Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

The Anorexic Marriage: A Void of Intimacy

You may be asking: “What’s an anorexic marriage?”. To answer that question, let me first explain the entities that are involved in a marriage. A common view of marriage is that it consists of two entities, 1) me and 2) my spouse. At Affair Recovery however, we believe that marriage consists of three separate entities, 1) me 2) my spouse and 3) ‘us’. Both spouses have to engage with one another for there to be a healthy sense of ‘us.’ Anorexia is a Greek word, the prefix AN means without, the word OREXIS means appetite (The Oxford Dictionary). So marital anorexia is a marriage where either one or both partners lack or are without appetite for the marriage. In other words, it’s a marriage where one or both partners compulsively withhold themselves from the marriage.

Anorexia Nervosa, the most familiar meaning of anorexia, is an addictive disorder where the individual is obsessed with losing weight by refusing to eat. Unlike many other addictions, it differs from how we normally think about an addiction in that it is a negative addiction. Often someone suffering from anorexia is every bit as obsessed with food as the alcoholic or heroin addict is with their drug of choice. The only difference is that one form of addiction is about consumption and the other about restriction. As with drug addictions, food addictions, like anorexia or bulimia, require more and more of what doesn’t work and can eventually lead to death.

Researcher Patrick Carnes and others have written about sexual anorexia and intimacy anorexia. Sexual addiction is something most of us have heard of but frequently we fail to see the opposite side of the same coin, negative addiction. The sexual anorexic has a lack of desire for a relationship of a sexual nature, and for sex addicts, beyond their addictive behaviors such as prostitutes, strip clubs and other extramarital relationships such as limerent relationships. The intimacy anorexic withholds emotional and spiritual intimacy from their mate even when it’s damaging to their mate and to self.

Please note: This article’s purpose is not to diagnose the reader or their spouse as having a disorder and it is not stating that withholding sexual intimacy right after the discovery of an affair is wrong because rebuilding intimacy is a journey not done overnight.

Treating anorexia isn’t as easy as just treating the negatively addicted person. Long ago, therapists discovered that the addict could change and have their disorder under control, but when they returned to their family system they would often relapse. Treating the “identified patient” (IP) wasn’t sufficient for sustained change to occur. To succeed, the family system had to alter their pattern of interactions with the IP.

The same is true of Alcoholism and is why Al-Anon was created. Al-Anon helps families and friends of alcoholics and they believe that alcoholism is a family illness and that changed attitudes can aid recovery. Unless addicts and co-addicts change concurrently, the relational shift brought on by the alcoholic’s recovery can leave the couple incapable of relating to one another as they once had.

C.S. Lewis says, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” “The Four Loves” (1960) by C. S. Lewis; Chapter: 6 (Charity).

Who wants to want if you don’t feel wanted? To love is to risk and when we’re wounded, why would we want to take that risk again? At the same time, C.S. Lewis points out the consequence of choosing to make sure your heart is protected is losing the opportunity be alive.

The impact of infidelity can bring the onset of marital anorexia. Even if neither party was withholding themselves in the relationship prior to the affair, the impact of infidelity and the ensuing shock waves are capable of leaving one or both parties obsessed with withholding from the relationship. As with the person who is obsessed with losing weight by refusing to eat, the marital anorexic is obsessed with avoiding any painful or uncomfortable interactions by refusing to engage with their mate. In the same way the food anorexic suppresses their appetite to avoid the feeling of hunger, the marital anorexic suppresses their feelings of love to avoid the desire to engage with their mate.

Characteristics of Marital Anorexia:

An avoidance of engaging with other couples:

John Donne coined the phrase “No man is an island.” The same is true when it comes to the ‘us’ created by our union as husband and wife. As individuals, we need friends who are safe people to talk to. Marriages are no different. They also need other couples with which to interact. However, when one or both parties are obsessed with avoiding interacting with their mate, there is not enough sense of ‘us’ to engage with other couples.

Relational falsification:

Food anorexics are “body dimorphic” which means they have a distorted view of their appearance. Even though they may be 5’5” and 90 pounds, when they look in the mirror they see themselves as fat. The same is true for the anorexic marriage. It’s not conscious, but when the marital anorexic evaluates their relationship with their mate it appears distorted.

Distancing behaviors:

This behavior could be described by closed body language such as crossed arms and the avoidance of eye contact. It also might appear in conversations that are either shallow or controlling or when short answers are given to questions and impatience or irritation can be heard in their tone of voice. Additionally, time at home is avoided by spending as much time as possible with friends or at work.

Unwillingness to share feelings:

They leave each other in the dark regarding how they’re feeling. A spouse may discuss day to day necessities, but beyond that they will avoid conversations altogether.

Unwillingness to be positive or give compliments:

Marital anorexics avoid saying anything positive about their spouse, for fear their mate will mistake it as a sign that they might be interested in the relationship. They tell themselves they don’t want to give their mate false hope by being kind.

Blaming:

In the anorexic marriage there’s a good chance that neither party will take any personal responsibility and will blame their mate for their problems.

 Suggestions for addressing marital anorexia:

Acknowledgement:

As the old saying goes, “If you can’t accept where you’re at, you’ll never get to where you want to go”. The first step is to acknowledge there is a problem. Without accepting the existence of the problem, nothing will change.

Couples’ group work:

With out witnessing other couples and their interactions, it is far easy to deceive yourself into believing the lack of interactions between you and your mate are normal. The Group Process is one of the most powerful ways to facilitate change and reengagement in your marriage.

Empathy Development:

As human beings we need to know that we matter to our mate, that they want to be with us, that they are going to be there for us. We need to know that they care enough to seek to understand us and let us get to know them. A simple exercise to facilitate this understanding is for husband and wife to each share one feeling they had at some point during the day and then to share the first time they ever felt that feeling. Next both spouses share something they appreciate about their mate.

Empathy development is not easy and is one of the essential components of both the EMS Online Course and the EMS Weekend retreat.

Establish rituals of engagement:

If there has been a lack of appetite to engage in the marriage then developing pathways for that to occur is critical. Simply kissing each other when you part for the day is a good start. Making it a goal to hug for sixty seconds when you both get together at the end of the day is another approach to beginning to overcome the fears of reengaging.

Identify the personal barriers to engaging in the marriage and address them:

Each party needs to identify what makes it difficult for them to reengage. If it’s bitterness or resentment then that needs to be addressed, each party needs to develop a compassionate heart for their mate. Taking your own personal inventory and identifying why it would be difficult to be married to you goes a long way in shifting the perspective of the marriage. We have to remember that our mate is not my problem my mate only reveals the problem in me.

Much more could be said, but hopefully this will give you some understanding of the problem as well as ideas of how you can move forward. For me, it’s understandable why couples come to the place of marital anorexia after infidelity, but it’s vexing why someone would choose to stay there long term. Whether the problem existed before the infidelity or was triggered by the infidelity, it has the potential to affect your most significant relationships for the remainder of your life. Please have the courage to come out from behind the wall of self-protection and begin to take the risk to both love and to let someone love you. If you or someone you know may be struggling from marital anorexia EMS Online is a great step by step process to begin healing and building a new type of marriage. Please do not spend the rest of your life robbing yourself of intimacy which we has humans so desperately need.

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Comments

bitterness and resentment

How can I have compassion when he did this twice? I have trust, he's being great, etc but he saw what the first one did to me and then he did it again... ugh.

A great article for any one who has an "us"

This was great. It gave so many helpful tips to begin the process of coming out of an anorexic way of life. Thank you for this, it was needed today.

Anorexic marriage

Great info! I'm wondering if it is possible to be both a sex addict and an anorexic? I'm married to a recovering sex addict and after reading this I can see that he was definitely anorexic in our relationship during his years of acting out. Is this possible?

How come

"Do you ever wonder why your spouse can connect with others, or even with other affair partners, but not you, their own spouse?" - I think what you call "marital anorexia" is a pure lack of desire. How can someone long for intimacy and conversation, for love and apreciation, but refuse to look for these at home? How can you say "I'm so tired, I can't even talk." and then stay late at night (or rather early in the morning) to talk to your OW on the phone, after you have spent the entire day together? After my husband's affair came to light, I tried everything to make him talk to me. He does only when I threaten him I will kick him out of the house. Then he promises he will do his best to improve our communication, that he will try to spend at least one hour a day with me just talking about what happened with our life... He tells me he is sorry and wants to make the thing right, even says he loves me... And the next day - nothing! He comes home, we talk abour everyday stuff, then have dinner and he falls asleep. And this has been going on for a year and a half! If I start a conversation he reluctantly talks - lies most of the time. If I keep silent, he'd never start. I believe that if someone wants to do the right thing, he will find a way! If he doesn't struggle for what he wants, it means he doesn't want it! And not wanting to love and communicate to your mate is not an anorexia - it is purely an absence of love! Is such a relationship worth saving at all?

exactly

Our stories are almost exactly alike. I have been asking all the same questions that you did. Sadly, no answers yet. I am weary of trying to do things to make this marriage work while he just avoids, stonewalls, evades answering, and expects life to just go on, ("move on into the future" as he says) and sweep the affairs under the rug. I too am beginning to wonder if it is worth saving as well. Will be praying for you. If you come to some revelation that gives you answers, please reply back to me. They may help me too.

Great Article!

Thank you for the insight! Very good information!

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