Intimacy is not a common topic discussed in the treatment of eating disorders. However, it is important in the development and healing of these types of disorders. When the word intimacy is used, it can be confusing to know what it means. The word intimacy is going to be used in two ways in this article:
- Intimacy is a trusting, close, and loving relationship with someone.
- Intimacy can be defined as sexual intercourse.
The impact that eating disorders have on both of these types of intimacy will be discussed in this article.
Intimacy: A Close Relationship
A relationship that is intimate is one where each person in the relationship is honest, trustworthy, and caring for the other person. Due to these characteristics, the people in the relationship feel close to one another and try to do what is in the best interest of the other person.
Another aspect of intimacy in a relationship is identity (Rogers, 2008). One must know who she is in order to work on knowing someone else. If you do not know yourself, how can you try to know someone else? Eating disorders make it nearly impossible to develop and maintain intimate relationships for the following reasons:
While those with eating disorders may not come out and say they hate themselves, they acknowledge how much they dislike parts of their bodies. Individuals who struggle with an eating disorder have a distorted view of their body. When someone with anorexia is dying from starvation, she will still see her body as fat when she looks in the mirror.
The combination of a distorted view and dislike for your body creates a self-hatred separating you from others. When you dislike or even hate yourself, or aspects of yourself, it is extremely difficult to see the good in others and have a close relationship with someone.
Someone who struggles with an eating disorder also struggles with isolating herself from others. It is actually ironic because most of the time someone suffering from an eating disorder feels alone, but she also separates herself from others due to her insecurities.
These insecurities make it difficult for someone with an eating disorder to accept others will be able to see past her faults. Therefore, rather than trying to build relationships, you actually avoid others in order to hide your insecurities and keep your secrets.
If you have an eating disorder, you may be telling yourself “I don’t have secrets.” I would argue that you do. Of the people I have worked with who have eating disorders, very few share this struggle with others. The eating disorder is the biggest secret you are keeping.
Another secret involves telling your family and friends you have already eaten or are not hungry, when you are actually starving. Or maybe you say you haven’t eaten, when in actuality you have, but you are so anxious that you feel you need food to calm down. It is nearly impossible to build intimate relationships with others when you keep secrets from them and are not truthful with yourself.
Intimacy: Sexual Relationship
The first close relationship a girl experiences with the opposite sex is with her father (Rogers, 2008). The father-daughter relationship forms the foundation for which the daughter will compare all other relationships with the opposite sex (Rogers, 2008). The quality of the father-daughter relationship greatly impacts how the daughter sees herself and allows others to treat her (Rogers, 2008). The relationship with her father directly impacts how she views her own body and can eventually influence the sexual relationship with her husband.
With disordered eating as previously mentioned, the view of the body is distorted. What a woman sees in the mirror when she has an eating disorder is not reality. An eating disorder creates the issues previously discussed to make intimate relationships almost impossible. These issues along with the eating disorder also make being sexually intimate extremely difficult, as well, due to the following:
Unhappy with Body
Earlier, self-hatred was explained more as hatred of the body. This hatred of your own body makes it difficult to allow someone else to see your body in a vulnerable state, such as the nudity, related to sexual intimacy. You hate your body when you are wearing clothes, why would let someone see you without clothes?
You even feel this way about your husband; someone you truly care about and who cares about you. Hatred of your body does not motivate you to want to do pleasurable things. Those with eating disorders seek to unconsciously hurt their bodies through disordered eating.
Lack of Trust
While you may tell yourself you don’t have trust issues or you completely trust your husband, this is not entirely true. I will not argue about whether you have trust issues or how much you trust the important people in your life. One comment I will mention is all those secrets and lies you tell to hide your eating disorder actually have a huge impact on your trust of others.
You may not like the idea that you lie in order to hide your eating disorder, but telling people around you that you are not hungry when you are is a lie. It is a lie you are telling yourself and the people you love.
Now that we have established that the impact of hiding an eating disorder impacts trust, how does lack of trust impact sexual intimacy? The short answer is trust impacts sexual intimacy a great deal. Most individuals would say trust is an important ingredient to any long lasting relationship, romantic or not.
Trust is also important when deciding to be sexually intimate. When you do not have trust in yourself, it is difficult to trust others to take care of you in vulnerable states. Why allow yourself to be in your most vulnerable state during sexual intimacy when you do not trust yourself or the person closest to you? You fear that your husband has the same negative thoughts about your body as you do. In order to prevent more hurt, you avoid sexual intimacy altogether.
A common fear of those with eating disorders is they do not measure up to their goals. They feel “not good enough” or “inadequate” in life. While this is actually untrue, the person with the eating disorder is successful and adequate in many areas of her life. The important point is she does not feel she is adequate.
These feelings of inadequacy spill over into her intimate life as well. If you feel inadequate in other daily tasks, you will also feel in adequate in your sexually intimate life. This inadequacy will make someone with an eating disorder avoid sex altogether or second guess trying to initiate sex with her husband.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, call The Relationship Center. We have professionals who know how to help.
Rogers, D. J. (2008). The Demise and restoration of intimacy. In E. Cumella, M. Eberly, & A. Wall (Eds.), Eating Disorders: A handbook of Christian treatment (pp. 185-192). Nashville, TN: Remuda Ranch.