All aspects of our close relationships reflect our personalities, but perhaps none so strongly as sexuality. By the time we reach adulthood, each of us has formed a core set of beliefs and assumptions about our close relationships. Many of these beliefs developed very early in our lives, reflecting the mental images we formed as a result of the way others cared for us.
Deakin University graduate student Christina Stefanou, working with psychologist Marita McCabe (2012), wanted to explore the question of whether people’s attachment to their parents becomes translated, once they reach adulthood, to their sexual relationships.
You don’t need to be a dyed-in-the-wool Freudian to understand how such a process might occur. Traditional psychodynamic theory emphasizes the sometimes maladjusted ways that people project their feelings about their parents onto their current sex partners. In brief, Freud’s view of the Oedipal complex for boys, and Electra complex for girls, was that young children want to have sex with their opposite-sex parent. They grow out of this phase when they incorporate society’s taboos into their personalities (the “super-ego”). As adults, they transfer their sexual desires onto age peers, and in so-called normal development, everything runs smoothly from there on out. Those adults who do not make this transition spend their lives trying to re-create the love affairs they wished they could have had with their mothers or fathers.
Contemporary personality theory now understands the role of early relationships in shaping adult sexuality in a very different way. Attachment style theory proposes that the mental images you carry of your relationship with your parents or parent figures are not specifically of a sexual nature, but instead reflect the security or insecurity you experienced as an infant while under their care. If you felt that your caregivers would always be there to watch over you, then you will feel comfortable and secure in your close adult relationships. On the other hand, if your caregivers could not be counted on to take care of you or were uninterested in you, then as an adult, you would carry this insecurity over into your closest emotional relationships. Because many of the closest adult relationships people have are potentially with their sexual partners, these feelings of security or insecurity could have a powerful effect on what happens in these relationships.
According to Stefanou and McCabe, attachment style and sexuality complement each other in a reciprocal way: “specifically, smooth functioning of the sexual system involves the mutual coordination of both partners’ sexual motives and behaviors” (p. 2500). Two types of dysfunctions involving attachment style can play out in the sexual relationship between partners. In sexual hyperactivation, Partner A continually tries to get Partner B to have sex. If Partner B doesn’t want to, then Partner A feels rejected and hurt. The insecurity that Partner A feels becomes translated into constant watchfulness for signs of rejection. Sexual deactivation, in contrast, occurs when one or both partners inhibit their sexual desire, avoid thinking about sex, distance themselves from partners who are interested in sex, and inhibit their arousal and pleasure from experiencing orgasm.
After scouring the available literature for studies that investigated the personality-sexuality link, Stefanou and McCabe found 15 that fit their criteria of being conducted on adult samples, measured sexuality in terms of frequency, satisfaction, and dysfunction, and differentiated among the attachment styles. The sample sizes of these 15 studies ranged from 70 to 1,999, and the duration of the relationships among participants ranged from a low of 1 month to a high of 53 years. These numbers are indeed impressive, lending support to the validity of the study’s findings.
Many of the studies used the relatively straightforward Attachment Style Questionnaire which asks respondents to choose one of these three ways to express how they feel in romantic relationships:
A. I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, others want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.
B. I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don't worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.
C. I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn't really love me or won't want to stay with me. I want to get very close to my partner, and this sometimes scares people away.
After choosing the alternative that best describes them, respondents then rate themselves on all three, using a 1-7 scale from disagree strongly to agree strongly. People who score highest on choice A are considered avoidant, meaning that they are reluctant to become close to others for fear of abandonment. People who choose B are secure in their attachment, which means that they are comfortable with getting close to others. Choice C reflects the anxious attachment style which describes people who tend to become dependent, clingy, and afraid of being left alone. Together, avoidant and anxious attachment are often called insecure in contrast with secure.
Other studies in the review used the Experiences in Close Relationships measure, which contains 36 items to arrive at the scores on avoidant and anxious attachment styles. People who are avoidant in their attachment style agree to items such as “I prefer not to show a partner how I feel deep down.” Anxious attachment is shown by items such as “I worry about being abandoned.” People in the secure attachment style would have low scores on both scales.
Now that you know how psychologists measure attachment style, let’s take a look at Stefanou and McCabe’s findings. As they expected, people in the anxious and avoidant attachment styles had less satisfying sexual experiences across all types of relationships studied— heterosexual and homosexual married and dating.
Women in the avoidant and anxious attachment styles showed a number of forms of sexual dysfunction ranging from less arousal, difficulties lubricating, lack of orgasm, and sexual pain. Men who were insecurely attached also reported more problems with erectile dysfunction. One study reported that anxious, but not avoidant, partners were less sexually satisfied, but the sample in that study was biased toward midlife women. The dissatisfied avoidant individuals would have been more likely to leave the relationship when things went south.
Those people with avoidant attachment who remain in a relationship are less likely to engage in sexual intercourse, feeling uncomfortable with intimacy. By contrast, people with anxious attachment are more likely to equate sex with romantic love. They use sex as a way to reduce their insecurities and bring their partner closer to them. For the anxiously attached, sex makes them feel loved and valued.
We know from other research that people’s sexual fantasies similarly reflect their attachment styles. People clearly bring their personalities not only into the bedroom, but into their wishes for what they do in the bedroom.
There is useful practical advice that you can take away from this impressive esearch. If you are anxiously attached, you might wish to examine whether you are, as the study suggests, using sex to reduce your fear of abandonment. The more you do, the more likely it is that you drive away your partner, particularly if that partner has avoidant attachment tendencies. You might also be more likely to fall victim to what I’ve called “Bad, Mad Love,” meaning that you get too easily involved in relationships that can harm your already somewhat fragile self-esteem. If you are avoidantly attached, in contrast, you may be inadvertently blocking yourself off from the closeness with others that can provide you with the emotional support you most likely are not getting now. The relationship conflict that can ensue can also affect your health, as we know from research on marital problems and obesity.
Fortunately, we’re not stuck with the attachment style we developed when we were infants. Once you’re aware of your own attachment style, and the sexual problems it creates, you can work on building the secure ties that will help you achieve fulfillment both inside and outside the bedroom.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Stefanou, C., & McCabe, M. P. (2012). Adult attachment and sexual functioning: A review of past research. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 9(10), 2499-2507. doi:10.1111/j.1743-6109.2012.02843.x