In our research on sexual addiction, we have found that approximately one-third of the men who are sexual addicts who are married have a second major issue. We have also found out that about 40 percent of the wives of sexual addicts have this same problem. The real difficulty is that neither of them knows they have the problem, and it can make getting and staying free a lot more difficult. Here are a few example of how it works.

Jake is a really nice guy at church. His neighbors love him, and so do the people in the political party where he volunteers. Jake is dependable for everyone—everyone but his wife, Emily. Jake publicly praises Emily and puts his arm around her in public, but at home he rarely touches her or praises her.

Jake is too busy to date his wife, and he does not have time for deep conversations. Even sex has taken a backseat and occurs less and less frequently. At home, Jake is critical toward Emily and often blames her for any problem that comes up in their marriage. He rarely shares feelings other than anger and doesn’t initiate prayer with her at home, but he does participate in altar-call duty every Sunday.

Jossie and Roger have been married twenty-seven years. Jossie has always struggled with giving Roger physical attention or praise. He says he can’t do anything right or good enough for her. Roger wants to take Jossie out for a date, but she’s tired or busy with her multilevel business. Jossie won’t pray with Roger because “she’s a private person.” In twenty-seven years, Jossie has only initiated sex once after having some wine at a wedding, and she hasn’t had wine since.

She complains about Roger’s job and his weight, and she stays angry with Roger in such a way that she controls him by her moods. Jossie also makes twice as much money as Roger, and she shames him if he buys anything for himself, while there are no restraints to her spending. Publicly Jossie is affectionate, but at home Roger can’t remember the last time she gave him a kiss or said “I love you” without being asked, or not in return after he says it.

What’s wrong in these marriages? They all love Jesus and go to church. One huge issue is that up until now, they didn’t have a name for their problem. Both of these couples struggle with what we call intimacy anorexia.

Again, some of you will never have had a day of struggling with this issue. However, if a man or couple you know is struggling with this and you give them a language or paradigm to understand what they are experiencing, they can start to address and solve it.

Intimacy anorexia is the active withholding of emotional, spiritual, and sexual intimacy from the spouse. That means, and this is challenging to accept, that one spouse is intentionally withholding various aspects of him- or herself from the other spouse. It’s as if the intimacy anorexic is married to themselves and creates ongoing distance from their husband or wife.

If a man is struggling with sexual addiction and intimacy anorexia, it is very important he works on both issues at the same time; otherwise he may be vulnerable to relapse and not totally understand why he is relapsing.

Let me give you a brief summary of the characteristics of intimacy anorexia. These characteristics can help you identify this issue in yourself or in the lives of others you may know.

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 Characteristics of Intimacy Anorexia

  1. Busy. Intimacy anorexics stay so busy that they have little time for their spouses. They can be busy with house projects, volunteering, the computer, television, video games, or reading the paper. Their spouse feels very alone in the marriage and often even their pets get more attention than the spouse does.
  2. Blame. Intimacy anorexics will blame their spouses for the problems in the marriage. They want to be seen as all good, all the time; and therefore if it’s not good, it’s the spouse’s fault.
  3. Withholding Love. The intimacy anorexic actively withholds love in the way the spouse likes to be loved. If it’s touch, the spouse won’t give it. If it’s gifts that make the spouse feel special, that person won’t buy them gifts. When an intimacy anorexic realizes that the relationship is in serious trouble, however, he or she knows exactly what to do to show love and get back into good graces. Intimacy anorexics know what to do; they just intentionally and routinely don’t do it for their spouses.
  4. Withholding Praise. Intimacy anorexics do not regularly praise their spouses privately. In public, the spouses might get praise, but at home, day in and day out, there is an intentional lack of praise. It’s not that the anorexics do not know the great qualities of their spouses; it’s that they won’t speak these positive thoughts to them.
  5. Withholding Sex. Not all intimacy anorexics withhold sex from their spouses. Most intimacy anorexics do, though, withhold intimacy during sex. He or she might be fantasizing about something or just be disconnected. Some anorexics withhold sex by not initiating it, not talking about sex, or having no creativity about sex, although some actually withhold sex.
  6. Withholding Spiritually. Intimacy anorexics can be very religious by attending church and sometimes even being the pastor or spiritual leader at the church. At home they rarely pray with their spouses, or worship, or read the Bible together. Individually they do their spiritual thing, but they withhold their spirituality from their husband or wife.
  7. Feelings. Intimacy anorexics are unwilling or unable to share their feelings with their spouses.
  8. When it comes to feelings, they will avoid these conversations or go blank or silent when feelings come up.
  9. Criticism. Ongoing or ungrounded criticism is another characteristic of intimacy anorexia. This characteristic can flare up if the couple is getting close, or when closeness would be expected, like on vacation.
  10. Anger or Silence. An intimacy anorexic can use anger or silence to control the other spouse. I know couples who literally didn’t speak to each other for weeks. I also know other anorexics who use anger to keep the other spouse at a certain distance.
  11. Money. This is the least common feature of intimacy anorexia, but when it’s present, it is strong.

The intimacy anorexic will use money to control the spouse. This can happen in several ways, including giving the spouse an allowance, making the spouse have to ask for money, intentionally keeping the spouse ignorant of money issues, or letting him or her buy anything as long as they don’t ask for intimacy.

Take the Test

Often intimacy anorexics are in denial about these behaviors, so I have a unique way in which I want you to answer these questions. The first set asks how your spouse would rate you on the following characteristics. Would your spouse say yes or no if they were asked these questions about how they believe you relate to them? On a separate sheet of paper, write out what their responses would be.

My wife would say:

  1. I stay so busy that I have little time for her.
  2. When issues come up, my first reflex or response is to blame her.
  3. I withhold love from her when issues come up.
  4. I withhold praise from her.
  5. I withhold sex from her or am not present during sex.
  6. I withhold spiritual connection from her.
  7. I am unwilling or unable to share my authentic feelings with her.
  8. I use anger or silence to control her.
  9. I have ongoing or ungrounded criticism (spoken or unspoken) toward her.
  10. I control or shame her regarding money or spending.

Second, I want you to answer these questions about your spouse. Use a separate piece of paper and just put yes or no on it.

I would say to my wife:

  1. Stays so busy that she has little time for me.
  2. Blames me as her first reflex when issues come up.
  3. Withholds love from me.
  4. Withholds praise from me.
  5. Withholds sex from me or is not present during sex.
  6. Withholds spiritual connection from me.
  7. Is unwilling or unable to share her authentic feelings with me.
  8. Uses anger or silence to control me.
  9. Has ongoing or ungrounded criticism (spoken or unspoken) toward me.
  10. Controls or shames me regarding money or spending.

Count the number of yes answers that you put down on your score for her, and also her score for you. If one or both of you have five or more yes answers, you have probably been dealing with intimacy anorexia without knowing it.

If you and your spouse scored low, great! Just being aware of this information can make you more helpful to other couples from here on. If, however, this does apply to you, please get informed by reading helpful materials or getting professional counseling.

I love seeing men get clean. Some need to put the brakes on the sexual acting out, but also put their feet on the accelerator to reconnect and stay connected to their wives. Many Christian men’s books on this topic seem to want to minimize sexual addiction rather than eradicating it. But once you know what sexual addiction is, you can get and stay clean. My prayer is that you would find solutions if either of these two-sided issues fit for you. Regardless, I hope I can in some way encourage you to be part of the solution for your local church.


Adapted from the book, Clean by Douglass Weiss.


Copyright © Douglas Weiss PH.D, published by Thomas Nelson, used with permission.