Why it’s critical to stop the silent cancer of many marriages from spreading through your ministry
As a Christian leader, you are more than likely dealing with
marriages on a regular basis. You may have seen marriages destroyed by adultery, alcoholism or sexual addiction. Although devastating, the dissolving of this type of marriage, due to the circumstances, makes sense.
But there is another type of marriage that slowly dies and it’s harder to put a finger on the problem. This marriage often looks good on the outside for decades. The husband and wife may have been singing in the choir or served as cell group leaders, deacons and Sunday school teachers for years. They are raising their family, and some of them are doing a variety of marriage-related ministries.
Dropping the Divorce Bomb
When this couple walks through your door, you think you’re going to be talking about something light or about ministry. Instead, they drop the divorce bomb in your lap. They will probably tell you that they have tried counseling, but they didn’t follow through. They don’t pray together, connect emotionally, have limited touch and haven’t had sex in years. They’ve had a no-name cancer tear through their marriage. They didn’t know what to do, so they prayed and plodded along hoping it would get better. But it didn’t, and it became intolerably worse.
One spouse states feeling married and alone, like a roommate. This person describes his or her spouse in ways you can barely imagine because you have seen the public image of this wonderful man or woman. You’re now befuddled—and feel powerless—to stop this disease from killing a marriage. The good news is that there is a name for this cancer—intimacy anorexia. I have been treating this cancer for more than 15 years, and I’ve seen marriages healed and reconnected.
Intimacy anorexia is the active withholding of emotional, spiritual and sexual intimacy from a spouse. Looking normal, the anorexic can have positive relationships outside the marriage. But at home, this person is intentionally different. There are several characteristics of intimacy anorexia, so that you can become discerning of this cancer when you hear couples describe their marriage. There are also causes and helpful things that couples can do to save their marriage from eventual death.
Traits of Intimacy Anorexics
The first characteristic is being too busy. The anorexic stays so busy that there is no time for his or her mate. This person can be busy outside the home with ministry, sports, extra jobs or helping others in some manner. The anorexic can also be busy in the home cleaning the house, reading the paper, playing on the computer, making telephone calls, reading emails, having Facebook time or other projects to help justify avoidance of the spouse. This couple rarely goes on dates, and they have no consistent defined time together.
Blaming is the second characteristic of intimacy anorexia. The anorexic will blame his or her spouse for all or almost all of the problems in the marriage—leaving only one logical solution: his or her mate is the problem.
The third characteristic is withholding love. Each one of us knows exactly what makes our spouse feel loved. The anorexic knows this, intentionally withholding this from the other person to create pain. This person will say it’s not intentional, and will make his or her spouse feel loved to reconcile during a fight. Once the storm is over, the anorexic actively withholds this loving behavior toward the other person.
Withholding praise is the fourth characteristic. Again, this will only show up toward their spouse. The anorexic can praise others—Christian leaders, even the couple’s children—but this person will withhold praise directly toward his or her partner. Many spouses of anorexics have told me that the last time they heard their spouse praise them in a heartfelt manner was years ago.
Healing the Hidden Addiction
The fifth characteristic is withholding sex. To be clear, many male intimacy anorexics will have sex regularly, but they will be disconnected during sex. They have their eyes closed during sex, won’t talk during the intimate time and prefers lights off so they don’t have to connect. Some anorexics really do withhold sex, and won’t have sex at all or punish their spouse before, during or after sex in some manner. Some anorexics will also feel like a roommate, brother, sister or a good friend, but not a lover to their spouse.
Withholding spiritually is the sixth characteristic. Anorexics can quote the Bible publicly, counsel others, be altar workers or even preach and pray beautiful public prayers. However, they are totally prayerless and spiritually distant with their spouse at home. They don’t discuss their spiritual struggles with their spouse or minister to their mate when the opportunity arises.
The seventh characteristic is withholding feelings from their spouse. Anorexics’ agenda is to avoid intimacy in their marriage. They will rarely talk about their feelings, which means sharing not just information. Anorexics can go weeks or months without sharing the heart or emotions of their spouse. This lack of emotional connection drives their partner away in anger—a technique I call “starving the dog.”
Control through silence or anger is the eighth characteristic. Anorexics can control their spouse by not talking to them for hours, days or weeks. I had a couple in my office recently when it was disclosed that a Christian man didn’t talk to his wife for three weeks while living in the same house. Anger can also be used to push the spouse away intentionally creating distance in the marriage.
The ninth characteristic is criticism. Anorexics will regularly point out shortcomings of their spouse. This criticism is often ongoing and regularly ungrounded, but it is effective at creating distance. Criticism may also not be spoken, but the spouse can feel the internal judgments of the anorexic mate. These criticisms are painful to live with on a daily or regular basis.
The last characteristic of intimacy anorexia is controlling or shaming about money. Anorexics can spend and do what they want with money, but their spouse has to justify expenses or gets shamed for purchases.
Stopping the Silent Killer
There are four main causes for intimacy anorexia. First, anorexics may have suffered sexual abuse in their past. Second, they can be sexually addicted to porn, engaged in self-sex behavior or involved in extramarital sex (a large factor for most male anorexics). Third, anorexics could lack attachment to the opposite gender parent. Lastly, they could have experienced no attachment or role modeling of intimacy in their family while growing up.
So what do you do now that you find this silent killer of marriage in the flesh sitting in front of you? First, while in your office, have the couple pray together out loud in your presence. Then have them share two feelings with their spouse. These feelings should have nothing to do with their spouse. Next, have them give each other two praises toward each other, and let the receiver of the praise say thank you.
Then request that they do this exercise daily, and have the anorexic initiate this. The anorexic needs to come up with a consequence if he or she doesn’t initiate this daily. This consequence gives the anorexic pain for withholding instead of giving his or her spouse pain. When the anorexic has pain for withholding, then the system can change and bring healing to the marriage.
You can help this cancer from spreading through your ministry. Early assessing is much better than getting the divorce bomb.
This cancer slowly tortures the spouses of anorexics until they hit a breaking point. To evaluate someone you think may be an intimacy anorexic, there is a free test at www.intimacyanorexia.com that can be taken. If the spouse of the anorexic answers yes to five or more of these characteristics regarding their husband or wife, it is probably intimacy anorexia they are struggling with. They can also call my office and get a free assessment from a therapist over the phone.
I have known many couples riddled with this silent cancer who have been able to rebound to having a great marriage and continue to do authentic ministry.