There is no question that divorce is a weighty matter both literally and figuratively. This often calamitous and life-changing event can flood us with emotions and make our defenses as porous as Swiss cheese. During these times of crisis, the ambush of misunderstood and therefore often unacceptable feelings, fantasies and impulses trigger poignant self-reproach. When we reflexively turn on ourselves with limited or no awareness of being our own worst enemy, it is part of human nature to react to such helplessness by looking outside of ourselves for someone to blame. That’s why when our children express normal age-appropriate complaints, make demands, or file protests that have nothing to do with the impact of the divorce on their lives, we can become very defensive.
Have you ever noticed the tendency at times like these to head straight for the kitchen cupboard and numb emotional wounds or soothe anxieties with a chemically enhanced chocolate you wouldn’t dream of feeding to a stray cat? Or maybe you’ve thought about shoving such sweet morsels down our children’s throats to shut them up before listening to shame or guilt-inducing messages.
As you can infer from my last comment, it’s easy for humans to confuse the signals from our “emotional guts” with the signals from our appetite regulation mechanisms connected to our physical guts. The emotional gut, when fully functional, acts like a tuning fork that we place inside our bellies. It channels all kinds of “vibrations” to higher centers of the brain where they can be translated, thought and downloaded in a constructive way. If these energies are not thought of, dysfunctional ways of feeding ourselves and our children can emerge. Psychosomatic symptoms that mimic hunger, nausea, indigestion, and bloating can trick us into disordered eating habits. When these circumstances arise, many of us no longer eat to live, and live to eat and/or eat largely to cope with the stress in our lives.
Our post-divorce emotional vulnerabilities can create an internal environment conducive to unhealthy dependencies on eating and feeding others. Eating dysfunctions, even in their most benign forms, are perhaps the most insidious, because in a society where obesity is rapidly becoming the norm, they are easily overlooked. You can’t stop eating; right or wrong? In addition, this activity is an acceptable social activity, a source of great pleasure and full of meaning based on lifelong associations with the earliest and most powerful experiences of being loved and cared for by trusted others. How easy it is to deny, minimize, and rationalize this life-affirming activity gone haywire. We are not at risk of being arrested for binge eating or dieting to the point of malnutrition. We most likely don’t walk around in a stupor as a result of overeating or having too much of a hangover to get our kids up for school. Have you ever heard of someone being arrested for buying a loaf of bread on the street?
Still, dysfunctional eating patterns can become powerfully damaging psychological and physical addictions for some, and for good reason. Imagine for a moment, after the end of your marriage, you are uncomfortable feeling needed, too eager to empower yourself to take over the roles your spouse previously held, too guilty to be proactive in caring for yourself, or perhaps too depressed and ashamed. to the point of wanting to isolate and withdraw from valued relationships to protect yourself from further disappointment and painful rejection. Any of these emotional scenarios can lead us to take refuge in unhealthy food dependencies. It is enough to think for a moment how we can eat to enjoy stimulation and pleasant satisfaction, to anesthetize pain, to calm anxieties, to fill interior voids, to bury and defend ourselves from toxic messages, to punish ourselves, to download and defend ourselves from hostile impulses, to deny shamefully excessive dependency needs, etc., etc., etc. If you don’t believe my argument, just listen for a minute to the common expressions that underscore the psychological importance of eating in our lives to invite over-reliance on food to protect us from hostile aggression from within and/or without.
You may be familiar with some or all of the following comments: “Why don’t you stuff your face and shut up?” “I’m afraid I’m so hungry I’ll devour you.” “I’m going to chew you up and spit you out.” “I need some comfort food like a Ring Ding.” “I ate non-stop all night and was still hungry.” “I have no idea what I’m hungry for.” “I’m so frustrated I want to bite your head off.” “What you just told me turned my stomach.” “You are so delicious that I want to eat you.” “Stop shoving that crap down my throat.” “I lost my appetite when I heard he was leaving.” “I spend a lot of time at work thinking about what I’m going to cook for dinner.”
The answer to the problems created for us and our children by unhealthy relationships with food is, for us as single parents, to cultivate reliable and consistent support systems that listen to us, respect our capacities to change and grow, are non-judgmental and offer Feedback in a compassionate way so as not to reinforce dysfunctional eating patterns. There is nothing that resides in our imagination that is inherently damning. Only our reactions to such stimuli are cause for concern. Learning to connect, contain, think, reflect, and talk with trusted others about what is going on in our minds is the best insurance against disordered eating or other dysfunctional patterns in coping with stress. If we can learn to tolerate and accept what is going on inside of us, then we will be more available to listen to our children and help them process life experiences in healthy ways. We all deserve forgiveness for using food defensively, as these patterns mean that “we don’t know what we’re doing.” However, if we don’t break these patterns when our children are young, they may forgive us but never forget us for the angst-filled obsessions and compulsions with food they may inherit from us.