Dating After Ed
Making real connections in recovery and life
In therapy, I was taught to treat my eating disorder like a relationship rather than an illness or a condition, and for almost ten years I have written about divorcing “Ed” (an acronym for Eating Disorder). I used to wonder what I would write about after he was out of the picture. Enter Adam, Eric, and Steve—also known as “The Policeman,” “Superhero,” and “Casanova”—as well as a long list of other guys. (My friends and I tend to give nicknames to those we date.) Surely, one of the most challenging aspects of my Ed-free existence is dating—real men, this time.
In the beginning, leaving Ed was hard because he was so predictable. I could count on him to be controlling, manipulative, and abusive. Because his behavior was so reliable, he strangely felt safe. Sometimes, what is familiar can actually feel comfortable—even if it is destructive. To fully recover from my eating disorder, I had to be willing to get uncomfortable. For me, that meant I needed to move out of Ed’s arms and into healthy relationships.
True progress began when I joined a therapy group for people with eating disorders and became aware of my bad habit of sabotaging potential relationships by zeroing in on differences. So I started to focus on similarities and allowing myself to be included. Labels like “old” or “young” and “male” or “female” didn’t seem to matter much when we were all trying to break free from Ed. Unlike most relationships in today’s world, in group therapy, we got to know each other from the inside out, sometimes sharing our deepest desires before knowing occupations or even last names. As I learned to trust, listen, and laugh, I moved further away from Ed.
To move even further, I needed to connect more with people outside of group therapy. My family was a wonderful and safe place to start. Ed had kept me isolated for so long that even something as simple as joking with a loved one had become quite difficult! I became more assertive—sometimes swinging the pendulum too far (to just plain rude)—before finding balance. I practiced speaking my truth, knowing that it is okay to disagree with others. I came to understand and accept the idea of “agreeing to disagree.”
As I became healthier and stronger, I reached outside my safety zone of my family and therapy group. Still, I was not ready to jump fully into the dating game, so I focused most of my time and energy on making new friends. I joined social groups in my community and took risks by attending events alone. I learned to initiate conversations and introduce myself. Making friends is like dating in many ways. It doesn’t always work out, and that’s okay.
Finally, with the skills I had gained in developing my relationships with family members and friends, I felt ready to actively pursue dating. And I discovered that dating is about gathering information—about the other person and myself. The more I date, the more I find out about me. I learn about my level of patience and whether or not I need to improve in that area. (I do.) I notice rigidity in my thought patterns and attempt to be more easy-going. I see clearly that I still hold men to perfectionistic standards. (I’m working on that.) With every date, I understand more and more what I really want in a life partner. What I thought I wanted years ago isn’t what I want at all.
I have also discovered that some of my old beliefs about dating simply aren’t true. For instance, I used to think that being in a relationship meant I would lose myself and be miserable. I now know that although an unhealthy dating relationship might have those negative consequences, a healthy one can actually bring much joy and even connect me more with myself.
This idea of “losing myself” has been one of the biggest hurdles for me to overcome. In my attempts to maintain my sense of self, I have had a tendency to push people away. Rather than maintaining boundaries that are healthy and flexible, I have a recurring pattern of building brick walls. I am improving in this area by recognizing my black-and-white thinking and continuously seeking balance in the grey. Through trial and error, I am figuring out how much personal space I need and also how much time I want to spend with a man as our relationship develops. I also know how to maintain my friendships and activities along the way rather than dropping everything for a guy (like I used to do).
I am also learning compromise. Recently, in response to my going on and on about a guy—my thoughts, my feelings, and my perspective—my therapist said, “Jenni, it’s not all about you.” Her honesty hurt my feelings, but she was right. In a relationship,two people are involved, and I can’t always get my way. I have to figure out what I need and can’t live without and when I can be more flexible. Just like in relationships with my friends and family members, honest communication is key. Even though I communicate for a living in my career as a speaker and writer, I can always grow in this area and am making steps to improve.
As I continue my dating journey, I realize more and more that the tools I used to divorce Ed help me with real guys, too. Men like “The Policeman,” “Superhero,” and” Casanova” may not be as predictable as Ed, but one thing is certain: just like with Ed, they guide me to knowing more about who I really am. So, even if I never find the guy we’ll nickname “The One,” I am finding me. For that, I am grateful.
By Jenni Schaefer
Reprinted with permission from ©2010 Gürze Books
About the Author
Appointed to the Ambassador Council of the National Eating Disorders Association, Jenni Schaefer is a singer/songwriter, speaker, and author of Life Without Ed: How One Woman Declared Independence from Her Eating Disorder and How You Can Too and Goodbye Ed, Hello Me: Recover from Your Eating Disorder and Fall in Love with Life. She is a consultant with the Center For Change in Orem, Utah. Jenni is now married and continues to inspire recovery. For more information, visit www.jennischaefer.com.
Dr. Gnap website editor eatingdisordersrecoverytoday.com. Dr. Gnap is a family practice physician and behavioral medicine specialist in suburban Chicago. Dr. Gnap developed the Inner Control™ Program in 1970 and has worked with thousands of people to improve and correct medical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems including performance.