We recently spoke with Richard, a man who supported his wife throughout her eating disorder recovery. Below, he shares what he learnt along the way, about himself and what was needed for their relationship to thrive, and provides hope for partners and carers also experiencing recovery alongside their loved ones.

Hi, my name is Rich and I am 36 years old. I have been married to my wife for 9 years. My wife is now in recovery from Anorexia after over a decade of being in and out of hospital. I have taken part in family therapy, couples’ therapy and individual therapy; so, have done a lot of self-discovery indirectly through trying to help my wife with her recovery. It’s been a long road but one we have travelled together & I hope I can now help others with some tips of what it’s like as a spouse of someone suffering

At Orri, we refer to eating disorders as “family illnesses”, as they affect all relationships not just the individual. Can you talk us through the challenges you faced as a partner to someone living with an eating disorder?

There were many challenges that I faced as a partner to someone with an eating disorder. For me, one of the most difficult was understanding that looking after myself was vital to ensure that I could look after Vicki. When first caring for Vicki, I would put everything that I had into ensuring that she was ok. I would sacrifice my own wellbeing in order to prioritise Vicki and her needs. Although, at the time this felt like the right thing to do, it was not sustainable, and it led to myself really struggling with my own wellbeing the longer it went.

Once I understood that I my support for Vicki was never going to be perfect and that it involved me being in a good place too, it meant that I could support Vicki with her recovery much better.

Another challenge that I imagine that lots of carers face is knowing what to say or do at times of heightened stress. For me, there was always a real fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, which was going to make things worse, and this was really scary. The thought that one slip of the tongue or one poorly thought-out comment could be the difference between recovery and relapse, and potentially life or death, was a real obstacle to overcome. This is what affected my own mental health so much. From work with professionals and my own experience, it was so important to understand my own limitations, and realise that this is an issue that I could not ‘fix’. Instead, I was there to support Vicki with her recovery. To be her rock and to reassure her that I was here to stay and would love her throughout the process. Ultimately it was her that was in control of her recovery, and I was just the support to get her there. Understanding that aspect helped me to manage my own emotions and expectations during her recovery.

“From work with professionals and my own experience, it was so important to understand my own limitations, and realise that this is an issue that I could not ‘fix’… Ultimately it was her that was in control of her recovery, and I was just the support to get her there.” 

I think that for all people suffering with an eating disorder, and their partner, would admit that mealtimes are always a challenge. These times often exaggerate the emotions for all parties, not just the person suffering, and can lead to some of the more challenging conversations. One of the things I learned during Vicki’s recovery was to de-escalate and not engage in triggering conversations. I learned to avoid change and subsequently panic, by planning and agreeing meals in advance. Deciding these well in advance and not around mealtimes, meant that food could be discuss in a less emotional way. If Vicki was already triggered by food, the last thing she would want to do would be to discuss the meal plan for the week! Equally, I would also shut down any conversations about the food, or quantities, or content. I would often get the questions, such as, “Is this a normal size portion?” or “Have I done enough exercise to eat this?” or “How many calories does this have in it?” and I would just say “I’m not going to talk about that.” As much at it would infuriate Vicki at the time, it meant that I wasn’t engaging the eating disorder and giving it any acknowledgement. This was the same for the body image questions like, “Do I look fat?” or “Have I put on weight?”

What was your experience of therapy? How did you feel that your own self-exploration supported your wife’s recovery? 

Therapy was the key to both my wife and my own recovery from the eating disorder.

When Vicki was first in services for her eating disorder, I was very naïve to the process and didn’t understand the impact it would have on both of us. Vicki was getting therapy and I just saw it as something that she needed to help her with her eating disorder and wasn’t ‘for me’. Even when I was invited in for couples and family therapy, I didn’t see it for my benefit, and this was a real mistake on my part. I just felt that I needed to be there for Vicki but didn’t want to consider myself in the process. At this time, I was still worried about what I could and couldn’t say and I found it difficult to be truly honest in the sessions. Looking back, I regret not using these fully to explore the feelings that I was having and to have a safe space to discuss these with my wife. It only came later, when Vicki was in recovery that I realised that I had missed these opportunities and needed to engage with the support.

I can honestly say that attending one to one therapy is one of the best things that I have done for myself. I had years of bottling things up inside and being embarrassed or ashamed to talk about many aspects of how the eating disorder affected me, that it had really taken a toll. It is one of the first things that I recommend to any carer of someone with an eating disorder. It doesn’t have to be professional therapy, although that is great, but just having someone who you can talk open and honestly with is so important to maintain a healthy mental state. Maybe it is more difficult as a partner, as normally it would be the person suffering who you talk to about difficulties, but that wasn’t possible. Some parent and carers will have the option of talking to each other, whereas partners may feel more isolated. I know that my wife didn’t want me to talk about her and her struggles with family and friends, and that made it difficult to know who I could talk to. I would urge anyone who is supporting someone with an eating disorder to find that person that you can talk to.  

“… just having someone who you can talk open and honestly with is so important to maintain a healthy mental state. Maybe it is more difficult as a partner, as normally it would be the person suffering who you talk to about difficulties, but that wasn’t possible. Some parent and carers will have the option of talking to each other, whereas partners may feel more isolated.”

It was my lack of self-awareness that prolonged the recovery process for us as a couple. As Vicki did recover, I was not able to move on from the past and I was still stuck in a place where Vicki was still ill, and I was not able to be myself as I was so scared of causing a relapse. I believe that if I had received my own help earlier, or bought into the couples therapy fully before, it would have meant that we could have both moved on from the eating disorder much quicker.

What did you feel was the turning point for your wife’s recovery, and how did that impact you?

It is difficult to pinpoint on exact moment which was the turning point for Vicki’s recovery. I think that one important part was Vicki accepting that she had a problem and that something needed to be done. This came when she became an impatient in hospital, although she was reluctant at the time, it meant that she accepted the issue and started working towards recovery. This was not the only important part of the journey to recovery. I think we were very fortunate that Vicki was able to access a day care programme when she was discharged from being an inpatient. This was still a really difficult time for Vicki and having continued support was essential in ensuring that the recovery continued. I know that it lots of areas of the country, once a patient is discharged from inpatient care, the support stops and they are expected to manage by themselves, just because their BMI has risen in care. As many of you probably know, having a higher BMI doesn’t affect whether you have an eating disorder or not, and it is the psychological support and changes in thinking that are key to the recovery. In day care, Vicki had a year to continue to access support and a transitioned return to ‘normal life’, meaning the work from inpatient could be continued and embedded before support was withdrawn.

Day care was probably the most important part of the recovery from my perspective. I was dreading the thought of having Vicki return home from inpatient care and then feeling that I was alone in providing the care for her. I felt that it would have been my responsibility to ensure her recovery continued and then the pressure of working and providing for us as a couple was a real concern. The day care programme meant that I could trust that Vicki would be safe whilst I was at work, but also give her the care and support she needed. The programme also worked closely with carers and gave plans and advice to help with the recovery, which was invaluable. I think that without this, Vicki may well have fallen into the cycle we have witnessed many others fall into, of inpatient – home – inpatient – home etc.

What would you say are the 3 key elements to sustaining and building a healthy relationship, in eating disorder recovery?

For me, the three key elements of a healthy and sustainable relationship in eating disorder recovery are:

  • Self-care (for both parties) – both need to be healthy, mentally and physically, for recovery to happen
  • Reassurance (letting you partner know that you’ll be there for them) – isolation is what the eating disorder wants, and reassurance means that you keep fighting back
  • Thinking longer term (what are you building towards) – gives purpose to both of you and means that you’ll keep persevering, even in the darkest of times

How did you / do you practise your own self-care?

Having a hobby was an important part of my own self-care. I’ve played football for a number of years, and this was an important part of my self-care. It gave me an opportunity to focus on something other than the eating disorder and Vicki’s recovery. At one stage I did give this up, to focus more on Vicki and her recovery, but, this made things worse. It affected my mental health by not having a break from the eating disorder and I found it was consuming all my thoughts. I still play football regularly and I have found that the healthier I am physically, it has positively impacted my mental health. I have also used therapy for my own self-care. I found this hugely beneficial and an eye-opening process. I learned a lot about myself and how this affected my thinking, and in turn, what I can and cannot control in my life. Having this understanding has meant that I put a lot less pressure on myself for things that I cannot control and have made a difference to my well-being.

What message of hope would you share to someone supporting their loved one with an eating disorder?

The message for anyone supporting their loved one with an eating disorder would be that it is possible. I know that at times it feels like it will never end, and you cannot see a way out or a ‘normal’ life again, but it can happen. The process is slow and not always easy, but it can be done. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Control what you can and do not panic about every little detail. Show love and support and this will make a difference.

Richard featured in a collaborative webinar with Wednesday’s Child, on partners and relationships in eating disorder recovery. You can watch it here.

richard butler orri

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