Dear User 12,
You are doing the right thing in reaching out for help. When someone you love is dealing with mental health issues, it presents a challenge to both of you, and to your relationship. It can be taxing on your own coping skills to be the primary support person for someone who is struggling and vulnerable. You have likely taken on the role of being “the strong one” as your girlfriend has gone through the recovery process. Having someone like that to depend on often makes a huge difference in a person’s recovery. But you are human too, and cannot always be strong. Your relationship needs to have room for you to have your own ups and downs. The metaphor of "putting on your own oxygen mask first" is very applicable here, because depleting your own resources to meet someone else’s needs is not sustainable and does not serve either of you or help her recovery.
When you say that you are the only person who knows, I wonder if you mean you’re the only one in her personal circle of friends, family, etc. I would hope that she is receiving therapy to assist in her ongoing recovery. This is essential, or at least highly recommended, to help a person manage stress and minimize the risk of relapse. People with eating disorders can also benefit from opportunities to connect with others who are also recovering. Sharing mutual support in groups, online chat rooms, or through a “buddy system” with an accountability partner can be a key component of recovery. The value of this kind of peer support can apply to anxiety as well.
I’m glad to see that you have identified your own need to have someone to talk to. Pursuing individual therapy for yourself is an important proactive step for safeguarding your own mental health and resilience. It can also help you to build stronger communication skills. These can benefit you in every area of your life, of course, and can be a huge advantage for anyone who is a key support person in someone else’s recovery. The need to have periodic honest but difficult conversations will present over time, and the better equipped you are to listen deeply, and find the right words to express your concerns the better it will be for both you and your girlfriend.
Having a lasting relationship with someone who has mental health challenges means going through a lot of ups and downs together. Of course there will be good times, and hopefully they will be increasing as your girlfriend gets stronger in her recovery. But there will also be low points. And you will feel the pain with her because of how much you care. This is natural; of course her happiness is important to you. However, as much as compassion is important, it will also be best for both of you if you can maintain enough emotional distance or autonomy that you can find your own happiness alongside your empathy for her. I find this to be a key component to being a successful long-term partner to someone who has depression, anxiety, or any other mental or physical illness. It might sound selfish to say that you should be happy in spite of her pain, but in reality, becoming anxious or depressed yourself benefits no one and ultimately harms your relationship.
If there is any way to expand your girlfriend’s circle of support, I would strongly encourage her to do that. If she would be willing to share her struggles with additional friends or family members, even one or two, there could be benefits all around. She would have someone besides you to turn to, allowing you bear a smaller portion of the load during difficult times, and others might provide a helpful perspective and appreciate the chance to offer their support.
Now that we have addressed your own self-care, here are some resources to help you be the best support person you can be for your girlfriend.
Here is a brief summary of some of the tips in the articles:
Make an effort to talk to her about other things and have normal, everyday conversations even during difficult times. If you are preoccupied with concern about her eating disorder or a possible relapse, be sure to not over-question. Save serious discussions for serious times, and limit the duration of these talks.
Don’t discuss weight, dieting, or label either foods or body size as good or bad as if they were moral issues. If at all possible, redirect the conversation when others get onto these topics around your girlfriend.
Do not police your girlfriend’s food choices, but refrain from participating in behaviors that encourage disordered eating such as late night bingeing and excessive exercising. If you witness her engaging in unhealthy behaviors, avoid blame and instead use “I statements” to express your concerns, such as, “I sense that you’ve been more preoccupied with calorie-counting lately. Do you think that’s something to be concerned about?”
In regard to supporting her efforts to overcome anxiety, learn to recognize the first signs that she is worrying more than usual. Give her gentle, positive messages reminding her that she has handled difficult things in the past and that you are confident that she is also equal to future challenges. If you find her getting caught up in “what-ifs,” such as asking some form of “What if something terrible happens?” and then looking to you for reassurance, offer that reassurance briefly, but refrain from providing it constantly. Instead, remind her that she has the tools to bring herself back to a safe place emotionally, and encourage her to practice these skills.
Thank you for reaching out and I hope my answer has provided some guidance about how to establish and maintain a healthy emotional environment for yourself and be a positive influence on your girlfriend’s recovery.
Best wishes to both of you.