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

The Anorexic Marriage: A Void of Intimacy

Cover more ground faster with the life-changing experience of EMS Weekend for couples.

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This is not your average light and fluffy program that only scratches the surface. Up front, it's important to know that we won't shame the unfaithful spouse nor blame the betrayed spouse. This 3 day intensive is a safe place for both of you to heal.
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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.

"What's an anorexic marriage?"

The question is more common than you may think.

To answer said question, let me first explain the entities that are involved in a marriage. A traditional, common view of marriage is that it consists of two entities:

  1. Me.
  2. My spouse.

At Affair Recovery however, we believe that marriage consists of three separate entities:

  1. Me
  2. My spouse
  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).

Anorexia Nervosa, the most familiar meaning of anorexia, is an addictive disorder where the individual is obsessed with losing weight by refusing to eat.

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.

anorexic marriage void of intimacy

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.

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, a lack of desire for sexual relationships beyond their addictive behaviors (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 their self.

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.

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 that the consequence of choosing to make sure your heart is protected is losing the opportunity be alive:

"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."1

-C.S. Lewis

Infidelity can bring about the onset of marital anorexia with incredible speed. 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:

  1. An avoidance of engaging with other couples:

  2. 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.

  3. Relational falsification:

  4. Food anorexics are "body dysmorphic" 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, unfulfilled and in want of something far more.

  5. Distancing behaviors:

  6. This behavior could include closed body language such as crossed arms and the avoidance of eye contact, as well as other stonewalling tactics. 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.

  7. Unwillingness to share feelings:

  8. 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.

  9. Unwillingness to be positive or give compliments:

  10. 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.

  11. Blaming:

  12. 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:

  1. Acknowledgement:

  2. 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.

  3. Couples' group work:

  4. Without witnessing other couples and their interactions, it is far too easy to deceive yourself into believing the lack of interactions between you and your mate are normal. The safe and expert-guided Group Process is one of the most powerful ways to facilitate change and reengagement in your marriage.

  5. Empathy Development:

  6. 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 our EMS Weekend Seminar. Without concentrated effort, many times, true empathy appears elusive to the unfaithful spouse. In their own mind they've been empathetic and remorseful, however in reality they've been disengaged with their spouse.

  7. Establish rituals of engagement:

  8. If there has been a lack of appetite to engage in the marriage then developing pathways for engagement 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. Often times, it's small, measurable steps which will lead couples slowly in the direction of reestablishing intimacy.

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

  10. Each party needs to identify what makes it difficult for them to re-engage. If it's bitterness or resentment then that needs to be addressed. Each party will need to develop a compassionate heart for their mate in spite of what's transpired. 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 my 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 our EMS Weekend 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 as humans so desperately need.

EMS Weekend is VIRTUAL!

Cover more ground faster with the life-changing experience of EMS Weekend for couples. See the videos at the bottom for more information.

This is not your average light and fluffy program that only scratches the surface. Up front, it's important to know that we won't shame the unfaithful spouse nor blame the betrayed spouse. This 3 day intensive is a safe place for both of you to heal.
Now offering $1,000 discount for virtual months during the pandemic. Limited availability.

Sign Up Now!

Rick and Wayne Share Their Experiences

After our very first Virtual EMS Weekend in April, Rick and Wayne shared their experiences in the videos below. Over 200 couples have now participated in our Virtual Weekend Experience and it's only getting better.

Don't just take our word for it.

Click here to read testimonials of others who have experienced this transformative weekend first hand.

Sign Up Now!

  1. "The Four Loves" (1960) by C. S. Lewis; Chapter: 6 (Charity).



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Anorexic Marriage

I read this article and thought Bingo! These are my husband. All of them. I've been trying the little things, but he pushes me away. Excuse for any and every time I try for intimacy. 16 months, EMS weekend, 7 weeks with group sessions. I tried. I gave him space and prayed that the little things, kissing 4 or more times a day. Prayed together in the morning. Tried complimenting him, bragging on him, joining his band wagon. Famous saying, if you can't beat them, join them. We do everything together. Even when he gets mad and asks for his space, he still asks me to go with him or help with what he is doing.
16 months and something told me to track him. See if he is being true to his word. Nope. Still seeing her. Caught him at her house.
That is why he is avoiding me and making as many excuses that he can't get it up. Creates projects just to avoid me. Stays on computer when he isn't working. Can't lay a hand on me, because it doesn't feel right. (it didn't bother him before) I tried. I prayed, respected, and gave him space. I even told him what he was purposely doing. Ruining our marriage. I didn't want a divorce, but he has left me no choice. He controls our marriage. I could go on, but this is a choice to stay with your lusting prostitute or working it out with your spouse.

What type of affair was it?

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