Again, another nice couple walks into my office. They are both professionals, attractive, intelligent, have two children, and look pretty normal. The problem is that they are living a different life than they portray on the outside. No, they aren’t double agents or swingers, but they are living a lie. Their secret is that they do not love each other.
The secret life we are talking about here is where the spouse is married yet often feels alone. This desolate lifestyle is being lived by millions of couples across America. You and I might ask ourselves, “Why get married if you weren’t going to love your spouse? Why marry them and trap them in a marriage where you make no time for them, intentionally create distance, use anger or criticism to keep them hurt, and avoid intimacy?” In some marriages withholding physical intimacy is also a part of this secret life.
It’s this secret life that I discovered years into counseling couples and it’s something I want to share with you so that you can help someone you may know as well. The name of this secret is Intimacy Anorexia. Intimacy anorexia only shows up inside of a marriage or long term committed relationship. To everyone else, this person looks and acts very normal, even engaging. However, when they go home they are disconnected and even avoidant of any real intimacy with their spouse or partner. They prefer a book, television, their cell phone, work, a computer, almost anything else that helps them avoid connecting with their spouse.
Their spouse feels unwanted, unnoticed, hurt, resentful, and angry. They have to beg to be loved, heard, seen or touched. In public, their spouse pretends to be affectionate and caring, but at home rarely a praise or any touch is given. Sounds crazy, right?
Intimacy anorexia is rampant and either spouse can have this issue. Similar to the addictions that I treat in my office, there is a lot of denial around being an intimacy anorexic. Be aware of this if you are trying to address it with someone you know.
Let’s further define this relationship paradigm called intimacy anorexia. Intimacy anorexia is the active withholding of emotional, spiritual, and physical intimacy from the spouse or primary partner. Sharing a story of an intimacy anorexic is a good way to help you identify actual behaviors found in this secret relationship. Let’s look at the marriages of two couples, Joe and Mary, and Nancy and Tom.
Joe is an engineer. He works seventy hours at the office and has a hobby that takes up several more hours out of his week. He barely gets home in time to see his wife and kids. When not working, he sits in front of the television. He rarely has any meaningful conversations at home and gets critical if his wife, Mary, asks him to share about something from his day or when she tries to have any kind of emotional connection. They rarely go out on a date and sex is only once every two months at his wife’s initiation. Joe secretly views pornography and takes care of his own needs and has little connection to Mary. They have tried counseling, but it only gets better for a little while; then their sterile relationship returns. She feels ugly, rejected, and unloved in their twenty-three-year marriage.
Nancy is an amazing nurse. She has won several awards for her personal care toward her patients at the hospital and is a positive influence to other employees at work. Nancy also volunteers on Saturdays. When she goes home though, she tells Tom she doesn’t have anything else to give. They eat together, discuss bills, kids, and things that need to get done, but she never shares her feelings or herself with Tom.
Nancy rarely, if ever, praises Tom unless it’s at a social event. In thirty-five years of marriage, Nancy has initiated sex one time after drinking at a party. She can’t talk about sex and withdraws during their once a quarter sexual encounter. Tom feels duped because everyone loves Nancy yet all she does is read, volunteer, work, and sleep. He feels alone. This does not feel like a marriage. Because of his faith he doesn’t cheat, but continues to feel single in his marriage.
In the book Intimacy Anorexia: Healing the Hidden Addiction in Your Marriage (Discovery Press, 2010) four causes for this behavior are listed. The first cause of intimacy anorexia is sexual trauma. The individual who experiences this trauma may conclude that intimacy (not just sexual) is not safe or is actually painful. This person, at their very core, can avoid real intimacy due to their trauma. Not all survivors of sexual abuse become intimacy anorexics. However, over the last twenty years or so, while treating intimacy anorexics this has been a significant factor.
The second cause is the inability to attach to the cross gender parent during childhood. The opposite gender parent could have been hostile or emotionally unpredictable. The parent also could have been around physically, but was not emotionally present, may have betrayed confidences and could have been an addict or had mental health issues. That parent could have hid behind a newspaper, television, or activity and as a child you were more managed than related to by this cross gender parent.
The third cause of intimacy anorexia is very common and continues to grow in our culture. It’s sexual addiction. This person connects to fantasy and/or pornography on a regular basis. He or she begins to connect their sexuality to an object and not a person. They emotionally stay underdeveloped and have little need to connect deeply or emotionally to another soul (like a spouse). However, when a man or a woman is a sex addict (with self or others) often the intimacy anorexia is the primary addiction and the sexual addiction is secondary.
The sex addict/intimacy anorexic will have self sex or sex with others regularly, but will often have no connection sexually with their spouse and often will avoid it. In this case, both issues need to be resolved because these two issues can feed off of each other. The sex addict needs to find out what type of sex addict he or she is and address the intimacy anorexia to have a healthy marriage or relationship.
The fourth cause of intimacy anorexia is role model neglect. As a child, this person grew up never seeing intimacy in the home. Mom and dad didn’t kiss, touch, or show affection to each other or the children. The children totally gave up hope of connecting early on in life and fell into the grid that parents are there to do or perform, be managed and not connect to each other.
After reading this you can probably begin to make sense as to why some people would avoid connecting in a marriage or primary relationship. To truly see if you, or someone you love, has intimacy anorexia consider the ten characteristics.
Now that you know these characteristics, let me tell you how to use this information to benefit yourself or others. Ask yourself, “How would my spouse answer these questions about me?” In other words if your spouse or partner is Mary, how would Mary answer these ten questions about you? If your spouse or partner is Ed, ask yourself, “How would Ed answer these ten questions about me?” If they would give you five or more yes answers, you should get more information on intimacy anorexia. If you have way more than five yes answers, you might want to call for more information on getting help.
Many anorexics play a game called “Starve the dog.” They starve their spouse or partner of intimacy which, long term, causes the spouse or partner to act out in some way, for example, anger or overeating and then blame their spouse for the problem in the marriage.
A second game I see intimacy anorexics play is “I can read your mind.” In this game the intimacy anorexic declares, in their mind, what you are thinking or feeling and guesses your motives (they are always negative interpretations). They don’t have to tell you what you’re thinking, they just get to treat you as if that’s what you’re thinking. They get to treat you poorly, create distance, and blame you for the whole thing. Crazy, right? However, this game is constant in a relationship with an intimacy anorexic.
Intimacy anorexia is a stealth process. Once you understand what it is, you will never go back to not seeing it. It’s like Neo in the Matrix movie, once he took the pill he couldn’t go back to his previous life.
That’s my hope. Moving forward is what you can do or it’s something you can help someone else do. Going forward is a journey for both spouses in the relationship, but there is so much hope ahead of you. I have seen couples with this issue in my office for many years and many have done the hard work of recovery to make it work.
Real resources such as books, DVDs, workshops, 3-Day Intensives, phone groups, and more are becoming more available every day. Unlike our parents, with the help of these resources today, we can live abundant intimate marriages.
Professionally, I have counseled couples who haven’t had sex in ten or twenty years, yet after they start doing their daily work of recovery, they not only resumed regular sexual activity, they actually liked each other. So, if you or someone you love is feeling married and alone, trapped in a relationship where they are regularly asking, “Why won’t they love me?” tell them there is hope.
Intimacy anorexia can be the reason. Many couples are often totally unaware of what it is, much like the alcoholic, drug addict, or sex addict is unaware until being informed. The spouse is well aware of the intentional starvation of intimacy that they have experienced but there was no name for it. Now there is support and information for spouses of intimacy anorexics as well. They can take the free test at www.intimacyanorexia.com
My encouragement is that you take the next step if this applies to you. If it doesn’t apply to you and isn’t a part of your marriage trust me, you will know someone else at some point who needs this information. Strong, healthy marriages contribute to a better society for all of us.
Douglas Weiss, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist, Director of Heart to Heart Counseling Center in Colorado Springs, CO. www.intimacyanorexia.com or 719-278-3708.