This may seem like an unusual subject matter for the blog, but if you dig around you’ll find there’s actually quite a bit here on relationships, it’s just not so prominent as my more mainstream family content. One of the most popular posts on my site is a guest article about a specific marriage difficulty, and over the years it’s prompted me to explore and write more about these types of problems. So when I was offered the opportunity to interview a relationship counsellor about little-known relationship issue, sexual anorexia, I thought it could prove really valuable.
I don’t think it would be inaccurate for me to suggest that the very vast, vast majority of couples see a shift – an enormous one – in their post-children sex life.
But, what we forget to consider is that having a family can throw up all kinds of issues, and not just those obvious ones related to hormones and lack of sleep.
What about more deeply-rooted emotional scars? After all, plenty of women I know have experienced trauma during childbirth, and one of the things trauma can do is trigger past trauma/s to be roused. In which case this is a whole other ballgame where libido is concerned – and probably more important to address than common and completely typical responses to hormones and exhaustion.
One such issue that may affect men and women and which can be quite complex and confusing, is sexual anorexia, which can sometimes be caused by emotional incest (another interesting concept, which is not sexual). Here’s relationship counsellor Mig Bennett explaining a little about both:
Kate: Many people who read my anonymous guest post about a lack of sexual attraction in marriage are clearly not asexual. What else might be going on for them?
Mig: Could it be that, they simply no longer find that person sexually attractive? The erotic charge has gone with that person.
Or could it be that they had no childhood model for closeness and intimacy, or they had less than good parenting and find intimacy, and sex, uncomfortable?
I work with a heterosexual client who adores their partner, but avoids sex as much as they possibly can; they’d like it to be otherwise. As a teenager, they received some sexually inappropriate touching, lived in a very sexually open household and were sexualised quite early, becoming very promiscuous in later teens, but without getting emotionally close to anyone.
In two loving and longer term relationships, the sexual desire and response dwindled very quickly. They are close and loving, but they avoid sex with their partner. This can be a relatively common issue in those with sexual issues and seeking help from a couple psychosexual therapist is recommended.
Kate: In some cases, stress, tiredness, and other physical issues are not the problem, and there’s a good relationship with the spouse – there’s just no desire. Could you tell us a little about sexual anorexia and how it manifests please?
Mig: Anorexia, to most of us, is the compulsive avoidance of food. Sexual anorexia is the fear of and compulsive avoidance of giving, or receiving, sexual nourishment.
Perversely, it’s a form of sex and love addiction and can be difficult to spot. It’s one of a group of anorexic issues and is often closely aligned to intimacy avoidance, though not always.
I used the word ‘nourishment’ above because, in many cases, sexual anorexics appear quite overtly to be sexually promiscuous or driven….. having multiple partners or affairs, using online sexual sites or visiting sex workers.
These sexual behaviours aren’t nourishing.
They mask, to the person concerned or their loved ones, that at the root of the behaviour there is a fear of, or resistance to, a genuine relationship. In recovery work, the individual is surprised to uncover a sexually or intimacy anorexic person hiding beneath their sexually compulsive acting out.
However, some anorexics don’t engage in compulsive sexual acting out at all. Their behaviours are far more subtle but no less damaging and exhausting. They work hard, constantly trying NOT to do something. Like the eating anorexic, whose life revolves around avoidance of food, the sexual anorexic avoids sexual behaviour. This is described as ‘acting in’ as opposed to the sex addict’s ‘acting out’ and often is mistaken for natural shyness or prudishness.
Kate: What are some of the causes of sexual anorexia?
Mig: Like all addictions, a compulsive behaviour is a learnt way of soothing a wound, usually one that stems from childhood. Very simply, the addictive behaviour raises the dopamine level and this anaesthetises the pain… for a while.
The early wound can very often be traced back to poor attachments, fears of abandonment or some traumatic or inappropriate event or events. Examples include:
- Hearing parents fighting,
- Being Mum’s special confidante,
- Boarding school terror,
- Parental emotional neglect,
- Sexual or physical abuse.
Though the examples are endless and unique.
Kate: Emotional incest can contribute to sexual anorexia. Can you explain what emotional incest is and how it manifests please?
Mig: Emotional incest is putting a child in an inappropriate role where a parent looks to the child, rather than another adult, for emotional support.
Examples are when the child becomes:
- Dad’s confidante and secret keeper,
- Mum’s ‘grown-up boy’ or ‘best-friend girl’,
- Dad’s praise-giver and ego booster,
- Mum’s advice-giver in times of crisis.
It can manifest in many ways but from the above examples the children might develop:
- Compulsive lying,
- Fear of decision making,
- Lack of self worth,
- Difficulty making attachments and setting appropriate boundaries,
- Grandiosity and narcissistic tendencies.
Kate: Please tell us how emotional incest can lead to sexual anorexia?
Mig: Emotionally incestuous behaviour creates childhood insecurities which cause children to adapt their behaviours.
It’s not physical or sexual so it’s hard to pinpoint, but it damages in a less profound but similar way to sexual incest or to serious neglect.
Their childhood probably lacked structure, consistent discipline, guidance, and security; the child one minute feeling special, powerful and mature, and the next insecure and boundary-less.
Somewhere in here they would start to adapt and develop coping mechanisms to deal with these feelings. Then, in later life, these adaptations of behaviours will emerge as the sexual or intimacy disorders we are discussing, sometimes at the anorexic end of the spectrum.
Kate: Can emotional incest and/or sexual anorexia be overcome with therapy?
Mig: Yes. The incest can’t be undone but therapy and group work can gradually set in place new brain behaviour pathways to overlay the old.
Kate: If readers suspect they may be experiencing either of these issues, how would you suggest they proceed?
Mig: Do some research into the subject. SLAA (Sex & Love Addicts Anonymous) are excellent groups for Sexual Anorexics, having some groups dedicated to this alone. They are one of the many 12 Step Fellowships and I recommend them.
Also seek a therapist trained in sexual addiction by visiting the ATSAC (Association for the Treatment of Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity) website. Sexual anorexia is included in the therapist’s sexual addiction diploma training.
Kate: Do you recommend patients living with emotional incest discuss the issue with their parent or the person they have the issue with?
Mig: No. Not until the client has explored this in detail with a qualified therapist and is clear of their reasons for so doing. If it is to be done, it requires careful planning and awareness of all the possible outcomes.
Kate: Can/do relationships tend to survive sexual anorexia?
Mig: Ceasing sexual addictions is less about what you give up than what you take up in their place. The aim is to find a positive relationship with sex and intimacy as the replacement.
If anorexia is behind the addictive behaviours there’s an opportunity for a new relationship with the partner. Both will benefit from therapy during this period and many clients describe the crisis of discovery as bringing about better communication than ever before, leading to closeness and a chance for intimacy at a different level.
Kate: Can a person recover completely from sexual anorexia?
Mig: Sexual anorexics are often social anorexics and avoid relationships. These would be harder to work with, not having a secure relationship in which they ‘practice’ and grow. Recovery is about learning to be vulnerable and to openly communicate. The person may not know what those look and feel like, but they can learn with the support of a partner.
The brain is plastic, it can be modified. Each small bit of learning encourages more so a slow, fearful, stumbling start can quickly accelerate.
Kate: Is it possible to start (and complete) recovery without therapy?
Mig: I only know clients in therapy but, research has shown the best outcomes for sexual addictions (including those masking anorexia) are from three simultaneous approaches. A short intense recovery course, one to one therapy, and 12 step fellowship group work.
Kate: For any readers living with these issues, do you have any recommended reading that may help them?
Mig: For sexual addiction and anorexia, Patrick Carnes was the pioneer in this area. Many books on sex addiction contain a chapter on anorexia but this one is dedicated to the subject:
SLAA has excellent resources, but also explore their website.
For sex addiction generally, Paula Hall’s three books for the addict, the partner, and the couple are very accessible starting points for information:
Kate: How common are these issues?
Mig: Remember that sexual and intimacy avoidance and anorexia are at different ends of the spectrum here, so I’d say that cases presenting on that spectrum are quite common.
If you or a partner is experiencing these issues then rather than worry that you are abnormal, do something about it. Seek out a counsellor to talk through your issues and don’t panic – it will be more common than you think.
Mig Bennett is a fully qualified relationship counsellor specialising in relationship problems, sexual issues and sex addiction. She has over 25 years of experience, both in her own private practice – Mig Bennett Relationship Counselling and Relate. She is able to provide relationship counselling online and face-to-face.
Contact Mig on [email protected]