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.
The Cancer of Marriage: Intimacy Anorexia
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.
What 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.
Characteristics of Intimacy Anorexia
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.
3. Withholding Love
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.
4. Withholding Praise
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.
5. Withholding Sex
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.
6. Withholding Spiritually
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.
7. Withholding Feelings and Emotions
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.”
8. Controlling with Silence or Anger
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.
9. Being Overly Critical
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.
10. Money or Spending Shaming
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.
11. Being Roommates
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.
Causes of 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 the feelings exercises 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).
To learn more about intimacy anorexia, visit our What Is Intimacy Anorexia? page.
Wow! It has a name! I’ve been suffering for over 20 years. The military was always the priority and i was even told that. I was told I had to wait my turn to be loved. I begged and pleaded to be loved and seen. I just wanted to be seen. He didn’t know the color of mg eyes until I recently found out about his emotional affair. How is that possible to have an EA? He withheld so much from me. He wanted the mother in me to take care of things. He wanted the housekeeper and bookkeeper to the keep the family together. He wanted me to support and praise him all while living the life that was more important to me. I attended ceremonies of deployment, promotion, graduation, certificates of appreciation, redeployments etc. I raised 4 kids, 2 his & 2 mine, essentially by myself. He participated more in being a father than a husband. Until she came back into his life. His AP ghosted him before we met and he always wondered what happened and she broke his heart. All things i didn’t know. She came back and he was ready to leave. He fantasized her into the perfect woman and even said she was better than me in every way. Now he says he was wrong and regrets it but how can I just erase those words? I can’t.
I am relieved to know it’s a real thing and not just in my head. I hope it’s not too late for us. My heart has been cold and in “operation” or “mission” mode. If i can’t be loved soon then I will have to decide to live my life empty and never loved or search out for a new life and take a chance at being loved. I never wanted anyone else and still want my marriage but how much is too much?
Thank you naming this and bringing the information to us.
My husband is IA. We have been married 30 years, and have had a totally sexless marriage for many, many years. I finally got him to admit that he needs help, and he agreed! He says he’ll do whatever it takes to save our marriage. He wants to know what you recommend, and whether there is anything on video that we could watch together. (He’s not much of a reader.)
That is a good start Deborah. I would watch the Intimacy Anorexia and Married and Alone DVDs. If you need more resources once you have watched them, the next steps are the IA recovery book sets and counseling for IA specifically. If you have any questions about the IA books, DVDs, or need help ordering, please call my office at 719-278-3708.
The Intimacy Anorexia DVD will help you both understand what intimacy anorexia is, what causes it, and ways to overcome it.
You Can Get The Intimacy Anorexia DVD Here
The Married and Alone DVD helps you recover as a wife of an intimacy anorexic. It helps you understand why you can feel disconnected, untouched, and unloved when dealing with intimacy anorexia and what you can do to change your situation.
The Married and Alone DVD
I have been married for 41 years, 9 out of 10 characteristics of intimacy anorexia it’s definitely my wife. Finally I have a name with a problem. When we first got married I asked her if this is going to get better she always had an excuse, then after two children our lives get busy and there were more excuses. For the last 20 years I have been diagnosed with severe depression and have been taking medication on and off all those years. There is no talking with her, when I do her anger is unmeasurable. For the last 15 years with no hope in sight and no prayers answered I have thought of suicide. There are times I do look forward to dying, praying that I will see God and feel his love. For me I cannot imagine the feeling of having felt love in my life. I do enjoy giving and helping others and I don’t expect anything back from them but I don’t receive anything back from my wife. I want to thank you for understanding the victims and understanding intimacy anorexia. You totally nailed the problem and I’m sure you have a great solution but with my wife’s anger it would not work for me. This is the first time I have ever written anything out like this. Even if no one reads this it tries to help me to understand that this is not my fault. Tom
Glad we could help. We do have phone support groups for men who are married to women with IA. Give my office a call at 719-278-3708, and we can send you the info.