How Eating Disorders, Anorexia and Bulimia, Cause Parental Conflict

March 25, 2010 Laura Collins

I've noticed that parents react to a child's eating disorder diagnosis with a range of emotions: fear, anger, annoyance, optimism, hope, even humor. Unfortunately, mothers and fathers don't usually respond with the same emotion at the same time. One parent's fear can lead to withdrawal, the other spouse may instinctually move in to protect.

handsParents whose marriage is rocky or no longer exists face a number of additional emotions and complications: other partners, longstanding grievances, and legal limitations.

My husband is more of an emergency guy: he saves his energy for big tasks and concrete actions instead of going into instant alarm mode as I do. As my worry deepened, I found myself wasting energy trying to convince him to be just as alarmed, just as he tried to get me to adopt his calm detachment. Neither one of us was right - we needed to combine urgency and calm - but the conflict between us kept us from making wise decisions. I felt dismissed, he felt criticized. I meet many families like this, but also see the families where the anorexia or bulimia diagnosis becomes another version of an existing complaint: "You always stick up for her," "You are never here for the kids." Other families actually use the crisis as a weapon against the other.

Anorexia and Bulimia As Tools of Family Division

One thing is clear to me after years of observing families going through this experience: eating disorders love all conflict between caregivers. The eating disorder is an expert at exploiting differences between mom and dad just as it is between parents and clinicians. The wise clinician warns parents about this possibility and offers tools to help avoid what is often called "splitting." This pattern is another good reason why a family-based approach to treatment of anorexia and bulimia keeps everyone aligned and communicating.

I see a lot of parents, especially moms, who do lots of research and reading and talking to come up with an overall plan - often a plan that is based on good practice and science - but cannot convince the other spouse to cooperate. They are "right" but they end up helping the eating disorder just as much as if they are "wrong" because without a common front, the "plan" is to fail.

I see a lot of parents, especially dads, who get stuck on their spouse's emotions and criticism and fail to see the problem there to be solved.

Understandably, a parent who sees a way out of the current hell and toward a loved one's recovery does not want to waste time getting people on board. They are right so everyone should agree on the basis of the facts and the importance of the issue.

Also understandable is the parent who sees everyone falling apart and their parenting partner an emotional wreck and wants to get that under control before moving on to some abstract plan or problem.

How to Manage When An Eating Disorder Splits the Parents

Here's how my husband and I learned to stop being tools of ED:

A third party. We consulted a marriage and family therapist who helped us hear one another's thoughts AND emotions so we could get on to problem solving. The therapist knew that we were both being paralyzed by the same emotion (terror) but had different ways of expressing and acting on it.

Working to strengths. Turns out when both of us felt, at the core, trusted by the other one we were able to delegate tasks based on our strengths rather than forcing one another to do things and see things equally. My husband found he could trust me as an early warning system and chief researcher. I learned that his steady head and sense of humor were assets that I simply didn't possess at the time but were essential to family functioning.

The stress rule. Stress transforms most people into caricatures of their usual selves. Caring people can get very involved, and protective people can get extremely vigilant. Assets under normal circumstances can become liabilities. Remembering to value those qualities helped both of us take those roles without the extremes... when we could.

A common enemy. The eating disorder was the problem. Not our daughter, and not us. Our job was to find the tools that would work for us to get the eating disorder out of the picture and our daughter and family back on track. The eating disorder was the one who benefited when one of us was right and one wrong. The eating disorder suffered when we put alliance above all other priorities.

Good will. No matter what our missteps along the way both of us wanted the best for our kids and our family and each other.

APA Reference
Collins, L. (2010, March 25). How Eating Disorders, Anorexia and Bulimia, Cause Parental Conflict, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 18 from

Author: Laura Collins

magic of making up
June, 20 2010 at 4:44 am

Very nice information.

Laura Collins
May, 6 2010 at 1:53 pm

Oh, Marsha, I'm so sorry. I hate what this illness does to our kids, but get very angry at what it needlessly does to our families. The reason I keep at this work is in the hope that families get the SUPPORT they need as early as possible.
I am so happy about your daughter's recovery and progress toward college.That's wonderful!

May, 6 2010 at 5:30 am

Too late for us. My conflict-avoidant husband (who blamed me for daughter's anorexia), detached from it all when all I could think of was taking care of her. Three years later, we have been separated for two years and will probably be divorced within the next few months.
IMO, the prevalent attitude of the time -- that the family was responsible for the eating disorder -- did nothing but drive another spike into the coffin of our marriage, as it is most likely the genetic component came from my side of the family. I so much wish that family-based therapy had been more visible and available at that time! It might not have made a difference, but it would have been wonderful to have been able to try.
My/our daughter, now almost 18, is well on the path to recovery and will graduate from high school in a month, thanks to finding a FBT practitioner late last summer. She will begin college in the fall, as we work to get her ready for the challenge. Fortunately, she will be just a little over an hour away from home.

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