Intimacy Anorexia

Intimacy anorexia is a pattern in which one or both members in a relationship, typically the primary committed relationship, put up barriers, avoid, or withhold nurturing the relationship. The pattern is not merely isolated to a single type of behavior but occurs across different spheres of intimacy. So, although “we just don’t talk” might be a symptom of intimacy anorexia, this alone would not be sufficient for diagnosing the syndrome.

In intimacy anorexia, the lack of “talk” is not compensated by nonverbal communication and so it weakens the sense of emotional, intellectual, physical, spiritual, and/or sexual closeness and attachment to each other. The intimacy anorexic restricts the free flow of love much the way a food anorexic restricts the intake of food. Because it is not nourished, the relationship withers.

The individuals in the relationship wither as well. Intimacy anorexia is about control through deprivation. When one deprives their spouse of connection, they also deprive themself. That deprivation can result in emotional isolation that can leave both of you, but particularly the spouse, feeling that despite being married, you are alone in this relationship.

You can request an evaluation from our intimacy anorexia team to assess the specific patterns in your relationship. Ask yourself the following questions to determine if a more thorough evaluation would be helpful.

For the PartnerFor the Anorexic
Are you starved for affection in the relationship? Do you feel loved and appreciated, or deprived and neglected?Do you withhold praise or affection?
Do you feel as if you are married but alone in this relationship?Does your behavior communicate you don’t need your partner?
Do you feel locked out from her/his feelings or as if yours are unappreciated?Do you guard your heart so your mate can’t get in?
Does s/he blame shift to deny responsibility or avoid looking at his/her own issues?Do you play the blame game?
Has your spirit and self-esteem been systematically chipped away?Do you use criticism to push your partner away?
Do you feel rejected, unwanted, or unattractive to your mate?Do you withhold or sabotage sex?
Is s/he controlling about money?Do you control or use guilt trips or shaming to manipulate your mate about money?
Does s/he clam up when you try to communicate about something important to you?Do you stonewall when your mate tries to communicate with you?
Do you worry about upsetting him/her or feel like you have a walking on eggshells lifestyle?Do you use anger to shut down attempts to connect?

Do you feel more like roommates than lovers?

The answer is complex because it’s both yes and no. There can be a great deal of overlap between these disorders, but they can and do occur independently of each other. Pornography and sexual addiction involve compulsively ‘acting out’ sexual behaviors. Sexual anorexia involves compulsively ‘acting in’ with sexual behaviors, which may or may not include a more widespread withholding in other areas of intimacy. Intimacy anorexia, however, involves acting in across multiple intimacy domains, which may or may not include withholding sexual intimacy.

Approximately 40-50% of our sex or pornography addicted clients also engage in intimacy anorexic patterns. Deeper recovery requires addressing both issues. Most of the clients in our dual program come to believe that intimacy anorexia is the root of the sex addiction problem.

Our team also sees overlap between sex addiction, especially pornography addiction, and sexual anorexia. The irony is that the same person who is out of control with pornography or sexual behavior outside of the primary relationship may simultaneously go for weeks, months, or years placing little or no energy into nurturing a sexual relationship with his or her partner, sometimes due to PIED, or Pornography-Induced Erectile Dysfunction. More often than not, intimacy anorexia is also present and the relationship withers from emotional deprivation.

A common pattern we see in the recovering community is that sexual acting out behaviors are recognized as a problem. However, there is often little or no recognition of acting in behaviors. For the sex addict this results in two harmful effects: 1) relapse and 2) a glass ceiling on the depth of his or her recovery. Just as a severely restrictive food diet sets the dieter up for a sense of deprivation that ultimately fuels a binge, unaddressed sexual and intimacy anorexia sets the addict up for a sense of deprivation that ultimately fuels a relapse and prevents deeper healing. When sex addiction and intimacy anorexia cycle together, they both require treatment.

Ignoring anorexia has consequences for your relationship as well. It punishes your mate. It dooms your partner to a life of loneliness, it strips away self-esteem, and deprives him or her of being fully loved and of the freedom to fully love in return. The long-term consequences predispose to bitterness and resentment. You both deserve better.

If you are a partner of an intimacy anorexic you may not have known the label but you are probably very aware of the impact of the anorexia on your relationship, on you.

Your addict may be expecting praise for how hard he or she has worked on stopping the acting out but have done nothing to change the acting in, and have no understanding of why you may still be angry, disappointed, or expecting more. But for you, that’s when you really get it — that despite his or her progress on the addiction your needs are still not being met. You are still not being cherished!

Intimacy anorexia is an equal opportunity relationship destroyer – this relationship pattern doesn’t care about gender.

Yes. Both individuals and relationships can and do recover, but it takes work from both of you. Since anorexia involves using avoidance and withholding as a means of managing fear of being vulnerable, if you wait for the acting-in to magically disappear the situation will likely never change — or your relationship will die while you’re waiting.

You have to work on strengthening skills using intimacy boosters to create a bridge; thereby, deepening your connection to each other across multiple spheres of intimacy. And you have to do this on purpose, even before you feel like behaving more intimately. If you do the work the feelings will likely follow.

Yes! The support of a community is a vital for more lasting change. Consequently, we offer sex addiction-intimacy anorexia groups, as well as groups for partners who have experienced betrayal and intimacy deprivation. Check out our Men’s Intimacy Anorexia: Helping Your Relationship Heal and Partner Betrayal: Married and Alone Spouse groups.

Not all therapists are trained to treat intimacy anorexia. Our team leaders, Janice Caudill and Eric Tooley, are the first therapists in Texas to be certified as Intimacy Anorexia Therapists.

For more information on intimacy anorexia, check out the intimacy anorexia blog or contact us.


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