What’s the emotional climate of your relationship? Is your partner witholding affection? Hungry for connection? Wondering how you ended up married but alone?
If you’re feeling intimacy deprived, then intimacy anorexia may be the hidden culprit. Intimacy anorexia is a particularly pernicious form of love avoidance that goes largely unrecognized, even in the counseling world. It’s like a relationship sniper that hides in the shadows taking pot shots at the sense of closeness and emotional safety that should exist in the coupleship.
As a psychologist who specializes in relational trauma and intimacy disorders, I’ve been surprised by the damage intimacy anorexia can cause. While some intimacy anorexics acknowledge their behavior, most often it comes to light when the spouse seeks help. The intimacy anorexic spouse may be male or female; however, in my particular practice, the help seeking spouse is overwhelmingly female, usually in a marital relationship.
The primary tool of the intimacy anorexic is withholding — withholding of attention, of words of affection, of touch, of communication, of a spiritual connection, of the behaviors that communicate love and feed his partner’s heart. It’s been said that vulnerability is the soul of intimacy, but vulnerable is the one thing the intimacy anorexic cannot allow himself to be. The withholding of the intimacy anorexic takes the relationship, and the spouse, hostage.
The withholding may occur in a variety of ways:
So why would anyone get involved with someone who keeps his heart behind an iron fence? Because the intimacy walls don’t go up until after the spouse makes a commitment. During the courtship phase, the intimacy anorexic may be open, warm, and attentive. Afterward, the walls go up and the sharing of intimacy goes down. The anorexic pattern may be one of passive avoidance, passive aggression, or overt hostility. However, the end result is the same; the intimacy anorexic is in control of the flow of love in the relationship.
At first the spouse may be confused, hurt, wondering what’s happened, what’s she doing wrong. She may try harder and give more, with little return on her emotional investment. Over time the hurt may give way to anger, before settling into a simmering resentment and bitterness. Alternatively, she may become resigned to life in a relationship where she doesn’t feel cherished by her mate.
If the primary tools of the intimacy anorexic are withholding and control, the primary consequences for the spouse are intimacy deprivation and isolation. The spouse is isolated from being nurtured inside the relationship and isolated from the understanding from friends and family that could help to buffer her emptiness.
She’s unlikely to receive true understanding or empathy from others unfamiliar with intimacy anorexia because of the most important characteristic of intimacy anorexia — the anorexia is reserved for the primary partner. To others, he’s Mr. Nice Guy. So when the spouse turns to others for validation and comfort, not only is she not believed, she may even be perceived as the source of the problem.
However, the spouse who is dealing with both the intimacy anorexia and the pornography or sexual addiction of her mate, is particularly vulnerable to emotional, spiritual, and sexual depletion. According to sexual addiction and intimacy anorexia expert Douglas Weiss, PhD, 29% of male sex addicts and 39% of female sex addicts are intimacy anorexic with their primary partner. Dr. Weiss views intimacy anorexia as a compulsive behavioral withholding from which the anorexic derives both a relief at avoiding the underlying fear of intimacy and a sense of power at being in control in the relationship. In this sense, intimacy anorexia is similar to an addiction.
In general, self-help books and relationship therapies that aren’t specifically designed to address intimacy anorexia aren’t helpful, and in some cases may actually be harmful, because the intimacy anorexic plays by a different set of rules.
Regardless of whether the intimacy anorexic is a willing participate in treatment, Weiss recommends the spouse seek a healing community of women who understand the pain of intimacy deprivation, support her in finding healthier sources of intimacy nourishment, and encourage her to implement a relationship boundary system that holds the anorexic accountable for intimacy sabotage. To find a list of therapists who are trained in treating intimacy anorexia contact the American Association of Sex Addiction Therapy.
Dr. Janice Caudill is the founder and Clinical Director of McKinney Counseling & Recovery. MCR offers individual, couples, group therapy and multi-day intensives for partners of sex addicts and wounded hearts struggling with sex addiction, infidelity, love addiction or love avoidance, intimacy anorexia, or relational trauma in the McKinney, Plano, Allen, Richardson, Frisco, Carrollton, Lewisville, Dallas and surrounding areas.
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