It’s been years since I read Intimacy Anorexia. It fell into my standard note taking pattern but I suppressed the process of writing the book review on it because it was too close and too personal. I wasn’t able to be objective about the content because I was too close to it. However, with the passage of time it’s become easier – and possible to share some of the insights that the book contained.
When I read it there were times it was just eerie. I heard my now ex-wife’s voice in some of the quotes in the book. I heard similarities which were difficult to ignore.
I defined Intimacy in my landmark post Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy as “the kind of connection that two people can have when there are no barriers between them – emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.” That’s a good one sentence description. However, more expansively, intimacy is not needing to defend yourself against the other person because you know they have your best interests at heart.
Intimacy is “in-to-me-see.” That is it’s a window into who the person is. No masks. Nothing preventing a full understanding of the other person. This can be scary if you’re unwilling to look into yourself. If you’re guilty or afraid of what you know to be in there. It’s hard to be intimate with another person if you’re not willing to be intimate with yourself.
Most typically anorexia is used in reference to anorexia nervosa which is an eating disorder where people literally starve themselves. They resist food and gaining weight to a level that they may become skin and bones. Here anorexia is expressed differently. Instead of denying food the intimacy anorexic denies intimacy. To be clear a person with anorexia nervosa does eat. They eat just enough to survive.
Similarly an intimacy anorexic is intimate at times. However, the intimacy comes with guilt and fear. Anorexia isn’t the complete absence of food or intimacy, it is the unhealthy limiting of something.
Tools of the Anorexic
The intimacy anorexic is armed with a set of powerful tools that they use to prevent others (including spouses) from getting close to them. Here are a few:
- Busy – When someone is constantly busy with things – committees, work, programs, and tasks there’s no time to get to know who they really are.
- Blame – When the other person is blamed they may feel guilt or shame and as a result retreat giving the anorexic more time to avoid intimacy. (See Daring Greatly for more on guilt and shame.)
- Withholding Love – Intimacy anorexics often don’t like physical touch. They don’t want to be so close that they might be seen.
- Withholding Praise – By withholding praise from someone you’re depriving them of the lifeblood they need to grow and to reach in. The result is that intimacy anorexics can prevent their spouses from reaching in by only sharing negatives or nothing at all.
- Withholding Sex – In a married relationship an intimacy anorexic often withholds sex since it’s a necessarily intimate time that’s uncomfortable for the anorexic.
- Withholding Spiritually – One of our most sensitive relationships is the relationship we have with our creator. Anorexics withhold this from their spouse because to reveal it makes them and the relationship vulnerable.
- Criticism – Humans don’t like constant criticism – particularly when it’s not constructive. An anorexic will use criticism to keep people at bay.
- Anger – Some anorexics use their anger to scare off others. If you’re afraid of their anger then you won’t want to be near them.
- Silence – The old saying “It takes two to tango” is even more true of conversations. An anorexic will avoid even answering questions that might lead to an intimate exchange. Sometimes it’s known as the glass wall.
- Controlling Money – If you can keep control of your spouse by managing or controlling the money then you might be able to keep them away at the threat of losing their money supply.
- Required Mindreading – The intimacy anorexic will often require that their spouse read their mind as to what they want. They’ll be chastised when they fail and reprimanded when they ask for what the person wants. In this way they can complain that their spouse never gives them what they want.
- Victimhood – The anorexic loves to play the role of the victim. This brings the spouse into the position of trying to come along side and support them. This is a useful distraction for a while as it prevents seeing more of who the person is. (For more on victimhood see Boundaries, Beyond Boundaries, Daring Greatly and Change or Die.)
Causes of Anorexia
While it’s not possible to identify every possible cause for intimacy anorexia, it’s possible to identify a few that can lead to intimacy anorexia issues:
- Sexual Trauma – Sex is an intimate act if for no other reason than the brain chemicals it unleashes. Any sort of sexual trauma can be converted into intimacy anorexia.
- Opposite Gender Parent Issues – The relationship that you have with your opposite-gender parent establishes a framework for how you’ll relate to your spouse. If your opposite-gender parent relationship wasn’t good or was unstable it can lead to intimacy anorexia.
- Sexual Addiction – It seems odd that an intimate moment can lead to intimacy anorexia but it’s precisely because the sexual moment has been made to not be intimate that it’s difficult for other intimate moments to happen.
Fears of the Anorexic
There are common fears that an intimacy anorexic has. Here are some of them:
- Lack of Safety – They believe that they have to be safe at all times (perhaps because they weren’t safe as a child) and therefore any lack of safety is a big risk.
- Hidden Flaws – They believe that any of their flaws, if discovered, could be the reason why someone else could stop loving them or would be a way to embarrass them.
- Loss of Control – Believing that they need to control their lives the anorexic is in fear when they sense any loss of control.
- Acknowledging Sexuality – Many anorexics don’t want to acknowledge their own sexuality.
The Intimacy of Sex
Evolution is a powerful force. Natural selection has created numerous systems to ensure reproduction and survival of the species. Not the least of which is the drive for sex and the rewards for sex. We’re chemically driven to desire sex both before the event through the use of pheromones and during/after the event with a chemical reward system. The reward system includes:
- Oxytocin – Known as the cuddle hormone. It increases bonding and relaxation
- Endorphins – This is the natural high that comes from sex.
- Adrenaline (Epinephrine) – This is the source of an energy burst
- Dopamine – Engagement and focus are the effects of dopamine. It brings our focus on the here and now.
- Serotonin – This is a mood regulation chemical that is at the heart of most anti-depression medicines that calms you down right after climax.
You can imagine with a chemical cocktail like this it’s no wonder that sex is a powerful draw for everyone. However, for the intimacy anorexic who fears being seen by another person the results of the chemical cocktail are frightening. The walls come down for a moment because of the chemical reactions involved. So whether they like it or not sex brings people close together. Perhaps too close for the intimacy anorexic. That’s why withholding sex in a marriage by an intimacy anorexic is so common. The fact that it denies the spouse their only socially acceptable sexual outlet makes it cruel.
Starve the Dog
Earlier I described anorexia as a reduction and not the complete absence of food or intimacy. This is a very confusing point because often anorexics will say that they are intimate or more often they point to the fact that they do have sex with their spouse. They hold up that they can’t be anorexic because they sometimes give into food or intimacy. However, this misses the fundamental point that it isn’t the complete absence but rather an inappropriate ratio or frequency.
Along the same lines of the question “How do you eat an elephant?” which has the predictable answer “one bite at a time” comes the question “How do you starve a dog?” The implication here is not the literal starving of the dog but rather, how do you create a mean and angry dog who will bite at the smallest provocation. The answer is to starve them. However, you have to feed them something or they’ll die and that’s not the point. The point is to create a mean and angry dog so you feed them but always just a little bit too little. You never give them enough to feel satisfied or OK.
The resulting dog will be conditioned into a mean and angry animal. The sad part is that this is the same process through which intimacy anorexics train their spouses. They teach them to be always hungry and just on the edge of exploding. Spouses sometimes choose to get fed other places – leading to inappropriate relationships or they block out that part of themselves. They learn that their need for intimacy is bad and that they should suppress it. They learn to withhold from themselves.
At the heart of intimacy anorexia is withholding. The many forms of withholding that intimacy anorexics use to keep others at bay. However, in the end many of the tools of the anorexic are withholding. They are withholding themselves from others. In situations where healthy people would share, they don’t.
Perhaps the most painful lesson that the intimacy anorexic teaches is that withholding is OK. They teach that it’s the right response to withhold yourself instead of share. The sad fact is that the teaching of withholding is caught by those close to the anorexic, particularly children.
Whether you find yourself in the story as an anorexic or the spouse of an anorexic – or even if you’re just curious about how intimacy anorexia works, you should pick up the book and read it. You may just find that there’s a bit of Intimacy Anorexia in us all.