How Can I Help Someone Recover from an Eating Disorder?

Have you ever tried to change another person's behavior? Of course, you have! We've all tried that. By now you know that it's practically impossible to change someone else. And you know that it's only a tiny bit easier for us to change ourselves. But changing our own thoughts and behavior is exactly what we have to do if we want to help someone else recover.

Michelle Siegel, Judith Brisman, and Margot Weinshel, the authors of Surviving an Eating Disorder, propose two essential guidelines for family members:

Accept your limitations: You can't control another person.

Accept the other person's right to be different from you.

But what does that mean in practice? We've all tried using logical or emotional argument to convince a loved one to give up disordered eating patterns. It didn't work, did it?! The authors recommend that we disengage from struggles about food. They also say that we must connect with the person in ways that encourage them to take responsibility for their choices and actions.

If, for example, your spouse has anorexia nervosa and you have noticed that they are eating less at meal times and choosing “diet foods” – behaviors that may indicate a worsening problem – the authors suggest that you tell your spouse that you have noticed the change and tell them how it makes you feel. It is reasonable to seek reassurance that your spouse knows they have a problem, but do not take on the role of policing your spouse's behavior. If you are in couple's therapy, bring it up there. If not, suggest that they tell their therapist.

Ideally, you will work with your spouse and a therapist to set goals, limits, and consequences. Then, if this behavior continues, you have something that you have both agreed that you should do. One of the consequences you have agreed on may be that you will alert your spouse's therapist if the restricting behavior continues. If so, tell your spouse that you are going to contact their therapist. Do not do this secretly.

Through all of this, be clear with yourself and your spouse about how the issue is affecting you and be aware of the limits of your ability to regulate your spouse's behavior. Your message should be clear, direct, caring, but not emotional (such as angry, demanding, or pleading). Know that the final responsibility rests with the other person because only they can decide how they will behave.

When we make changes in our thinking and behavior, our loved one might be more likely to move toward recovery. Better yet, regardless of what happens with their eating disorder, the changes we make can establish healthier, more rewarding relationships. That alone is worth the effort!

For additional practical advice, you'll want to read Surviving an Eating Disorder: Strategies for Family and Friends, 3rd edition by Michele Siegal, PhD, Judith Brisman, PhD, Margot Weinshel, MSW.