Midlife Eating Disorder Triggers II: Divorce

Divorce and dating in midlife. Rewriting the script to fit your life stage.

Posted Mar 16, 2013

Even the most civil of divorce proceedings can keep you off-kilter for years—and the messy ones can create total upheaval. Divorce can trigger disordered eating in several ways. For Ashanda, it was the stress and anxiety. Every email that came in from her or her ex-husband’s attorneys, every piece of divorce-related mail, every time either of the attorneys’ numbers popped up on caller ID, she would flush and tremble. After these encounters, she would stay stressed for hours with no appetite whatsoever. She was one of those people for whom anxiety eliminated appetite. Ashanda lost 20 pounds during the course of her divorce proceedings.

Camille, however, had the opposite reaction to the stress of divorce. She would go to the mailbox, find a letter from her husband’s attorney, and dig into a box of cookies while staring at the letter, thinking it might open itself. Every familiar number on caller ID, every email, every letter triggered a binge. The stress of divorce can disorder your eating either way—and the more contentious, the more extreme.

Sometimes there is even a delayed response. You may have girded your loins and trudged bravely through divorce proceedings, and only later do signs of deep stress emerge. Martha, who started to binge eat a year after her divorce, recounted, “As the shock of my divorce wears off and the trauma sinks in a bit, I have come to a realization. I was able to get through the initial shock and pain by vacationing and connecting with friends, but what I know I need now is to regroup, sit still long enough to experience the pain, and get my health back. My head says I am not stressed and that I’m doing great. I willed this belief and convinced myself of this—yet my body is screaming otherwise. I’ve gained 20 pounds and had numerous health issues, most of which I believe are connected to my post-divorce stress level. My head is pushing, pushing, pushing, and my body is putting on the brakes saying, ‘Whoa, pay attention to me, we’ve got some work to do here to get past this.’”

Even months after the divorce, new divorce-related triggers can set in, such as loneliness, or the fear of being back on the dating circuit, which can lead to engaging in unhealthy weight control practices aimed at looking a certain way to be “marketable,” like going on the “divorce diet.”

Expanding on that last point a little more, many people who get divorced in midlife have not been on the dating scene since they were much younger. Back in the day, dates were not arranged online and you never had to polish your profile. Old scripts about dating might enter your mind again such as, “I have to be thin; I have to be perfect; No one will want to date me if I am fat.” These old mantras are infectious and can wear away at your self-esteem and propel you toward unhealthy dieting and exercise behaviors to achieve some unachievable ideal that you think you need to reach in order to be on the market again at your age. Reality is that a completely new script has to be written for midlife dating. Most of the time, we’re looking for something different in a date when we’re fifty than when we’re 18, or even 30. The secret is to rewrite the script that is right for what you are seeking at this point in your life and not just replaying that old record from your youth. Being true to who you are and who you have become through life experience can help buffer you from engaging in extreme post-divorce makeovers that can lead to dangerous extremes. Of course no one is saying that new hair and new shoes can’t help your positive outlook!

Next up: How the empty nest can influence disordered eating in both women and men.

For more on Midlife Eating Disorders visit http://www.cynthiabulik.com