Eating Disorders and Attachment

Getting to the Source | How Do Eating Disorders Form?

Emerging data suggests the importance of using the lens of attachment theory to understand both eating disorders and sexual disorders; adult capacity for pair-bonding, courtship, attraction, affection, and intimacy are all influenced by the blueprint of the attachment with caretakers in the first several years of life.

Without adequate parenting, the child will later grapple with increased appetite for nurturing and caretaking while simultaneously adapting to become “dismissive” of such needs, developing expectations of disappointment, abandonment, rejection, or abuse of self and/or others.

“Needs” become dangerous and are associated with fear, which is the core structure for the development of psychopathology. “Not needing” translates into not eating or becoming increasingly small and invisible. Similarly, not needing a partner leaves the door open to developing sexual arousal to objects, turning to paraphilia or some other displacement, for affection that is perceived as safe. Cybersex, for example, creates a safe distance between an individual and the focused-on sexual partner.

When individuals experience misattunement with their caretaker during infancy, they fail to establish secure attachment, which means they lose contact with the accompanying feelings of being lovable — worthy of being loved — and thus entitled to receiving affection and care from others. This loss of contact leaves the individual vulnerable to food or sex displacing the natural instinct to pair-bond.

The Connection to Early Attachment

The early attachment templates shape core schema, distorting information coming in from others. These dynamics alternately shape an individual’s range and type of interactions, driving relational and intra-relational reenactments (Lamagna and Gleiser, 2007). Such repetitive predicaments leave the individual feeling the shame, helplessness, and self-doubt they experienced in childhood or adolescence, a form of “affective flashback” (i.e. feeling rejected or feeling fat or desirous of confirmation and lovability by sexual contact, where only food or sex can fill the inner emptiness). Orgasm or binging only fill the emptiness temporarily,which is then followed by a rapid drop to more intense aloneness.

Additionally, close relationships require a tremendous number of developmental rehearsals and skill acquisitions involving practice related to saying “yes” or “no,” asserting one’s needs, expressing interests and desires separate from that of the partner, and the use of touch and conservation with appropriate self-closure. All these social interactions seem developmentally delayed in eating disordered and sexually compulsive clients, which becomes painfully clear once they maintain some control of these behavioral symptoms.

Typically, practicing such skills in psychodrama is critical for overcoming situations that trigger relapse and is a treatment model we have a great deal of experience utilizing at Marriage Therapy Institute.

Treating the Addiction, Treating the Relationship

At Marriage Therapy Institute, we not only treat the one suffering from the eating disorder, but we treat the partner’s and/or family’s residual suffering, and then we treat the relationship(s) and the damages done to the relationship(s) as well. It’s a 360 degree approach, and one we’ve found imperative to the healing needed for longer-term success, for all involved.

Harmony Place Los Angeles and Harmony Place Monterey

For those of you first needing full-on stabilization followed by transitional living and partial hospitalization and intensive therapy, Marriage Therapy Institute provides expert onsite, stabilization programs and care via Harmony Place Los Angeles as well as step-down Transitional Living programs at Harmony Place Monterey. Contact us and we’ll tell more about these incredible options at our disposal.

Free Consultation

Contact us for a free consultation. Let us know what you or your partner may be dealing with, and let us assist you in taking whatever necessary next steps are available and recommended.

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