Ask Allison: 'My wife is binge-eating through her pain'
Our resident psychologist answers your queries about life and relationships
Q My wife is a binge eater. We have had a hard time over the last few years and her way to cope with it was to eat rubbish all evening, as soon as the kids go to bed.
She has put on a lot of weight - which, to be honest, doesn't bother me, though she was very fit before all the bad stuff happened, and she is miserable about it. She takes no pride in her appearance now, avoids any social occasion that she possibly can and completely avoids sex. What can I do to help?
A Sitting by your wife's side in support is how you can help. Doing what you are doing, accepting and loving her, as she is, is how you can help. Your wife is rejecting herself and eating through the pain of the last few years.
It is such a nasty cycle and one that is so easy to get sucked into. When a period of difficult times come, it affects your confidence. You begin to doubt yourself, everything and everyone as you look inward and see all your perceived flaws and failings. Taking all that is going wrong, and using it as 'evidence' to 'confirm' what feels like a big 'F' - Failure.
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The spiral begins, and picks up speed with haste. Things feel personal, as you internalise feelings of anger, sadness and shame. Whatever was going on in your family may not have been shared outside of the close private circles. With extra 'comfort' coming in the form of food. It would be super if it did give the comfort needed but it only adds to the spiral of negative feelings, especially after a binge.
Having no details of the binge-eating, is your wife purging by vomiting after? Is there a history of eating issues? These are primary concerns that need to be addressed in terms of a treatment plan. I'd encourage your wife to speak with her GP or a mental health practitioner to determine the best next step.
The question is, what emotions need to be met? It's so easy to see why many turn to food at the end of the day, as it may be the first time she's had to herself all day. The idea of a 'reward' or 'treat' is so deeply ingrained and more socially acceptable than a drink. However, food as a drug numbs like alcohol and carries all the same stigma of shame and self-hatred.
After identifying the emotions, which may need the help of you, friends or a professional, this will give the clarity as to what needs to be processed. Anger, loss, shame, sadness or a mixture of these and more can't be fixed or satisfied by a sugar craving.
Acceptance is where I suggest your wife starts. It seems counter-intuitive, but the truth is, until you know what you are accepting, nothing changes. It doesn't work the other way around. That's why people lose within the diet industry.
Are there any concerns that your wife is depressed? Apathy, coupled with a lack of motivation along with a pretty unhelpful brain fog can make life feel like a struggle. When life feels like a daily struggle, it can feel impossible to muster up the energy to do any exercise. I gently suggest for your wife to walk, to be outside and to give her some time to think.
Encourage her to write out what has happened, it can be helpful, healing and cathartic. Some guiding pointers; encourage it as a non-judgemental exercise and write without censor. This primary level of acknowledgement to herself is the first step towards having clarity over what occurred, the impact it had and what the next steps are. This clarity can give a renewed energy and sense of control over how she feels and wants to respond bringing back purpose, meaning and intentional direction.
The marriage vows do what they say on the tin, with the T&Cs clearly stated upfront. Most, naturally, bypass the negative parts and only hear 'in good times, wealth and health'. The harsher reality is that hard times can come in the form of sickness (yours, theirs, family/friends), poorer (for many the last 10 years have proven more than, financially difficult), and in bad times (with too many possibilities to mention).
When bad periods become prolonged and chronic, the desire for sex can go directly to the bottom of the list. There are so many reasons this can occur, I have no idea if there is any emotional debris or fallout from the hard times for the two of you, but anger and resentment can be a major blocker to being intimate.
Adversity forces us to grow, this is the optimistic note I leave you with, by using the challenges to bond together and move from surviving to thriving. These are not flippant, empty words we get thrown at us so often. The truth is that as humans we suffer, life can be deeply painful and unjust.
Learning how to accept and heal from hard experiences processes the pain. Moving from coping to a much deeper sense of grounded hope whereby you know what a hard a time you've both had but, you came through it regardless, this is strength, and this is courage. Let it help and guide you to support and be vulnerable together, as connection is required first, outside of the bedroom.
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Health & Living