A healthy marriage is built upon connection and intimacy, but intimacy and sex are not the same. Connection in six types of intimacy (emotional, physical, recreational, spiritual, financial, and sexual) leads to a healthier, happier, more fulfilling marriage. But when one type is missing, it can have a serious negative impact on your relationship. After all, a big part of being married is sharing thoughts, emotions, and physical affection, right? So what happens when one spouse withholds some of those connections?

Every now and again, a new term, condition, or theory creates a buzz in relational and mental health communities. It trickles into social feeds, inboxes, and even everyday language. “Intimacy anorexia” is one of those terms right now. It’s been searched for on Google 345,000 times since January 2021. 

Psychologist Dr. Doug Weiss coined the term. He says intimacy anorexia (IA) is the “active withholding of emotional, spiritual, and/or sexual intimacy from a spouse or significant other” without regard to how it affects the other spouse. 

Before we dive into the characteristics defined by Weiss, let’s address his use of the term “anorexia.” 

First, anorexia can be a deadly eating disorder. Withholding intimacy can be a serious thing. Next, Weiss suggests that those withholding intimacy choose to do so. Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that anyone chooses an eating disorder or mental health condition. Please understand that I don’t take the term anorexia lightly. 

Now, let’s look deeper into intimacy anorexia.

So what exactly does intimacy anorexia mean? And what do you need to know about it?

Weiss calls it a hidden addiction. Weiss has identified four characteristics to help someone figure out if a lack of intimacy is caused by IA.

1. Busyness.

We’re all busy, especially parents. The difference is that anorexics intentionally stay busy to avoid intimacy. They may fill their time with the kids’ activities, housework, home projects, hobbies, or work. While these are good things, an intimacy anorexic will intentionally exclude their spouse from participating. They’ll do so much that they’re exhausted.

2. Withholding Love.

We all have a way that we like to be loved: our love language. Anorexics withhold that love language from their spouse. For example, a spouse may desire to spend quality time together, hold hands often, or hear affirming words. So what will an anorexic spouse do in that case? They will intentionally withhold affection in those ways.

Withholding Praise.

In a healthy marriage, couples celebrate each other’s successes and accomplishments. They praise their spouse in private and in front of others. An anorexic spouse will withhold this praise. They either won’t see the good in their spouse, or they see it and choose not to acknowledge it.

Withholding Sex.

Sexual intimacy is an integral part of a healthy marriage. Withholding sex is the most apparent characteristic of IA. According to Weiss, withholding sex is “avoiding sex, sabotaging sexual encounters, or not connecting emotionally during sex.” If you question whether your spouse is intimately anorexic, think about the last time you had sex. What was the experience like?

These are just four IA characteristics Weiss has identified. Others include blame, not sharing feelings, withholding spiritually, criticizing, anger or silence, money, and treating their spouse as a roommate.

So, what do you do if you think you or your spouse is suffering from intimacy anorexia? 

It hurts when your relationship isn’t all you want it to be. I would highly suggest finding an experienced marriage counselor to help you address intimacy issues. Note: Not all therapists recognize IA as a condition, and this is not a diagnosis. You or your spouse may not be suffering from this. Other problems may be causing decreased intimacy, such as abuse, toxic behavior, health issues, or past trauma.

All of the characteristics that Weiss lists are damaging to a healthy marriage, but this doesn’t mean they are symptomatic of this condition. 

Achieving a healthy, intimate relationship isn’t always easy. Just ask anyone who’s married, and they’ll tell you. It requires partners to be intentional and vulnerable. If your relationship is lacking the intimacy you crave, intimacy anorexia seems like a valid explanation. Keep in mind, though: it isn’t a formally recognized condition. The best place for you to start may be counseling. I want you to have the happiest, healthiest marriage possible, and I’m sure you do, too. It’s ok to ask for the help you need in your marriage.

Other helpful blogs:

Feeling Lonely in Your Marriage? Here’s What to Do.

I’m Trying to Save My Marriage, but My Spouse Isn’t

How to Deal with Manipulation in Your Marriage

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