Abusive relationships take a toll on the mind and body. Narcissistic and psychopathic partners can engage in calculated manipulation methods to diminish their partners and their self-image. They often fixate on the perceived flaws or shortcomings of their partners to instill insecurities in them, or manufacture flaws that don’t exist at all. This is akin to metaphorically placing a funhouse mirror in front of their victims to make them view themselves in a negative light.
This type of distortion can lead an abuse victim to develop a distorted self-image that doesn’t reflect their true self accurately. As victims internalize this distorted self-image, this could then result in a variation of body dysmorphia or eating disorders in an attempt to manage the abuse they are experiencing. Research shows that there is a high comorbidity between PTSD and eating disorders. As a researcher, I’ve also found a significant association between being in a romantic relationship with someone high in narcissistic traits and PTSD symptoms related to the relationship. One possible way individuals who are in such relationships might react to the stress of their trauma symptoms is through disordered eating or other maladaptive attempts to regain control over their bodies during times of perceived powerlessness.
Having corresponded with thousands of survivors who have been in relationships with narcissistic and psychopathic individuals, I have seen frequent reports of survivors who have suffered a distorted self-image after being in this form of toxic relationship. In addition, some have experienced drastic bodily changes and health issues during or in the aftermath of such relationships, while others also experience an anxious preoccupation with their appearance after being emotionally and psychologically abused. The stress of chronic emotional, psychological or even physical and sexual abuse can also result in direct physical changes, some of which can be linked to disordered eating or stress. Survivors of abuse may gain excess weight, possibly due to changing cortisol and insulin levels in response to stress or due to overeating in order to self-soothe during the abuse cycle. Alternatively, they may lose weight rapidly due to self-neglect and self-deprivation resulting from impaired self-care.
The Relationship Between Eating Disorders and Abuse
A systematic review of the research literature showed that eating disorders are associated with a high prevalence and increased lifetime risk of experiencing intimate partner violence, although more research is needed to determine the direction of causality. Recent research also indicates that eating disorders among adolescents are associated with a number of different traumas, including domestic violence and bullying, with bullying being the most prevalent type of trauma.
Eating disorders that may result due to abuse or bullying can include anorexia nervosa (severely restrictive eating), bulimia nervosa (binge-eating followed by self-induced vomiting, purging or fasting), and binge-eating disorder (consuming excessive amounts of food in a short period of time, often uncontrollably).
Other habits that accompany disordered eating in an abusive relationship may include: (1) excessive exercise to the point of exhaustion as a form of self-punishment after eating (2) restricting food intake deliberately to emotionally “numb” the pain of the abuse (3) limiting food intake to fit a certain fitness ideal to please the abusive partner (especially if the abusive partner engages in degrading comparisons to other body types), or (4) omitting certain foods from one’s diet due to policing by the abuser (such as consistently critical comments about one’s diet).
What is Body Dysmorphic Disorder?
Body dysmorphic disorder is a mental health condition where an individual exhibits an intense preoccupation with perceived flaws in their appearance (whether real or imagined). According to research, intimate partner violence in adulthood, particularly the severity of sexual coercion, physical assault and psychological abuse, has been significantly associated with increased body shame and self-objectification. Longitudinal research indicates that people with body dysmorphic disorder also report a greater severity of childhood maltreatment, abuse and neglect, especially emotional neglect and emotional abuse. They may have also experienced physical or sexual abuse in childhood.
As a researcher, I’ve heard from some survivors who indicate that they have experienced some variation of body dysmorphia or body image issues due to the abuse they experienced from narcissistic or psychopathic partner, even if they do not meet the full criteria for body dysmorphic disorder as a diagnosis. Being in a toxic relationship may also exacerbate body image issues that existed prior to the relationship as well. Body dysmorphia may be especially apparent in a survivor who has been nitpicked on their appearance by a narcissistic or psychopathic partner, especially in reference to certain features of their body or face.
Narcissistic and psychopathic individuals can “distort” the features of their partners by making bullying remarks that exaggerate these features negatively or by making chronic, hypercritical comments about their partner’s appearance in general. This can cause their victims to question and doubt themselves, leading them to develop an intense preoccupation with “fixing” perceived flaws that may or may not even exist. It may also lead to “checking” behaviors where survivors are consumed with looking at their appearance to ensure there is nothing wrong with it.
Although more research needs to be conducted on the associations among eating disorders, body dysmorphia and the experience of intimate partner violence by narcissistic or psychopathic partners, it is clear that emotional and psychological abuse by such partners can create or exacerbate struggles with body image and self-esteem. If you have been abused by a narcissistic or psychopathic partner and are struggling with your mental health, you are not alone and help is out there. Speaking with a trauma-informed mental health professional and engaging in mind-body healing modalities can empower you and help you to regain mastery over your mind and body.