In seeing couples for over eighteen years, fairly regularly I met with clients who aggressively avoided intimacy. Over time I put a cluster of symptoms together and in our field of recovery this condition became known as intimacy anorexia.
Tonya was a very athletic woman who was married to Tim for seventeen years. They had one child. Tonya was a flight attendant and Tim was a chiropractor in a suburb. Tonya worked quite a bit even though she didn’t need the money. When Tonya was home, she busied herself with ten-mile runs, swimming, riding her bike, and working out. At night she read books or magazines or studied her Bible.
Sex with Tim was infrequent and Tonya never asked for it. Tonya didn’t like to pray with Tim, and Tim felt he couldn’t connect with Tonya unless they got together to support their child’s activities.
Although Tim was fit, he wasn’t exactly a calorie counter. He ate burgers here and there and occasionally a soda or candy bar. Tim reported feeling very alone, but if he and Tonya started getting closer, Tonya regularly picked a fight. Tim felt hopeless about ever feeling loved and felt more like Tonya’s servant than her lover or husband.
Micah is an engineer. He and Trisha had been married thirteen years and had two boys. Micah worked a lot. When he came home he ate and hit the computer for work, watched television, did yard work, or played video games. Micah seemed to be a good dad who was involved in the Boy Scouts with the boys. Trisha said they didn’t really talk. She felt avoided emotionally and spiritually and felt alone even when they had sex.
She tried to introduce the marriage books, going to marriage conferences, or even seeking counseling but Micah’s response was always the same: “I’m not a girl and I don’t do that kind of stuff.” Micah controlled Trisha with his cold silence or outbursts of anger.
Trisha tried to make the best of their relationship and felt forced by her faith to stay. Micah didn’t take any responsibility when he made mistakes in the relationship. Trisha said he blamed her for everything and made her feel needy for wanting a kiss or caress or when she tried to be creative sexually.
Like the food anorexic who refuses to eat, the intimacy or sexual anorexic refuses to connect to his or her spouse. These people can be masterful at other relationships but in marriage they avoid intimacy both physical and emotional.
I have put together a checklist so you can see if this is a crack that might be growing in your marriage. If someone has five or more yes answers, it’s probably time to make a call to get help. This crack can be very serious and can largely impact the success of your marriage.
What are the characteristics of intimacy anorexia?
There are ten characteristics of intimacy anorexia. Take our online test to find out if this is something that may be present in your marriage.
1. Busy: Intimacy anorexics stay so busy that they have little time for their spouse.
2. Blame: The intimacy anorexic will blame their spouse for the problems in the marriage.
3. Withholding Love: The intimacy anorexic actively withholds love the way the spouse likes to be loved.
4. Withholding Praise: Intimacy anorexics do not regularly praise their spouse privately.
5. Withholding Sex: Not all intimacy anorexics withhold sex from their spouse. Most intimacy anorexics do though withhold intimacy during sex.
6. Withholding Spiritually: Intimacy anorexics can be very religious by attending church and can even be the pastor or spiritual leader at the church. But at home they rarely pray with their spouse or worship or read the Bible together.
7. Feelings: The intimacy anorexic is someone who is unwilling or unable to share their feelings with their spouse.
8. Criticism: Ongoing or ungrounded criticism toward their spouse is another characteristic of intimacy anorexia.
9. Anger/Silence: An intimacy anorexic can use anger or silence to control their spouse.
10. Money: This is the least common feature of intimacy anorexia but when it’s present it is really strong. The intimacy anorexic will use money to control the spouse.
Now be careful not to confuse just a bad day or two for intimacy issues or intimacy anorexia. This anorexia is a pattern you would see regularly over the marriage. If you see the long-term pattern usually starting after the first year of marriage then you should seek help.
Intimacy anorexia is like an addiction. The person who has it can use denial, anger, blaming, or rationalization of the behavior. The intimacy anorexic can be the nicest man or woman to others. It’s only in the marriage that this person avoids intimacy. The spouse of an anorexic feels unimportant, unwanted, and untouched and will feel as if he or she is starving for connection and begging for love.
Persons suffering from intimacy anorexia can, like other addicts, be helped if they really want to be free. They also have to admit that they have a problem (this is difficult because they desire to be good or seem so most of the time).
They have to complete a daily regime of intimacy exercises with their spouses. They also have to initiate sexual intimacy on a regular basis. To be successful early on, they have to face consequences for withholding love or sex.
I have had couples so intimacy anorexic that they hadn’t had sex in more than ten years. After their 3-5 Day Intensive, these couples were amazingly happy.
I will never forget a Texas man who, two months after he’d been working his treatment plan, sat in my office and cried because he was so happy. He thought he would never be able to intimately connect with the wife he really loved. Healing from intimacy or sexual anorexia is work, but the results are so amazing.
Excerpt taken from: The Ten Minute Marriage Principle
Are you serious? My husband will actually be happy to sleep outside the bedroom. So happy that he now sleeps in the other room and never ever wants to touch me anymore, just ocasionally touching my back. If I punish him for not making love to me, he will silent treat me and call me spoiled or needy.
Is there an better answer to this?
You indicate “to be successful early on, they have to face consequences for withholding love or sex.” Do you have suggestions for appropriate consequences? I don’t seek to “punish”, but I do want him to be accountable. He has spent a year addressing his sexual addiction, but the intimacy anorexia is really the overriding issue.
Some consequences that others have used are: eating a raw onion, sleeping outside or in the garage, sending money to the opposite political party, detailing your car, or giving you a 30 minute foot massage.