Partner is bulimic — what can I do to help her and myself?

Originally Published: April 18, 1997 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: August 28, 2009
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Hello Alice,

I just found out that my wife of five years is bulimic. I don't know how I should feel or what I should do. I feel like it is my fault but my wife tells me that she has had this problem for over ten years. I am torn between my emotions, I love her dearly and wish to help but I feel like she has hidden this from me and I don't know about this. How can I help and who can I talk to? My wife told me that I should be supported but not to ask her too many questions. What should I do?

Signed:
Tim

Dear Tim,

When a loved one shares such personal information, or you come to realize there is someone close to you that may need support, it's not unusual to feel shock, confusion, hurt, grief, guilt, mistrust, and/or other strong emotions. There are a host of feelings you may have experienced since discovering that your partner is, and has been, bulimic. Your reactions are understandable since you probably assumed that you knew almost everything about your partner. Remind yourself that your partner probably did not intend to hurt you by keeping her bulimia a secret. She may have wanted to let you know, but could not bring herself to tell you about it. People with bulimia almost always carefully hide their behaviors from others, especially loved ones.

So, what should you do? It's clear that you have a lot of questions that you want answered, but it also appears that your partner is not yet ready to answer them. She probably needs more time before sharing such personal, and likely painful, information with you. For now, just let her know that you are there for her when she needs you. Also, if possible, try to encourage her to seek the professional help that will help her on a path to overcoming bulimia, if she hasn't already. If she is not open to your suggestion, then it may be best to approach her about this at another time.

It is also important to know that people with eating disorders are not the only ones who seek help; their families and friends also seek and find assistance. If your partner is not ready to talk, you may want to learn more about bulimia from some other reputable sources. You can start by browsing the related questions below. Other options include speaking with someone who understands, and share your feelings with her/him.

You and your partner are lucky to have a variety of good resources to aid you in your processes, individual and joint, to get help. By getting help, you and your partner may be able to better cope with, and understand, the varied emotions you have been feeling. If either one of you is a Columbia student, you can make an appointment to see a counselor at Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) by calling x4-2878. If your partner is also interested in some guidance regarding her eating patterns, then she can see a nutritionist at the Health Service (call x4-2284). If neither of you is at Columbia, then you may be able to get a referral to a therapist and/or nutritionist by talking with your health care provider.

You and your partner may also want to contact the The National Eating Disorders Association. Don't forget to search through the Go Ask Alice! Fitness & Nutrition archive for more information about bulimia. In particular, read Eating disorders vs. normal eating for more general information. And, an excellent book for you to read that is written specifically for families and friends of people with eating disorders is, Surviving an Eating Disorder: Strategies for Family and Friends, by Michelle Siegel, Judith Brisman, and Margot Weinshel.

It's important to keep in mind that if your partner is not ready for professional assistance at this time, you can still seek the help you need. Take care of yourself first; in that way, you can be a stronger support person for your partner.

Alice