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Loving Someone Who's Starving For Perfection


Apr 22 2013
Our relationships can't cure eating disorders.

Alongside the millions of women in the U.S. with eating disorders stand millions of boyfriends, fiancés, and husbands desperate to help, but unsure where to start. For the last two years, I've been one of these men. My fiancée Kelsey has anorexia, and as I prepare to marry her this fall, it's become clear how much her condition has taught me about what men can do—and the many things they'll try to but can't—for the women they love.

Eating disorders disproportionately affect women, so many men may find themselves in my position, but my experience and lessons learned may also apply to women dating men with eating disorders.

Kelsey and I had a beautiful relationship and had talked about marriage before her doctor diagnosed her with anorexia nervosa, or AN, a couple years after we began dating. I loved her, and I was determined to see her through it. I believed that as a potential husband it was my duty to find a solution and bring Kelsey back to normal. I thought I could be her hero. Like many men who would do anything to see the woman they love happy and healthy again, I found it wasn't so simple.

Eating disorders aren't about beauty.

When someone has an eating disorder, it's easy for us, especially as men, to assume she thinks she's not attractive, and that's the root of the problem. Our instinct tells us to respond with affirmations and compliments, to let her know her face, her body is beautiful. Yet, when I tried to tell Kelsey how pretty she was, my words seemed to bounce off of her. "I wasn't doubting that you found me attractive," she later told me. "But the smallest I could possibly be was the most beautiful I could possibly be. I appreciated that you found me beautiful [the way I was], but you didn't really know."

What often drives anorexia is not necessarily the desire for beauty; it's the need to be perfect. To Kelsey, perfect meant becoming as thin as possible, even if that made her less physically attractive. By the time she was diagnosed with anorexia, her features had visibly diminished: her eyes sank, her hair grayed and fell out in chunks, and I could make out all the muscles in her tiny arms. She stopped having her period, and she become increasingly irritable, especially when confronted about her eating and exercise.

She is more than her eating disorder.

When symptoms worsen, it's hard—no, impossible—for a boyfriend, fiancé, or husband to ignore an eating disorder. Kelsey continued to deteriorate, showing clear signs of advanced AN, and I was nearly as obsessed with her eating disorder as she was. It was the only thing I wanted to talk about. I had made her one-dimensional: a walking, talking eating disorder, not a complex human being. She was no longer the girl I had known for years: the brilliant writer, the passionate academic, the girl driving her car and listening to opera, laughing and wearing too much lip gloss. Instead, I had let Kelsey's anorexia define her.

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