Dating can be nerve-wracking for anybody. But throw an eating disorder into the mix and it can feel impossible. Whether someone is struggling — or has struggled — with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, or orthorexia, there’s no way to know just by looking at them. Eating disorders are often secretive and isolating, and dating involves sharing ourselves. They’re also disturbingly common: at least 30 million Americans of all ages and genders suffer.
Recovery is a long journey with twists, turns, and occasionally relapse. Eating disorders affect people physically, psychologically, and socially, so they can touch on nearly every aspect of our lives. Dating has a special way of highlighting our self doubts and fears, so it can be especially rocky territory to navigate.
When do you tell the person you’re dating about your past?
When is the best moment to tell your new love interest that you’re in recovery from an eating disorder? For me, the prospect was terrifying. I had spent eight years in a struggle with anorexia, binge eating, and an unhappy obsession with food and my body. My recovery was hard-earned and a big part of my identity, yet it still felt like a super vulnerable ball to drop. On good days, I felt proud, but on bad days, shame took over. What would my date say? What would they think? My past felt like heavy baggage I had to lug around to every new experience and relationship.
For some, sharing this information happens very early in the dating process. That’s true for Chelsea Kronengold, senior communications associate at the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Her own experience usually comes up as soon as a new date asks about her job. “I’m very proud to work in eating disorder treatment and education,” Kronengold says. “I’m authentic, upfront, and explain my own personal experience. I consider myself to be an activist.” Usually, her dates are respectful, although one spent the whole evening grilling her about eating disorders. Suffice it to say, there was no second date. “It is a part of who I am, but it’s only a small part,” explains Kronengold.
Jacob*, a musician in New York, also likes to share his food issues upfront. When he started seriously dating, he had lost nearly 100 pounds as he recovered from compulsive overeating. “I felt like I was OK because for the first time in my life, I wasn’t fat,” he remembers. “I was so enthusiastic about solving my problem, I wanted to share it with everyone.”
Stigmas that surround eating disorders can make the prospect of revealing one terrifying. Some associate these mental illnesses with vanity or superficiality. Although this assumption is wrong, it persists. Eating disorders involve so many complex factors beyond food that they can be tough to explain on a first date.
There’s no one perfect time to share, but as you get to know a date better, it might feel right to disclose more personal parts of your life, like mental illness and eating disorder history. Be prepared to answer questions and help your partner understand your specific experience. I use this as a sort of test: If someone responds with kindness and curiosity, they score major points. If not, it is most likely time to say goodbye.
Navigating body image issues while dating — and being active on dating apps — can be tricky.
Sharing — and judging — pictures, an integral part of dating today, can be a major trigger for body image issues, which often go hand in hand with eating disorders. Kronengold believes that “one reason struggling with an eating disorder while trying to date is challenging is that your first impression is just someone you see, a picture.”
Anyone might feel anxious on a date. Yet, Kronengold shares, “as someone in a higher-weight body, going out to eat with a complete stranger who I’m trying to spark feelings with, I can’t help but having questions: Am I going to be judged for what I order? Am I going to be judged for how much I eat or do not eat?”
In recovery, people’s bodies often change as they adapt new food behaviors; they may gain or lose weight, and it may happen fast. For Molly Bradley, a New York City-based writer, “being single and dating while recovering was, in a word, rough.” As she began to recover from her disorder, she gained an amount of weight that objectively wasn’t dramatic but felt dramatic to her at the time
“I couldn’t help but wonder constantly if the second dates I got or didn’t get were related to the way I looked,” Bradley says. “I felt uncomfortable and vulnerable in my own skin, and it was so easy for any failed connections to contribute to my certainty that my body was, in some way, not right.”
In addition to dealing with body image issues, those dating while in recovery also have to directly confront their relationship with eating itself. After all, many dates revolve around food. In the early stages of my recovery, I planned my food each day and shared it with a sponsor. A spontaneous dinner date or a last-minute change in venue could leave my head spinning. With time, I’ve become much more flexible with my food, but the same structure that once served me in recovery created a roadblock in my dating life.
Jacob’s strict diet also sometimes got in the way of his love life. On a trip to Paris with a new partner, he avoided carbs and sweets and ended up feeling like a killjoy. His companion wanted to partake in croissants, cheese, and chocolate, yet felt judged by Jacob. “I was new to spiritual and emotional recovery, and I didn’t always make the best decisions,” Jacob recalls. Like dating, recovery is a process.
Recovering from an eating disorder can help us identify what we really want in a partner.
Reconnecting with our authentic desires is at the heart of recovery. Carolina Drake, who runs The Rulebreaker Coaching Program, says: “Once I recovered and stopped restricting, dieting, and judging my food and food behaviors, a magical thing started to happen. I suddenly began to reconnect to my intuition.”
Connecting with another person becomes infinitely more possible and rewarding when we learn to care for our own needs first. For Drake, as she began to heal her relationship with food and her body, she also learned to “say no, speak my truth, and ask for what I want in relationships.”
Jacob ended up gaining back the weight he lost — and then some — before losing it for a second time. As he grew emotionally, he learned a lot about himself and what he values in a partner. Today, he is happily married. “Even though not everyone has an eating disorder, everyone struggles with something,” says Jacob.
Compassion is invaluable. “Most people — if they care about you — want to know how to support you,” says Kronengold.
As for me, my husband is incredibly supportive of my recovery journey. I owe our relationship to my recovery, which taught me to share honestly, be gentle with myself, and show up authentically to my own life.
*Name has been changed.