10 Ways To Support A Partner Struggling With Body Image Issues
10 Ways To Support A Partner Struggling With Body Image Issues
It can be hard to watch a partner struggle with body image issues. But just as telling someone who is depressed to 'just stop being sad' isn't effective, telling your partner they are beautiful won't automatically solve the problem. When it comes to body image issues, the struggle doesn't just impact your partner — it can impact your relationship as well. Perhaps your partner doesn't feel confident having sex with you, or maybe they don't want to be seen in public and that limits the things you can do together as a couple. While you can't solve anyone's issues for them, there are certain things you can do to help someone who has body image issues. Here are ten suggestions to support a partner struggling with how they look.
1. Practice compassion for them
Practicing compassion for your partner means understanding why and how their body image issues may manifest. Sex therapist and counselor Kori Hennessy, LMFT, tells O.school, “Negative thoughts and feelings about our bodies can cause us to feel uncomfortable being naked with a partner, or limiting the parts of our body we will explore with partners.” Poor body image can also reduce intimacy in other areas, too. “It can feel to the other partner as if their partner is ‘somewhere else’ and indeed they are — in an internal space having an internal discussion about their dislike of their body,” says Dr. Cynthia Bulik, clinical psychologist and founding director of the University of North Carolina Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders.
You can build compassion for your partner by understanding and validating that their suffering is real. Hennessy suggests, “Recognizing that a negative body image is something that developed over a long period of time due to a lot of body shaming messages from society is an important starting point.”
2. Don’t try to “fix” it
It can be tempting to try to fix things by reassuring your partner that you like the way they look or telling them there’s nothing wrong with their appearance, size, or shape. But this approach may be counterproductive. Instead, letting your partner know you accept them just as they are, without pushing them to feel a certain way, can help to build trust and let them know that you support them. Dr. Bulik tells O.school: “You don’t have to accept what they say about their body, but you do have to respect their experience. Constantly trying to convince them that their experience is wrong is destined to backfire. Letting them understand that you realize that this is hard for them and you want to help is more validating and more likely to get the relationship back on a good path.”
3. Show appreciation for your own body
Even people who generally feel ok about their bodies can sometimes fall into negative self-talk, or comparisons to others. But giving voice to critical thoughts (“I look terrible in these pants,” “My penis isn’t big enough,” “My boobs are saggy,”) can reinforce that behavior in your partner — and yourself. Hennessy recommends “being a conscious consumer of media and watching the language you use to describe bodies. Avoid diet and workout culture language which can only exacerbate a negative body image.” Hennessy says that “focusing on the experience of being in each of your bodies rather than looking at your bodies can help to rewire the negative focus to a more positive focus.”
4. Introduce your partner to body neutrality
Body positivity — loving the way you look even if it doesn’t conform to a certain cultural “ideal”— doesn’t resonate with everyone, and that’s ok. Some people who struggle with body image issues find that trying to love the way their body looks just increases their focus on their appearance, without helping them to address the underlying problem. If that’s the case for your partner, body neutrality, a philosophy that encourages accepting our bodies, not based on the way they look, but what they do for us, may be more helpful. Centering what you love about your body and what it does for you (“My legs take me places,” “My penis brings me pleasure,” “My arms let me hug those I love,”) can be a helpful practice for people experiencing body image issues and their partners.
5. Focus on who they are, not how they look
Even if you find your partner attractive and desirable, telling them so won’t address the root of the problem. “You can help your partner by leaving looks out of your compliments,” therapist Ashera DeRosa, LMFT, tells O.school. “You want to send the message that they are wanted and loved no matter what they look like.” Instead, try focusing your compliments on qualities other than looks. You can draw attention to their character (“I love how kind you are,” “I always learn something new when we talk,” “Going on adventures with you is so much fun”) or their talents and skills (“I love hearing you sing,” “You’re such a great parent,” “I’m so impressed by your focus and drive,”). Therapist Gail Grace tells O.school that you can still communicate attraction and desire without referring to your partner’s looks: “More neutral statements like, ‘You are glowing,’ or, ‘Your energy is contagious,’ can be less triggering to someone struggling with body image issues.”
6. Accept where they are on their journey
If someone you care about is struggling with their body image or body dysmorphic disorder — especially if it results in food restriction, compulsive exercising, or other behaviors that worry you — you may consider making ultimatums or trying to pressure them to change by pulling away or critiquing their behaviors. But letting them know that you accept them just as they are and continuing to be affectionate and supportive can provide a strong foundation for them to work towards recovery. You can show concern by encouraging them to reframe negative self-talk and practice self-care, without criticizing or shaming them. For example, in response to negative self-talk, you could say something like, “Could you rephrase that in a way that’s kinder to yourself?” If you’re worried about your partner’s exercise habits, you could try saying, “When you spend so much time at the gym, it seems to take up a lot of your energy. Could we go for a walk together today instead?”
It may also make sense to make compromises to encourage intimacy, at least in the short term. Dr. Bulik encourages partners of those struggling with body image to “be willing to be flexible in doing what makes them feel best and tell them that. Ask how you can help and what you can do as a couple to make things as comfortable as possible. If that means turning off the lights or staying under the covers, then agree to that.” De Rosa concurs: “If touch in certain areas of their body makes them shut down, it will be important for you to avoid that for the time being.”
7. But don’t enable destructive behavior, either
Sometimes, it can feel easier to accommodate someone’s body image concerns, rather than addressing them head-on. Avoiding social events, constantly reassuring your partner about their appearance, making excuses for them when they run late or break plans because of their anxiety about how they look, or ignoring unhealthy behaviors are all ways in which acceptance can cross the line into enabling. It can feel uncomfortable to voice your concerns, especially if you’ve gotten used to the way things are. But speaking up in a compassionate way shows your partner that you care, and can be the first step in helping them to get the support that they need.
8. Curate resources for your partner
Overcoming body image issues is a long journey that requires commitment and persistence; providing emotional support to your partner can be helpful as they work towards a healthier body image. But many people will need additional support along the way. While you can’t force your partner to seek help, you can encourage them by sharing resources. O.school has a list of resources for people with eating disorders; the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation has resources for those struggling with body dysmorphia. You can also point them towards blogs, podcasts, and support groups. Dr. Bulik says that, if your partner isn’t currently seeing a mental health professional, “you might want to encourage them to get help from a therapist who specializes in the treatment of body image.” Preparing a list of therapists who specialize in body image issues in advance can make it easier for your partner to find the right therapist if they decide that they’re ready to seek professional help.
9. Seek support for yourself
It can be hard to see someone you care about struggling. If your partner’s body image issues cause them to avoid intimacy or sex, or to withdraw in other ways, you might feel rejection, insecurity, or loneliness. Confiding in a trusted friend or family member or getting support from a mental health professional can help you to process your own feelings and get the support you need. Making space and time for self-care and recognizing that you’re not responsible for “fixing” your partner can help you maintain your own mental health while supporting them.
10. Know your limits
If your partner’s struggles with body image are causing relationship challenges that aren’t getting better, if they don’t show any interest in working towards healing, if your own mental health is suffering — or if you’re simply unhappy in the relationship — it’s ok to walk away. As painful as it can be to see someone you care about experiencing distress or engaging in harmful behaviors, you aren’t responsible for their well-being. In some cases, ending the relationship may be the kindest and most compassionate thing to do — for you and for them.
The bottom line
Negative body image is common among people of all genders and can cause disruptions in daily life, including relationships. But there are steps you can take to strengthen your relationship if your partner is struggling. Focusing on things you value about them besides their appearance, being patient with their challenges, sharing resources, and staying mindful of your own wellness can help you to support your partner while caring for yourself.