On The Similarities Between Eating Disorders and Abusive Relationships

On The Similarities Between Eating Disorders and Abusive Relationships

On… The Similarities Between Eating Disorders and Abusive Relationships

In the more than a decade that I have been working with eating disorders, I have been struck by the parallels between them and abusive relationships.

Indeed, an eating disorder is an abusive relationship within.  I have often used the metaphor of an abusive partner to help a client observe and gain insight into the role of an eating disorder in their life.

This blog is an overview of what I see as being striking similarities (I am primarily referring to eating disorders characterised by restrictive eating, which may/may not lead to binge-eating or compensatory behaviours).

Please note: I have never met anyone who has deliberately or knowingly chosen to enter abusive relationships, nor develop an eating disorder. This is neither weakness nor attention seeking. Both are potentially fatal.



Abusive Relationships


Eating Disorders
Initially intoxicating honeymoon phase May seem perfect; intimacy escalates quickly; control communicated as love & desire to take care of you. May have genuinely lovely qualities, be devoted & affectionate


Powerful feelings of achievement control & pride. Feel special, calm & strong. ED wants you (initially) to be healthy & your best self. Other people make positive comments about initial weight loss
Develops under cloak of secrecy (inc. the person themselves) Abuser may seem publicly doting & kind


Significant efforts to conceal eating patterns
Preoccupation Constant calling & texting; monitoring movements; wanting to know everything about you & always be with you


Obsessed with food, recipes, calories, weighing/body-checking behaviours
Hyper-critical Unrealistic expectations & harsh criticism across many domains Perfectionistic; vicious name-calling (especially fat, lazy, weak). Tormenting & relentless
Unfavourable comparisons to others Anything that will undermine your sense of worth & increase dependency


Others of same gender perceived as being thinner/fitter - in public, tv & social media


“He/she can be so caring; they don’t mean it; they’re under a lot of stress; it doesn’t happen all the time”.


“I’m just being healthy; everyone skips meals sometimes; I can control this”.
Discourages meaningful activities, as they are threats to control Denigrates, sabotages, prohibits or makes it difficult to participate in & enjoy Convinces person it is unimportant; creates apathy; malnutrition also affects attention, concentration & energy
Obedience is path of least resistance Attempts to avoid escalation; keep the peace Keep ED at bay; achieve peace from relentless inner criticism
Changes the rules


Gaslighting; undermining; manipulative & deceptive  

Constantly changes goal-posts, e.g. “If I just get to 50kg I will be happy” (Spoiler alert: you won’t)

Interpersonal behaviour changes Jumpier, less confident, decisive & expressive Uncharacteristically deceptive, impatient, intolerant. Indecisive, especially around food
Isolation from & denigration of others May seem protective initially; questions others’ motives; hypercritical; jealous; discourages/prevents contact  


Sees supportive efforts as unnecessary & controlling; questions others’ motives; devalues expertise/professional opinion; decline invitations


Others’ unhelpful reactions “Why don’t you just leave?” “Why can’t you just eat?”
It will not stop if you stay. Change is daunting & hard to achieve alone Please seek support if you recognise any of the above characteristics in your relationship. Please seek support if you recognise any of the above characteristics in your life.



Bio: Dr. Angela Morgan is a clinical psychologist who operates her own private practice in Brisbane, Australia. She is an AHPRA- approved clinical supervisor and has previously been a lecturer in the School of Applied Psychology, Griffith University, in the undergraduate and postgraduate programs.

Angela enjoys working with adolescents and adults across a range of issues, with a particular interest in eating disorders and eating-related concerns. She is also an engaging presenter, and has provided professional development training for psychologists and other Allied Health Practitioners in Australia and New Zealand.

Find out more about Angela at www.drmorgan.com.au

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