Gurit E. Birnbaum, Ph.D.

Intimately Connected

Sex

Attachment Insecurity and the Toll It Takes on Your Sex Life

When it comes to sex, men and women cope differently with their insecurities.

Posted Aug 18, 2020

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Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Source: Jorisvo/Getty Images

Sex does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, our sexual functioning is likely influenced by views of self and others that developed out of early attachment experiences with primary caregivers. Interactions with attachment figures who are responsive to one's needs instill a sense of attachment security. This sense of felt security affords confidence that one is lovable and that others are supportive in times of need.

Interacting with attachment figures who are either inconsistently available or consistently unavailable may lead to the adoption of alternative defensive strategies for dealing with the resulting insecurity: hyperactivation of the attachment system, which characterizes anxious attachment orientation, and deactivation of the attachment system, which characterizes avoidant attachment orientation.

Each of these strategies is driven by distinctive fears and is intended to reach different interpersonal goals that help cope with these fears. Hyperactivation strategy is fed by extreme rejection fears and involves protest responses that aim at motivating the attachment figures to attend to one's needs. Deactivation strategy is fueled by intimacy fears and involves flight responses that aim at keeping emotional distance and self-reliance in close relationships.1

These early-developing attachment strategies guide interpersonal interactions over the entire lifespan by shaping the balance of interdependence and autonomy between intimates (test your attachment style here). As such, they are likely to affect the functioning of the later-maturing sexual system: why people engage in sex, what they seek from their partners, and whether and how they get their needs met(read more here).

Attachment dynamics in the sexual realm may differ for men and women as they tend to construe sexuality somewhat differently.3 Women tend to adopt an emotional-interpersonal orientation toward sexuality and are therefore likely to associate sex with romantic involvement and to be nurturing during sexual interactions. Men, by comparison, tend to adopt an individualistic-recreational orientation and are thus likely to link sex with physical gratification and to seek sexual variety.

Anxiously attached men and women indeed cope differently with anxieties when it comes to sex. The traditional gender role of the male as the sexual initiator makes anxiously attached men more prone than anxiously attached women to experience rejections, thus exacerbating their vulnerability. To reduce the likelihood of rejection, anxiously attached men are inclined to invest resources in their ongoing relationship rather than to initiate sex with new partners. 

Compared with less anxiously attached men, they start having sexual intercourse at an older age and are less likely to approve of casual sex or to cheat on their partners. As a result, they report having fewer sex partners overall. Relationship-threatening conditions (e.g., insecurity regarding the love of one’s partner, prospective separation), which magnify anxiously attached men’s insecurity, intensify their proclivity for pleasing the current partner while dismissing desire for sex with alternatives, thereby preventing them from using sex to bolster their self-worth.

This pattern migrates into anxiously attached men’s fantasy world, as they focus on pleasing their partners even there rather than on using sex to feel better about themselves. Nevertheless, in the real world, abandonment fears may drive them to use coercive sex as a means for regaining proximity to partners who are unjustly perceived as unresponsive.

Over time, anxiously attached men may view sexual interactions with their partner more as a source of frustration than of joy, gradually losing sexual desire for this partner. Eventually, they may replace authentic intimacy with pornography in the hope to be gratified, if only partially, without having to risk interpersonal rejection, but end up feeling sexually and relationally dissatisfied.

Similar relational worries impel anxiously attached women to adopt the opposite, unrestricted orientation to sex. They begin having sex at a younger age than secure or avoidant women and tend to secure alternatives to current partners in both the real world and their fantasy life, which is marked by emotionless sex scenes with a variety of sexual partners. Anxiously attached women’s relational worries also create difficulties in negotiating sexual encounters that increase the likelihood of engaging in risky sexual behaviors (e.g., having unprotected sex) and being sexually abused.   

Gender differences in sexual manifestations of attachment avoidance are less conspicuous than those of attachment anxiety. Both avoidant men and women tend to become emotionally disengaged from their partners. Still, this pattern is more marked in men’s sexuality than in women’s, possibly because blindness to partners’ wishes is amplified by gender role norms that encourage men to value sexual conquest but attenuated by women’s nurturing tendencies. Avoidant men, for example, are less likely than avoidant women to experience sexual fantasies that include romantic themes and are more inclined to engage in extrapair sex and to objectify women through pornography consumption and sexual coercion. 

Overall, although attachment insecurities take their toll on both men and women’s sex lives, women are susceptible to pay a heavier cost for their insecurity, at least in terms of their sexual functioning. Both anxiously and avoidantly attached women are more likely than their secure counterparts to suffer from sexual dysfunctions, such as difficulties with lubrication and reaching orgasm as well as painful intercourse, which decrease their overall sexual satisfaction. This pattern is hardly surprising given that women’s sexual functioning is more likely than that of men to be influenced by the relational context, which, in the case of insecure individuals, is likely to be discordant and therefore more harmful for women’s sex life than it is for men's.   

You can watch my TEDx talk on why humans make sex so complicated here.

References

1. Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2016). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

2. Birnbaum, G. E., & Reis, H. T. (2019). Evolved to be connected: The dynamics of attachment and sex over the course of romantic relationships. Current Opinion in Psychology, 25, 11-15. Research Gate

3. Birnbaum, G. E. (2016). Attachment and sexual mating: The joint operation of separate motivational systems.  In J. Cassidy, & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), Handbook of attachment, third edition: Theory, research, and clinical applications (pp. 464-483). New York: Guilford Press. Research Gate