You Need Help: You Don’t Know What To Say

Welcome to You Need Help! Where you seek advice and we try our very best to give it.

This has traditionally been done by way of individual Formspring accounts, Autostraddle’s Tumblr and a Formspring Friday column, which has all been very fun and insightful. But, because Formspring has a character limit and we’re wildly optimistic w/r/t our time-management skills, we thought we’d go one further and let you use our ASS private messaging to share advice-related feelings, too.

For more info on sending in questions, see the bottom of this post. Now let’s get down to bossing people around on the internet! Today we’re going to talk about if and when you should tell your partner about disordered eating.

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Q: When should I tell a potential partner about my eating disorder? Is it ok for me to wait until I’m comfortable or should I tell them straight up? I’m kind of scared of dumping this on them later on, but I dont want to scare them off either.

A: Telling new people you’re dating hard things about yourself is really scary! But at the same time, when they are things you don’t necessarily like about yourself, or at least feel like other people might perceive as being bad, we can feel like we have an obligation to tell the people we’re close to. It’s easy to feel like if they really know who you are, they won’t want to be around you, and so you have to be up front with them so they can make some kind of informed decision. Which, I guess honesty is a good policy. But obligation, I think, isn’t a particularly healthy thing to feel.

Try not to think in terms of what you feel like you owe this person, and just for a few minutes think instead about what you actually want out of this interaction, whenever it happens (or doesn’t happen). Are you thinking about this because it’s important to you to share personal parts of your life with a partner? Because you think talking to this person about your eating disorder would be good for you? Is it because you’d like support in dealing with it? Is it because you’re worried that they might find out without your telling them and be upset? First and foremost, what do you want from this?

When you say “potential partner,” it could mean a few things. It could mean a potential casual sex partner, or someone who you’re thinking of asking on a date, or someone who you’ve been talking to for a while now and you both feel like something really special could be happening and you’ve secretly already picked out a name in your head for the dog that you’re going to get together. If this is someone that you don’t necessarily have serious future plans with, or who you’ve been on a few dates with, I don’t think you need to tell them anything. In fact, I will go so far as to say that regardless of how seriously you view this relationship, you don’t need to tell them anything. Even if the best relationships often include high levels of sharing really personal things, that doesn’t all happen right away. There are plenty of things that it takes many people years and years to tell their partners, and that’s fine. Relationships are as much about what we owe ourselves as what we owe the other person.

I can’t tell for sure from your question whether you feel like it’s your responsibility to disclose your eating disorder to this person, but in case you do, I feel it’s important to note: your eating disorder is a thing you have, not who you are. If this person likes you and thinks you’re funny and smart and that you make good iced tea and have a lot of really cute shoes and read good books and know where the best thrift shopping places are and can do a really excellent messy bun, that’s all still true, eating disorder or no. All those things are just as real as your behaviors with food, and if they love all those things, then they really do care about you. There isn’t a “real” you that they don’t know — one that is somehow entangled with your eating disorder and that you’re hiding from them deceptively. You’re not lying to them, and you don’t have to feel bad. If you tell them, tell them because you want to and you think it will be good for you and for your relationship, not because you think you have to. Ideally, if this person is the partner you want them to be, there will come a time when you’re not only comfortable with telling them, but actually want to, because even the hardest parts of life are easier when you’re facing them with someone who loves you.

I think the key part of your question, really, is “Is it okay for me to wait until I’m comfortable?” Not to generalize, but in general, when it comes to relationships I’d go ahead and say the answer to “Is it okay for me to wait until I’m comfortable to X” is always “yes.” And a relationship that demands things you’re uncomfortable with isn’t one you need to be in anyway.

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Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over books and news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

Rachel has written 771 articles for us.

13 Comments

  1. Thumb up 6

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    “There isn’t a “real” you that they don’t know — one that is somehow entangled with your eating disorder and that you’re hiding from them deceptively. You’re not lying to them, and you don’t have to feel bad.” — this is awesome and perfect

  2. Thumb up 5

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    Depending on what kind of ED you’re working with, your attitude toward food or behaviors when you’re eating together might out you before you out yourself.

    I COMPLETELY agree that you don’t owe anyone any details about your personal life. Just saying that, from personal experience both having an ED and having friends with ED, sometimes we don’t have to say it in words for our loved ones to know something ain’t right.

    Food is kind of a big part of most dating experiences. I feel like most people with eating weirdness have a whole slew of responses (which are usually lies because yeah) to ppl’s questions about our eating. (E.g. Oh I’m just not hungry today…I ate a huge lunch…I have weird food allergies…Oh yeah, I totally did not eat those cookies all my myself I gave them to an elementary school having a bake sale…) This might be a time to put some intention into those responses.

  3. Thumb up 5

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    I agree with Rachel’s advice, but I have a couple of bits of experience that might help this person to think through their dilemma.

    1) It is very difficult to have a close relationship with someone without them knowing how you eat – and trying to disguise it can be very stressful and affect how much you enjoy spending time together.

    2) Eating disorders are something that some people react negatively to. If your new SO is one of those people and you decide to keep quiet about it until the two of you are serious, they could end up feeling deceived and you could end up hurt if it turns out they can’t accept it. It might be good to find out if they will be able to support you as a way to protect yourself against being disappointed later on.

    3) If you hold back something important about yourself, it will always be possible to believe that your partner would not love you if they really knew what you were like inside. If you have self-esteem issues it might seem like that’s how it always has to be. But if you don’t tell them, you’ll never have the chance to know that the person you’re with is the one who really does love you no matter what you’re going through, and that that is what you deserve.

    • Thumb up 1

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      I just want to very very enthusiastically endorse #3. This is SO. TRUE.

      Different but similar: a weird thing happened with this girl I’m dating right now. I’ve been a cutter since I was 13, and have a lot of pretty visible scars. Normally, when new partners ask about it (if they even do – the ones that don’t out of discomfort or judgment are generally already on their way out), I lie. I say something like “Oh, it’s something I did a loooong time ago.” or answer their question about the last time I cut with “A while ago, at least a couple years.” Lies.
      But with this lady…I actually told her the truth. On the first night. Without shame, without any nervousness, without an expectation that she’d take care of me, I told her that it’d actually only been about 4 months since the last time I’d cut. It just came out and sat out there and we moved on. For whatever reason, I immediately felt comfortable with her — and, more importantly, comfortable with myself and my own reality. I’m a lot more than my self-injury, but that’s part of me, too.

      So if you want to be fully, 100% honest with her, be fully honest with her. Hopefully, she’ll respond appropriately. If you’re not there yet, don’t force yourself to be there. But the lesson I’ve learned: don’t ever lie. Partners I’ve lied to about the cutting and then later told the truth to have felt more hurt by my lying to them than by the fact that I’d intentionally hurt myself.

      <3

  4. Thumb up 3

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    I had such a hard time figuring this out for myself! And I totally agree with everyone else that you don’t “owe” anybody anything and the type of relationship you are looking for.

    I told my partner about my history with ED pretty quickly. (Looking back I might have waited a bit longer if I had the chance to do it over. She was quite taken aback when I told her everything so early in the relationship.) However, my reasoning was that I didn’t want to have to go back and explain things later on. For me, my ED and more importantly my recovery played a huge role in where I lived, went to school, and lots of over things. While I had explanations for other people that didn’t involve explaining my history, I didn’t want to have to go back and say “well those things I told you weren’t exactly true and here’s what actually happened”. Also, while I had been in recovery for almost four years at that point I still had a lot a issues regarding intimacy (physical and emotional) and I wanted anybody that I was getting in a relationship with to know that I was going to struggle with certain parts. However, I really believe that regardless of if/when you tell them if it’s meant to be they will work with you. Good luck!

  5. Thumb up 5

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    Can I just mention here that this is a prime example of why AS is such a wonderful site – there’s no shaming here or any judgement whatsover for the person have an ED in the first place. The way this question was addressed was perfect, so thank you for dealing with this maturely and professionally.

  6. Thumb up 2

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    This is a really hard problem to solve. I’m guessing that this person is asking because they recently started dating someone they quite like, or plan to look for someone to be with long-term.

    For me, it felt like trying to maintain a complicated dance all the time. There’s only so much sleight of hand you can do until your partner will do one of three things: confront you and straight-up ask if you have an eating disorder (this never happened to me, but is almost guaranteed if you are bulimic), think you are flaky as shit and not very forthcoming, or feel like you are bizarrely rigid in your food choices but mostly not notice.

    It’s hard to be with someone and not tell them, because so much of dating and expressing intimacy is tied to food. Buying food for someone you love, preparing food, ordering food together. If you date someone for a significant amount of time these situations are impossible to avoid. People tend to conflate “I don’t want to go out tonight” with “I don’t like you that much.” It’s really difficult to maintain a balance between food-related anxiety and dating activities if you want to keep your eating disorder a secret.

    For me, it was always kind of obvious because I did and still do look sick. I always denied it vehemently if someone confronted me about it. It’s just easier, because if it were up to me no one would know. It took almost a year of dating someone to tell her the truth. We broke up on good terms much later, but it lifted a tremendous weight off my shoulders… I only realized that I was carrying so much guilt after it was gone. Wait a month or two after you start dating someone, because it’s a lot to throw down on the table if you are in a new shiny relationship, but you should never be afraid. It’s a miserable experience to hide something like this from someone you want to be close to. If she bows out, it’s her loss. The right person will love you anyway.

  7. Thumb up 1

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    I’d say tell them, maybe not straight off the bat, but if it comes up, definitely don’t lie or brush it off, as ‘Captain Obvious’ mentioned. My ex was (and still is) dealing with her issues relating to eating and body image, and in two years of dating the most she ever ate in front of me was half a plate of Sunday dinner with her folks. She always denied having any issues with it even though it was incredibly obvious (physically as well as in behaviourally) and gave excuses which were (frankly) bullshit. It was her choice not to talk about it or admit it, of course, but denying it to everyone who cared about her stopped us from helping as well as making us feel worried and inadequate.

    While it’s best for you to feel comfortable with telling this person, I feel like if this is a big issue for you, chances are you’re not going to ever be entirely comfortable with telling them, if you see what I mean, and the longer you wait, the more tension’ll build up around it. I’d definitely go with dropping it into a (relevant) conversation and not making much of a big deal about it, y’know? Just saying ‘this is a thing I’m dealing with, it kinda sucks, but I’m working on it and I want you to understand about it’, unless of course you want to make a big deal of it, talk about it, etc, both of which are equally valid in my opinion.

    Point is, it’s going to come up sooner or later – it’s very hard not to notice what one’s partner eats, and it can lead to stressing on your partner’s part about whether you’re okay, if they need to sit you down for a talk, etc. Explaining should avoid that and also help you talk about it / understand yourself and your feelings / bring you closer together / all that stuff. Hope I explained this well, I’m not great with verbalising thoughts.

  8. Thumb up 2

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    AS, this is great advice. I’ve struggled for 7 years with an ED, myself. I was anorexic in highschool, but once I entered university, everything turned around and I became a binge eater. The restriction of sugar and carbs when I was anorexic also contributed to my development of reactive hypoglycemia. So I have emotional issues with food, as well as I guess you could say “biological” ones, not unlike an allergy or sensitivity. My weirdness with food has made me put my life on hold while I struggle to deal with it and try to get it under control. I’m scared of dating because, as stated above, food is such a big part of relationships.

    I decline invitations from friends to go out to restaurants, because it’s easier than stressing out about whether the menu will have something light, something that won’t “set off” a hypoglycemic episode. If I’m not mindful, one breadstick turns into another, and another, and once I get home, I raid the kitchen for any processed, carb-dense food I can get my hands on, and I will not stop, even when I feel like I’m going to throw up. I won’t sleep that night, and then the lack of sleep, in addition to all of the sugar in my system, gives me a “food hangover” the following day, and in order to keep my energy levels up, I’m off on another binge.

    The idea of needing to navigate all of this in addition to maintaining a relationship terrifies me. I’d love to be able to go out for dessert, or have a picnic with some homemade cookies or pie, but moderation just does not exist in my vocabulary. It’s like wine for an alcoholic. I can’t just have “a little”. I’m not trivializing alcohol by any means, but alcohol is easier to avoid than food.

  9. Thumb up 1

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    This is wonderful and all the advice I’ve seen given has been good, but something I’d like to add, just as a side from personal experiences (especially if said SO has no experience in illness) is that I think it’s a important to communicate that you don’t expect anything besides support and the dynamic you’ve already got. (Unless you do, then communication! Open communication I always say).

    If you’re doing well, or if you’re just chugging along like you do, I think it’s important to have her see that it isn’t something she should feel responsibility for, as coming out with an ED honestly can change the dynamic of a relationship. Then regardless if she falls into a caretaker mode (no one wants someone hovering) or is hesitant, she knows that it’s something she has time to learn about as she learns more about you.

  10. Thumb up 1

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    I really loved this article and, like a few of the other comments mentioned, I love how non-judgemental everyone has been. I’ve struggled with food and body image for my entire life, and am still struggling to some degree. My girl confronted me about how anxious big meals make me, and she saw very little of me because I was at the gym. I didn’t understand her concern – I wasn’t actively starving myself (in my eyes) as I’d done in the past. And working out was relaxing for me, so what was the big deal? The whole conversation made me feel very cornered and defensive.

    Sometime later, I started a blog, and wrote a post detailing my history with what I now recognize to be eating disorders (or at least “disordered eating.” I shared the post with my girlfriend. Sharing my history on my own terms was very healing for me, but it’s still something I struggle with almost every day. I hope everything works ouit for the OP and everybody else who’s going through anything similar <3

  11. Thumb up 1

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    Well I can tall you when a bad time to tell them is….and that would be the day you leave school on medical leave to enter treatment.

    Since leaving treatment I’ve become a lot more comfortable talking to others about my ED. For me yes, its very important to talk about my ED with anyone I’m even remotely serious with because its sort of hard for someone to get why someone who is otherwise confident and happy gets visibly shaken by the idea of a buffet or spends hours dressing and body checking before we go out to club.

    Its natural for them to want to help or get worried or become overly interested in what you’re eating when you go out, but my family does that too :P For me its a lot safer not having a secret, it allows me to have an honest relationship with my partner and also gives an extra set of eyes if I should start to slip.

    In the end, you do you and what works best for you in your recovery.

    and best of luck :)

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