I’ve lived with a persistent eating disorder since 2016. Coincidentally, I’ve also been having regular sex since 2016. It’s been a journey with casual partners and committed relationships — often simultaneously. Unfortunately, this disorder has always shadowed my vibrant sexual tapestry.
I now have three years of recovery and a wonderful girlfriend by my side. I think I’m ready to talk about ways we can support our partners who have eating disorders.
Eating disorders dig deep
Eating disorders can affect anyone but disproportionately affect queer people. We’re placed at increased risk by discrimination, trauma, and body dissatisfaction. That last one catches trans people especially hard. If this wasn’t bad enough, eating disorders are also easier to enter and harder to manage when people are caught in other mental distress.
Eating disorders are especially horrible because nutrition is an inescapable fact of life. For most sufferers, our fixation on food and our body image runs deep. It fucks with our routine (or defines our routine). Our bodies are weakened by binge-eating, malnutrition, or destructive habits, and this feeds the distress. It becomes an anchor we drag everywhere we go.
I mean, picture a goblin living in your head that reveals a flash card with an awful message about your body and eating habits. Every two hours. Forever. I cracked eventually.
Sex is also vulnerable to the predations of mental illness
Sex is a deeply personal act. Even casual sex needs a lot to go well for it to be enjoyable. Depression and anxiety impede sex because they color every aspect of a person’s life. Eating disorders do the same.
Perhaps most relevant to sex is that eating disorders devastate a sufferer’s self-esteem. I’ve had sex with people who didn’t want their emotionally sensitive body parts touched or even perceived. I’ve had sex with people who needed the lights to be off. I’ve been the partner who canceled because I thought I looked awful. I’ve both turned down sex and had reckless, risky sex during mental health crises.
The way people have sex tells us a lot about how they see themselves. That’s why it’s so important to support sex partners who have eating disorders. Being a positive force in one part of life can give them (and us) room to breathe in another.
So what do I do if my partner shows disordered behaviors?
Whether a one-night stand or a committed partner, shades of disordered behavior can appear. Our partners may express a persistent dislike of their body’s weight or composition. Some people will not consent until they’ve completed a food routine.
It falls to us as responsible lovers to take small, supportive steps for them. That’s not a call to be someone’s sleep-in therapist. Showing support means being present without overextending yourself. If someone jumps overboard while clutching an anchor, handcuffing yourself to them in solidarity is unhelpful.
I talked to Dr. Martha Tara Lee, a queer-friendly sexologist about ways we can be more supportive for our partners.
1. The first rule is care and patience.
Dr. Lee says the key to supporting partners with eating disorders is to, “be patient, compassionate, and non-judgmental. Educate yourself about eating disorders and their complexities. Encourage open communication and active listening.”
Dating someone with an eating disorder is a commitment to patience and listening. Eating disorders don’t go away in short order. Positive changes are always good, but relapses and struggles are also a part of recovery.
2. Don’t make it worse.
That means not blaming them for their illness or making negative remarks about their body. Dismissing them in times of great need can also worsen the situation. Dr. Lee says it’s especially important to not pressure partners to engage in, “sexual activities or behaviors that may trigger their eating disorder.”
Sex with a new partner is a time of vulnerability, so hurtful words aren’t just risky; they can be downright traumatic. Eating disorders often emerge from remarks about our bodies. It hurts deeply when people re-affirm those remarks.
3. Be mindful of ‘helpful’ actions that may be harmful.
Dr. Lee pointed out several things people do out of care that can be counterproductive to eating disorder sufferers. For one, “unsolicited advice about diet, exercise, or weight loss” is a no-go because it’s a potentially distressing topic. Focusing our advice, “solely on the person’s physical appearance rather than their overall well-being,” prioritizes appearance over what really matters: happiness. Well-being is an all-encompassing experience that isn’t defined by aesthetics.
Although you shouldn’t feel like you’re walking on eggshells, people with eating disorders can be triggered by affirmation with a negative subtext. Being willing to learn and communicate goes far toward understanding what your partner’s specific needs are.
4. Know when to involve professionals.
Knowing your limit is pivotal. There may come a time when professional medical help is necessary. These are the signs of serious trouble that Dr. Lee looks out for:
- Severe weight fluctuations
- Frequent binging or purging (induced vomiting, laxative abuse)
- Physical health complications (electrolyte imbalances, hair loss, disruptions to the menstrual cycle)
- Major deterioration in mental health
If you see these signs, it may be time to have a serious conversation with your partner. Although the topic is discomforting, further deterioration or loss of life is far worse. Professional and community help (like a support group) can take a lot of stress from you, too.
We love that you care.
If you’ve read this far, then I’m really thankful for your part in this. As both a sufferer and someone who dates people with disordered eating, the most important thing we can do is show compassion to our partners. Whether or not the relationship is permanent, our impact matters. Being sensitive to a one-night stand can leave a lasting impression on someone’s self-esteem. Likewise, we all deserve honest and compassionate communication with our long-term partners.