How are Families and Friends Affected?

Although the eating disorder symptoms are only experienced by one person, the effects of these eating disorders go far beyond the sufferers’ own lives. Relatives and friends are often drawn into a painful downward spiral, some more than others.

Parents see their dreams for their child destroyed by something they never anticipated, and often find impossible understand. They look for what happened that contributed to the problem, they are uncertain of how to react, and most of all they are scared their son or daughter might die.

It is important to keep in mind that blaming themselves or the person with the eating disorder accomplishes nothing. With that in mind, parents have to realise that a) eating disorders do not just go away by themselves and b) they cannot fix this on their own and need to get help – so the first step is to take their son or daughter to the family GP to assess the extent of the problem. Depending of the severity of the eating disorder, inpatient or outpatient treatment may be required.

With parents struggling to come to terms with one of their children suffering from a serious illness, they understandably spend a lot of time, thought and energy on that one child.

This in turn has an impact the other children the other children in the family who might feel they are neglected in favour of the other sibling. This dynamic that can have serious consequences: Siblings can feel resentful towards the child with the eating disorder, or, in an effort to get the attention they crave, may start acting out in unhealthy ways themselves.

Similarly, nothing can prepare one partner for the onset of an eating disorder in the other. Often the partner is completely unaware of the condition for a long time – not because he or she doesn’t care, but because of the secrecy and deception coming along with an eating disorder. When the truth eventually surfaces, it can be devastating – to the partner an eating disorder makes no sense, to the person with the eating disorder it does. One of the most difficult aspects for a partner is often that they have virtually no control over the other person and therefore can do nothing to stop the behaviour.

Friendships, too, suffer, when a person develops an eating disorder. Eating disorders are by nature very egocentonic: They mean everything to the person suffering from the condition, and therefore, the individual becomes highly self-absorbed. While supporting them through listening, conveying compassion, extending help, etc. is crucial for a person’s recovery, it is also necessary to keep in mind that it is not just the person with the eating disorder that is important and has value.

Many relatives and friends who know of a loved one with an eating disorder often struggle with a range of emotions:

  • Anger One of the main emotions that carers experience is anger. The anger can be directed at the person with the eating disorder. It could be directed at themselves for their inability to fix the problem. At times, they may feel angry with the doctors for not helping the individual to recover earlier.

  • Distress Relatives and friends often experience a deep concern for the person with the eating disorder as they watch her/him go down a road of self- destruction. They also feel distressed for not knowing how to help while often having to live with constant violent and abusive behaviour for months and even years on end.

  • Guilt Many carers also experience guilt, wondering what they have done to contribute to the problem. The guilt is further accentuated when well-meaning friends and neighbours begin to imply that they must have done something wrong to bring this eating disorder about.

  • Fear There is also fear of losing the sufferer altogether, as the disorder takes over more and more of the person’s life and carers find themselves watching a person committing long, slow suicide before their eyes. They feel like prisoners in their own homes, afraid to go out because of what might happen while they are gone.

  • Mistrust Of all of the above, mistrust is the most damaging effect the disorder has on relationships, as relatives and friends begin to lose their trust in the sufferer, who might have lied repeatedly to cover up her habit. Likewise, the person with an eating disorder is often extremely mistrustful of others, suspecting that all their actions are targeted towards attacking their eating disorder.

So how do you approach someone with an eating disorder? Here are some recommendations:

  • Set a time to talk and communicate your concerns

  • Encourage the other person to seek help with regard to these concerns from someone with knowledge of eating disorders – counsellors, GPs, support organisations. Don’t be afraid to offer your help making appointments or to accompany the person if they are afraid to act on their own.

  • If the other person refuses to admit they have a problem, don’t push or threaten – instead reiterate how you feel and that you will be available once they are ready to accept help.

  • Don’t try to blame or accuse the other person, and don’t make them feel ashamed or guilty. Use “I” statements to convey how you are worried about their behaviour.

Overall, it is important as a carer to understand that you can’t “fix” the person with an eating disorder. It is also important to remember that the goal of recovery is for the person with an eating disorder to lead a healthy and happy life, rather than assigning blame. While it is important for the person with the eating disorder to take responsibility for their own recovery, you as the carer can help them by being patient and non-judgemental.

At the same it is important to also look after yourself and your own needs. If you need additional help in coping with the situation, you may consider a support group or counselling for yourself. These forums will teach you tools and skills to manage difficult situations, and you will also learn to understand eating disorders and the way they serve a person. This will enable you to give better support to your loved one.


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