A common problem for sex addicts and their wives, both before and during recovery, is a condition known as “intimacy anorexia.”
The term intimacy anorexia was coined by Dr. Doug Weiss and describes the behavior of withholding physical and emotional intimacy from one spouse by the other.
Before a sex addict begins recovery, he often attempts to protect his secret life of infidelity and sexual compulsion by hiding behind the invisible walls of intimacy anorexia. This behavior usually baffles the addict’s wife, who cannot understand why her husband remains uninterested in nurturing a romantic relationship with her. Over time, feelings of intense loneliness and rejection plague her. In many cases, this situation continues for years before his secrets are unexpectedly revealed.
After uncovering her husband’s sex addiction, the tables often begin to turn.Before recovery, the addict displayed behaviors of intimacy anorexia, whereasafter recovery begins, his wife becomes the one to engage in these behaviors. Typically, this happens because she feels completely betrayed and no longer trusts her husband, resulting in her own intimacy anorexia.
Intimacy anorexia causes a great deal of pain on both ends of the behavior. When it is present in the relationship, it is almost impossible for the intimacy anorexic to just “fake it” in order to keep the other spouse happy. At the heart of this condition, intimacy anorexia is characterized by one spouse’s continuance to actively withhold all displays of romantic affection from the other.
Common Withholding Behaviors of Intimacy Anorexia
Withholding Sex: It is common for an intimacy anorexic to withhold sex from the spouse, but it is not always the case. If the intimacy anorexic does engage in sex with the spouse, it lacks emotional intimacy.
Withholding Acts of Love: Many intimacy anorexics are uncomfortable showing tenderness and love to their spouses. The relationship is often devoid of affectionate touching and kissing, both behind closed doors and in public.
Withholding Time Together: Intimacy anorexics often claim to be too busy to spend time with their spouses. Work, friends and other interests usually come first.
Withholding Approval: Spouses often receive criticism, rather than praise, from the intimacy anorexic. Spouses may also be blamed for all the problems in the relationship.
Withholding Feelings: The intimacy anorexic cannot share his or her true feelings with the spouse. Feelings of romantic love and spirituality are absent. Often, the spouse does not know how the intimacy anorexic really feels about anything in their relationship.
Can intimacy anorexia be cured? Yes, it is possible to resolve this problem, but both spouses must have a real desire to repair the relationship. It is very common for this condition to be revealed after the wife discovers her husband’s secret sex addiction. Once everything comes to light, the addict’s behaviors begin to make sense to his wife. If she previously felt that her husband was withholding sex and love because he was no longer attracted to her, she might now see this behavior as a symptom of a much larger problem. Many couples are able to overcome the pain of this condition and find a solution, but it takes time, patience and rigorous honesty for that to be possible.
Please Note: Although the sex addict in this piece is portrayed as the husband, that is not intended to suggest that all sex addicts and intimacy anorexics are males. There are wives and female partners who suffer from sex addiction and intimacy anorexia, as well.
Marriages are murdered by adultery, alcoholism, sexual addiction, and other sever life events. These marriages ending, although devastating, these marriages dissolving make some kind of human sense.
There is a marriage that slowly dies. This marriage looks good on the outside for ten, twenty or thirty years. They are raising their family, working in their community together, serving in their church.
Many couples have tried counseling, but didn’t follow through, they didn’t pray together, connect emotionally, have limited touch, and sometimes they haven’t had sex in years.
They have had a cancer in their marriage. The cancer had no name. They didn’t know what to do so they plodded along hoping it would get better but it didn’t, it became intolerably worse.
The spouse states feeling married and alone, like a roommate. They describe their spouse in ways you can barely imagine because you have seen the public image of this wonderful man or woman. You’re now befuddled and feel powerless to stop this disease from killing a marriage you have come to know and love.
This good news is, there is a name for this cancer and the ability if the person is willing to heal and reconnect their marriage. I have been treating this cancer for more than fifteen years. This cancer’s name is intimacy anorexia.
Intimacy anorexia is the active withholding of emotional, spiritual, and sexual intimacy from their spouse. The anorexic can have positive relationships outside the marriage, even look normal, but at home with their spouse they are intentionally different.
Let me walk you through the characteristics of intimacy anorexia so you can become discerning of this cancer when you hear a couple describe their marriage. Then I will walk you through the causes and helpful things the person and couple can do to save this marriage from the starvation and eventual death of the marriage.
The first characteristic is busy. The anorexic stays so busy they have no time for their spouse. The anorexic can be busy outside the home with work, sports, extra jobs, or helping others in some manner. The anorexic can also be busy in the home cleaning the house, garage, reading the paper, on the computer, making telephone calls, reading emails, having Facebook time, or other projects to keep them justifying intentional avoidance of the spouse. This couple rarely goes on dates or has defined together time with any consistency.
The second characteristic of intimacy anorexia is blaming. The anorexic will blame their spouse for all or almost all of the problems in the marriage. The anorexic lives in object relationships with themselves. They are all good or all bad. Therefore if you are offering anything other than praise of them you will get their defenses to keep them being good or wonderful. This leaves only one logical solution, you the spouse, are the problem.
The third characteristic is withholding love. Each one, if a gun was held to our head knows exactly what makes our spouse feel loved. The anorexic knows this and will intentionally withhold this from their spouse to create pain. They will say it’s not intentional, but when they are trying to make up to the spouse they give this behavior that makes the spouse to feel loved to reconcile. Once the storm is over, they actively withhold this loving behavior towards their spouse.
The fourth characteristic of intimacy anorexia is withholding praise. Again, this will only show up with their spouse. They can praise others, even their children but will withhold praise directly to their spouse. Many spouse’s of anorexics have told me that the last time they felt their spouse praise them in a heartfelt manner was years ago.
The fifth characteristic is withholding sex. I must be clear, many male intimacy anorexics will have sex regularly but they will be disconnected during sex. This anorexic has their eyes closed during sex, won’t talk during sex, and prefers lights off so they don’t have to connect. Some anorexics really do withhold sex and won’t have sex at all or punish their spouse before, during or after sex in some manner. Some female anorexics just won’t orgasm as a way not to be sexual or sexually engaging with their husband.
The sixth characteristic of intimacy anorexia is withholding spiritually. They can quote Bible publicly, counsel people, be alter workers, or even preach and pray beautiful public prayers. You, wouldn’t even think that at home they are totally prayerless with their spouse. They may not discuss their spiritual struggles with their spouse or even minister to their spouse when they opportunity arises.
The seventh characteristic of intimacy anorexia is withholding feelings from their spouse. The anorexic’s agenda is to avoid intimacy in their marriage. They will rarely talk about their feelings. When you share your feelings you are sharing yourself, not just information. The spouse can go weeks or months without the heart or emotions of their spouse being shared with them. This lack of emotional connection from the anorexic drives the spouse out until it really hurts making the spouse look silly for their anger. We call this technique of the anorexic “Starve the dog.”
The eight characteristic of intimacy anorexia is control through silence or anger. The anorexic can control he spouse by not talking to them for hours, days, or weeks. I had a couple in my office recently where the man didn’t talk to his wife for three weeks living in the same house. Anger can also be used to push the spouse away intentionally creating distance in the marriage.
Criticism is the ninth characteristic of intimacy anorexia. The anorexic will regularly point out shortcomings of their spouse. This criticism is often ongoing and regularly ungrounded but it is effective at creating distance. Criticism may also not be spoken but the spouse can feel the internal judgments of their anorexic spouse. These criticisms are painful to live with on a daily or regular basis.
The last official characteristic of intimacy anorexia is controlling or shaming about money. This characteristic is not held by all anorexics but when it is, it’s severe. The anorexic can spend and do what they want with money but the spouse has to justify expenses or gets shamed for purchases.
There is an unofficial characteristic of intimacy anorexia called roommates. The spouse will report that they feel like roommates, brother or sister, or good friends but not lovers. The spouse can even like the anorexic in many ways but they don’t feel loved in a romantic way.
The causes of intimacy anorexia are four fold. Firstly, this person may have suffered sexual abuse. Secondly, they can be sexually addicted to porn, self sexual behavior, or sex with others outside of the marriage (this is a large factor for most male anorexics). Thirdly they could lack attachment to the opposite gender parent. Fourthly, they could have experienced no attachment or role modeling of intimacy in their family of origin.
As a Christian leader, you are more than likely dealing with marriages on a regular basis. You may have seen marriages destroyed by adultery, alcoholism or sexual addiction. Although devastating, the dissolving of this type of marriage, due to the circumstances, makes sense.
But there is another type of marriage that slowly dies and it’s harder to put a finger on the problem. This marriage often looks good on the outside for decades. The husband and wife may have been singing in the choir or served as cell group leaders, deacons and Sunday school teachers for years. They are raising their family, and some of them are doing a variety of marriage-related ministries.
Dropping the Divorce Bomb
When this couple walks through your door, you think you’re going to be talking about something light or about ministry. Instead, they drop the divorce bomb in your lap. They will probably tell you that they have tried counseling, but they didn’t follow through. They don’t pray together, connect emotionally, have limited touch and haven’t had sex in years. They’ve had a no-name cancer tear through their marriage. They didn’t know what to do, so they prayed and plodded along hoping it would get better. But it didn’t, and it became intolerably worse.
One spouse states feeling married and alone, like a roommate. This person describes his or her spouse in ways you can barely imagine because you have seen the public image of this wonderful man or woman. You’re now befuddled—and feel powerless—to stop this disease from killing a marriage. The good news is that there is a name for this cancer—intimacy anorexia. I have been treating this cancer for more than 15 years, and I’ve seen marriages healed and reconnected.
Intimacy anorexia is the active withholding of emotional, spiritual and sexual intimacy from a spouse. Looking normal, the anorexic can have positive relationships outside the marriage. But at home, this person is intentionally different. There are several characteristics of intimacy anorexia, so that you can become discerning of this cancer when you hear couples describe their marriage. There are also causes and helpful things that couples can do to save their marriage from eventual death.
Traits of Intimacy Anorexics
The first characteristic is being too busy. The anorexic stays so busy that there is no time for his or her mate. This person can be busy outside the home with ministry, sports, extra jobs or helping others in some manner. The anorexic can also be busy in the home cleaning the house, reading the paper, playing on the computer, making telephone calls, reading emails, having Facebook time or other projects to help justify avoidance of the spouse. This couple rarely goes on dates, and they have no consistent defined time together.
Blaming is the second characteristic of intimacy anorexia. The anorexic will blame his or her spouse for all or almost all of the problems in the marriage—leaving only one logical solution: his or her mate is the problem.
The third characteristic is withholding love. Each one of us knows exactly what makes our spouse feel loved. The anorexic knows this, intentionally withholding this from the other person to create pain. This person will say it’s not intentional, and will make his or her spouse feel loved to reconcile during a fight. Once the storm is over, the anorexic actively withholds this loving behavior toward the other person.
Withholding praise is the fourth characteristic. Again, this will only show up toward their spouse. The anorexic can praise others—Christian leaders, even the couple’s children—but this person will withhold praise directly toward his or her partner. Many spouses of anorexics have told me that the last time they heard their spouse praise them in a heartfelt manner was years ago.
Healing the Hidden Addiction
The fifth characteristic is withholding sex. To be clear, many male intimacy anorexics will have sex regularly, but they will be disconnected during sex. They have their eyes closed during sex, won’t talk during the intimate time and prefers lights off so they don’t have to connect. Some anorexics really do withhold sex, and won’t have sex at all or punish their spouse before, during or after sex in some manner. Some anorexics will also feel like a roommate, brother, sister or a good friend, but not a lover to their spouse.
Withholding spiritually is the sixth characteristic. Anorexics can quote the Bible publicly, counsel others, be altar workers or even preach and pray beautiful public prayers. However, they are totally prayerless and spiritually distant with their spouse at home. They don’t discuss their spiritual struggles with their spouse or minister to their mate when the opportunity arises.
The seventh characteristic is withholding feelings from their spouse. Anorexics’ agenda is to avoid intimacy in their marriage. They will rarely talk about their feelings, which means sharing not just information. Anorexics can go weeks or months without sharing the heart or emotions of their spouse. This lack of emotional connection drives their partner away in anger—a technique I call “starving the dog.”
Control through silence or anger is the eighth characteristic. Anorexics can control their spouse by not talking to them for hours, days or weeks. I had a couple in my office recently when it was disclosed that a Christian man didn’t talk to his wife for three weeks while living in the same house. Anger can also be used to push the spouse away intentionally creating distance in the marriage.
The ninth characteristic is criticism. Anorexics will regularly point out shortcomings of their spouse. This criticism is often ongoing and regularly ungrounded, but it is effective at creating distance. Criticism may also not be spoken, but the spouse can feel the internal judgments of the anorexic mate. These criticisms are painful to live with on a daily or regular basis.
The last characteristic of intimacy anorexia is controlling or shaming about money. Anorexics can spend and do what they want with money, but their spouse has to justify expenses or gets shamed for purchases.
Stopping the Silent Killer
There are four main causes for intimacy anorexia. First, anorexics may have suffered sexual abuse in their past. Second, they can be sexually addicted to porn, engaged in self-sex behavior or involved in extramarital sex (a large factor for most male anorexics). Third, anorexics could lack attachment to the opposite gender parent. Lastly, they could have experienced no attachment or role modeling of intimacy in their family while growing up.
So what do you do now that you find this silent killer of marriage in the flesh sitting in front of you? First, while in your office, have the couple pray together out loud in your presence. Then have them share two feelings with their spouse. These feelings should have nothing to do with their spouse. Next, have them give each other two praises toward each other, and let the receiver of the praise say thank you.
Then request that they do this exercise daily, and have the anorexic initiate this. The anorexic needs to come up with a consequence if he or she doesn’t initiate this daily. This consequence gives the anorexic pain for withholding instead of giving his or her spouse pain. When the anorexic has pain for withholding, then the system can change and bring healing to the marriage.
You can help this cancer from spreading through your ministry. Early assessing is much better than getting the divorce bomb.
This cancer slowly tortures the spouses of anorexics until they hit a breaking point. To evaluate someone you think may be an intimacy anorexic, there is a free test at www.intimacyanorexia.com that can be taken. If the spouse of the anorexic answers yes to five or more of these characteristics regarding their husband or wife, it is probably intimacy anorexia they are struggling with. They can also call my office and get a free assessment from a therapist over the phone.
I have known many couples riddled with this silent cancer who have been able to rebound to having a great marriage and continue to do authentic ministry.