Throughout July we’re talking about Sex, Intimacy and Relationships in eating disorder recovery. Today, we look at John Bowlby’s attachment styles, and discuss how each attachment style can show up in sexual relationships.
The link between intimacy and attachment
When we talk about intimacy, we first have to talk about British psychoanalyst, John Bowlby’s, four attachment styles. Our attachment style is a categorization for how we relate to others. It is formulated in our human need for a secure base in very early childhood.
Our very first relationship in life is with that of our primary caregiver, most often our parents. We rely upon this relationship to have our needs met, and as a result, our physical and psychological development takes place within a relational context.
Our caregivers become our early attachment figures, and how we interact with these attachment figures in our formative years lays the groundwork for how we engage in intimate relationships as adults.
If we have experienced consistency and responsiveness from our caregivers, we are likely to grow up feeling secure in relationships, as our very first relationship has taught us that our needs can and will be met by others, and that we can be vulnerable without negatively impacting others around us.
If, on the other hand, we’ve experienced inconsistency in responsiveness, or consistent unresponsiveness, we are likely to feel insecure in relationships and develop creative adaptions for coping with the insecurity that we feel.
Whilst these strategies technically serve a protective function to covertly meet our needs for security in relationships, the incongruence of the relational dynamic can exacerbate feelings of anxiety and fear of rejection/abandonment.
The four attachment styles, and how they show up in intimate relationships
People with a secure attachment style are likely to have a strong sense of self and are less likely to struggle with issues concerning self-worth. They are open and available to partners and feel safe expressing vulnerability, having been consistently supported and responded to by primary caregivers in childhood. Their partners can go away and come back without impacting their sense of self and confidence. They have a good knowledge of their needs and can implement boundaries to protect themselves. They are comfortable with expressing vulnerability in relationships.
How this translates to sex & intimacy: The secure state of mind allows for an ease in sexual intimacy. They can respond to a partner’s sexual preferences without compromising on their own needs and desires. It’s a confident approach to sexuality, allowing for exploration and play that fosters longevity in a relationship. Their secure sense of self allows them to express their emotions with others and facilitate emotional bonding.
People with an anxious attachment style tend to be very orientated towards the other. They are more likely to be self-sacrificing, compromising on their own needs in an effort to preserve the relationship. As suggested by the title, they are more anxious and highly dependent in relationships, fearful of rejection, and in need of reassurance from the other. They are likely to feel distressed with partners going away, perceiving it as rejection. Their sense of self-worth is more fragile and dependent upon the presence and consistency of their partner.
How this translates to sex & intimacy: Their fear of rejection can motivate them to use sex to meet their needs for contact. In this way, sex can serve a manipulative function, to gain reassurance and negate the possibility for rejection or abandonment. Anxiously attached people have more porous boundaries which mean that sex is more orientated towards the needs and desires of the partner, rather than their own. Avoiding their needs and preferences can result in lower sexual desire, as sex is less about pleasure and intimacy, and more about coercing proximity and contact.
Someone who is dismissive-avoidant in their attachment style may appear withdrawn and highly independent. They feel as though they do not need close, intimate relationships, preferring not to be dependent upon others, nor have others depend upon them. Individuals tend to feel low anxiety in relationships as they are emotionally distant. Their childhood was likely to have been characterised by absent caregivers, which is experienced as neglect and abandonment. Dismissive-avoidant people, therefore, learn to rely upon themselves.
How this translates to sex & intimacy: Individuals are less likely to connect on an intimate level. They can experience discomfort with closeness, feeling that it is imposed upon them. They may steer clear of demonstrating affection or responding to a partner’s needs. Sex, therefore, is more of a transactional experience, removed of it’s emotional intimacy, and serving personal needs such as stress-reduction. As such, they may engage in more one night stands or affairs.
Fearful-Avoidant (Disorganised) Attachment
Someone who is fearful-avoidant can appear ambivalent or confused in relationships. They might be very hot and cold, demonstrating extreme responses. Relationships are a cause for high anxiety, driven by a fear of rejection and abandonment. They feel they are nor worthy or are unlovable, and are highly dependent upon the other. Experiences of abuse or inconsistency from caregivers in childhood mean that they don’t believe that their needs can be met by others, leading to distrust and confusion, where they expect betrayal whilst also craving love.
How this translates to sex & intimacy: Individuals with a fearful-avoidant attachment style can have poor boundaries, compromising on their needs in order to protect the relationship. They may find the emotions evoked in sexual experiences to be overwhelming or confusing, and that their sense of self is destabilised in response to the partner.
Attachment styles are fluid
You might have noticed some of your own characteristics in the attachment styles above. Keep in mind that whilst we adopt a certain way of being in relationships, often this stems from a protective impulse, and is not stagnant.
We all have the ability to move fluidly through attachment styles. For instance, being in a relationship with someone who is secure in their attachment style, can help others who are more anxiously or avoidantly attached shift their sense of self-worth and trust of others into a more secure style.
How you can work with your attachment style
- Identify your own attachment style through reading and exploration. Keep an open, curious mind and avoid being judgemental about what you find
- Once you are have more knowledge about your attachment style, find ways to regulate it through acceptance and self-compassion. Consider exploring couples therapy or doing individual therapy
- Bring a mindful awareness to how you engage in sex and relationships, armed with the knowledge that you have about your attachment style. Keep curious about your triggers and bring awareness to your emotions and any immediate urges that arise to act
- Communicate with your partner. By giving voice and expression to what we’re experiencing, we can learn to work with it in the moment and provide an opportunity for a bonding experience that’s facilitated by openness and honesty
- Keep in mind that sex and intimacy are distinct from one another, but can also be a shared experience. There are many different ways to engage with both of them, and different partners will be bringing their own attachment style to the table