Sexual anorexia? Like we didn’t have enough to worry about….
When I first read about sexual anorexia, it was like someone had followed me around and taken notes. For the first time, I finally felt like someone ‘got’ the crazy spin cycle my head was on when it came to depriving myself of intimate relationships and withholding sex.
Sexual anorexia, like food anorexia, meant that even though I WANTED to be close to my husband, my body literally shut down and rejected sex. Sometimes the anorexia is emotional, but for me, it was literally so severe my body stopped menstruating, and I was unable to have sex without severe pain.
Physically, I was unable to be sexual with my husband. Emotionally, I was completely disconnected from him and he was disconnected from me. Even though we both could be sexual with anonymous partners and people who had no close ties to us, when it came to our marriage, trying to be close and intimate would be like trying to feed a bacon cheeseburger to an anorexic.
PoSARC, which is a FABULOUS new resource we stumbled onto for partners of sex addicts, put out a really informative and easy to understand article about the phenomena of sexual anorexia. Rather than trying to re-invent the wheel, we have posted it here (with PoSARC’s permission!) Please check out the resources on their site: http://www.posarc.com/
The role of a fear of intimacy
The image of a sex addict as perpetually starved for sex, taking it anywhere they can get it, gets flipped right on its head when this aspect of sex addiction is present. What we need to grasp is that it’s precisely because the Sex Addict/Compulsive (SAC) is emotionally intimate with the Partner of a Sex Addict (PoSA) that he becomes terrified of being vulnerable with her, as during sex, for example. He can engage sexually with others and/or porn because there is little at risk emotionally; this is the “split” in him that recovery seeks to heal. Full recovery allows the SAC to both relate emotionally and to be physically intimate with his partner. While in the throes of active addiction and early recovery, he is possessed with the quasi-conscious notion that he cannot afford to allow himself any emotional exposure at all that might leave him hurt again, as in his past.
Dr. Patrick Carnes has identified three causative factors in the formation of sexual anorexia:
- A probable history of sexual exploitation or severely traumatic sexual rejection
- Family history of extremes in thought or behavior (often very repressive/religious or its’ polar opposite of “anything-goes” permissiveness)
- Cultural, social or religious influences that view sex negatively and supports sexual oppression and repression
Dr. Doug Weiss posits his three criteria for the formation of anorexia:
- sexual abuse
- attachment disorder with the opposite sex parent
- sex addiction
Any activity that might bring the addict and his partner closer are the very things he will seek to avoid altogether or sabotage if “threatened” with closeness. So he’ll keep her at bay by:
- Withholding love/emotional closeness from partners, often leaving us feeling unloved or unwanted. For the benefit of others watching, sexual/emotional anorexics may put on the appearance of being affectionate in public with her but withdrawing again as soon as they are alone together
- Withholding praise or appreciation from her
- Controlling the money for the household (that way he maintains the power, leaving her weakened. This can be enacted whether he earns money or does not contribute financially. Again, either way, he is the one in control, not her)
- Withholding emotional interactions from her
- Withholding spiritual connection from her
- Withholding sexual relations with her (all sex therapists know that whoever says no in the sexual relationship maintains all the power)
- Controlling her by using silence or anger
- Staying so busy that there’s no alone time with his partner, either by working, watching TV or any other activity that takes him away from her
- Blaming the PoSA and refusal to look at his part in any relationship issues
- Ongoing or ungrounded criticism of her that causes isolation, especially if they are headed towards emotional and/or sexual intimacy
The conceptual framework that makes it easier to understand sexual anorexia is that it’s more of an intimacy disorder than a sexual one. If we bear in mind that all sex addiction is an intimacy disorder, we are closer to a window into this mysterious condition.
Moving towards intimacy
How else can one explain the addicts’ obsessive search for “the perfect girl” either in strip clubs, in porn, or out in the world? Often the addict has a loving partner at home who’s often in great amounts of pain at the deprivations he imposes on her. She waits expectantly for him, wishing he would make love to her, tell her she’s pretty, or take her out to dinner and have meaningful conversations with her. But he can only do that if he felt comfortable with what comes next: closeness, the dreaded state an anorexic avoids at all costs. That would leave him exposed to the possibility of pain from his distant past, pain that he might not remember until well into recovery/therapy: the possibility of being rejected, hurt, disagreed with, made wrong, shamed, etc. In a very real sense, emotional intimacy (vulnerability) turns the anorexic into a child-man protecting himself in the present from past injuries.
Making sense of it
Sexual anorexia starts to make sense if we realize that the very thing the addict is after when he’s out “searching” is the high of sex without the possibility of getting hurt by anyone. That’s why he either pays for the sex, or it’s anonymous in one sense or another. Anything other than that starts to feel too much like a real relationship between equals. Real relationships demand vulnerability, that we reveal our innermost souls, precious hearts and bodies to each other. That is precisely what most terrifies a sex addict. Vulnerability on one or more levels is what addiction defends him from. Earlier woundings set him up to avoid intimate vulnerabilities and seeds the course for his addiction.
Treatment then, begins with a crucially important correct diagnosis of this condition by a qualified sex addiction therapist. First, any active sex addiction (acting out) must be arrested. Then, its opposite form (anorexia, deprivation, or acting in) is addressed. From there, the sex addiction therapist usually gives assignments for the addict to start taking baby-steps towards closeness with his partner. Often, this can generate intense anxiety in the addict so working with a specialist who can guide and help the process along is critical.
It’s important to realize that of all the sexual acting out behaviors, the one that most impedes true intimacy is compulsive pornography use. Why? In any other acting out behavior, the addict interacts with a real human, who, if he spends any amount of time with her, will eventually demonstrate her humanness. This will have the anorexic running for the hills. In pornography, no such day ever arrives, as the girls are “virtual”, unreal and therefore, rendered incapable of ever hurting the addict.
Dr. Weiss contends that early reinforcement of bonding to the fantasy world (with or without pornography) and being maintained through adulthood can lead a person to primarily sexually bond to that fantasy realm. The neurological, chemical bonds (oxytocin, the bonding chemical, among others) to the unreal world combined with the psychological ease of the fantasy world can allow a person to conclude the altered state fantasy world is not only easier psychologically and sexually, but preferred. Once the individual makes this conclusion whether they’re in their 20s or their 50s, the anorexia symptoms will follow.
Risk to the PoSA
For the partner of anorexics, this is an almost unbearable burden to carry. It is as if we are being made to “pay for the sins of the past,” a past that happened long before we knew him. An Al-Anon adage can be of great help and comfort here: We didn’t cause it, we can’t cure it, and we can’t control it.
Characteristic of partners of anorexics is:
- Devastated self-esteem
- Eating disorders as a result of trying to compete to “show up” on his radar
- Becoming sexually anorexic herself
- Rupturing her own relationship to her sexuality as a result of his repeated sexual rejection/abandonment
- Risk having sexual relations with men she doesn’t care about as a way to reinstate her desirability
The PoSA who deals with this needs tending to with great care! Speaking with someone who understands this horrific malady can help, and we at PoSARC stand at the ready.
Sexual Anorexia by Patrick Carnes, Ph.D.
Sexual Anorexia: Beyond Sexual, Emotional & Spiritual Withholding by Doug Weiss, Ph.D
Married and Alone: Healing for Spouses of Sexual Anorexics by Doug Weiss, Ph.D