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They Were Eating Themselves Out of House, Home


While Debbie was eating her way to obesity, she didn't consider what her obsession with food was doing to her marriage. Neither did Laura, whose eating disorder took the form of anorexia and eventually caused her to become so anemic that she had to have a blood transfusion.

Now that they are on their way to recovery, both realize how much they took for granted--and how fortunate they are that their marriages survived the long period when their eating disorders dominated their lives.

Marriages are severely stressed when a partner falls into self-destructive eating habits, says Stephanie Bennett, a counselor at the Center for Personal Development in Newport Beach. Bennett has counseled Debbie and Laura and their husbands, who asked that their real names not be used.

Most victims of eating disorders are women who have been abused as children, according to Bennett. Their obsession with eating--or not eating--is a way of distancing themselves from their emotional pain and gaining a sense of control over their lives. But, although these women desperately need love and support, they tend to become so self-absorbed that they end up shutting their husbands out of their lives.

Bennett says couples who don't seek help when an eating disorder surfaces are liable to become increasingly isolated from each other.

"Sometimes affairs will happen when they seek comfort outside the marriage, or they'll just get a divorce," Bennett says.

What husbands need to understand, according to author Geneen Roth, is that a woman who eats compulsively, binges and purges or starves herself is not able to be intimate because "love and compulsion cannot coexist."

Roth, who reveals her own obsession with losing weight in her book, "When Food Is Love, Exploring the Relationship Between Eating and Intimacy," writes: "I thought I wanted to be thin; I discovered that what I wanted was to be invulnerable."

Eating disorders are almost certain to create distance in relationships because, as Roth explains, "love is a state of connectedness, one that includes vulnerability, surrender, self-valuing, steadiness and a willingness to face, rather than run from, the worst of ourselves.

"Compulsion is a state of isolation, one that includes self-absorption, invulnerability, low self-esteem, unpredictability and fear that if we faced our pain, it would destroy us."

As Debbie and Laura have confronted the emotional issues underlying their eating disorders, they have discovered an unexpected payoff: a growing sense of closeness in their marriages.

But the intimacy they now share with their husbands hasn't come easily--or quickly.

Laura left her husband, Tom, about five years ago, but returned after nine months because, she says, "I realized that I really loved this man and wanted to work things out."

For years, she says, "he's been fighting for the marriage and I've been running. We wouldn't be together if it wasn't for him."

She now realizes that she was running not from an unhappy marriage, but from a traumatic childhood that had left deep emotional scars. In 1977, when Laura was 30, long-submerged memories of how her father had physically and sexually abused her began to surface, bringing back the sense of helplessness that had often led her to hide in closets when she was growing up.

"I felt out of control, and I dealt with it by starving myself," she says, explaining that being able to turn food away gave her a sense of power.

Still, the painful memories kept coming back, so she also began numbing herself with prescription medications, including antidepressants, tranquilizers and sleeping pills that she obtained from three different doctors.

Tom was alarmed--and confused. "I didn't know what was happening to her. She wasn't coherent a lot of the time." And, as she dropped from her normal weight of 105 pounds to 80, she seemed to be, literally, fading away. "It was a slow suicide," Tom says.

Laura overdosed on prescription drugs in 1978 and went into a coma that lasted for four days. When she was released from the hospital, she began seeing a therapist, stopped taking pills and managed to gain about 10 pounds. But she soon slipped back into herself-destructive pattern of starving and medicating herself and became increasingly cut off from Tom both sexually and emotionally.

Meanwhile, Tom was trying to keep a household running smoothly for their two children and manage a business, and he found himself becoming more of a caretaker than a husband to Laura.

He says he was angry and frustrated over her inability to share her feelings, but he was also keeping his emotions under wraps. He allowed the stress to build up inside, finding relief only when he became overly aggressive on the volleyball court.

He says he lived day to day, always hoping that Laura, who was often too weak to get out of bed, would soon be her old self again.

"I loved her a lot, and I didn't want to give up," he says. "I kept reflecting on how I felt about her when I first met her."

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