Couples can take active steps to stay married when their child has an eating disorder. An eating disorder is a major stressor in a marriage, and can lead to distance and even divorce. Stress is no small thing in a marriage. We have all heard about couples who divorce following the death of a child. But did you know that lots of marriages don’t survive mental health diagnoses like autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit disorder (ADD)?
Eating disorders, like other mental health diagnoses, can turn a family upside down. And even parents who felt their marriage was relatively stable may now feel at odds with each other. Deciding about treatment, acceptable behavior, and the day-to-day management of a child in crisis is exhausting. That’s why it’s so important to make a commitment to your marriage right from the start.
The most common reasons that married couples risk divorce when a child has an eating disorder are:
- Disagreements about treatment
- Not prioritizing your marriage
- Trying to be strong
- One person does more than the other
- Blaming self and/or spouse for the problem
- Looking elsewhere for comfort
All of these risks can be managed – it is very possible to stay married and even to deepen your relationship when your child has an eating disorder. We’ve detailed some ideas below.
1. Disagreements about treatment
Most parents know very little about eating disorders. This, combined with a lack of evidence-based treatment paths, leaves parents wondering exactly how to manage the eating disorder and get their child healthy again.
Typically, one partner will take the eating disorder more seriously than the other one. This partner may be the person who is sounding the alarm, taking the child to the doctor, and pleading with the child to eat normally again. The other partner may dismiss the eating disorder or think they can tell the child to eat more and everything will be fine.
Many parents find themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum regarding whether to get treatment for their child’s eating disorder. One thing we know is that eating disorders rarely go away by themselves. Also, eating disorders are best dealt with quickly rather than left to fester and grow. Early, thorough treatment is best. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for both people in the marriage to agree on exactly what makes up thorough treatment.
If you and your partner are disagreeing about whether to treat your child or how to treat your child, schedule a consultation with an eating disorder professional. They can help you discuss your shared goals and define where you disagree. They can also provide insight into treatment options and help you find common ground. This will help you gain clarity about the disorder your child faces and get you talking about common goals. By facing the challenge together, you can actually strengthen your married bond during eating disorder recovery.
2. Not prioritizing your marriage
Most parents are already juggling plenty of tasks. When a child develops an eating disorder, it can seem impossible to find time to get everything done. Now, on top of all your regular responsibilities, you also have to get them back and forth for doctor’s and therapist appointments while also creating a home environment that supports recovery.
If you are both working and have other children, getting everything done is a massive undertaking. As soon as possible, sit down and have a “state of our marriage” discussion. Talk to each other about your priorities and discuss how you can keep your marriage on the list.
You may need to cut down on some of your couple activities to accommodate your child’s eating disorder treatment. But don’t ignore your marriage or set it aside during this time. It’s OK to take date nights. You may even consider a brief vacation or getaway together. Check with your child’s treatment team, but usually they will support couples who invest in each other. The couples that stay married through an eating disorder make their marriage a priority.
3. Trying to be strong
It’s normal for parents facing an eating disorder to feel scared and even angry. Lots of people think that eating disorders are a symptom of bad parenting. The stigma of an eating disorder can make parents feel isolated and ashamed. Eating disorders are also difficult and expensive to treat. Eating disorders are stressful for parents and the entire family. This is not the time to clam up and turn away from each other. Instead, have open, vulnerable conversations about how the eating disorder is affecting each of you.
Be intentional about talking to each other about what you’re struggling with. Sometimes you need to complain about a situation brought about by a child’s illness. Because not talking about it can create caverns of isolation that keep you each trapped in your own pain and suffering.
It’s important to realize that while your child has the diagnosis, everyone in the family will feel the impact of the eating disorder. You deserve help and support during this time.
This is not the time to be strong, but a time to open up to each other and trusted friends, family members, and professionals who can share your burden. Trying to be strong or do this alone will add to the strain on your marriage and make it vulnerable.
4. One person does more than the other
Most couples have to balance the requirements of family life with their careers, friendships, and hobbies. In most couples, women take on more of the family labor than men. This includes housework, cooking, taking kids to doctor’s appointments, and more.
If you have a child with an eating disorder, the family labor requirements can double or triple. If you already have an imbalance of family labor in your marriage, then the eating disorder diagnosis could completely overwhelm one partner (often the mother). Taking children to treatment sessions, monitoring food, exercise, and eating habits, and other day-to-day management activities are intense.
It’s important to talk to your partner about the labor involved in running the household and also managing a sick child. It makes sense that each of you will need to increase family labor. This could mean a decrease in your time for work, friendships, and hobbies. Make sure you’re talking to each other about how the eating disorder is being managed amongst other household tasks, or one partner could end up feeling resentful and burned out.
The eating disorder diagnosis will exacerbate any existing inequality in the marriage, so it’s best to stay on top of this conversation throughout treatment.
5. Blaming self and/or spouse for the problem
It is normal to want to place blame when something goes wrong. And when a child is sick, we naturally want to find someone on which to place the blame. Eating disorders are complex, biopsychosocial disorders. This means they arise from a combination of biological, psychological, and social conditions. No single person, event, or condition causes an eating disorder. No parent is ever responsible for an eating disorder.
But that doesn’t stop couples from blaming either themselves or each other. When we blame ourselves, we believe that our actions or beliefs caused the eating disorder. And while parents often change their beliefs and behavior when there is an eating diagnosis, that doesn’t mean it’s their fault.
Likewise, it’s unhelpful to blame a partner for a child’s eating disorder. Parents who are seeking to blame others for the eating disorder have less energy to invest in their child’s recovery from an eating disorder.
The best thing is to work together to address any beliefs and behaviors that may contribute to the eating disorder. Take action to provide a safe and healthy environment for your child’s recovery rather than blaming anyone for its existence.
6. Looking elsewhere for comfort
Sometimes the pressure of a child’s eating disorder feels like it’s too much for the couple to handle. One or both partners may turn to people and things outside of the marriage for comfort. For example, some partners will increase behaviors like drinking, shopping, or gambling. These behaviors are an attempt to avoid the pain and struggle of having a child with an eating disorder. But they will drive a wedge between the person and their family, and put the marriage at risk.
Other times, partners will seek other people for comfort. Infidelity can become much more attractive when a partner feels ignored, angry, or scared at home. A child’s eating disorder can make an affair seem like the only pleasure available in life. But, of course, having an affair will only make life harder for everyone in the family.
If you notice that the gap between you and your partner is growing, take steps now to repair and come together. The more you can face the eating disorder as a team, the greater your chances of success. And the good news is that parents who maintain and deepen their relationships can help their child recover from an eating disorder. This is because a healthy family makes recovery easier and safer for the child.
Your marriage can survive this
The good news is that marriages can survive a child’s eating disorder. In fact, some people find that having a child go through eating disorder recovery strengthens their families and marriages. The key is to recognize the potential pitfalls and working to turn towards each other rather than away. When a couple works together to support a child in eating disorder recovery, they can survive.
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.