Withholding: The Silent Marriage Killer: Intimacy Anorexia Series Part 2

I remember learning about power in school. It was so fascinating to see the different presentations of power and how they were manifested, especially in relationships.  I do not remember all of the different displays of power, but I do remember two main categories:  High-perceived power and low-perceived power.   An understanding of these two categories may help us better understand what really happens in a marriage where one partner has intimacy anorexia.


Married and Alone: Intimacy Anorexia Series Part 1

High-perceived power is the easiest to recognize.  It is high in external demonstrations of power.  A person with high-perceived power speaks in a raised voice and even yells.  A person with high-perceived power may hit, break things, throw things, menace and intimidate with physical presence, and so on.  This is a person whose display is quite obvious.

A person with high-perceived power is often considered the scariest because their display of power is so obvious and often quite frightening.

They may look out of control and chaotic. This person is often mistakenly thought to have the most power.   However, this may not be the case and we can be deceived in assessing and judging who has power.   We are so naturally conditioned and taught to see these external displays as a terrible abuse and expression of power.   However, high-perceived power is not always all that powerful.  This is especially true in the case of a marriage affected by intimacy anorexia.

Low-perceived power is subtle, difficult to detect, and often unobservable by the senses.  Assessing low-perceived power often takes significantly longer to see and is often missed by the untrained observer.  Even more, many often just see the individual with high-perceived power and never think to look for what else may be going on.  Again, we are conditioned to see the displays of the high-perceived power individual.  First glance may cause us to miss important things.

A person with low-perceived power uses things like isolation, ignoring, neglecting, the silent treatment, stonewalling, passive-aggression, weeping, playing the victim, acting helpless, and withholding.  Without careful observation, many of these patterns and behaviors can be invisible and undetectable.  The low perception of power is almost impossible to see.

The Irony

The most surprising thing about these categories is the truth about who really has the power.   It is a fact that the person with low-perceived power actually has the most power and the person with high-perceived power actually has the least power.  What looks like power to the natural eye and senses is actually not as powerful as that which often cannot be seen or detected on first (or even second) glance.   This is often surprising to friends and family and even professionals when they try to offer help to a couple in need.

These definitions and different presentations of power can be so helpful to know–especially if your marriage is affected by intimacy anorexia.

The Power of the Intimacy Anorexic

When a spouse has intimacy anorexia, they wield incredible power in a marriage relationship.  In fact, the intimacy anorexic most commonly wields a most deadly weapon that is almost imperceptible and possibly the lowest in perceived power–withholding.

Withholding (the hallmark characteristic of intimacy anorexia) is the intentional and deliberate act of not giving love, attention, spirituality, praise, connection, and closeness. The anorexic purposely holds back giving love like they know the companion spouse wants.  This, along with its low-perceived power companions of busy, neglect, blame, and the silent treatment, make withholding incredibly destructive and deadly to relationships. If not checked, this incredibly powerful activity and action will surely destroy a marriage and the companion spouse.  Withholding is one of the most destructive abuses of power.

Imagine being called to help a couple you know.  They share with you that there has been some conflict and they need help.  As you sit back and observe and listen, you notice one spouse is complaining and obviously unhappy.  His face may be red and he may be trying to tell you what is wrong.  The other partner is quiet, maybe weeping, head-down, and saying very little.  She says she feels so inadequate and feels guilty all the time.  She adds she can never do anything right.  She silently curls up in a ball.

At first blush, it seems obvious what the problem is to you.  So, you focus on the louder partner.  It appears that he is critical, maybe even abusive and controlling.  Your assessment is that she is obviously suffering at his hands.  It seems so obvious.  As the conversation continues, you feel more and more sure that he is the problem.

In trying to help, you decide to meet with them individually.  She continues to tell you how broken she feels.  She tells you she always feels no good, never enough, and feels like she can never do anything right.  She exudes powerlessness and appears truly beaten down and surely a victim.   It seems so clear.

So, you go and meet with him.  You start out trying to just listen, but it is obvious to you who the problem is here.  As you think of just leaving your meeting with her and then find him complaining, trying to explain what has been going on, and getting more and more excited and maybe even louder.  You tell him he is the problem and he explodes.  He gets so upset that it frightens you.  He stomps out of the office.

It seems so obvious what is going on here, right?  In some cases, it may be true that the spouse who is displaying high-perceived power is an abuser.  However, in many cases, the low-perceived power spouse is actually controlling everything.  Though invisible in this scenario, she has been wielding her power for much time and what she did to exercise that power, was almost imperceptible.  An untrained eye is sure to miss it.  A trained professional may miss it too!

She has been withholding and more likely for years.  Her partner has felt neglected and mistreated.  He is suffering from incredible neglect, the silent treatment, and the deliberate holding back of affection, appreciation, closeness, praise, intimacy, and more.  He reached a breaking point and something happened that they reached out for help.  They really need observant and careful help.

I am not trying to excuse the high-perceived power partner.  I am just trying to explain the dynamic that is so very common in the marriage where one is an intimacy anorexic.  The anorexic is almost always the one with all the power.  Most professionals would say that the worst kind of abuse of power is the silent treatment, stonewalling, and withholding. The first thing our enemy does to the captive is place them in solitary confinement.  It is the cruelest abuse and use of power.  This is especially true in a marriage where one has dreams and hopes of being loved and cherished and not of being locked in an isolated and lonely, empty relationship cell.

If you are the partner feeling powerless, crazy, confused, and out of control, please seek help.  Be careful who you speak to about the challenge.  It might be unwise to speak to biased family members or friends, church leaders, and such.  Seek out a church leader or professional counselor who will listen to you and who can be unbiased!

If you believe your partner has intimacy anorexia, please seek out someone trained in this area to get an accurate assessment and support (go to  Please consider joining a support group for partners of those with intimacy anorexia.  If you cannot find a counselor certified in treating intimacy anorexia, carefully choose a counselor who will take the time to assess your situation, listen to your concern, and be responsive to this low-perceived power dynamic.  A Gottman Trained therapist often can help.

In coming posts, we will explore more of some of the typical dynamics that show up in a marriage afflicted by the terrible curse of intimacy anorexia.  Future posts will add to our understanding of the incredible power of the withholding anorexic and how it affects the companion spouse and the marriage.


Jim R. Jacobs
Jim R. Jacobs
Jim R Jacobs is a brave creator who strives to do mighty things! Jim is a Certified Daring Way Facilitator helping others to live more brave and authentic lives! He is the author of Driving Lessons For Life: Thoughts on Navigating Your Road to Personal Growth. Jim speaks professionally, and coaches others to success and living with integrity. He is a counselor, educator, innovator, father, and friend. Please check out Jim R. Jacobs and Driving Lessons For Life and find Jim on social media! Let's connect and dare mighty things!

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