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. Their secret is that they are not loved by each other and although they are married, the spouse 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 aren’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, computer, almost anything else that helps them avoid connecting with their spouse.
A spouse of an Intimacy Anorexic 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 he or she rarely praises or touches their spouse. 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.
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 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 20 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 person such as a spouse. However, when a man or a woman is a sex addict, often the Intimacy Anorexia is the primary addiction and the sexual addiction is secondary.
The sex addict/intimacy anorexic 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 spouse will need to address their sex addiction and 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 expressed 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 someone 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.
Busy: Staying so busy that you have little time for your spouse or partner.
Blame: If a problem or issue comes up in the relationship you will first blame your spouse before being able to see if you are part of the problem or issue.
Withholding Love: Not giving your spouse or partner love the way you know they receive love or how they have asked you to love them.
Withholding Praise: Not sharing with your spouse or partner about their positive qualities as a person and their positive impact on your life.
Withholding Sex: Avoiding sex, sabotaging sexual encounters or not connecting emotionally during sex with your spouse or partner.
Withholding Spiritually: Withholding spiritual connectedness from your spouse or partner.
Feelings: Being unable or unwilling to share feelings with your spouse or partner.
Criticism: Having ongoing or ungrounded criticism of your spouse or partner be it spoken or just in your head.
Anger/Silence: Using anger or silence as a way to control your spouse or partner.
Money: Controlling (by limiting, or letting you buy anything) or shaming around money issues with your spouse or partner.
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.
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.
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 and 5 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.
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.
Doug Weiss, Ph.D., is a nationally known author, speaker and licensed psychologist. He is the executive director of Heart to Heart Counseling Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the author of several books including, Intimacy Anorexia You may contact Dr. Weiss via his website, drdougweiss.com, by phone at 719-278-3708 or through email at [email protected]