff will be freedom and connections with other people that you never could have imagined when you were in the depths of your eating disorder.