Marriages are often destroyed by adultery, alcoholism, sexual addiction, and other severe life events. Although extremely devastating, the end of these marriages makes some logical sense.
What many people do not know, is the Intimacy Anorexic marriage slowly dies, even though the marriage may look good on the outside for decades. The couple keeps busy raising their family, working in their community together, and serving in their church.
Many times these couples have tried counseling, but didn’t continue or follow through with consistent change. On the inside, this marriage is barely holding together. The couple does not pray together, connect emotionally, has limited touch, and sometimes the couple hasn’t had sex in years. The spouse describes feeling married and alone and as though they are living like roommates. They describe their spouse in ways another person can barely imagine because the public image of this man or woman is wonderful.
This couple has a cancer in their marriage. To them, the cancer does not have a name. Not knowing what to do, the husband and wife plod along simply hoping the marriage gets better but they find it does not. Rather, it becomes intolerably worse. The couple is befuddled and feels powerless to stop this disease from killing the marriage they have come to know and love.
The good news is, there is a name for this cancer and the ability to heal if the person is willing to change and reconnect in 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 the spouse. The anorexic can have positive relationships outside the marriage, even look normal, but at home with their spouse they are intentionally different.
I will identify the 10 characteristics of intimacy anorexia, the causes, and helpful tips that a person and couple can do to save their marriage from the starvation of love and intimacy which will eventually lead to the death of the marriage. Knowing these aspects will help you to become discerning of this cancer when you hear a couple describe their marriage.
The first characteristic is busyness. The anorexic stays so busy they have no time for his or her spouse. The anorexic stays 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, social media, or other projects to aid in justifying the intentional avoidance of spending time with the spouse. This couple rarely goes on dates or has specific and consistent time set aside to spend together.
The second characteristic of intimacy anorexia is blaming the spouse. The anorexic will blame their spouse for all or almost all of the problems in the marriage. The anorexic lives in an object relationship with themselves. They see something as all good or all bad. So, if you are offering anything other than praise to them, they will engage their defenses to keep them feeling good or wonderful. This leaves only one logical solution, you the spouse, are the problem.
The third characteristic is withholding love. I have three decades of experience in healing intimacy anorexia. If I were to ask every man or woman this question: “If a gun was held to your head, would you know exactly what makes your spouse feel loved?”, they would know the answer. The anorexic knows what makes their spouse feel loved and they will intentionally withhold this from their spouse to create pain. He or she will say this is not intentional, but when they are trying to make up to the spouse, they will provide this behavior so the spouse will feel loved and wish to reconcile. Then after a few days or weeks, 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 characteristic will only show up with their spouse. They can praise others, even their children, but will withhold praise directly from their spouse. Many spouses 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 will intentionally withhold an 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 the Bible publicly, counsel people, be altar workers, or even preach and pray beautiful public prayers. Yet at home, the intimacy anorexics 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 and emotions from their spouse. The anorexic’s agenda is to avoid intimacy in the marriage so 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 the 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 even while 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.
This identifiable cancer slowly tortures the spouse until they hit a breaking point. For an evaluation, please go to www.intimacyanorexia.com for a free test. If the spouse answers yes to five or more of these characteristics the person is probably struggling with intimacy anorexia.
The causes of intimacy anorexia are four fold. First, this person may have suffered sexual abuse. Second, 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). Third, they could lack attachment to the opposite gender parent. Fourth, they could have experienced no attachment or role modeling of intimacy in their family of origin.
Once you find that this silent killer of marriage is sitting in front of you, what is the next step? Firstly, pray together out loud. Then share two feelings with the other spouse that have nothing to do with the spouse (if you want a free feelings list, email email@example.com Then give each other two praises of each other and say thank you. These are called the three dailies and are found in the book Intimacy: A 100 Day Guide to Lasting Relationships. Then request they do this daily and have the anorexic initiate this with their spouse. The anorexic will need to have a consequence if they don’t initiate this with their spouse. This consequence gives the anorexic pain for withholding instead of giving the spouse the pain because of the withholding. When the anorexic experiences pain for their withholding, then the system can change.
Early assessment and recovery is much better than receiving the divorce bomb. We are here to serve if someone you love is struggling with this hidden cancer I have seen over the last fifteen years. Many couples riddled with this silent cancer rebound to having a great marriage.
Douglas Weiss, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Heart to Heart Counseling Center and the author of the book Intimacy Anorexia: Healing the Hidden Addiction in Your Marriage (Discovery Press, 2010).