Updated: Jun 6, 2022
Human beings are complex creatures.
From a very young age we are engineered to conform to social norms. We are taught to share, to play nicely, to take turns.
But as children we are also vulnerable to distorted views of the world as our understanding of society comes, in the main, from our primary care givers. So much influence do our parents have, that it is often their voice that dictates our inner monologue. It is often our experience of childhood which determines our adaptability and our resilience.
Of course, our genetic make up has an influence too and it has yet to be agreed whether it is nature or nurture that play the biggest part in making us who we are. What is known however, is that adverse childhood experiences are likely to make us more prone to addiction, self harming behaviour and suicide.
It is my personal view that women who suffer poor relationships with food, do so because of some adverse childhood experience. I feel it is important to recognise that the adversity of the childhood experience and the disordered relationship with food do not necessarily correlate in severity.
My own personal experience has taught me that often those suffering with disordered eating feel guilty because their life could have been much worse. They cannot understand why they can’t just get over it and move on when those who have suffered severely seem to be more resilient.
Childhood trauma not only affects our relationship with ourselves but with those around us. It is a sad reality that children who grow up with domestic abuse and/or addiction find themselves in similar relationships as adults.
In particular children who are subjected to sexual and physical abuse and bullying often go on to suffer from eating disorders. Food, is one of the few things a child has some control over. They either over eat to prevent sexual advances or physical injury, or under eat to dumb down their emotions and effectively disappear.
Sadly the scars of such experience and the coping mechanisms to survive them remain long after the threat has passed. It is important therefore, to recognise that adults who are seeking treatment for disordered eating and weight problems often struggle with the prescribed programme. After all they are being asked to let go of the only way they know how to protect themselves from the world.
This is important for the people who love them to remember. The journey of change is, for those who have depended on this mechanism for coping, fraught with danger. The fear is, that once they let go, they will be forced to address the causes of their disordered eating, forced back to the feelings they tried so hard to escape. For those on the outside, this apparent, reluctance to change is frustrating at best, soul destroying at worst.
This increased tension often evokes negative emotions and behaviours from both sides. Because, let’s be honest, the supporter will undoubtedly have their own issues to manage while at the same time, supporting someone who, it may appear, is not working hard enough to change. Or, on the contrary, that supporter’s issues, may mean they attempt to deter their loved one from changing at all! This can be particularly relevant where partners have the same, or similar, disordered relationship with food. Or where the partner’s self esteem is so low, they fear the other will no longer love them once they transition away from their disordered eating. The temptation when faced with an unsupportive partner, is to abandon change and fall back into old habits, or stay together only to tear each other apart.
In any event, relationships in which there is insufficient support, for whatever reason, are likely to be hugely detrimental to each partner’s mindset. It is a sad reality that not all relationships survive the transition from disordered eating to good health. It’s also equally important to appreciate that eating disorders themselves are likely to cause a breakdown in relationships. It appears that, for those in relationships where one or both partner suffers a disordered relationship with food, you are stuck between a rock and a hard place, so what is the solution!?
As we can see, the issues around adverse childhood experience, disordered eating and relationships are complex. My very clear advice, is to educate yourself about yourself. Read books, seek help, write down your thoughts and feelings and recognise that other people‘s behaviour towards you is sometimes more to do with what is going on for them than it is you.
If you are the person with the disordered relationship with food, give yourself the best chance of change by enlisting the support of the right people, including professionals. If you are the person supporting, do not take it on by yourself, understand that change is hard. Reflect on your own emotions and behaviours and get the right support. In my honest opinion, this journey is just as hard for you and it can feel very lonely, as often the attention is focused on the person “apparently” suffering as opposed to the one “quietly” suffering.
Relationships can survive and thrive despite adverse childhood experiences and disordered relationships with food, but it will take great strength, compassion and resilience. It may also take the support of a professional and that’s fine, because true love can conquer all!
If this post has been pertinent to you. I recommend you read:
The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma