Intimacy anorexia can have a devastating impact on relationships.
By Linda & Doug
A short while ago we received the following email message from a reader:
“We’re 2+years from D-day, still together. We are going through something I haven’t read y’all discussing. I have found the term that seems to fit but would like to know what y’all know about it. I have read about “hysterical bonding”. We’ve been through that phase. Now, it seems the term “intimacy anorexia“ may fit this phase. I’m concerned this may be permanent and we may only be roommates and never gain our intimacy back. Why is this happening? How am I supposed to deal with this on top of all the other stuff?
We have to admit that we’d never heard the term “intimacy anorexia“ before, though we had an idea of what it could be. Anyway, we told the reader we’d do a bit of research on this and put something together.
Intimacy anorexia is a condition that affects relationships in potentially devastating ways. If you or your partner are suffering from this issue, it can be difficult to deal with and even harder to overcome.
This article is not meant to be an all-inclusive guide on how to recover from intimacy anorexia. But if you suspect intimacy anorexia (IA) is present in your relationship, then understanding what it is, why it occurs, and the steps you can take for potential successful recovery will help make your recovery journey a bit easier.
What is Intimacy Anorexia?
Intimacy anorexia is a term coined by psychologist Dr. Douglas Weiss to describe a pattern of behavior in which someone actively withholds emotional, spiritual, and/or sexual intimacy from a partner.
This can manifest in a variety of ways, such as:
- Avoiding physical touch or affection
- Withholding compliments or praise
- Not sharing thoughts or feelings
- Being critical or judgmental
- Putting up walls or barriers
- Engaging in addictive behaviors
Intimacy anorexia can have a devastating impact on relationships. It can lead to feelings of loneliness, isolation, and despair.
It can also make it difficult to form and maintain healthy relationships, and you may get the feeling that you are destined to live forever as roommates.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Intimacy Anorexia?
If you are experiencing any of the following signs or symptoms, you may be struggling with intimacy anorexia:
- You feel uncomfortable or anxious when your partner tries to get close to you emotionally or physically.
- You avoid talking about your feelings or sharing your thoughts with your partner.
- You criticize or put down your partner frequently.
- You are constantly busy with work, hobbies, or other activities and don’t have time for your partner.
- You have a history of being in relationships that are emotionally or physically abusive.
- You have low self-esteem or a fear of abandonment.
Causes of Intimacy Anorexia
There are a number of factors that can increase the risk of developing IA, including:
- Childhood trauma: People who have experienced childhood trauma, such as abuse, neglect, or abandonment, are more likely to develop IA as a way of coping with their pain.
- Low self-esteem: People with low self-esteem may be afraid of being rejected or abandoned, which can lead them to avoid intimacy.
- Fear of abandonment: People who have a fear of abandonment may be afraid of getting too close to someone because they are afraid of being hurt.
- Anxiety: Anxiety can make it difficult to relax and be intimate with someone.
- Depression: Depression can make it difficult to feel connected to others and to want to be intimate.
Impact of Intimacy Anorexia
Intimacy anorexia can have a devastating impact on relationships, making it difficult to form and maintain healthy relationships.
Here are some of the potential impacts of IA on relationships:
- Lack of trust and intimacy: Intimacy anorexia can lead to a lack of trust and intimacy between partners. This can make it difficult to communicate openly and honestly, and it can also make it difficult to resolve conflict.
- Increased conflict: Intimacy anorexia can lead to increased conflict in a marriage. This is because partners may feel frustrated and resentful when their needs for intimacy are not met.
- Lower levels of satisfaction: Intimacy anorexia can lead to lower levels of satisfaction in a marriage. This is because partners may not feel emotionally or physically connected to each other.
- Increased risk of divorce: Intimacy anorexia can increase the risk of divorce. This is because it can lead to such a high level of dissatisfaction in a marriage that partners may decide to end the relationship.
Some of the impacts of intimacy anorexia on individuals include:
- Feelings of loneliness and isolation: Intimacy anorexia can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation. This is because individuals with intimacy anorexia may avoid close relationships and may not feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings with others.
- Low self-esteem: Intimacy anorexia can lead to low self-esteem. This is because individuals with intimacy anorexia may believe that they are not worthy of love or intimacy.
- Depression and anxiety: Intimacy anorexia can lead to depression and anxiety. This is because individuals with intimacy anorexia may feel stressed, overwhelmed, and unhappy.
- Substance abuse: Intimacy anorexia can lead to substance abuse. This is because individuals with intimacy anorexia may use drugs or alcohol to cope with the pain of feeling disconnected from others.
Correlation between Intimacy Anorexia and Infidelity
Not surprisingly, there seems to be a correlation between intimacy anorexia and infidelity. Over the years we’ve spoken to many individuals who have mentioned that they were in a sexless marriage – sometimes for many years. Now, whether or not this was caused by intimacy anorexia or not, is not clear. But the sexless marriage aspect was certainly mentioned as having played a major part in these individual’s decision to cheat.
In a study published in the Sexual and Relationship Therapy, researchers found that people with intimacy anorexia were more likely to engage in infidelity than those without intimacy anorexia. The researchers believe that this is because people with intimacy anorexia are afraid of getting too close to someone and they may use infidelity as a way to avoid intimacy.
Another study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that people with low self-esteem (both a cause and symptom of intimacy anorexia) were more likely to engage in infidelity than those with high self-esteem. The researchers believe that this is because people with low self-esteem may not feel worthy of love or intimacy and they may use infidelity as a way to feel good about themselves.
Finally, a study published in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy found that people who had experienced trauma, such as abuse, neglect, or abandonment (causes of intimacy anorexia), were more likely to engage in infidelity than those who had not experienced trauma. The researchers believe that this is because people who have experienced trauma may have difficulty trusting others and they may use infidelity as a way to feel in control.
Treatment for Intimacy Anorexia
There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for IA, as the best approach will vary depending on the individual’s specific needs and circumstances. However, there are a number of effective treatment options available, including:
- Individual therapy: Individual therapy can help individuals with intimacy anorexia to understand the root of their problem and develop healthy coping mechanisms.
- Couples therapy: Couples therapy can help couples to improve communication and intimacy, and to resolve any conflict that may be contributing to the intimacy anorexia.
- Group therapy/intensives: Group therapy can provide individuals with intimacy anorexia with support and guidance from others who are struggling with the same issue.
- Medication: In some cases, medication may be helpful in treating the underlying causes of intimacy anorexia, such as anxiety or depression.
You can learn more about potential treatments on Dr. Weiss’ site.
Here are some additional tips for overcoming intimacy anorexia:
Andrew Green, LCSW, SRT offers the following 4 steps to overcome intimacy anorexia (IA):
Step One: Understand how you got here.
The reasons behind intimacy anorexia usually boil down to four basic causes:
- Possible sexual abuse.
- Probable addiction to porn, self-sexual behavior, or sex with others outside of the marriage.
- Potential lack of attachment to the opposite gender parent.
- Possible lack of intimacy role modeling in the family of origin.
Step Two: Recognize you’re in this with your spouse (you always were).
In an effort to spare yourself the uncertainty of vulnerability in your relationship, you made your partner suffer. Your partner accepted that reality. Why? To get to the bottom of it, you’ll both have some tough emotional work to do. Avoidance is at the core of your relationship problem. Any more attempts to ignore, or hold back, ensures your relationship will continue to dissolve.
Step Three: Build intimacy across the board, whether you feel like it or not.
Accept that there will be times that you don’t feel like putting in the effort. Vulnerability does not come natural to you. You’re prone to sexual bingeing outside your relationship, and indulging intimacy starvation within it. Feeling like doing anything else won’t come naturally for a while, but keep working.
What actions should be taken?
- Seek the help of an IA trained therapist. Traditional marriage counseling is not built for this.
- Accept that, as an anorexic, you will be responsible for making a daily effort to connect. Your spouse has a right to establish some clearly defined boundaries, and consequences, for any attempt at “intimacy sabotage.”
- Heed intimacy anorexia pioneer Dr. Doug Weiss’ recommendation that the non-anorexic seek a “healing community” for support and understanding. Processing the feelings of intimacy deprivation is key, as is finding “healthier sources of intimacy nourishment.”
It takes time to learn to stay engaged and remain attentive.
Keep at it. The intimate feelings will come.
Step Four: Develop an awareness of danger signs that signal relapse.
You may be tempted to grab a couple of emotional bricks, and start rebuilding the walls between you. Don’t. Reach rather than “acting in.” Put down the bricks of silence, withdrawal, and anger. Give everything you’ve got to knocking down the rest of your walls. Try to develop a list of your own behaviors to watch. Some of those behaviors may include, but are not limited to:
- Staying too busy to connect
- Blaming instead of assuming responsibility
- Demonstrating anger/silent punishing
- Withholding sex and affection
- Withholding emotion
- Controlling with finances or property
Tips for Spouses of People with Intimacy Anorexia
- Talk to your partner about your concerns. It can be difficult to have this conversation, but it is important to try to understand why your partner is avoiding intimacy and what you can do to help them.
- Seek professional help. If your partner is struggling with intimacy anorexia, there are a number of resources available to help them, such as therapy or support groups.
- Take care of yourself. It is important to remember that you are not responsible for your partner’s behavior. Make sure to take care of yourself physically and emotionally.
- Set boundaries. If your partner is not willing to work on their intimacy issues, you may need to set boundaries to protect yourself. This could mean limiting the amount of time you spend with them or refusing to engage in certain behaviors.
- Don’t give up hope. It is possible for people with intimacy anorexia to overcome their condition. With time, patience, and support, your partner can learn to be more intimate with you.
Dr. Weiss has a quick video for spouses of intimacy anorexics:
Intimacy anorexia is a serious condition that can have a devastating impact on relationships. If you are struggling with intimacy anorexia, it is important to seek professional help. There are a number of effective treatments available, and with the right help, you can learn to overcome intimacy anorexia and build healthy, fulfilling relationships.
If you are in a relationship with someone who has intimacy anorexia, it is important to be patient and understanding. Remember that intimacy anorexia is a complex condition with multiple causes, and it may take time for your partner to heal. Be there for your partner and offer them support, and encourage them to seek professional help.
With the right help, intimacy anorexia is a treatable condition. With time and effort, you can overcome intimacy anorexia and build healthy, fulfilling relationships.