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It’s About Relationships, Not Food!

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Beginning in infancy, relationships, food and feeding become intertwined. Think about it: Baby cries and baby gets fed. Someone has to do that feeding, and that someone is usually holding the baby and relating to him or her. So, from our earliest memories, food and being fed is one of our first ways of connecting to one another. As we grow and develop, social events often revolve around mealtimes; whether it is family dinner or a social gathering with friends, we are enjoying the nurturing that food and company can provide.

With the eating-disordered population, however, the connection between food and relationship can become a troublesome link. When there is a lack of safe, connected, nurturing relationships in an individual’s life, food and food rituals can easily become a substitute.

As Susan H. Sands, PhD says:
“It is now generally accepted that eating disorders serve essential self-regulatory functions. The disordered relationship to food has been viewed, essentially, as filling in for a missing bond with a self-regulating Other.
(Sands, S. H. The subjugation of the body in eating disorders. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 20(1), 103-116. 2003)

What exactly does Sands mean? Let’s take the first phrase:
“It is now generally accepted that eating disorders serve essential self-regulatory functions.”

What does it mean to self-regulate? Most of us have learned how to emotionally self-regulate; for instance, if we are upset we find ways to calm down. The ability to calm or self-soothe is usually learned in relation to a calming and soothing Other. For example, when a child falls down and hurts her knee and is crying, Mommy picks her up and comforts her. But what if Mommy doesn’t do this? What if she yells at the child and blames her for being so clumsy? Then the child has to turn elsewhere for soothing. Here is where turning to food in order to self-regulate or self-soothe can begin.

I have yet to meet someone suffering from an eating disorder who does not also suffer from a relational trauma, by which I mean that the person grew up without the experience of a caregiver being attuned to them and their needs and acting as a source of comfort when they were stressed or hurt. The caregiver was either absent or blaming and generally not attuned to the child. As Susan Sands so eloquently puts it:The disordered relationship to food has been viewed, essentially, as filling in for a missing bond with a self-regulating Other.”

Let me illustrate the above ideas with some client stories:

Emma was a 21-year-old client who had grown up being her mother’s main support in a dysfunctional marriage. Dad was absent and not very involved in her life. Her mother was lonely and turned to Emma for a shoulder to lean on and someone to talk to, but the conversation was always about her mother and her mother’s needs. Emma had little experience of her mother being there for her. So, Emma learned how to have few needs or none at all. She identified with being a caretaker and had little awareness of her own needs. This dynamic also played out with food. Emma would cook meals for her mother but she rarely ate a full plate herself. By the time she was 16 years old she’d been hospitalized for anorexia.

Betty was addicted to compulsive binge eating.Her nightly ritual was to binge on chips or ice cream while zoning out in front of the TV. She had experienced mostly neglect growing up with an overwhelmed mother and an alcoholic father. There was never any room for Betty and her needs. She learned how to take the need out of her relationships with Mom and Dad in order to preserve those relationships. Later, when she became an adult, food replaced her need for friends and relationship. She started to gain a lot of weight and then was too embarrassed to go out. She became stuck in a self-reinforcing loop.

The good news is that both Betty and Emma healed and overcame their eating disorders and in doing so, they also found that their relationships improved. As they began to acknowledge their needs and find healthy ways to take care of themselves, they also began to develop more nurturing relationships. As my client so succinctly put it: “It’s about relationships, not food!”

© Copyright 2011 by Ondina Nandine Hatvany, LMFT, therapist in San Francisco, California. All Rights Reserved.

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  • MFT January 25th, 2011 at 11:19 AM #1

    Great article!! I will share with my friends

  • jackson fernandez January 25th, 2011 at 4:57 PM #2

    food is a very important aspect of our lives and it is no surprise to know how close it is interweaved into our daily activities and our relationships with other persons.

  • Olivia January 26th, 2011 at 5:33 AM #3

    It is all about obtaining balance in you life. When one area of your life the other parts are bound to be too. But it is just like the two females in the case study. When they were able to get their addictions to food under control that is when everything else in their lives began to fall into place too. You have to discover a way that is right for you to have everything balance out because when one area of your life is in trouble it is almost for certain that there will be issues elsewhere too.

  • Emma January 26th, 2011 at 7:36 AM #4

    I have a cousin who turns to chocolate whenever she’s upset and as a result of her chocolate-munching habit,she is not exactly in good shape,if you can call it that.And now when she sees that not many men are showing interest in her and she is single,she gripes about it and munches more and more chocolate because she is so upset about it!I’ve tried telling her that the solution is to go on a weight-loss and munching more is not going to help.But she just can’t seem to control!

  • GILLIAN January 26th, 2011 at 1:30 PM #5

    Although food is essential to life, just like everything else, even for food too much is too bad. And I would like to add that most often these excessive ‘cravings’ that people have are for junk food or some unhealthy food. It’s like a double strike for your health!!!

  • KJP January 27th, 2011 at 5:43 AM #6

    When food is your only comfort that is a prescription for ruining your life. Find comfort in friends, family, and activities that you enjoy.

  • runninfast January 28th, 2011 at 5:46 AM #7

    Many over eaters have been using food for comfort for so long that most of them have forgotten that there are other ways to take care of the ups and downs in life. Overeaters are constantly struggling with the same emotions that all of us have, yet they bury them with food. It is a quick fix in the same way that a drink is for an alcoholic or a hit is for the drug addict. But nothing about this is a healthy lifestyle. It takes more than “willpower” to break any addiction, And with the added disdain that overeaters face because of their outward appearance most of the time it makes it even harder to break the cycle of addiction. Think about the damaged self esteem and the mean comments that they have had to hear for much of their lives. I don’t know how anyone ever breaks free of that.

  • Ondina Hatvany January 28th, 2011 at 9:12 AM #8

    Just a word that it’s not about controlling your food and weight but learning and dealing with the underlying issues. For instance in my 2 client examples when Betty and Emma realized the underlying issues and started to address them they got better. The problem is rarely about the food or weight. Simply trying to control these areas is not going to bring freedom from the relentless battle with food and weight. As for Betty and Emma when they started to address their underlying emotional needs their struggle with food and weight ceased.

  • Kiki March 8th, 2015 at 10:37 PM #9

    Not all people diagnosed with an eating disorder have “caregiver” problems. Mine is from the bullying I received as a child, about my glasses and it slowly turned to my weight. My parents are great, and when I finally told them I had problems, they immediately got help for me. It’s not always the caregiver, I just needed to point that out.

  • Ondina Nandine Hatvany, MFT March 9th, 2015 at 10:11 AM #10

    I agree Kiki having an eating disorder is not always due to problems with the caregiver; to use therapy terminology eating disorders are more likely to develop when there has been “attachment injury” and in your case this happened with you peers. Creating strong attachments is the best way to deal with eating disorders. By strong attachment I mean having dependable, nurturing bonds and a sense of belonging (with caregivers, peers etc.)
    Thank you for your excellent commentary!

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