Toxic Relationships and Their Relation to Eating Disorders

Relationships can have a negative and positive effect on eating disorders

Posted Jun 04, 2018

Army, used with permission
Source: Army, used with permission

Humans are naturally social creatures and therefore relationships are truly important to solidify the human connection. Deep and meaningful relationships play a vital role in the overall well being of individuals. Past research has shown that individuals with supportive and rewarding relationships have better mental health, higher levels of subjective well-being and lower rates of morbidity and mortality. Relationships play a major part in both the development of eating disorders as they do in eating disorder recovery. Toxic relationships can lead to low self-esteem, abuse, trauma and poor interpersonal conflicts, which can lead an individual to develop an eating disorder as an unhealthy way to cope with these negative relationships. On the contrary, positive and healthy relationships have shown to have a positive impact on individuals who are undergoing eating disorder treatment and recovery.

Interpersonal Therapy

Studies and research have shown that an individual’s personality is significantly influenced by their interpersonal relationships and as a result, Interpersonal Therapy was developed from this idea. Interpersonal Therapy (IPT) is a type of therapy that is simply based on how individuals relate to others and how that can impact their mental and emotional health. Interpersonal skill deficits may cause vulnerability to developing mental health problems and may also play a role in maintaining these mental health problems and therefore IPT is a structured therapy that works to resolve relational problems in four main areas: Role disputes, role transitions, unresolved grief and interpersonal deficits.

  • Role Disputes: Problems relating to others. Specific examples of role disputes include different expectations within a relationship, conflict in a relationship, or difficulty forgiving someone.
  • Role Transitions: Occur when an individual has difficulty adjusting to a transition in life, including the divorce of parents, moving to a new city, becoming a parent, graduation from school or getting married.
  • Unresolved Grief: An individual has not moved through the grief process in such a way that it negatively impacts his or her quality of life in a way that it is creating problems with his/her eating bad and mood resulting depression, anxiety, or eating disorders.
  • Interpersonal Deficits: Occur when individuals have problems making and sustaining healthy relationships. This can look like isolating from others, blaming others for personal problems, avoiding conflict or maybe even compulsive sexual interactions.

Eating disorders, as well as mental health disorders, are multifactorial in origin, meaning that they stem from an array of many different things including genetics and environmental factors. Treatment aims at uncovering these environmental and social factors as opposed to focusing 100% on the symptoms. Studies have shown that many of these factors that play a key role in the development of eating disorders are closely linked to interpersonal conflict and relationships and therefore if these relationships improve and an individual learns to better handle conflict, loss, transition and relational deficits; there will be an improvement in behaviors related to disordered eating. Establishing and maintaining healthy relationships can have a positive impact on an individual who is in eating disorder recovery as a strong support system is one of the positive pillars necessary for recovery whether its recovery from an eating disorder, a mental health disorder or a substance abuse disorder. Just as negative relationships can leave an individual spiraling out of control, positive relationships can help keep an individual on the right track.