When people think of sex and love addiction, it often conjures up images of men and women who can’t stop cheating, can’t get enough sex, sleep with their yoga instructor or their wife’s best friend, or anyone who needs sex and/or “love” to feel validated.
In this context, sex and love take on the outward appearance of an addiction, while core wounds, toxic beliefs, and maladaptive coping strategies create what’s referred to as acting out behavior.
However, there’s another side of sex and love addiction called “anorexia,” and it’s just as damaging. Instead of acting out however, most anorectics do what’s called acting in.
So what is sexual and emotional anorexia?
If we’re to compare it to Attachment Theory, it’s like the avoidant style rather than the anxious one. It’s the type of disorder that has people running from sex and/or relationships rather than toward them.
Sexual and emotional anorexia can manifest as:
- The usage of porn instead of dating real partners.
- The fear of and avoidance of sex.
- An intense fear of intimacy and vulnerability.
- A feeling of shame around one’s own sexual drives and preferences.
- The harsh judgement of other’s sexual drives and preferences.
- Preferring to fantasize over unavailable people.
- Always waiting for “The One” or the perfect partner.
- Compartmentalizing partners into sexual or relationship categories.
The latter, commonly referred to as The Madonna/Whore Complex as it manifests in men, involves the unhealthy categorization of partners one can be physically intimate with, and one they can be emotionally intimate with. This split can occur with the same partner as the relationship progresses, leading to the dreaded “sexless relationship.”
Patrick Carnes, author of the book Sexual Anorexia and an expert in the area of sex and love addiction, describes it as such:
“An obsessive state in which the physical, mental and emotional task of avoiding sex dominates one’s life. Like self-starvation with food, deprivation with sex can make one feel powerful and defended against all hurts.”
The Signs, Symptoms, & Strategies
Below is a list of characteristics of sexual and emotional anorexia, as outlined by Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous:
- Having few healthy boundaries, we become sexually repulsed by and/or
emotionally threatened by people without knowing them.
- Fearing intimacy and vulnerability, we avoid closeness with others, concealing our dependency needs from ourselves and others, growing more isolated and alienated from friends and loved ones, ourselves and God.
- Fearing emotional and/or sexual nurturing, we compulsively avoid and stay away from romantic and sexual relationships, sometimes going for years at a time without participating in dating or sustained relationships.
- We over-idealize love and sex or conversely confuse love and sex with physical and sexual abuse, shame, immorality, engulfment, enmeshment, pity and/or the need to rescue or be rescued.
- We retreat into the safety by being alone. Even if we long for intimacy and
commitment, we continually avoid relationships and sexual contacts.
- We are deeply anxious and insecure but may cover feelings of stress, guilt, loneliness, anger, fear and envy with a persona of independence and self-
sufficiency. We may use self-reliance, martyrdom and/or deprivation as substitutes for nurturing, care and support.
- We judge others and or project that others judge us. We employ distancing
strategies and build emotional walls. We withhold love and sex to feel in
control and/or to control and manipulate others.
- We may substitute intimate relationships with romantic or sexual fantasies and may use pornography, adult bookstores, strip clubs, compulsive masturbation, anonymous sex and/or prostitutes to feed this fantasy world.
- We avoid responsibility for ourselves by focusing on others, denying our own feelings, wants and needs and being emotionally unavailable in relationships.
- We stay enslaved to isolation.
- We may mask our fears of authentic connection and sexuality by involving
ourselves in addictive romantic and sexual relationships with unavailable
- We assign magical qualities to others. We idealize and fear them, then resent them for the power they hold over us.
The anorectic’s core fears
- A fear of intimacy or “connection” with others.
- A fear of engulfment, suffocation, loss of self, or death.
- A fear of intense feelings (which have been suppressed).
- A fear of being visible or seen for one’s self.
- A fear of one’s sexuality.
- A fear of being attracted or attached to someone.
- A fear of starting or exiting a relationship.
- A fear of being responsible for someone else’s emotions or well being.
I’d also like to highlight “exiting a relationship” as a core fear. I find that anorectics are usually bad at ending a relationship even if it’s not working for them, choosing to stay in an unhappy situation far longer than necessary, yet never making the changes to improve it.
Anorectics employ many coping strategies to avoid sexual and emotional vulnerability, as well as ways to avoid feelings. These include behaviors designed to decrease pain (numbing out) or increase pleasure (getting a hit).
In both cases, the anorectic, like the addict, covers up their pain, anxiety, and insecurities with maladaptive coping mechanisms such as:
- A vivid fantasy life (in private).
- Pornography, voyeurism, masturbation, etc.
- Cross-addictions — food, work, money, drugs, alcohol, hoarding, TV,
- Going through binge-purge cycles between abstaining from sex and relationships, to excessive promiscuity.
Anorectics, despite being labeled as such, do often exhibit many addictive behaviors to aid in their avoidance of intimacy and deal with unpleasant feelings. Here are some of the addictive patterns the anorectic will fall into:
- Acting out in harmful ways such as with sex workers, cheating partners, or preferring anonymous sex over relationships.
- Overeating or bingeing on unhealthy love substitutes (Netflix, sugar, shopping, gambling, etc).
- Repetitive engagement in fantasy relationships, intrigue, masturbation, or porn — anything that feels real but is not.
- Obsessions with unavailable people.
- Addictive use of dating sites and apps.
Like all addicts, anorectics suffered wounds in early childhood, however some specific types of trauma are recurrent in those with sexual and emotional anorexia. These are:
- Enmeshment or emotional/covert incest.
- Overt/physical incest.
- Sexual abuse.
- Sexual shaming on any level.
- Parentification of the child.
- Repeated boundary violations of any kind.
It is my opinion that enmeshment trauma is a silent epidemic that is sweeping the western world. With the rise of single parent households, single parents often turn to their children for emotional support.
This is not limited to single parent households however. In unhappy, dysfunctional marriages, one child will often play the role of the caretaker or mediator, which is a type of parentification. This is another form of enmeshment because the child becomes responsible for the parent’s well being, instead of the other way around.
In a very real but confusing sense, enmeshment is a form of abandonment. The needy parent will often use their child to meet their own needs while abandoning the child’s need for a safe, secure, and validating parent.
“But I had a perfect childhood…”
This is often heard from the enmeshed child, because what child wouldn’t see being “The Man of the House” or “Daddy’s Little Girl” as a privilege?
These children however grow up with the same characteristics of those who suffered overt, physical incest, yet they can’t point out why they’re so unhappy in relationships and need to act out (or in).
Toxic guilt and parental loyalty
I have a hypothesis — one that is supported by a few notable sources, and that is that those with sexual and emotional anorexia suffer from an intense form of toxic guilt and an unhealthy parental loyalty. This is not the healthy guilt in which we’ve done something bad, wronged someone, or did something that goes against our personal values.
Toxic guilt comes from a subconscious romantic attachment to a parent, which eliminates the possibility for a partner to fill that intimate role. If the anorectic does not disconnect psychologically and emotionally from the enmeshed parent, the anorectic feels “guilty” for having sex with and/or forming an intimate bond with a partner.
In his seminal book No More Mr. Nice Guy, Dr. Robert Glover likens this phenomenon to being “Monogamous With Mom.” Nice Guys as they’re called, exhibit many traits of the anorectic, including an aversion to sex and intimacy, as well as many of the acting out/in behaviors.
In my favorite book, Iron John: A Book About Men by Robert Bly, the story likens this to “stealing the key from under the mother’s pillow.”
A great number of men — particularly those with sexual and emotional anorexia, never steal the key from under their mother’s pillow, and thus cannot “free The Wildman” and connect with their own sense of mature masculinity. In essence, they remain little boys their entire lives, and forever attached to their mother.
It’s a common thread among sex and love addicts, particularly anorectics, to have suffered repeated boundary violations in childhood. This is another factor of enmeshment, because it teaches the child to think that “My body is not my own, my space is not my own, and I do not have the right to say ‘no’ even if I want to.”
“It is impossible to be intimate if you have no sense of self. How can you share yourself with another if you do not really know who you are? How can anyone know you if you do not know who you really are? One way a person builds a strong sense of self is by developing strong boundaries.”
― John Bradshaw, Homecoming: Reclaiming and Healing Your Inner Child
Recovering from sex and love addiction, whether anorexia or otherwise, takes time, support, the healing of childhood wounds, changing beliefs, and discovering our true selves.
In our childhood trauma, particularly in the roles that served the dysfunctional family system, we abandoned our true nature in favor a false, family-pleasing facade.
Anorectics have been living in this facade for so long, it’s hard to see who they really are. Or, if they do see their true selves, they reject themselves for being imperfect and unlovable for not being what their caretakers wanted. In recovery, they can learn to stitch the pieces back together, and reclaim their sexuality in the process.
“We are so used to our own history, we do not see it as remarkable or out of the ordinary, whereas others might see it as horrendous. Further, we tend to minimize that which we feel shameful about.”
― Patrick J. Carnes, Sexual Anorexia: Overcoming Sexual Self-Hatred
Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, or SLAA (pronounced “slaw”), is a great place to start if you’re new to this work. It’s a 12 Step program based on the model of Alcoholics Anonymous, but instead of alcohol it’s the addictive behaviors of the sex and love addict/anorectic that are referenced.
Additionally, many notable treatment centers are available throughout the United States, such as The Meadows in Wickenburg, AZ. Thought leaders such as Pia Melody, Patrick Carnes, and John Bradshaw are fellows or staff of The Meadows, and while I’ve never been there, I know that it’s a top choice among treatment centers. I have no affiliation with them however, so do your own research.
Over the years I’ve read many great books such as Homecoming, Healing the Shame That Binds You, Facing Love Addiction, The Emotional Incest Syndrome, Sexual Anorexia, and for men, No More Mr. Nice Guy and Iron John. All of these, at least in some powerful way, address the breeding grounds for sexual and emotional anorexia.
When I first learned about all of this I thought my chest was going to cave in. It’s a life-changing realization, and in some ways — to reference The Matrix — wish that I took the blue pill. Yet I have no regrets, because awareness leads to change. I’d rather see The Wizard of Oz for who he is rather than the god he is not.
If you think that you exhibit any of the characteristics listed above, there is help. While you can do this work on your own, I highly recommend doing so with a guide. That could be a 12 Step sponsor, a therapist, in a treatment center, or with an experienced coach.
Previously published on medium
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