Eating disorders are serious, potentially life-threatening mental disorders that can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, race, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. Eating disorders can affect all areas of a person’s life, including their intimate relationships and sex life. Increased communication is important to maintain a healthy relationship with someone who is suffering from an eating disorder. The following article will primarily focus on how anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder affect relationships and intimacy. However, eating disorders affect each person differently and someone with an eating disorder who does not fit the criteria outlined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5 (DSM-5) may still experience these effects in their intimate relationships.
Successful relationships require trust and vulnerability. Eating disorders can cause tension and strain within a relationship. Research has suggested that eating disorders primarily affect the activities a couple engages in, their communication, and the emotional aspect of the relationship.1
Engaging in daily activities can be very difficult for those suffering from eating disorders because they may be constantly obsessing over their weight and planning their lives around their disorder. Some people with eating disorders are more withdrawn and may choose to avoid social situations more than others. This can cause a serious strain on an intimate relationship. Activities like deciding where and what to eat, relaxing with friends, and deciding whether or not to go to a family party may cause a person with an eating disorder severe anxiety.1 A person with an eating disorder may feel an extreme need to control their food intake and have a fear of eating in public. If the person feels that these activities may interfere with their desires to control their food, they may avoid such social situations. However, engaging in activities with a significant other can also help a person overcome an eating disorder. Healthy activities like going for a walk or attending an art class together can help the person take their mind off their disorder by focusing on something else.2
An eating disorder can also make it hard for partners to communicate because the disorder causes an intense preoccupation with food and body weight. People whose partner is struggling with an eating disorder often report that they feel like they come second after the eating disorder. Eating disorders can consume a person’s every thought, which makes it difficult for the person to make time for their significant other.1 A person with an eating disorder may become more secretive, not want to discuss their problem with their significant other, or lie about why they do not want to participate in certain social events. All of these behaviors can cause serious strain on a couple’s communication and trust. Focusing on increasing effective communication and trust is vital in maintaining a positive relationship with someone struggling with an eating disorder. It is important to be supportive, understanding, and accommodating to both partners’ needs.1 Being supportive and maintaining an open line of communication with your partner is also important to ensure a successful recovery.2
Eating disorders are often used as a way to cope with certain emotions. Emotional detachment, isolation, and separation are common symptoms of eating disorders. These symptoms make it extremely hard for someone with an eating disorder to open up about their true emotions with their significant other. A person with an eating disorder may also seem unemotional and distant from their partner. Low self-esteem may make it harder for an individual to open up about their own insecurities and emotions in a relationship. Eating disorders may also cause mood swings due to emotional dysregulation that can negatively affect a relationship. If your partner is struggling with an eating disorder, try to be patient and understanding of their disorder and its symptoms. Part of eating disorder recovery includes learning to cope with emotions in a healthy way.2
Eating Disorders and Sex
An eating disorder can also affect a person’s sex life. Certain eating disorders affect people’s sex life differently. A person may experience an increased or decreased libido, and may exhibit certain sexual behaviors and preferences due to their disorder.
Eating disorders can also affect a person’s libido, or sex drive. People with anorexia have been shown to have a lower libido than most people and tend to lack a sexual partner. Researchers suggest that this correlation is due to malnutrition and a hormonal imbalance from not consuming a sufficient amount of calories. A low body mass index (BMI), a common symptom of anorexia, is shown to be correlated with a decreased libido, increased sexual anxiety, and avoidance of sexual activity.1 In contrast, people with bulimia tend to have a higher libido and more sexual partners than most people. Researchers have concluded that this is due to an increase in addictive behaviors and impulsiveness, which are behaviors associated with bulimia.1 Eating disorders other than anorexia and bulimia can affect one’s sex drive in a variety of ways. Regardless of the type of eating disorder a person has, low BMI, poor body image, and hormonal irregularities can all affect a person’s sex drive.
Many people with eating disorders suffer from low body image and poor self confidence, which can affect their sex life and their desire to engage in other activities. People with eating disorders may be more inclined to engage in certain sexual behaviors that put their body image issues at ease. The following sexual behaviors and preferences are commonly exhibited by people with eating disorders:1
- The person may prefer to engage in sexual activities with the lights off.
- The person may choose to keep their shirt on during sexual activities.
- The person may prefer to have sex under a blanket.
- The person may avoid sexual positions that give their partner a full view of their body.
- The person may not want their partner to touch certain areas of their body that they feel self-conscious about.1
These behaviors are not exclusive to those with eating disorders. Anyone with low self-confidence may choose to engage in these behaviors, but they are more common among people with eating disorders. If your partner engages in these sexual behaviors, support them as much as possible and make them feel comfortable.
If you think you may have an eating disorder or if you think you know someone with an eating disorder, there are many resources available for you. Doctors can provide a variety of resources for you such as referrals, pamphlets, books, websites, and more. Other U.S. based online help centers and hotlines include the following:3
- Eating Disorders Victoria Helpline Phone Number: 1-(300)-550-236
- ANAD Help Line Phone Number: (630)-577-1330
- ANAD Help Line Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Support group finder: email@example.com
- NEDA Hotline: 1-(800)-931-2237
- NEDA Crisis Text Line: text “NEDA” to 741741 to connect to a trained volunteer
Eating disorders affect all areas of a person’s life including their personal relationships. However, they are completely treatable, and the earlier one seeks help, the less likely the person will suffer from long-term consequences. Maintaining open communication and trust is imperative in a relationship with someone who is suffering from an eating disorder. Encouraging them to seek help and remaining supportive of them throughout the recovery process will help strengthen the relationship.
- Lyons, Libby. “Intimacy Issues and Eating Disorders in Women.” Eating Disorder Hope, 16 Aug. 2017.
- “Having a Relationship While In Eating Disorder Recovery.” Eating Disorder Hope, 6 Dec. 2017.
- “Help & Support.” National Eating Disorders Association, 22 Feb. 2018.
Last Updated: May 7 2018.