Alongside the millions of women in the U.S. with eating disorders stand millions of boyfriends, fiancés, and husbands desperate to help, but unsure where to start. For the last two years, I've been one of these men. My fiancée Kelsey has anorexia, and as I prepare to marry her this fall, it's become clear how much her condition has taught me about what men can do—and the many things they'll try to but can't—for the women they love.

Eating disorders disproportionately affect women, so many men may find themselves in my position, but my experience and lessons learned may also apply to women dating men with eating disorders.

Kelsey and I had a beautiful relationship and had talked about marriage before her doctor diagnosed her with anorexia nervosa, or AN, a couple years after we began dating. I loved her, and I was determined to see her through it. I believed that as a potential husband it was my duty to find a solution and bring Kelsey back to normal. I thought I could be her hero. Like many men who would do anything to see the woman they love happy and healthy again, I found it wasn't so simple.

Eating disorders aren't about beauty.

When someone has an eating disorder, it's easy for us, especially as men, to assume she thinks she's not attractive, and that's the root of the problem. Our instinct tells us to respond with affirmations and compliments, to let her know her face, her body is beautiful. Yet, when I tried to tell Kelsey how pretty she was, my words seemed to bounce off of her. "I wasn't doubting that you found me attractive," she later told me. "But the smallest I could possibly be was the most beautiful I could possibly be. I appreciated that you found me beautiful [the way I was], but you didn't really know."

What often drives anorexia is not necessarily the desire for beauty; it's the need to be perfect. To Kelsey, perfect meant becoming as thin as possible, even if that made her less physically attractive. By the time she was diagnosed with anorexia, her features had visibly diminished: her eyes sank, her hair grayed and fell out in chunks, and I could make out all the muscles in her tiny arms. She stopped having her period, and she become increasingly irritable, especially when confronted about her eating and exercise.

She is more than her eating disorder.

When symptoms worsen, it's hard—no, impossible—for a boyfriend, fiancé, or husband to ignore an eating disorder. Kelsey continued to deteriorate, showing clear signs of advanced AN, and I was nearly as obsessed with her eating disorder as she was. It was the only thing I wanted to talk about. I had made her one-dimensional: a walking, talking eating disorder, not a complex human being. She was no longer the girl I had known for years: the brilliant writer, the passionate academic, the girl driving her car and listening to opera, laughing and wearing too much lip gloss. Instead, I had let Kelsey's anorexia define her.

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It becomes easy for boyfriends or husbands to see themselves as coaches, pushing for visible improvements in her diet, body, and outlook. Unfortunately, it's exactly this kind of pressure to perform that leads many to develop eating disorders in the first place. Feeling she had no safe place, Kelsey resorted to solitude. Eventually she pushed away everyone she saw as a threat to her anorexic lifestyle - including me.

It's not in your control.

The breakup revealed to me a lesson that all men in this situation need to realize: You can't be her savior. You are not in control. Anorexia is a mental illness, and once it sets in, people have little capacity to think rationally about what they are doing, no matter how well their loved ones explain their destructive behavior to them. I found that perhaps the only thing I could do was tell her she was beautiful. I felt powerless. And, for the most part, I was. I was like Adam in the Bible, whose toil was cursed to reap grapes of wrath where he had once reaped good fruit.

But at the other end of the Bible story is a day when the cosmos will be transformed from death and decay to life through a sweeping, redemptive act of God. The work of individuals to bring healing on earth won't be forgotten, but there will be no heroes; God will be all and in all. Eating disorders are kind of like that. They either end in horrible tragedy, a reminder of the broken world we live in—the mortality rate for AN is as high as 20 percent—or they end in beautiful redemption, an advance signpost of the world to come. Even with the best programs and medical attention, our control over their outcomes remains limited. I began to see that whatever direction Kelsey's anorexia led was always going to be, to a certain extent, out of my hands.

There may be no epiphany.

Six months after we broke up, Kelsey started making visible improvements. She reached out to her loved ones again, and eventually did the same with me. When she did, I decided to try getting to know her again. After getting back together, I hoped that Kelsey had reached an epiphany, a turning point. I found out, however, that such moments rarely indicate a lasting recovery. Although Kelsey was more aware of her problem, by the summer she had started working out obsessively once again.

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At the request of her family, Kelsey began seeing a team of doctors at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics' Eating Disorder Network. Every week she saw a doctor, nutritionist or counselor from the same clinic, who consulted with each other weekly. For the first time we felt that she had a truly comprehensive treatment plan.

I realized that my role in this process was no longer as the hero but rather the safe place, the person Kelsey didn't have to fear pressure from when she failed. So I made the most difficult decision of our relationship: to let go of her anorexia. Loved ones are encouraged to be part of the treatment of AN patients, but not the sole source of treatment. This is what we boyfriends, fiancés, and husbands can do. I stopped talking about the eating disorder so much. I just stopped bringing it up. Relinquishing control was difficult, but I knew I needed to trust the work of professionals and of the Holy Spirit over my own efforts. And week after week, Kelsey came back from her appointments with good news.

I don't know when it happened, but quietly, in early January of this year, Kelsey reached her ideal weight. She told me after one of her doctor's appointments. I had already seen great improvements, but even then I was surprised. Part of me had forgotten that she could actually be healthy again. Three weeks later, I proposed.

Recovery continues.

I say my fiancée has—not had—anorexia, because full recovery takes years, and it will be an ongoing challenge in our marriage. But with support from health professionals, friends and family, patients who have recovered from eating disorders can usually live normal, productive lives. Anorexia, fortunately, can take a back seat to other issues we'll face as newlyweds.

This fall, Kelsey and I will discover the beautiful mystery of two becoming one flesh. Now that we both see Kelsey for who she is—a unique, beautiful child of God—we can start to imagine what our union will look like. If I still defined Kelsey by her anorexia, and if I still expected myself to be her savior, that union would be miserable. Fortunately, anorexia doesn't define Kelsey. And fortunately, I was never the hero.

KC McGinnis is a writer, photojournalist, world traveler, mustard aficionado, gospel lover and now blogger based in Iowa City, Iowa. He shoots profiles, sports and events and has written for RELEVANT Magazine and his blog, What Matters to God. Follow him on Twitter: @CousinKC.