Is your partner cold, distant and off sex? A new book says he may suffer from "intimacy anorexia"
5:56 PM on 10th May 2011
When Emma was unexpectedly made redundant from her high-profile job, she was able to count on the sympathy and support of her nearest and dearest. All, that is, except for her husband, Bill.
Bill, a successful businessman, was in the fortunate position to be able to support his wife while she looked for a new job. And he did — to the tune of a 2 a day ‘allowance’.
‘It didn’t even cover one Tube fare,’ she says sadly. ‘What made it really hurtful is that he would then go out with his friends and throw his money around like water. It wasn’t the money I resented, it was the fact that when I needed it most, all his attention and love were focused on his friends.’
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Bill’s friends think of him as the life and soul of the party. He’s generous with his time and money, ready to drop everything to help out a mate in trouble. But what they don’t know is that he does it to avoid being alone with his wife.
As a result, Emma (a glamorous blonde) has seen her self-esteem plummet.
‘He’ll spend hours on the internet, or texting, but he seems to have nothing to say to me,’ she says. And he’s always too tired or too drunk to make love.
‘I keep wondering what I’ve done wrong — is it because I’m boring, or too fat, or not young enough
‘It wasn’t always like this; when we first started seeing each other he was so demonstrative and loving, he swept me off my feet — but as soon as we got married it was like a door had shut.’
Oddly enough, Bill would insist he loves his wife. His problem is ‘intimacy anorexia’, a term coined by the U.S. psychologist Douglas Weiss to describe a hurtful form of withdrawal, which he says is destroying millions of marriages — the withholding of emotional, spiritual and sexual intimacy by one half of the couple.
‘I have seen beauty queens whose husbands wouldn’t sleep with them. Over time, it was clear this had a lot more to do with avoiding intimacy than it had to do with avoiding sex. It’s an addiction to withholding and it has always been there,’ says Dr Weiss, whose book Intimacy Anorexia: Healing The Hidden Addiction In Your Marriage has come out in the U.S.
‘I’ve seen married couples who have gone for weeks without speaking to each other.’ According to Dr Weiss, modern life is prompting a rise in intimacy anorexia.
Before, he says, people had to be more inventive with excuses about why they were repeatedly late home from the office.
‘Now people are on their mobiles at dinner, they spend hours on the computer or watching TV, and they are more connected to their Facebook friends than to the person they promised to love and cherish till death do them part.’
According to Dr Weiss, intimacy anorexia arises from various causes. They may have had difficulty relating to the opposite gender parent.
‘The child then locks into a survival mode that will keep them from intimacy in their marriage.’
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A child whose parents displayed little connection may grow up simply to copy their behaviour patterns; sexual abuse also leads people to fear an emotional and physical connection with others and seek safety in distance and control.
‘The trouble is, it’s almost impossible to spot an intimacy anorexic before it’s too late and you’ve tied the knot.
‘Intimacy anorexics do really well at the boyfriend/girlfriend stage,’ says Dr Weiss. ‘They’re great at the chase and the capture, but after marriage they shut down and begin to withhold love, sex and attention.’
So are you an intimacy anorexic, or married to one If you can tick five or more of the following, you may have a problem.
The first characteristic of an intimacy anorexic is being so busy they have little time for their spouse. Perhaps they travel all the time, are always doing housework, focus on the children or bury themselves in work, or local projects.
When an issue comes up in the marriage, the intimacy anorexic blames the spouse in order to avoid looking flawed or less than perfect.
‘The intimacy anorexic already knows how the spouse wants to be loved,’ says Dr Weiss, ‘Otherwise they’d never have managed to get hitched in the first place.’
‘All of us have positive qualities. Intimacy anorexia, over time, closes this positive vision and tends to focus on the flaws of the spouse,’ says Dr Weiss. ‘I made his favourite chocolate cake many times and he says nothing,’ is one example offered by Nancy, wife of an intimacy anorexic. ‘His sister made it once and he praised her all night.’
The most obvious behaviour. ‘I have counselled a couple who didn’t have sex for 20 years, although they slept in the same bed,’ says Dr Weiss.
This means having difficulty sharing feelings, refusing to talk about hopes and thoughts about the relationship.
An emotional anorexic will indulge in constant low-grade put-downs of the spouse, regularly pointing out their weak points. ‘The intimacy anorexic will be much faster at making a list of what’s wrong about their spouse than what is amazing.’
Anger or silence to push away, punish or control the spouse. Some are able to go weeks without talking to their other half.
Intimacy anorexics might keep the spouse ignorant of their finances, or keep them short of money. Or, they use it to control their spouse. ‘Their attitude is, I buy you everything, so don’t complain about a lack of intimacy, love or sex,’ says Dr Weiss.
Finally, do you feel like you have a flatmate rather than a spouse ‘I have heard this same comment so many times from spouses that I often add it to the end of my assessment,’ says Dr Weiss.
Of course, anybody in a long-term relationship will recognise a few of these behaviours after the initial honeymoon period is over. But, for most couples, they’ll wear off when things become less stressful. With the intimacy anorexic, the behaviour patterns are intentional and constant.
What’s particularly damaging about this form of addiction is that the effect on the partner is worse than on the addict themselves, says Dr Weiss.
‘The spouse suffers tremendously — they often gain weight, they lose their self-esteem and they become depressed.’
In order not to allow themselves to be destroyed by this behaviour, some spouses adapt to become intimacy anorexic themselves. ‘Either way is really painful.’
And to add insult to injury, because the intimacy anorexic’s behaviour has transformed their spouse into an angry, depressed or insecure individual, the emotional anorexic is then able to play the victim to outsiders, and use it to create still more distance between them and their suffering spouse.
‘I had one female intimacy anorexic client who hadn’t had sex with her husband for eight months and couldn’t understand why he was so angry. Talk about denial.’
If you’re unlucky enough to be married to an intimacy anorexic, that doesn’t mean your relationship is necessarily doomed. ‘I’ve seen couples who haven’t had sex in ten years and, within six weeks, they were having sex,’ says Dr Weiss.
He recommends following a 12-step process similar to that used by Alcoholics Anonymous, and insists on a programme of daily repetition of several key strategies to reintroduce intimacy into the relationship.
‘You need to share two feelings with your spouse every day, pay two compliments and have a spiritual connection,’ he says.