The dilemma When my boyfriend and I first met I was attracted to his open, unrestrained nature. In general, I am still attracted to these qualities in him; however, I have become increasingly frustrated with his unrestrained relationship with food.
When I was growing up, my mother was always trying to lose weight. Consequently, I am body-conscious, eat well and exercise regularly. My boyfriend eats compulsively – often using food to combat tiredness or uncomfortable emotions – and he also binge-eats in secret. I find evidence of this under the bed and under car seats, and feel frustrated by his self-sabotage. I’m sure that my own inherited fears surrounding weight gain also play a role in my frustration with him.
My boyfriend is aware of his issues and we have spoken about them on occasion. I resolved some time ago not to try to control his eating or his body; however, I nonetheless find myself growing frustrated by his lack of self-control and even find myself distancing myself from him emotionally when he has been overeating or binge-eating, which ultimately leaves me feeling despondent. I want to respect that he is on his own journey where food is concerned. Do you have any advice that might help me to let go and stop getting so frustrated with him?
Mariella replies First of all, let me state the obvious: it’s not about the food. As you’ve already recognised, you can’t and mustn’t become too embroiled in his personal struggles – and certainly not without professional help. I’d urge you both to seek advice from any of the many organisations who are skilled in dealing with eating disorders, including the NHS, Beat and the National Centre for Eating Disorders.
So your man is damaged goods, that’s for sure, but then again, who isn’t?
You recognise that what’s triggering your frustration may be your own experiences gained from watching your mother, so your focus is on keeping control, and balancing your diet to maintain your perfect level. That over-keen awareness is itself a form of disorder. Ironically your boyfriend represents what you don’t want to be, which makes me wonder why you chose him. Maybe you recognised something familiar in him and by the time you identified what it was you were already hooked. Hopefully, despite feeling judgmental, you’re also aware that your boyfriend’s addiction is coming from a similar place, despite manifesting differently.
Food is never the problem, whether we can’t stop eating or we can’t bear to; it’s our emotions that we’re struggling to manage. There’s also the issue of control and the lack of it. Some of us witnessing those who struggle to restrain their impulses are triggered into a response that is far more judgmental than sympathetic. I once had a boyfriend perfect in many ways apart for his inability to choose a drink in a restaurant. I promise that’s not a joke. In the course of any meal he’d start with a coffee, then perhaps an orange juice, then a Coke, or a tea and perhaps a glass of wine thrown in for good measure. I’d sit opposite him, paralysed with embarrassment as he called the waitress over yet again. In retrospect I understand that his tendency toward depression, diagnosed later, which made him appear brooding, interesting and Heathcliff-like to my 20-something self, was directly linked to his inability to make choices that satisfied him. Back then, though, I was way too close to my own childhood dysfunctions to empathise with his. Instead it eventually drove us apart. Now I’d hope some inquisitiveness as to the root cause of his struggles and a degree of empathy would replace the swift judgment I was guilty of back then.
If you’ve grown up witnessing an addiction or mental health issues in any form you often seek out what’s familiar in those you’re attracted to. Your boyfriend is trapped in a cycle of self-punishment and I’d like to know why. Gorging or starving is an impulse that comes from the same place as all other forms of self-abasement, from sexual addiction to self-harm, and is invariably an expression of something darker and deeper.
So your man is damaged goods, that’s for sure but, then again, who isn’t? I think it sometimes helps when an issue sits right in front of your eyes, as it does in this case, so you can at least drag it out into the light and discuss it. Before you decide whether that’s a journey you want to embark on with your boyfriend, you need to look to yourself and try to understand why his issues were initially part of what attracted you to him. It’s up to you to decide whether your desire for this man is built on deep-rooted ancient rubble that’s liable to crumble under pressure, or on solid impulses that will hold steady while you work to discover what truly drives his hunger. Then, of course, there’s his willingness to go on that difficult trek through the past with you.