Attachment Styles and Sexual Intimacy

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I’m not sure if it’s fate or coincidence that I chose to write this blog over Valentine’s weekend, but here goes.

The reader is urged to consult the previous blog (January, 2015) for information about attachment styles. Attachment research broadly divides into “secure” attachment and “insecure attachment,” with insecure attachment further divided into “anxious” and “avoidant” styles.

Sue Johnson, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, distinguished research professor, and developer of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT). Her latest book, Love Sense; The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships (2013) provides the basis for this post.

From the section “Sex Follows Connection,” Johnson writes:

“Our culture endorses the idea that sex brings emotional attachment, that it creates the bond that ties a couple together. In short, love follows sex. But much more significant is the movement in the other direction. Numerous studies over the past ten years show how the three attachment styles–secure, anxious, and avoidant–influence our motives for having sex, our sexual performance and satisfaction, and the impact of sex on our love relationships.

Those of us who are avoidant, that is uncomfortable with emotional closeness and dependence on others, are more likely to have what I term ‘sealed-off sex.’ The focus here is on one’s own sensations. Sex is self-centered and self-affirming, a performance aimed at achieving climax and confirming one’s own sexual skill. Technique is prized; openness and vulnerability shunned….Partners’ feelings are deemed insignificant and are easily dismissed.

Because pleasure without emotional engagement is shallow and fleeting, this kind of sex needs continual boosting to be thrilling. Novel techniques and new partners can momentarily heighten excitement, but the incessant experimenting can lead to unsafe practices and coercive pressure being applied to partners who are hesitant to participate….Sealed-off sex is one-dimensional and leaves both partners dissociated. It undermines emotional bonds. It is also, in the end, less satisfying. Research indicates that it actually reduces arousal and results in less frequent orgasms….

More anxiously attached people, by contrast, tend to have ‘solace sex,‘ that is, to use sex as proof of how much they are loved. There is emotional engagement, but the chief feeling is anxiety. For such people, who are highly vigilant and sensitive to even a hint of rejection, sex serves as reassurance that they are valued and desired. For men, it is usually the sex act itself that gives comfort. For women, it is the kissing and cuddling that precedes and follows it….”

Dr. Johnson also talks about these styles in her book Hold Me Tight (2008). Regarding “solace sex,” Johnson quotes the words of a female client: “Sex with Frank is okay. But to be truthful, it is the cuddling I really want. And the reassurance. It’s like sex is a test, and if he desires me, then I feel safe. Of course, if he ever isn’t horny, then I take it real personally and get scared.” Johnson concludes: “When sex is an antianxiety pill, it cannot truly be erotic. Solace sex can help keep a relationship stable for a while, but it can also feed into raw spots and negative cycles. When anything goes wrong in the mutual-desire department, there is instant hurt and negativity. If this kind of sex is the norm in a relationship, partners can get caught in obsessively trying to perform to please or in being so demanding that it turns off sexual desire. When physical intimacy becomes all about tamping down attachment fears, it can drive lovers apart.”

Now, back to Love Sense (2013):

“Sexual satisfaction for both the anxiously attached and the avoidant is constricted; the anxious partner is preoccupied with being loved, and the avoidant partner is determined to stay detached….The most satisfying and orgasmic sex, what I call ‘synchrony sex,‘ occurs when partners are securely attached.

A secure bond is characterized by emotional openness and responsiveness in the bedroom as well as out. That leads to better communication and engaged, focused attention, which in turn leads to greater arousal, pleasure, and satisfaction….Think about it. If you trust that your partner is there for you, then you can relax and let go without fear of embarrassment or rejection. Safety fosters a willingness to experiment, take risks, and be fully immersed in the sexual encounter. Sex becomes more spontaneous, passionate, and joyful.

From Hold Me Tight (2008), Johnson writes: “Psychiatrist Dan Stern of Cornell Medical School also uses the word (synchrony) when he observes that secure lovers are attuned to each other, sensing each other’s inner state and intention and responding to each other’s shifting states of arousal, in the same way that an empathetic mother is attuned to her baby….This synchrony gives a ‘tacit sense of deep rapport’ and is the essence of connection – emotional, physical, sand sexual. Emotional safety shapes physical synchrony, and physical synchrony shapes emotional safety.

Responsiveness outside the bedroom carries on into it. Connected partners can reveal their sexual vulnerabilities and desires without fear of being rejected. We are all afraid that we are somehow not ‘enough’ in bed….Secure, loving partners can relax, let go, and immerse themselves in the pleasure of lovemaking. They can talk openly, without getting embarrassed or offended, about what turns them off or on.”

Interesting. Sounds like some of the best sex therapy might come from unraveling the “attachment knots” from earlier life experiences.

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

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