Sexual Anorexia Within Sexual Addiction

McKenna met her partner, Dan,were in graduate school at Kent State where they were both sociology students. It was his particular attention to analysis that appealed to her; anyone who loved pouring over the data as much as she did was special. They stayed up until morning on many occasions, talking theory over cheap beer and pizza, and the sex was amazing. When they were both offered positions in research at UCLA it felt like destiny—if McKenna had believed in destiny.

What Dan didn’t know about McKenna was that before their stint in graduate school, she’d been considered promiscuous. She wouldn’t have called it that, however; such labels were applied to women’s behavior though never to men’s, which made it yet another unfair double standard in McKenna’s mind. Still, her sexual behavior had caused her problems—social and academic—and she had felt shame about it even though she didn’t believe she should have to.

Early on in grad school, McKenna had started seeing a psychologist. He recommended that McKenna treat her “hypersexuality” by addressing childhood issues—she had an absent father and an emotionally punishing mother—and by attending Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) meetings. McKenna liked her therapist, but went to only one meeting. She’d met Dan around the same time, and her interest in him had seemed to shut down her desire for anonymous sex; she thought she was cured.

Before Dan, McKenna could be found at least six nights a week in the college bars, usually going home with someone she’d just met (or taking him—or her—back to her place). She’d slept with professors and even a married dean and liked to use Internet dating sites for quick-and-easy hook-ups. She wasn’t sure why she liked having anonymous and frequent sex, but when Dan came into her life, it was as if her previous habits had belonged to someone else. Her therapist advised McKenna that the issues with sexual addiction likely weren’t over, but she felt changed, and off she and Dan went to California where they moved into a small apartment and began their research careers.

The close proximity—living and working together—began to change things. After a short time, McKenna found herself growing repulsed by Dan’s habits, his nearness. She rarely felt affectionate toward him anymore and even when she did feel her old fondness, she withheld. He often said to her, “It feels like I’m alone here,” but McKenna resented what she thought of as Dan’s neediness. She never wanted to have sex anymore, which left them both feeling unsatisfied and resentful.

Two years had gone by and the couple had only been intimate a handful of times. When Dan told McKenna he wanted to move out, she broke down. She knew he was only doing what was best for him, but she felt abandoned. That night, she took off to the bars, dressed in a plunging neckline and knee-high leather boots. She wanted to escape inside the skin of a stranger, to feel numb but wanted.

A Disorder of Intimacy

Robert Weiss, senior vice president of clinical development with Elements Behavioral Health, author and renowned expert on the subjects of sexual disorders and addiction has said:

My clients want to have relationships, but they also want to be 100% certain that they won’t get hurt. For emotional self-protection, they tend to seek situations that offer controllable intimacy, which is an oxymoron. Emotional intensity, over which you can feel some control, is not the same as genuine closeness. Being vulnerable enough to allow yourself to be fully known creates the potential for true intimacy. But this also comes with some risk.

People who use sex and romantic intensity as substitutes for intimacy often find themselves feeling more empty and unfulfilled with each new relationship or sexual partner. The people I treat are highly vulnerable to rejection and perceived abandonment and are therefore afraid of not having emotional control over an intimate partner. Sadly, they fear the very emotional risks required to deeply and intimately bond, and will settle for short term, intensity-based experiences, which often leave them feeling more alone than when they started.

Weiss, like other experts in the field, believes people who suffer from sexual addiction experience disordered intimacy, a condition that causes intolerance to (emotional) closeness. The term “sexual anorexia” describes a period of sexual and emotional abstinence, in which an individual, usually with sexual addiction, avoids emotional or sexual proximity. Usually, sexual anorexia emerges when a person becomes involved with someone who is available for an intimate connection, not just sex. In this way a person with sexual addiction may go through “bipolar” periods, swinging from episodes of hypersexuality and times of sexual anorexia. This causes confusion not only for loved ones, but for the sex addict.

Symptoms of Sexual or Intimacy Anorexia

Many marriages or long-term relationships may endure symptoms of intimacy anorexia, not just ones in which a partner suffers sexual addiction. The reasons, again, have to do with disordered intimacy and until those issues have been resolved, the behaviors are unlikely to change. Some of the symptoms of intimacy/sexual anorexia are:

  • Withholding love
  • Withholding praise or positive attention
  • Withholding sex
  • Using silence or anger to control
  • Consistent or unfounded criticism
  • Unwillingness or inability to share feelings
  • Staying busy so that no time is left for your partner
  • Controlling or shaming partner over matters of money

These behaviors are referred to as “acting in,” as opposed to the acting out behaviors (like lying, cheating, etc.) which occur when a sex addict gives in to addictive urges. Acting in behaviors are likely only to continue until and unless they are addressed directly and both partners agree to get help. Defining boundaries and clearly stating needs are important. Remember that the sexual anorexic’s greatest fear is being made to feel vulnerable; he fears nothing can hurt so much. And this is nearly always because of a childhood or early life that was painful and uncertain.

Not all therapists are trained in working with sexual/intimacy anorexia. It can be unhelpful to blame an individual for behaviors that may already be a source of shame, however accountability is important for both partners. Reading about sexual addiction, sexual anorexia, intimacy disorders and finding a skilled therapist are all positive steps. Many people find healing when they learn to sit through uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability—they discover they will not be abandoned after all, and that love can actually feel safe. Giving a partner the time, space and patience to learn this can be a true gift—one both partners can celebrate in.

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