Some studies have shown that married couples who experience the death of a child experience an 80% divorce rate. Similar studies put the divorce rate for parents who have children who have autism spectrum disorder anywhere from 80% to 10% higher than parents who have children who are not on the spectrum.
It’s hard to figure out the exact statistics, but we can probably all agree that major life events threaten our marriages, and when those life events involve our children, they may be devastating.
Parents who have a child who has an eating disorder, like all mental illness diagnoses, face the additional problem of often suffering in silence. While parents whose child is undergoing treatment for cancer will get significant community support, many parents who have a child with a mental disorder find that there is so much stigma surrounding the diagnosis that community support is lackluster.
The pressure of supporting. A child in recovery can put the parents’ marriage on the back burner, and thus leave it vulnerable.
The most common issues couples face when parenting a child who has an eating disorder are:
Lack of communication with each other
Parents today are juggling so many responsibilities. Most of us have two careers in the household, combined with regular home tasks, child care, and more. It takes work as a couple to maintain communication in the best of times, and when a child has an eating disorder, communication can take a backseat to everything else that’s going on.
It is important to keep communication lines open even as our children undergo treatment for eating disorders. We must find ways to connect at least once per day about a variety of topics in addition to the eating disorder itself. We need to still talk about how work is going, our other children, what is bothering us, and how we can manage household tasks. This connection and conversation will help us maintain engagement with each other as a couple.
Many eating disorder specialists recommend that married parents take a vacation together or at least set up regular date nights to maintain the strength of the marriage throughout treatment. When we are stronger as a couple, we provide a more stable environment for our children, which benefits treatment and recovery.
Disagreements about how to manage the child’s treatment
New research on eating disorder treatment is released regularly, and these evidence-based studies can support us in making decisions about how best to support our children though eating disorder treatment. But there is not yet enough research to give definitive guidance about exactly what treatment will cure our children. Eating disorders are notoriously unique to each individual, and it’s impossible to find a single “magic bullet” when it comes to treatment plans.
As a couple, we must openly acknowledge the limitations of the research surrounding eating disorder recovery. Some of us will chase a definitive answer, questioning every action that falls outside of tight evidence-based guidelines. Others will seek a single authority – a therapist or treatment center – and follow their advice religiously.
We will all take a different approach to treatment, and so we must talk to each other about the opportunities of our different approaches so that we can reach agreement about how best to approach our child’s treatment. Most importantly: we must recognize our fallibility and the fallibility of the system. We must be willing to try different things, and accept that not everything will work.
Unequal distribution of responsibility
In most marriages, some division of labor is necessary to manage the daily requirements of family life. And in the majority of families, the mother takes the lion’s share of family responsibility. This is equally true when a child gets an eating disorder – often it is the mother who shuttles the child to and from therapy sessions and manages the child’s eating plan at home and at school. In some cases, children may need to be removed from school and fed at home six times per day. It is usually the mother who quits work or reduces her work hours to accommodate this situation.
Inequality isn’t always bad. Sometimes, it reflects a beautiful balance between a couple and agreements about how life is best managed given our individual proclivities. The danger in these situations is not so much the inequality itself – it is the inability of the married couple to acknowledge their different roles and to support each other in them. Sometimes acknowledgment is all we need, and, of course, sometimes our partner needs to take on additional responsibilities to balance things out. Neither can happen if we aren’t talking.
When we fail to acknowledge inequality, it leads to guilt. For example, the man may feel guilty that his wife is staying home all day with a difficult child. To deal with his guilt, he hides it and does not open conversations with his wife because he is afraid to hear about how hard it is for her. He thinks that if she tells him how hard it is, they will have to change the situation, and he is afraid of what that will do to his life.
If a husband can trust that talking about hardship does not equal life devastation, he can more freely open conversations about the difficulties involved in the situation, and support his wife’s need for understanding and compassion. This is a delicate balance we must strike in many areas of our marriage, and it is a good idea to schedule a few marriage therapy sessions to discuss how best to share the burden.
Blaming self and/or spouse for the problem
When things go wrong, it is human to build a story about why they went wrong. Our brains really don’t like situations of uncertainty, in which we cannot identify exactly what led to the problem. Unfortunately, this need to tell a story most often leads to blaming of the self or others for the problem. In the case of eating disorders, we know that they are built on a foundation of many factors including genetics, society, and life experiences. No parent is responsible for an eating disorder.
If we begin to blame ourselves or our spouse for our child’s eating disorder, we push both our spouse and our child who has an eating disorder away. We need to recognize the many factors of eating disorder development and focus on our child’s recovery, not look back in history and try to figure out what went wrong. Shame and blame are a distraction in eating disorder recovery, so couples should work together to ensure their language avoids all sense of shame and blame and instead focuses on future actions.
Turning to alcohol to cope
In our society, we increasingly depend on alcohol and drugs to cope with daily life stressors. We live in a culture that frequently seeks a drink at the end of the day to unwind and relax. This is natural and “normal,” but it can have a deeply damaging impact on our lives and the health of our marriage.
Problem drinking and alcohol dependence are both on the rise, most markedly among women. Part of this rise is attributed to the moment that the alcohol industry recognized it had a new market in mothers and women who were feeling overwhelmed by work and family life. We now see brands like Mommy Juice and coffee mugs that suggest we drink wine all day.
When we are helping a child recover from an eating disorder, our lives become exponentially more stressful. If we notice that we or our partners are drinking more now than they were before the eating disorder diagnosis, we should pay careful attention to the role alcohol is playing in our lives, and seek ways to catch problematic drinking behaviors as soon as possible. Alcohol dependence is a sign that our self-care model is flawed, and it must be addressed as soon as possible.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the editor of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.