Eating Disorders and Controlling Relationships

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Introduction to Eating Disorders and Controlling Relationships

Though some relationships require a certain amount of control (a parent with a young child), any type of relationship can fall prey to one person being over-controlling of the other. Where relationships become binding on one person through the means of control, issues can arise in the person who is not the ‘controller’ and in some situations this creates disordered eating habits and a link can therefore be seen between eating disorders and controlling relationships.

First, a quick disclaimer. It is true that a controlling relationship can spark, lead to or trigger an eating disorder in a person. However, it must be understood that the controller is not necessarily the ‘bad one’ and the one with an eating disorder the ‘good one.’ In the relationship, there is not good or bad, just unhealthy. On another note, if there are abusive means (emotional, physical or sexual) by which the person exerts control, this is beyond unhealthy; it is a dangerous relationship. In this particular article, the issue addressed will be around relationships that are unhealthy due to the controlling dynamic, but not abusive and dangerous relationships.

The Power Struggle of Control

Though there is a common misconception that eating disorders are only about losing weight or looking good, the reality is that in many situations there is much more going on beneath the surface. One of the major issues for a person with an eating disorder is control. A person who restricts food intake, manipulates food intake (by purging or over exercising) and obsesses over what is eaten, is often doing so in order to gain a sense of control.

With regards to a controlling relationship, over an extended period of time, a person may feel like there is no hope of being an individual who has any sort of power. If the attempts at regaining individuality and power have been denied time and time again, this can trigger an eating disorder. So in order to feel a ‘sense’ of control, the person may begin using disordered behavior to feel more in control. The thought process can sound like this: “No one can make me eat. I can control what I eat, when I eat, or if I eat. If I can only eat XXX calories, then I will be in control.” The string of thoughts can go on infinitely. Eventually these thoughts consume a person. As these thoughts escalate, a controlling relationship will only add to the individual’s chaos.

Eating Disorders and Controlling Relationships: Reinforcement

Many times, a controlling relationship is not the reason a person lapses into an eating disorder. Rather, in this case, a controlling relationship only reinforces the disorder and the need for it. For example, if a person has been through a period of tragedies and seemingly chaotic events that were uncontrollable (death of a loved one, a life change, car or work accident, divorce), that person may be using the disorder to cope with those issues. A controlling relationship only reinforces the feeling of being out of control. Typically a controller will attempt to be more assertive the more distant or stressed the other individual may be. Though there is a hope on the controller’s behalf that it will make life ‘better,’ it actually creates more problems. In order to cope with this overwhelming feeling, the non-controller tends to increasingly use disordered behaviors in order to feel in control.

No matter what the spark or triggering event may be for a person’s eating disorder, the underlying issue of control will always be present. As the disorder progresses, an irony takes place: the eating disorder begins to control the person. The incessant thoughts cannot be stopped. Calorie counts continue to tick away in the person’s mind. They can no longer fully engage or be present with others. Grades or work projects begin to fall to the back burner.

As the person begins to be controlled by the eating disorder, they may sense it internally but typically is unable to fully reconcile that the eating disorder is in control. Therefore, the behaviors become more and more frequent. This will always create a very desperate and confused person. When a controlling relationship is added to the mix, the panic is heightened and disordered eating patterns feel even more necessary.

Overall, every relationship requires communication and honesty to remain healthy. Both the controller and the controlled need to be introspective as well as communicative with each other in order to assist the person with the eating disorder. Awareness and education for both people is essential to a healthier relationship and for recovery from an eating disorder.




3. Abnormal Psychology class notes. Wingate University 2003