Intimacy anorexia is a term coined by sexual addiction recovery expert Doug Weiss to describe the active withholding of emotional, sexual and/or spiritual intimacy in the recovering couples he works with. It is my belief that intimacy anorexia is particularly virulent subcategory of a more general relational pattern best described by recovery pioneer Pia Mellody as love avoidance.
The love avoidant-intimacy anorexic uses multiple blocking strategies to create and maintain distance in his relationship; the silent treatment is one of the favorites. The intimacy anorexic puts up a wall to sever the flow of meaningful communication in the relationship. While the wall kills any energy for verbal communication, the intimacy anorexic’s nonverbal communication is screaming with either icy indifference or anger: “I’m in control,” “Your needs don’t matter,” “I’m shutting you out!”
Although women are equally capable of intimacy anorexia, in my particular counseling practice the female partner is much more likely to present for help with intimacy deprivation as a result of the relationship walls of her intimacy anorexic spouse. Therefore, the following observations are more characteristic of the male love avoidant-intimacy anorexia relationship pattern.
The silent treatment can occur on a continuum. At one end of the continuum, the intimacy anorexic may abruptly change the subject when his partner tries to discuss something important to her. Although the intimacy anorexic hides behind a veil of superficial words, notice that there is no verbal acknowledgement of his partner’s desire to discuss a matter close to her heart. His body language communicates that there is no deeper connection; there is no emotional intimacy; she may be married, but she is alone in this relationship.
Further along the silent treatment continuum is the token monosyllabic muttering that conveys a, “I’m going to give you the bare minimum” nonverbal message. This can progress to physically removing himself to block any additional attempt at communication by his partner.
The form of silent treatment that seems to be by far the most painful to the intimacy deprived partners I counsel is the stony silence that shouts, “No matter how much physical distance is between us right now, there are miles between us in our relationship – and only I will decide if that will change!” If you are the intimacy deprived partner, regardless of whether you are experiencing despair or anger, you are painfully aware of how powerless you feel over the situation.
Relationship expert John Gottman considers the silent treatment, or stonewalling as he calls it, a sign of serious disturbance in a marriage. In fact, it’s one of four predictors of a destabilization of the relationship and eventual divorce. The other three include contempt, criticism and defensiveness.
In my experience, however, I’ve noticed that the love avoidant-intimacy anorexic is only superficially disturbed by the silent treatment, whether he is on the giving end or the receiving end. This is because for the intimacy anorexic the silent treatment is a tool to get what he really wants – distance. From the anorexic’s perspective, distance actually stabilizes the relationship. In the swimming pool of committed relationships, the anorexic does want to be in the pool, but only wants to stay in the shallow end.
Avoiding the deep end allows the intimacy anorexic to remain in control and to remain emotionally safe. If you believe, as I do, that a willingness to be emotionally vulnerable is a prerequisite for true intimacy, then intimacy anorexia also involves an anorexia to vulnerability. The love avoidant-intimacy anorexic is unwilling to be vulnerable in either the relationship itself or in attempts to improve the relationship, such as marital therapy.
This is why traditional marriage therapy so often fails when intimacy anorexia is the underlying culprit. The intimacy anorexic will have no real motivation to end the silent treatment because it has been successful in creating distance from his partner. Moreover, working on the issues that appear to be generating the silent treatment will be ineffective because the issues are just an excuse to use the distance creating strategy.
Marriage therapists trained to treat intimacy anorexia generally require a commitment to change the intimacy anorexic behavior before addressing the issues causing the anorexia. The underlying fear can’t readily be dealt with as long as the anorexic behavior is still active because the intimacy anorexia strategies help him avoid the underlying fear. More importantly, insisting on behavior change first puts an end to the ongoing intimacy deprivation of the spouse.
If your relationship is suffering from intimacy anorexia I urge you to seek out a counselor who understands the dynamics of love avoidance and intimacy anorexia.