When Sex Is More Than Just Sex: How Attachment Style Affects Our Sex Lives
For most healthy adults sex is a vital and important part of their relationship. Sexual desires and needs in humans are natural and normal – no shame needs to be attached to this. As our society has become more sexualised and sexually liberated, we have developed sexual expectations, which may sometimes be unrealistic. Such different expectations often lead to relationship discord. They are, however, also heavily influenced by our attachment styles.
Attachment styles are developed during childhood and determine how we relate in adult life. The way we experience our parents leads to the development of thinking patterns and behavioural habits about ourselves, others and relationships. Our attachment styles reflect the level of security we perceived and experienced growing up.
A Brief Summary of Attachment Styles
If our parents were attuned to us, responsive and largely met our emotional needs during childhood, we develop secure attachment. We learn to trust, regulate our emotions, develop confidence and self-belief, are open-minded, empathic and caring, emotionally connected and available, and have a realistically optimistic outlook on life and love.
If this did not happen, usually due to our parent’s own attachment style and conditioning, we develop insecure attachment that makes it difficult to relate to others in healthy and helpful ways. We then either develop an anxious attachment style, an avoidant attachment style or a ambivalent attachment style. Severely traumatised children often develop a disorganised attachment style.
The anxious (preoccupied) attachment style in romantic adult relationships is characterised by feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, low self-worth, fear, jealousy, clinginess, neediness, (co)dependency, preoccupation with their partner and sometimes possessiveness, as well as sensitivity and extreme fear of rejection and abandonment.
The avoidant (fearful or dismissive) attachment style is characterised by a fear of intimacy, closeness and dependence, repression of feelings, being withdrawn or aloof, a strong focus on goals such as work, a strong focus on themselves, a positive evaluation of themselves but a negative evaluation of others, and sometimes a disconnection from their bodily sensations amongst others.
Whereas anxiously attached people crave deep levels of intimacy and are willing to sacrifice their autonomy, avoidants protect their autonomy and independence at the expense of deeper, meaningful connections. This often leads to the anxious-avoidant trap, which you can read about here.
To explore attachment styles in more detail, please click here.
Sex and Secure Attachment
Securely attached adults are mostly emotionally stable, which enables them to trust themselves and others, face and share their vulnerabilities, be emotionally open, transparent and available, and develop deep levels of intimacy. They are attuned to their partners and respond well to bids of connection.
Sexual intimacy comes easily and there is a shared openness and willingness to enjoy and explore their and their partner’s bodies and sexuality. Any differences in desires are spoken about and explored. Sexual difficulties are respectfully addressed and resolved within the relationship.
Sex and Insecure Attachment
Research suggests that insecurely attached people have less satisfying sexual experiences and sex lives. Jennifer Pink found that anxiously attached people are more likely to get rejected whereas avoidant people were more likely to reject or give in to unwanted sexual advances. In relationships sex can often be used as a tool of manipulation and power exertion.
“Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” Oscar Wilde
Sex and Anxiously Attachment
Anxious people reportedly have more sex, which they equate with romantic love. Sex is often used to reduce insecurity and to increase intimacy and closeness. Anxiously attached adults also often use sex as a measure of their self-worth, which can lead to an increase in anxiety and relationship insecurity if the frequency of sex decreases.
This hypervigilance and hypersensitivity to possible rejection often causes anxiously attached people to engage in a hyperactivation strategy of putting a lot of effort into creating intimate moments with the aim of encouraging their partners to have sex and to place extremely high value on sex within a relationship.
Researcher Christina Stefanou found that anxiously attached men suffer more from erectile dysfunction than securely attached males while Kaleigh Sands’ research suggests that anxious people are also more anxious in the bedroom with their sexual partners.
Sex and Avoidant Attachment
Avoidants have less desire for sex and report fewer sexual encounters than anxious people. Whereas anxious people employ a hyperactivation strategy, avoidants employ a sexual deactivation strategy, which involves inhibiting sexual desire, arousal and pleasure from orgasm. Avoidants also often distance themselves from a partner who is interested in sex and perceive sex and love as separate entities. If an avoidant provides ‘dutiful’ sex it is done as a service rather than an act of loving.
Christina Stefanou’s research found that avoidant women experience higher rates of sexual dysfunction such as less sexual arousal, issues with lubrication, and fewer orgasms. John Sakaluk found that avoidants see their sexual partners as more threatening and therefore have a stronger preference for practicing safe sex using condoms whereas anxiously attached people use condoms less frequently to avoid any barriers between them and their partners.
What Can We Do About It?
Couples often come to therapy when one of both partners are dissatisfied with their sex life. Many counsellors mistakenly treat the symptom of the couple’s distress: the obvious sexual issue. What actually needs addressing is each individual’s attachment style and their way of relating to each other.
When we gain awareness of how we contribute towards our experienced problems and how our thoughts about our partner or relationships overall inform our behaviours, we are free to change and connect to our true, more loving and less fear-based nature.
Instead of leaving existing relationships and not addressing our own attachment issues and thereby recreating a very similar situation with the next partner, it is more beneficial to see and address the disconnection we create through often unconscious ways of thinking and behaving.
One of our greatest gifts as humans is our multifaceted nature. Amongst many other things we are sexual beings gifted with an earthly life that allows us to experience the joys and pleasures a human body can bring and give. To use our bodies to intimately connect with a loved one is not something that needs to be feared, clung to, invalidated, shamed or dismissed. It is one of life’s pleasures and yet another experience that has been gifted to us.