While Debbie was eating her way to obesity, she didn’t consider what her obsession with food was doing to her marriage. Neither did Laura, whose eating disorder took the form of anorexia and eventually caused her to become so anemic that she had to have a blood transfusion.
Now that they are on their way to recovery, both realize how much they took for granted--and how fortunate they are that their marriages survived the long period when their eating disorders dominated their lives.
Marriages are severely stressed when a partner falls into self-destructive eating habits, says Stephanie Bennett, a counselor at the Center for Personal Development in Newport Beach. Bennett has counseled Debbie and Laura and their husbands, who asked that their real names not be used.
Most victims of eating disorders are women who have been abused as children, according to Bennett. Their obsession with eating--or not eating--is a way of distancing themselves from their emotional pain and gaining a sense of control over their lives. But, although these women desperately need love and support, they tend to become so self-absorbed that they end up shutting their husbands out of their lives.
Bennett says couples who don’t seek help when an eating disorder surfaces are liable to become increasingly isolated from each other.
“Sometimes affairs will happen when they seek comfort outside the marriage, or they’ll just get a divorce,” Bennett says.
What husbands need to understand, according to author Geneen Roth, is that a woman who eats compulsively, binges and purges or starves herself is not able to be intimate because “love and compulsion cannot coexist.”
Roth, who reveals her own obsession with losing weight in her book, “When Food Is Love, Exploring the Relationship Between Eating and Intimacy,” writes: “I thought I wanted to be thin; I discovered that what I wanted was to be invulnerable.”
Eating disorders are almost certain to create distance in relationships because, as Roth explains, “love is a state of connectedness, one that includes vulnerability, surrender, self-valuing, steadiness and a willingness to face, rather than run from, the worst of ourselves.
“Compulsion is a state of isolation, one that includes self-absorption, invulnerability, low self-esteem, unpredictability and fear that if we faced our pain, it would destroy us.”
As Debbie and Laura have confronted the emotional issues underlying their eating disorders, they have discovered an unexpected payoff: a growing sense of closeness in their marriages.
But the intimacy they now share with their husbands hasn’t come easily--or quickly.
Laura left her husband, Tom, about five years ago, but returned after nine months because, she says, “I realized that I really loved this man and wanted to work things out.”
For years, she says, “he’s been fighting for the marriage and I’ve been running. We wouldn’t be together if it wasn’t for him.”
She now realizes that she was running not from an unhappy marriage, but from a traumatic childhood that had left deep emotional scars. In 1977, when Laura was 30, long-submerged memories of how her father had physically and sexually abused her began to surface, bringing back the sense of helplessness that had often led her to hide in closets when she was growing up.
“I felt out of control, and I dealt with it by starving myself,” she says, explaining that being able to turn food away gave her a sense of power.
Still, the painful memories kept coming back, so she also began numbing herself with prescription medications, including antidepressants, tranquilizers and sleeping pills that she obtained from three different doctors.
Tom was alarmed--and confused. “I didn’t know what was happening to her. She wasn’t coherent a lot of the time.” And, as she dropped from her normal weight of 105 pounds to 80, she seemed to be, literally, fading away. “It was a slow suicide,” Tom says.
Laura overdosed on prescription drugs in 1978 and went into a coma that lasted for four days. When she was released from the hospital, she began seeing a therapist, stopped taking pills and managed to gain about 10 pounds. But she soon slipped back into herself-destructive pattern of starving and medicating herself and became increasingly cut off from Tom both sexually and emotionally.
Meanwhile, Tom was trying to keep a household running smoothly for their two children and manage a business, and he found himself becoming more of a caretaker than a husband to Laura.
He says he was angry and frustrated over her inability to share her feelings, but he was also keeping his emotions under wraps. He allowed the stress to build up inside, finding relief only when he became overly aggressive on the volleyball court.
He says he lived day to day, always hoping that Laura, who was often too weak to get out of bed, would soon be her old self again.
“I loved her a lot, and I didn’t want to give up,” he says. “I kept reflecting on how I felt about her when I first met her.”
His patience finally paid off. In 1991, after Laura received a blood transfusion to combat anemia, she acknowledged that she was endangering her life as well as her marriage and could no longer afford to live in denial. She began talking about the abuse in her childhood during regular counseling sessions, and as she progressed through the healing process, she stopped anesthetizing herself with medication and started eating normally (her weight is nearly back to 105).
Meanwhile, a transformation has taken place in her marriage. Laura and Tom have abandoned their victim-caretaker roles and started developing a mutually supportive partnership that enables both of them to express their feelings and meet each other’s needs.
“I’ve never felt equal to anyone before,” Laura says with a sense of wonder. By taking the risk of sharing their deepest feelings with each other, Laura and Tom are rediscovering the closeness they felt early in their 26-year marriage.
“We talk all the time now,” Laura says. “And we’re able to have fun together. It’s like we’re on a second honeymoon.”
Edith Eva Eger, a clinical psychologist in La Jolla who has done extensive work with victims of abuse and eating disorders, says it’s common for adults suffering from childhood traumas to end up in the kind of relationship that Laura and Tom had for many years, with one partner always trying to rescue the other.
“One has the need to be needed and the other the need to be taken care of, and they form a perfect symbiosis,” Eger explains. “But this doesn’t lead to a mature love; it leads to a possessive love, which is not love--it’s manipulation. The answer is to have two whole people rather than two halves.”
To establish a relationship that allows for mature love and true intimacy, couples like Laura and Tom need to virtually start over, Eger suggests.
“Step number one is to develop basic trust and to be friends and to have fun,” she says. “In a way, they need to meet again and woo each other. You walk together and talk together and then you sleep together--that’s step No. 10.”
Bennett points out that it’s often extremely difficult for victims of eating disorders and their mates to let go of negative patterns of relating to each other. As couples work their way to a healthier emotional state, their relationship may seem to get worse before it gets better, she cautions.
Debbie and her husband, Robert, know from experience that the healing process can be rugged for both partners. But their efforts are enabling them to enjoy the intimacy that has long been lacking in their marriage.
They admit they were “a very unhappy couple” when they sought counseling nearly a year ago.
“Our communication had broken down. I didn’t feel any emotional connection anymore,” says Debbie, who is 50.
She now realizes that her obsession with food is largely responsible for the distance in her relationship with Robert--and that she needs to stop hiding from the past if she is to be free to experience the kind of closeness she wants in her marriage.
Debbie, the oldest of 10 children, was physically abused by both parents when she was growing up. As early as grade school, she sought escape from emotional turmoil by secretly stuffing herself with junk food.
“I was trying to cut myself off from pain instead of dealing with my emotions,” she explains.
She was close to her ideal weight when she married Robert 25 years ago, but it wasn’t long before she started having eating binges whenever she felt stressed out (usually after talking to a parent or sibling). She gradually put on so much weight that she suffered from hypertension and back problems. She also began sleeping too much, going to bed as soon as possible after work and staying in bed almost all day on weekends.
Debbie didn’t tell Robert about the abuse in her childhood until they were in counseling together--"I was afraid of what he would think of me if I admitted the kind of violent background I came from"--so he didn’t understand her need to numb herself with food.
He thought it was a matter of discipline and tried to encourage Debbie to take better care of her health. But whenever he brought up the subject of her overeating or excessive sleeping, they’d get into an argument that would end with Robert withdrawing as Debbie launched a verbal assault.
Debbie admits she was quick to anger.
“It was a convenient mask to be angry rather than to acknowledge that I was vulnerable and needed help,” she says.
Her relationship with Robert has changed dramatically since they started seeing a counselor. With Bennett’s help, Debbie and Robert have finally begun to communicate. Debbie, who can now talk to her husband about the abuse in her childhood and the pressures she feels when she relates to her family today, is learning to ask for support when she needs it. And she’s arguing less with Robert “because I don’t feel like I have to control everything he does. I’m giving him some space to make decisions now.”
Meanwhile, Robert, who was discouraged from expressing his feelings when he was growing up, is getting better at showing Debbie how much he cares--and saying what’s on his mind instead of withdrawing from conflict.
Never before have they been so open and honest with each other, says Debbie, who is still trying to come to terms with the trauma in her childhood.
She admits she occasionally reverts to compulsive eating when she’s under stress, but that’s happening less and less.
“The more I’m in touch with my emotions, the more I can deal with how many times I go to the fridge and look for ice cream,” she says. “I can see it for what it is. I’m no longer on automatic pilot.”
She’s amazed at the degree to which she had cut herself off from her own emotions--and from Robert. For years, she was unable to cry (“the dam burst after I started therapy”) or consider her husband’s needs.
“My ability to empathize with him is so much greater now that I’m in touch with my own pain,” she says.