In the past I've been asked about this very topic by a few concerned mothers who feared their girls had eating disorders. Recently, however, I received a long email from a very loving husband about this topic regarding his wife's more extreme behaviors. I want to share parts of his email with you and answer his question here on AskCJHarlan.com because I know that others struggle with this same type of behavior, whether it is with a loved one or with themselves; whether they have or have not been found out. Names and locations are left out, of course, for privacy reasons. I hope you find this information helpful.
Excerpts from the email: My wife hides food, or thinks she is, and will often eat when no one is looking. What can I do to help her? She doesn't work outside of the home but she works hard in it. I try to acknowledge all the work she does at home to keep a clean and well run home. I also tell her she's is a great mom but when I do she only tells me thank you. I can't remember the last time she seemed really happy. She spends a lot of time by herself during the day while I work. A few months ago I found a grocery receipt and it made me question a lot of things. I guess this is what made me ask you my question...My wife insists on doing all the grocery shopping and some of the food I saw on this receipt I never saw in the house. I've found bags of candy bars and thought that they just weren't put away until I started finding these bags in the bedroom under clothes in the laundry basket. I've found Girl Scout cookies in the laundry room and candy and chips in the trunk of the car in the spare tire storage area. Because she's so sensitive about how she looks I've not told her that I found anything. I left the food where I found it...She complains that she'll never lose the weight she gained from being pregnant and says shes about 50 pounds over weight. Our kids are in high school now so she's been struggling with her weight for years...Her mother isn't any help either. Every time my mother-in-law comes over she calls her out for being overweight and eating too much which just makes my wife sad after she leaves. I think she is beautiful at any weight. How can I make her happy? How can I help her to stop hiding out with food?
From what you have shared, you seem to be a man who truly cares about his wife but is feeling helpless in how you can provide her with what she needs to be happy.
There's a lot to cover, so let's jump right in...
I know that there is a great opportunity (in the future) to make light of the fact that the spare tire storage place was helping her to create her very own spare tire BUT NOT UNTIL she has changed her approach to comforting herself, is in a great state of mind and wants to joke and laugh about this time of her life with you. Eventually, after she feels successful, she will make light of what she has experienced.
I bring this idea up because in situations like this one, many people make things worse than it is, making everything about the food, the calories and the weight. Even though obesity in America is a serious problem, people need to lighten up and laugh more about how silly we can behave. People will also benefit greatly if they learn about what needs to be in focus and what doesn't. This combined knowledge will help them achieve more, just as it can help you.
So what needs to be in focus?
In short, the focus lies within your answers to the following questions: What are her old comfort habits? How can she create alternative options for comfort? When and how often does she get attention from you and the kids? What can she do to build up her self worth and her image perspective? What does she feel her purpose is besides "mother", "wife" and "homemaker"? What healthy options does she have for rewarding herself? What fun activities can she do to experience more fulfillment in her daily life? What can she control in her life and what is not worth attempting to control? What is she passionate about or have a great interest in? What does she focus on that keeps her from feeling happy?What dreams has she had that she may have put aside and could pursue with your love, encouragement and support? Discovering the answers to these questions can help you find the solutions. This Q&A needs to be the focus...NOT the food; NOT the eating habits.
This does not mean you need to sit her down and ask her all of the above questions until everything is resolved. If you did drill her with questions she most likely would feel as though she was trapped and being interrogated. When people choose to hide something in their life they are usually hiding a lot more. The most common secrets being: thoughts, needs, wants and desires.
The presenting problem is rarely the real problem and if you can lovingly, genuinely, and compassionately go deeper into discovering how you may be able to help her live the life she wants to experience, you will create a shift in her behaviors and overall...more successful outcomes.
The longer answer addresses your role, her purpose, and your ability to discover and choose other options, together and separately.
No matter how much you want her to be happy and to stop hiding, it's not your job to stop her, to make her happy or to save her. Your position, as her man, is to be a provider of desirable options, unconditional love and consistent support in healthy and productive ways. Your position is to be her equal. You're not to come across as critical, threatening or controlling. Do not make her feel like a child that is being scolded or punished. Do not give her habits or behaviors the attention. Instead, give her needs and wants the attention.
This eating behavior was most likely created out of a need to comfort herself which could have been a result of experiencing great loss, or has come from experiences of being controlled, judged or hurt in the past. So, knowing this, do not become the very things that influenced her to develop this behavior in the first place.
Although Hiding Out With Food can be a more recent development for your wife, it usually has a history. For all you know she may have had this habit all her life and you're just now becoming aware of it. As it is with other habits, it doesn't matter when you start...you can choose to "quit" and "use" over and over throughout your lifetime. This kind of behavior, or habit, can start at a very young age and can continue throughout life until your beliefs shift and the reasons, outcomes or triggers are either altered, controlled or eliminated.
If a child at a young age is told that they cannot have something (not just food), and they're not told why, they will make up their own reasons for why they (in their own eyes and in their newly created beliefs) are being denied something they want.
If left unanswered, a child (not unlike an adult) will fill in the blanks; they make up their own answers and they may sound like: "I must have done something wrong, that is why I am being punished", "I am not good enough at this-or-that, so I don't get rewarded", "so-n-so is the favorite, so they get to go". They may tell themselves that someone does not like or love them and that is why they don't get whatever is desired. If turning inwards to comfort themselves does not work well enough they may turn their beliefs outward blaming others and say the reason they didn't get to have something is because that person is mean, selfish or doesn't care.
Throughout life, there are many possible scenarios a child can grow up in, or an adult can experience, which can influence the same limiting emotional self-sabotaging behaviors or outcomes.
Hiding yourself or your behaviors, hiding information or your feelings, hiding possessions or like in this example...hiding your food (whether eaten or not) are only a few outcomes or results of mismanaging your pain, emotions or experiences.
It's important to understand that any of these limiting behaviors can provide short-term comfort to a long-term problem. Because the means of comfort and desired feeling does not last, the behavior becomes a source for achieving the feelings they want to experience as often as it is needed.
Staying focused on this example about food and food consumption, let's go over a few of these scenarios.
Scarcity due to depravity or poverty is one scenario that promotes hiding food or eating secretly. Another scenario that promotes these behaviors may be growing up watching and following a parent or guardian's poor eating habits or feelings of shame. A child can also hide food in their room to comfort themselves secretly during unstable times, for example: hearing their parents fight verbally or physically.
Children are very smart. They know far more than we sometimes give them credit for understanding. If parents are unable to communicate in a healthy way, creating a habit of arguing or worse, their child can create an eating disorder, illness or self harming behavior just to distract their parents from fighting so the attention can be redirected onto the child's problem and away from each other.
When a parent is overly concerned with what others may think about their parenting, fearing their child will gain too much weight, they can restrict their child from eating certain items or quantities. Ironically, this scenario can create the very thing this parent fears, along with other kinds of self destructive behaviors.
If a parent is an exercise extremist, the child may go after the forbidden fruit and feel the need to hide it from such a strong controlling or competitive personality. They may do this in an effort to gain personal control, to comfort themselves or to rebel when their wishes or opinions are not heard or respected.
Women who grow up without a loving father figure or with an abusive father, often have altered self image perspectives and/or eating disorders. This is very common. Neglect, abandonment and any form of abuse is largely associated with low self esteem, sexual promiscuity, eating disorders and hoarding behaviors.
I do not know what your wife's background is but what I can gather, from what you said, is that your wife may feel that she cannot ever be what her mother wants her to be, or look like. If she feels this way and frequently focuses her attention on this belief, why would she keep trying to be what her mother wants? She won't. Why would she do what she needs to do in order to look a certain way if she has a history of never or rarely satisfying her mother and in turn satisfying herself?
Did your wife's mother bounce back into her acceptable size 6 soon after giving birth to your wife? Did she expect your wife to do the same? Is your wife's mother really concerned about your wife's health because she fears losing her? Does your wife's mother have a habit of being critical towards other people to make herself feel better? What leverage is being held over your wife that would make her feel she needs to be any specific weight? Can your wife feel "good enough" in her mother's eyes in other areas of her life? Look at the relationship your wife has with her mother. What do you notice about their interactions on other topics?
I know it sounds as if I'm blaming her mother. I'm not. Your wife is a grown woman that can make her own decisions. Yet, something has influenced her beliefs, making her fearful and weak in areas that I know she has power.
Her power is just hidden, like her food. Focus on helping her bring out her inner power while she brings herself and her food out of hiding.
When your wife behaves in this way she is attempting to connect with herself, protect herself, take care of herself, reward herself, and exercise parts of her that want to get attention, BUT because she is so uncomfortable in expressing what she needs and why...she hides.
Taking time out for herself is important. I recommend "taking time" to everyone. The hiding, however, needs to stop if this form of "taking time" promotes unhealthy thoughts and behaviors.
How do you help her to do this?
Well, you DO NOT gather up all her stashed food and confront her. Her life choices are not to turn into a reality TV show.
Instead, do the following:
1.) Find Out What Triggers This Behavior - Become the low profile detective in your own marriage. Look for those clues. The clues are in the patterns, past or present, that lead up to this type of behavior. If you, a life coach or a therapist can help her increase her options and ability to comfort herself in healthy productive and fulfilling ways, she can create the lasting change she truly wants to experience.
2.) Help Her Create More Self Esteem - Since this type of behavior is largely associated with feelings of shame; having an internal and/or external low self esteem, do things to help her discover and create more self worth. Help her to ultimately experience feelings of being good enough, successful, fulfilled, accepted, understood, important and of course...loved and desired.
NOTE: This is not accomplished by you telling her ever day that she is beautiful and skinny in your eyes no matter what she weighs. If you do this she may lose respect for you, feel you're nuts for thinking so, or she may think you're lying to her just to make her feel better. This can result in her also losing her ability to trust you and what you say to her. The goal is to increase self esteem and trust in herself, not to lose trust in you.
3.) Take Actions To Interrupt The Environment Patterns - For example, Go To The Grocery Together - If you don't know her grocery shopping schedule, find out. Then, tell her that you need her help with some ideas you want to implement at work and her opinion would mean a lot to you; that you're going to help her with the grocery shopping so you have time to tell her your ideas while you shop. It can be anything that you want her help with, the kids, the home improvements, a present idea for your mother or sister, etc. Just make it genuine. If she starts making up excuses then tell her that you have been craving some treats and are not sure what you want until you get there, grab the keys, grab her purse and dance her out the door. Be a gentleman. Open her door for her, be goofy...whatever it takes. Turn shopping into a fun and exciting event in a new way with rewards that are far more fulfilling than the food she may be going to choose to comfort herself.
Get creative, have fun and find ways to interrupt her patterns. Help her create new ways to get her needs met; alternative ways in which she can comfort herself. This is important for her to learn. It is not to be your responsibility to rush in and save or comfort her. She has to create new ways to accomplish these feelings for herself while being loved and supported by you. Your actions can help her to feel comfort, but do not become her only comfort source. Your comfort will not create lasting change.
NOTE: She may wonder what's up, if this isn't your usual demeanor, or if you have grown apart over the years. If you're not usually lively, fun-loving and playful, then tell her you had an epiphany and want to start treating her like the wonderful lady she is...and so on. Tell her that too many people you know (if this is true) are getting divorced and you do not want to ever take her or your marriage for granted, or the like. You'll benefit in many ways, if you can help your woman become genuinely happy and fulfilled. Making a shift in your own behavior can help her shift hers.
4.) Help Her To Change Her Own Personal Patterns - If you detect that she always eats after you go to sleep, then start developing a night owl persona and find new fun reasons (with her) for staying up together or for going to bed together.
If she spends a lot of time cleaning up the bedroom, then do your part to keep it clean so she has fewer reason to say it needs cleaning. If she spends a lot of time in the bathroom, and doesn't have a good reason to, then make sure you give her a compelling reason to come back quickly.
By recognize the patterns that you know are often precursors to her hiding out with food, you increase your ability to help her help herself. It's not your job to fix her problem. Instead help her to discover new things about herself. Ask her questions and be prepared to be genuinely present to hear the answers...with eye contact!
This does not mean you are to become a micro manager. Do not start telling her what to do or how to do it. Do not grab your badge and police her and her actions. You will help her more if you are resourceful and team up with her to create new opportunities, experiences and comforting satisfying alternatives.
5.) Focus On Improving Your Relationship - Make having fun (in ways she will appreciate) your focus and loving each other intimately a great adventure as the caring husband you are...
Invite her to take dance lessons with you because she always wanted to; encourage her to sign up for a class she's always wanted to take; invite her to try new things with you or to do things that you usually ask others to do with you.
Make her your #1 priority when you come home from work. If you know your wife would like this attention...try putting your things down, seek her out, give her a hug and a kiss, sit down, look her in the eyes and ask her about her day...and be fully present. She may not trust this new you if this is not your "norm". Keep doing this and make it your new normal...or some other thing that you know she will appreciate.
Ultimately you want to create growth opportunities for both of you so you can discover and experience more together. Focus on deepening your connection to one another, invest in understanding each other better, communicate more clearly with compassion and gratitude, and ask each other new questions so you can uncover things you never knew about each. These suggestions can make your relationship more fulfilling, loving and exciting.
When you tap into everything your relationship can be, or can be MORE of, she will organically feel rewarded, comforted and connect to you and to herself in new positive healthy ways. If you both choose to discover new ways to love each other, you will both feel the shift and enjoy the rewards in each other's presence and apart.
In closing, if you remember nothing else from this post, remember this:
If you focus on and conquer the undesirable cause, rather than the side affect, the result will naturally become a positive lasting change.
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