Eating disorders

Friends and relationships

Eating disorders can impact many areas of life, such as family, school or social life. An eating disorder can dominate people’s lives so can also affect friendships and romantic/intimate relationships. People we spoke with often described struggling with trust and self-confidence which could cause problems, particularly in romantic relationships and with physical intimacy. Despite these issues, friends could give important practical and emotional support through recovery. It was often close friends who first noticed something might be wrong with their eating or health.
 
Friendships – highs and lows
People described becoming gradually more isolated and wanting to distance themselves from others, including friends, when they developed an eating disorder. Sometimes they compared themselves to others and felt “inferior”, “outcasts”, “lonely” and like they didn’t fit in. Charlotte said she originally started restricting her food intake because she thought everyone else was doing it and she wanted to fit in. A person’s friends were often the first to notice and raise concerns about people’s eating or health. Charlotte’s friends made her watch a video about a woman with an eating disorder to try and show her something was wrong. Nikki and Suzanne described how their friends had practically tried to “force feed” them as they had got so worried. People often felt that it hadn’t been easy for their friends to support them while ill. Friends could feel worried and helpless. It could be difficult to know how to help or what to say, especially as they were often young (in their teens).
People often lost contact with most of their friends while they were ill. They could feel too tired, taken over by their eating disorder or too low to keep up their friendships. Maria said that when she was unwell she didn’t even think about friends or social life. Rebekah described how for a whole year she cut off all social contacts, spent all her time in her bedroom and only got support from online pro-eating disorder forums. People sometimes felt their friends excluded them or spoke about them behind their backs. Hannah Z said that although her friends wanted to help her, they didn’t know how and she felt people just “edging” away from her.
If people were admitted to hospital, they could stay for months and lose contact with friends. Many said that their “true friends” stuck by them throughout and sometimes came to visit in hospital. People could also form new friendships in hospital that could last long after leaving the unit.
People described emotional and practical ways that their friends had supported them:
 
• Helping to contact health services
• Going along to doctors’ appointments
• Helping with cooking 
• Support with eating in public 
• Just being ‘there’ for them. 
 
In recovery, friends could help with getting back into social life. Maria described how her friends helped her “out of the bubble” of mental health problems. Elizabeth said friends could help her see that her thoughts around eating were irrational. Laura said her friends “kept an eye” on her.
Some people felt “uneasy” about the past and didn’t want to talk to their friends about what had happened. Often  people still found it difficult to attend social events involving food and eating, such as meals out,  even when in recovery. (For more see  ‘Social life and public places’).
 
Telling friends about the eating disorder
 
“I’d want people to look at me and think of what I like and who I am, not what the anorexia’s made me.” Eva
 
When people were unwell, but particularly through recovery, they needed to decide if or how to tell others about their eating disorder. Some preferred to be “open” and “honest” about their past experiences and said they found it “easy” and “comfortable” to talk about it. People often felt there were some who needed to know more than others, for example those they lived with. Jasmin said it was important for her housemates to be aware of problems in case they came back.
Others felt that when making new friendships, for example when moving to university, was an opportunity to leave their past behind. They chose not to tell anyone, or only tell a very few people about the eating disorder. Sometime people feared they would be judged or felt they couldn’t trust people they didn’t know well. Some people felt there was “a stigma” around mental health. Eva didn’t want to be defined by her illness. Emily didn’t want to worry others or to be seen as “weak”. A few people had never told anyone about the eating disorder although they suspected their friends probably had an idea. For some, it was still a topic that “we don’t talk about”.
People had experienced mixed responses from others. Most people had been understanding and supportive or shocked at the most. However some had encountered insensitive comments or people distancing themselves.

Relationships and sex
Having an eating disorder or having gone through it in the past, could play a particularly central role in romantic relationships. People commonly described how they lost all interest in romantic relationships and physical intimacy when they were ill. They felt controlled by the illness and sometimes their hormones could be affected. Annabelle said relationships were never “part of life” while she was ill and Hannah O said relationships were “the last thing on her mind”.

People thought that relationships sometimes played a part in their developing an eating disorder. Some said they wanted to change themselves or become more attractive. At other times a bad relationship or a relationship breakdown could trigger weight loss or bingeing and purging.

Lacking in confidence and struggling with how they felt about their body (body image) could make it difficult for people to maintain relationships. Many of those we spoke with said they felt insecure and uncomfortable about themselves. Rob found it difficult to accept he “deserved” to be loved and Jamie said he needed to love himself before he could expect others to love him. David struggled to accept compliments from others. Rachel actually decided to keep a book of compliments people gave her, for times when she felt low about herself. Bad experiences in the past could make it difficult to trust people. Elene described bad relationships where men had taken advantage of her insecurities.

Body insecurities could make it hard for people to feel comfortable with physical intimacy and being naked with another person. Laura said she felt too self-conscious with intimacy and Felicity said when she was unwell she didn’t want anyone to touch her, even for a hug. Francesca’s long term boyfriend was understanding if she had a bad day and didn’t feel as comfortable with sex.

When they worked well, relationships offered a reassuring and safe space that helped people to get better and to stay well. Lauren described her fiancé as “a fantastic support” and Andrew said his girlfriend got him through the eating disorder. Francesca, who was in a long term relationship throughout her recovery, described how much easier it was to be sociable and eat out with an understanding partner than alone.
See also our section on Mental health: ethnic minority carers’ experiences.

Last reviewed July 2015.

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