Back when I wrote my first book, I coined a phrase called "sexual misuse". Being that I went through quite a bit of sexual trauma while growing up, I thought it was important to find a way to separate the difference between sexual abuse (what was done to me) and sexual misuse (poor decisions that I made on my own). That phrase came back to my mind a few days ago as I read a term I had personally never heard of before—intimacy anorexia.
Before I get into what that is and how it can both affect and infect a couple's sex life, let me first say that I know quite a few women—including Black women—who have dealt with the eating disorder anorexia (although reportedly, bulimia tends to be more common within our community). I don't want to make light of how that affects so many and so, for the record, I just want to share that one definition of anorexia is "loss of appetite"; what we're going to explore today is how a loss of an appetite for intimacy can ruin sex overall.
With that being said, if you're also not familiar with the phrase intimacy anorexia, let me take a moment to explain signs of this "disorder", along with what you can do to address it if you happen to recognize some of these signs in your own relationship.
How Can You Know If You or Your Partner Has Intimacy Anorexia?
I gotta admit that when I did some research on who came up with this term and read some of the signs that are directly linked to intimacy anorexia, I immediately sent Dr. Douglas Weiss's site to a married couple I know. It's a husband and wife who has basically been in a sexless marriage for close to five years now (to be real, things weren't going all that well even before then). The reason why I thought the site would be helpful is because, two years before an affair (by the husband) transpired, there had still been no sex going on. And although I've shared with the wife that she might want to look into how that played a direct role in the infidelity, she still refuses to see it. To her, withholding sex isn't nearly as "bad" as infidelity. Meanwhile, I'm over here like, even the Bible says, "Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control." (I Corinthians 7:5—NKJV) Withholding sex deprives. Withholding sex tempts. Withholding sex ain't a good look—point, blank and period. A big part of the reason why is found in the word "withhold". Can anything healthy or beneficial be rooted in choosing to refrain from giving or granting sexual intimacy to your partner? Man.
The reason why I was so grateful to Dr. Weiss's breakdown is because it provides quite a bit of insight into how a couple can end up having sex less than 10-15 times a year (which is the textbook definition of what a sexless marriage is). According to him, this is how you know that you or your partner (if not both of you) are suffering from intimacy anorexia:
- You're too busy to make time for your spouse
- You constantly blame them for the problems in your relationship
- You refuse to express love in the way that your partner needs it
- You neglect to praise your partner so that they will feel respected and appreciated by you
- You consciously withhold sex and/or intimacy during sex
- You don't make it a point to spiritually connect with your partner
- You do not express your feelings with your partner
- You constantly criticize your partner
- You use money to either shame or control your partner
- Due to a lack of emotional bonding, you and your partner are basically like roommates
I must say that reviewing this list actually confirms what I once heard and totally believe—what goes on in a couple's bedroom sets the tone for what's happening in the rest of the house.
Because, think about it—if your partner doesn't make time for you, refuses to fluently speak your love language or is always on your back complaining about any and everything, why would you want to be sexual with them? And if they are treating you this way, doesn't it seem like they are sending not-so-cryptic messages that they don't want to be intimate with you either?
Now let me just say this, also for the record. If you just looked at the list of warning signs and thought to yourself, "well damn", don't write yourself off as having this disorder—one that the founder of it actually refers to as an addiction—just yet. For better or for worse, virtually all couples experience at least a couple of these red flags. According to Dr. Weiss, the way to know if it's full-blown intimacy anorexia or not is if you or your partner display five or more of these traits at the same time (you can confirm this by taking the only test here). If you do, that is somewhat of a cause for alarm.
The good news is knowing is half of the battle and there are things that you can do to start healing in this area.
Pinpoint What the Specific Issues Are. Then Discuss Them.
There's another married couple I know who've been together for well over a decade now. The wife says that they pretty much only have sex when she initiates it and, her husband sucks at foreplay. During an impromptu session with them, when I asked the husband what the deal was, he said that his wife's constant yelling and berating totally turns him off. Meanwhile, she said that the selfishness that she felt in the bedroom seemed to be pretty indicative of how he is towards her, period. Do you see what's going on? His ego is bruised and she is resentful. Who's having good sex in that kind of space?
So yeah, if you do recognize that you or your partner are experiencing some of the flags that I shared, it's important to not only acknowledge that with one another, but to try and see where these issues derived from. Then, be open and patient enough to listen to what both of you think can—and should—be done in order to remedy the matters at hand.
See a Therapist/Counselor/Life Coach
I watched T.I. and Tiny's Red Table Talk about their marriage. There is A LOT that I could say; for now, I'll just go with "good for them" when it comes to the fact that they went to counseling in order to save their union.
Personally, I don't think that married couples should wait until they're at the brink of divorce before they see someone. After all, it's one thing to get help when you smell smoke; it's another matter entirely to want someone to save your house when one-half of it is already burned to the ground. Yeah, I definitely believe that counseling should be treated like marital maintenance more than a last-ditch effort.
That said, once you and your partner have realized what the root of your intimacy anorexia is, sometimes that can make things worse, long before they start to become better. A professional can help the two of you navigate how to address your problems and also how to find real and lasting solutions. I know a lot of folks tend to give push back on counseling, but look at it this way—if you could handle things well on your own…they'd be handled. Right?
Work on Restoring Emotional Intimacy Before Revising Your Sex Life
Did you notice how the list of signs that point to intimacy anorexia only mentioned sex once? Things like a lack of a spiritual connection, feeling like you're roommates with your partner and not taking ownership for your own actions have nothing to do with physical intimacy; what they do speak to is how much of a mental and emotional breakdown that there is, though.
If there's a "loss of appetite" for sex itself, spend some time getting back to the basics in the sense of restoring your intimacy via going on dates, being affectionate without being sexual, affirming your partner, being supportive and yes—making them feel loved in the way they need to feel it vs. the way you wish to receive it from them. If you don't know what that way is, ask. A lot of drama can be avoided in a relationship if we'd stop being so busy thinking that we know more about our partner than they know about themselves.
One of the reasons why I'm grateful for insights like this one is, I can't tell you how many couples have tried to convince me that sexless marriages aren't "that bad" or aren't a "big deal". If you are in a long-term committed relationship, you're physically capable of having sex but you're not having it is—it is a big deal. Sexual intimacy is not to be treated as a perk; it should be seen as a necessary staple. Thanks to terms like intimacy anorexia, hopefully more sexless relationships can get to the root cause of their situation so that sexual intimacy can be restored.
If you're just realizing that intimacy anorexia is what you and/or your partner suffer from, it's nothing to be embarrassed about or ashamed of. Now you know more of where your loss of appetite is coming from; now you can start on your journey to getting your groove back. Give thanks. A really good thing just happened—to you and your relationship. It really did.
Want more stories like this? Sign up for our newsletter here and check out the related reads below:
Feature image by Shutterstock