The Hard Truth of Supporting a Loved One in Eating Disorder Recovery

It is estimated that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men will develop an eating disorder within their lifetime. Despite the high prevalence of eating disorders, many people feel completely lost and overwhelmed when supporting a loved one in recovery. I hear time and time again that loved ones express feeling blindsided by the disease. What once seemed like an innocent diet or healthy lifestyle change exposes itself to be a severe eating disorder stealing their loved one away from them.

As a therapist, I often wish I had a magic ball. I wish I could see into the future and reassure parents and partners that after a few months in treatment, their loved one would be cured. Unfortunately, recovering from an eating disorder is a complicated journey. Here are some of the hard truths you should know:

  • Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. Recovery takes an average of 7 to 10 years for someone to fully recover. Within this time frame, individuals may have long stretches of stable recovery, may need various degrees of professional support, and (hard reality) may cycle through various eating disorder behaviors and relapses. Recovery is not linear. In my own journey, I was stable in recovery for 6 years before experiencing a significant relapse again. Recovery is a lifelong journey. Be patient with your loved ones and know every up and down supports increasing knowledge, resilience, and the tools needed to find full freedom.
  • You can’t fight the eating disorder. That is one hard pill to swallow. However, working to understand and accept this reality is actually key in protecting your own mental health. Your loved one is responsible for their own recovery. They are the only person that has power in making lasting change. Loved ones can foster safety. You can create a safety net by preparing and monitoring meals, supporting access to professional support and resources, and by offering empathy when things get hard. However, I also encourage parents and partners to practice emotional detachment. Avoid getting into power struggles with the eating disorder, don’t take it personally when you are loved one is resisting recovery, and take time to invest in your own wellness. Learn to trust the safety net instead of focusing on your fears.
  • Your words I can’t tell you how often I spend therapy sessions and group time helping individuals process through the hurtful things loved ones say. The biggest offenders are: comments on weight/ appearance (even if it seems complimentary), comments on food/ eating habits, threats or insults when someone is struggling, and comments that invalidate someone’s attempt at vulnerability. I once had a patient of mine say, “I don’t need my parents to understand, I just need them to believe me.” I understand your support will be imperfect. You will say the wrong thing- guaranteed. However, know empathy, validation, and unconditional positive regard are powerful tools in improving how you support your loved one. Here is a great video on offering empathy.
  • The eating disorder comes with a cost. Your loved one will miss out on opportunities and have to reconcile the impact of the eating disorder on their life. They may get behind in school, may struggle to maintain personal hygiene and cleanliness, may lose relationships, may have to drop out of their sport/ hobby, may struggle financially, may deal with lifelong health consequences, etc. It can be devastating for loved ones to witness the destructive nature of the eating disorder; however, it is not your job to protect your loved one from these disappointments. It is actually important for your loved one to confront the reality of the disease fully. Show up with empathy and hold space for the difficult emotions that your loved one will experience. Provide resources and tangible support when its recovery aligned. However, I caution loved ones against over empathizing with your loved one. Don’t let the fear of your loved one being disappointed prevent you from prioritizing the treatment they need. Examples of this are keeping them in a sport despite their active ED, choosing school over appointments, and disregarding treatment team recommendations. The hard decisions you make for your loved one’s recovery are often the most important. This tells your loved one recovery comes first. Their health is not something you are willing to negotiate.
  • The eating disorder is a trauma to the whole support system. It makes sense you feel overwhelmed as you support your loved one’s recovery. Again, the eating disorder often shows up in a blindside. It makes sense you feel hyper vigilant and on edge, nervous you will miss the eating disorder regaining control. Prioritize therapy for yourself. Find ways to process your anxiety and feelings. Practice healthy coping. Take time for respite and lean on your own support system. The eating disorder is manipulative, deceitful, and stubborn. Recovery is hard. As you go through this journey, don’t forget that your loved one is so much more than their eating disorder. Focus on the moments of joy, celebration, and growth. Remind yourself of their strengths and all the qualities that make them special. At the end of the day, the majority of people with eating disorders recover. Take it one day at a time and don’t lose hope.

I understand this information may be difficult hear. This isn’t the reassuring message loved one’s look for when they embark on the recovery journey. However, I hope it can normalize the turbulence you most likely have already experienced or will experience. This ride is bumpy, but that does not mean you are going to crash. With time, patience, and trust, recovery for your loved one is possible; but, it doesn’t happen overnight… and it doesn’t happen in your time… it happens in their own time