Pastor’s Wife Having Anorexia Relapse

By January 25, 2013

I am a pastor’s wife, mother of five, and have been diagnosed with anorexia. It has been a constant battle to maintain recovery. After a being somewhat stable the last couple of years, I have relapsed. I find myself not only frustrated by the relapse, but frustrated in general. Right now I just want to give up. As the wife of a pastor, there really doesn’t seem to be anyone I can confide in. And to be perfectly honest my husband is so consumed with those in the church and our community, he really doesn’t notice much here. Not to mention my eating disorder is a very sore subject seeing how it began after he had an affair. Who do you talk to when there is no one? (I know, you talk to God, but sometimes you just need someone with skin on!) I feel like I am at the end!

Dear Anonymous,

I can understand how discouraged you must feel and I agree that we all need to talk to someone with skin. Even Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane called for Peter, James and John. This Scripture always reminds me that God understands our need for human connection. It is very important for you to find individuals you can open up to and trust.

The first priority, if you have not already done so, is to seek therapy with a professional counselor. Hopefully, you can find a Christian counselor with experience in eating disorders, but even a non-Christian and/or non-eating disorder experienced counselor can help as long as s/he respects your faith and is able to listen to you and understand.  See “Finding Treatment.”

Usually the core issues of an eating disorder are not about food, but the underlying wounds (e.g., the affair). A good counselor can help with those underlying issues, even if s/he doesn’t have eating disorder experience. Your therapist may recommend inpatient treatment. This can be expensive, but don’t let cost keep you from making contact with a treatment center; God often works to help people get help they never dreamed they could afford or arrange.

Equally important is to be very open with your physician about your eating disorder, even if s/he is a church member. Doctors are required to maintain confidentiality.

You are likely physically worn down by stress and malnourished. Also working with a registered dietitian will be important. Be cautious of someone who says s/he is a nutritionist. Most anyone can claim to be a nutritionist and there are some very unhealthy nutritional ideas floating around that are especially dangerous for individuals with eating disorders. Registered dietitians, on the other hand, must have a college degree and must be licensed.

I want to move to a different issue where I am fairly confident there are serious issues, but can only make an experienced guess at the specifics. I strongly recommend martial counseling as soon as possible, even if you have tried before. Get Christian marriage counseling with a professional who deals with extra-marital affairs and who is outside of your husband’s profession (e.g., do not go to a pastoral counselor in a church). I am going to given an opinion of what I think is happening, but this cannot replace meeting with an experienced marriage counselor who can directly assess the marital issues and provide help.

I suspect that unresolved issues related to the affair are significant factors in your relapse. Based on your letter, it doesn’t seem as if the affair was ever dealt with in a healing manner: perhaps it was just swept under the carpet, your husband didn’t want to deal with it, or healing and restoration did not take place.

I am also guessing that even when you and he try to talk about the affair or other marital/family issues, it either doesn’t get anywhere or it may even make things worse. If I am wrong about that, I would still recommend martial counseling because eating disorders are almost always family issues.

Based upon my experience in interviewing a large number of patients, I think it is likely that your husband’s being, “so consumed with those in the church and our community he really doesn’t notice much here” feels like he is having another affair. The affair led to an ED and this situation leads to a relapse.

I have worked with pastor’s wives who have not experienced an affair, but felt like the church was another woman. The guilt they felt in expressing their feelings just made things worse: “How can I complain if he’s doing the Lord’s work? It seems so selfish.”

I fully agree that you need people to talk to, but the person you need to talk to the most is your husband. If my suspicion is correct and your communication with each other is lacking or worse, it will take a skilled third person (counselor) to focus that communication in a healthy manner.

Right now, it appears that you are both expressing your feelings in non-verbal and indirect ways. Eating disorders often become the voice for emotions that cannot seem to be expressed in any other way. I do not believe you are being manipulative, gamey or intentionally relapsing, but I do believe that your ED is subconscious way of trying to get him to listen. The ED may be saying, “I feel ignored. I feel like you care more about he people in the church than me. What has to happen to me before you to pay attention to me? Can’t you see what you’ve done to me? Can’t you see what you are doing to me?”

It seems like your husband is also expressing himself non-verbally and indirectly. When he sees the eating disorder coming back and getting worse, he may feel guilty, overwhelmed or even angry. Rather than openly communicating his feelings with you, he ends up using non-verbal and indirect ways of communicating by not talking about or dealing with the obvious issues at home and burying himself in his work, especially because his work can be seen as doing God’s work. It is important for him to remember that Paul calls for pastors to take care of their own family first (1 Timothy 3:5).

I very much hear your desperation and strongly encourage you to begin by seeking professional help. Develop friendships (even if by phone) that can be supportive. By the way, friends can be supportive just by doing things with them or talking about all kinds of things. The friendship needs to create the availability of talking about problems, but it doesn’t have to be exclusively devoted to that. Sometimes just talking helps, regardless of the topic.

There is a way out. You are not stuck. There is some hard work ahead, but there is also great hope.


David Wall, PhD