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

The Anorexic Marriage: A Void of Intimacy

anorexic marriage void of intimacy

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 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).
 
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.

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

The impact of infidelity can bring 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:

A.  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.

B.  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, unfulfilled and in want of something far more.

C.  Distancing behaviors:

This behavior could be described by closed body language such as crossed arms and the avoidance of eye contact, including 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.

D,  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.

E.  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.

F.  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:

A,  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.

B.  Couples’ group work:

Without 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 safe and expert guided Group Process is one of the most powerful ways to facilitate change and reengagement in your marriage.

C.  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 our EMS Weekend retreat. 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.

D.  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. Often times it’s small, measurable steps which will lead couples slowly in the direction of reestablishing intimacy.

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

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.

 

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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!

I related to being in an anorexic marriage

This article hit such a nerve in me that at my 1st attempt to read it, I had to put it away, until I was somewhere where I could scream out loud or bawl, if I need to. As a betrayed husband, it resonates so deeply within me. I have felt and known the unevenness in our marriage for years, in part because my wife has been honest with her weakness, but also in part because I could feel the distance and lack of connection that I desired.
She had had some inappropriate relationships over the years, with multiple men going back in her past, but most recently, she has revealed that one such relationship has gotten physical with someone, not in another city, but here where we live.
I have felt totally used for my years of faithfulness and hoping. I have felt embittered and foolish for having been taken advantage of an betrayed, and there are days when I am struggling to hold on.....not quite knowing what I am holding on to. I desperately want to heal, but at the same time, I know that I cannot trust, and don't know it I will ever be able to trust again.
After giving my heart for 17 years, and hoping and pushing to work on things, and coming up empty, only to be betrayed, I can very much feel like continuing to fight means that I am fighting losing battle, and all I am achieving is an accumulation of increased pain and suffering.
CS Lewis' words cut like a knife, because I can feel the temptation to shut down my heart in my marriage.
I can feel especially triggered when I feel her shutting down, refusing to share, especially after she has blown up for some unexplained reason. I can get to simply feeling that she has determined never to be happy with me.
I am frustrated and challenged by the steps listed to take to addressing the anorexic marriage, because honestly I am not able to influence, or if am being raw honest, able to control her willingness to fully engage, or engage at any level at all on some of these. Even as we working through the EMSO (Secular Beta version) and we are on week 4, I can see we have long way to go, and I see how my thinking and many times my truths are upside down, but still these the things that I know, that she has told me already (on many many occasions) about her lack of desire for me, and aspects or our marriage pierce so deeply, that at times they about drown my hopes.

Marriage Anorexia

Thank you for this article as it answers so many of my questions and doubts. My husband committed adultery 3 years ago and although he has no contact with the AP and he insists he has no feelings for her and wants to work on our marriage, his actions show a very different picture. He is somewhat attentive but only ever makes small talk and avoids intimacy with me. When I tell him how I feel about his "creative avoidance" he denies it profusely and.comes up with excuses fixing the blame on me. I don't feel loved at all by him. I feel we are good friends but his desire is definitely not with me. How does a woman who has been hurt so badly by infidelity continue to live with this kind of anorexia? I know that passion can't be forced. Is it time for me to move on?

Can so relate!

Yes, my wife is an independent avoider and I am a pleaser and these things do not mesh in any way, shape or form. For 20-plus years of our relationship, I have been the only one pursuing. How could I be so blind as to think that by trying to please her was the way I was showing my love for her, but instead she rejected me, disrespected me, felt I was too "needy", "clingy" and "smothering". Then, during my darkest days suffering through two long bouts of unemployment over a 3-plus year span, she cut her heart off from me altogether and wound up having an emotional affair with the youth pastor at our church.

Life isn't about fairness. I have learned this for years now. You can try your best to do the right thing -- be the best husband you can be, the best parent, the best worker -- but this world chews you up and spits you out starting with those closest to you. My wife is all this. Even a year-plus after the affair disclosure (that I had to bring to light to my pastor at church and basically led to our family losing our church of nine years while the youth pastor and his wife got to stay and be loved on and healed), she is still distant and cold to me.

I pray every minute of every day for God to reconcile this marriage. I want to bring Him glory and honor in this ugliness and pray that maybe, somehow and someway, He will allow my wife to soften her heart to me again. I truly don't know why I still love her and want so badly to be with her. For someone who treats me like shit for so long, doesn't want to pray, doesn't want to hold hands/kiss/hug/cuddle (all things that I absolutely long for), who doesn't affirm me, encourage me and has basically shown she doesn't have my back in life by stepping out on me when the going got tough, I really wonder why I am still in this marriage.

We have three amazing children and we vowed when we got married that we would break the ugly sinful chains of our parents and dedicate our marriage to God, but at what point do you just throw your hands up and call it quits? I prayerfully ask God every day for strength, to feel His presence, to make Him (not my wife) No. 1 in my life, and for Him to restore and redeem this marriage that has gone so awry. Deep down in my heart and soul and mind, I want to come out of this on the other side with a glorious relationship with the wife of my youth. As each day goes by, I wonder if that will or can ever happen. My bitterness, hurt and resentment grows brick by brick (nowhere near the walls my wife has built up in heart toward me). So much hurt and unforgiveness in both of us. I just want to see her eyes sparkle and her smile to shine when she looks at me. But alas....

That's me.

"The intimacy anorexic withholds emotional and spiritual intimacy from their mate even when it’s damaging to their mate and to self"

It has been 5 years since my wife's sexual affair. I've held on due to my love for her and our children (she's an amazing mother), but I must admit that I don't feel any real desire or longing to be with her.
Her affair was such a shock and out of character for her, but I've grown to understand the "whys" and contributing factors. I still believe she (of her own accord) made a conscious decision to have the affair and knew the consequences. I don't respect that she chose to have sex with her AP and I've discovered that I don't feel admiration or proud to be with her. I feel like I was weak and took her back out of desperation. I often wish that I hadn't
She's an incredible person, but I am so disappointed in her actions that I haven't been able to truly let go...thus, I'm continuing to withhold both spiritually and physically. After all this time, I still cannot be intimate with her without thinking of her affair. That saddens me and it hurts. It makes me cringe to even think of it.
I realize this is my obligation to release. She just wants to be loved by me and has made extraordinary efforts to heal our marriage, but I feel incapable of giving that to her. I don't feel that desire, I don't want that anymore, I don't feel in love. In fact, I feel a bit repulsed and still disgusted.
I'm writing here because there's no place else to go. I don't think this is normal and I feel awful for my thoughts. She can see and feel my hesitation, but I don't think she understands how deep it runs. We both hold on, hoping that it will change.
Is it just time to see a therapist again? Couples counseling wasn't a success the first time. My own private helped, but even he acknowledged that I may not be willing to release this. I believe this is a mental block that maybe some type of therapy can help resolve. I love my wife. She's an amazing woman, but I'm not connected emotionally or physically, I'm not feeling desire at all. I don't know where to turn.

Exactly

I am in the same situation. I can't get past the haunting images and disgusting feelings. Wishing you all the best .

How come he was not anorexic to his AP?

Dear Rick
This was a great article for me and for my husband. We have been reading it twice and looked for more information on the internet because what you describe looks so much like our marriage in the last 10 years before his affair with a colleague. I truly believe that my husband suffered and still suffers from intimacy and sexual anorexia. I also think that his traumas from his youth could be a reason for this. What I don't understand is how come this anorexia holds only for me? He was anything other than anorexic to his AP: loving, caring, showing a lot of attention, giving many compliments, sharing his feelings, very intimate even digitally etc. I would love to hear your opinion on this.

anorexic marriage

This really helped me. My marriage was anorexic before I knew about the affair. I was not being heard, m6 husband would actually walk away during mid sentence...all very hurtful. I think I had quit trusting him with my heart. He did all the superficial things that you would see a husband on TV so, but there was something missing. I felt like an employee of his rather than a wife.

What type of affair was it?

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