Today we’re going to hear from Ashley, who says her marriage is headed for divorce as she struggles to help her son recover from an eating disorder.
This is a really hard place to be, but many people find themselves here at some point. So I’m going to talk through some ways to consider the best next steps and also why making an intentional choice is usually the best choice.
My husband and I have struggled in our marriage since our kids were born, and we’ve been in and out of couples counseling. It’s been rough, but nothing compared to how it’s been since our son developed an eating disorder two years ago. Managing his illness has completely taken over my life, and my husband is constantly complaining that I’m not investing in our marriage.
But how can I? I have to spend all my time helping our son recover. I think I’m headed for divorce on top of this eating disorder disaster, but I just don’t see any way out.
Hi, Ashley, this sounds so hard and I’m really sorry. You’ve been living with so much emotional strain for so many years. Facing both an eating disorder and divorce is beyond challenging.
I know how heartbreaking and confusing it can be when your child’s needs seem to outweigh everything else in your life. I can hear how much effort you’re putting into your son’s recovery, and I’m so glad to hear that you’re actively engaged. As you know, that’s so important.
When I hear that a family is several years into an eating disorder and it’s still taking a tremendous amount of parental involvement, then I have a feeling we need to adjust our approach.
Adjusting the approach
You are fully booked with the tasks of helping your son recover, and I don’t want to add anything to your already-full schedule. But I wonder if anyone has supported you in finding ways to work smarter, not harder?
Many times what happens is that parents are told that they have to do all these things for their child, but they aren’t told or supported in doing things for themselves at the same time. How can a parent continue year after year, indefinitely, to put life on hold for the sake of their child?
And this is important: is that actually the best course of action for the child?
Is there another way? I think there is.
There is so much understandable fear and so many daily tasks that parents often focus on short-term goals, like getting the next bite in or monitoring the bathroom, or trying to convince them to go to therapy today.
And these short-term goals are important, but they take so much energy that parents have little time to evaluate their overall progress and goals. It’s just too easy for parents to become consumed by the eating disorder and feel as if they are trapped by it.
I think of this as firefighting. You spend your days fighting fires, never having the time or space to clear the brush, plant fire-resistant barriers, and plan ahead to prevent fires in the future.
Firefighting is exhausting, and in parenting, it’s a recipe for burnout. But it’s very hard to figure out how to get out of firefighting mode when you’re in the middle of it.
I get it. So what we may need to do first is focus on clearing a little bit of space around you so we can make sure that the fire doesn’t consume you.
And when you have a little space, we can think critically about the most strategic approach that will reduce the risk of fire for all of you.
Two years into an eating disorder is about the time when parents really need to evaluate their strategy and make some changes in their approach.
When I’m working with parents, I encourage them to zoom out and look at the patterns and cycles that drive the eating disorder behavior, rather than trying to fight fires all day, every day.
This strategic approach is still very active. It involves making strategic changes in how you respond to the eating disorder. It’s hard, but it’s also like any skill: you can learn it. It may take some time, but it’s very possible to address an eating disorder in a different way.
And that’s not to say that everything you’ve done so far doesn’t make sense. It just doesn’t sound like it’s really working for you right now.
A different approach will still attend to your son’s needs. It still makes sure that you are doing everything you can to support him in recovery. But it also gives you the time and space to invest in yourself and, if you choose to, your marriage, even as you support your son’s recovery.
When we make strategic choices and respond rather than react, it’s still hard, but it’s a much more effective hard than when we spend our days firefighting.
Rather than feeling overwhelmed and out of control, we feel active and purposeful. This is how we make a difference without being consumed in the process.
Time to choose
Once you’ve made a little space and are not firefighting quite so much, the next thing to do is probably to make a decision about how you want to proceed with your marriage. I know it’s hard to take time to think about marriage or divorce when there’s an eating disorder, but it’s important.
I don’t have all the details, but what I can hear are three likely options to dealing with your marriage.
- Continue your current state of in-between, in which both of you feel things like angry, neglected and irritated;
- Commit to investing in your marriage and relationship with your husband;
- Or, commit to ending the marriage respectfully and thoughtfully.
All three of these options are really hard.
Many times we think that staying in the in-between is easiest and best for the kids, but the in-between is usually not easier or safer. While divorce is not great for a kid with an eating disorder, it’s also not always worse than the in-between.
In-between is a sort of avoidance. It’s asking the marriage to go on hold, to stay on ice while we make up our minds about whether we want to commit or divorce.
Like driving a car
But relationships, including marriages, are kind of like driving a car. When you drive a car, you can’t take your hands off the wheel or your eyes off the road while you do something else, even if it’s really important.
When driving, you have to constantly scan the environment and adjust your behavior to the conditions of the road. Driving isn’t about buying a ticket to the destination. Instead, you get in the car and decide where you are going, but your destination can always change.
You face obstacles and detours, but you also have options and agency.
When you drive a car, your foot is constantly changing its pressure on the gas pedal and seamlessly switches over to the brake when it needs to. Your hands are on the steering wheel, making micro-adjustments even on straight roads. And your eyes are always scanning the road ahead and your mirrors for obstacles, signs, and danger.
What does “hard” mean?
When people say marriage is hard, this is really what they mean. It requires constant attention. But just like driving, learning can be difficult, but with practice, fairly quickly we do it automatically. It feels natural.
I think very few of us would say that driving is hard, and yet we are always adjusting, always moving, and accommodating the other drivers while we plan our route and make stops along the way to refuel.
What I’m saying is that marriage, like driving, is active, and while sure, we can stop at rest stops or get a snack if we need one. But typically we’ve got to keep moving.
We’ve got to be active about where we’re going and how we’re responding to what shows up on the road.
Being in a marriage, just like driving, isn’t really a passive activity.
Many people who are in successful marriages say they wake up each morning and make an active choice to choose their destination and the partner they’re with.
Let’s circle back to your son’s recovery. While most eating disorder therapies focus on the child and their behavior (and that’s important!), I focus on the parents and how their thoughts, feelings and behavior, and the family’s emotional environment impacts the eating disorder.
The state of your marriage impacts your family’s emotional environment.
And if we look at the three options I suggested, I would say that the two options that will improve your family’s emotional environment are to make a choice either to rebuild your relationship with your husband or separate, respectfully and thoughtfully.
These two options are kind of like picking a destination on a map and heading towards it on purpose. There may be detours and heavy weather, but you can handle it.
I’m not suggesting either path, just that you pick one.
Nobody knows the answer to this except for you and your husband. You have both tried for years and I admire that.
And yes, just like driving, making an intentional choice for your marriage will require a commitment of your time, attention, and energy. But I do think that with a strategic approach to your son’s care – if you can get out of firefighting mode – you will be able to get the space you need to invest in whichever choice you make.
And I do believe that this approach, when done consciously and with thoughtful attention, will benefit your son’s recovery.
Ashley, I know there are no easy solutions here but I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. I’m sending you so much love as you face the next leg of your journey.
You can listen to this article as a podcast. Check it out and subscribe using your favorite podcast player.