Sex is natural. For most people, sex is pleasurable. And it certainly is one of the strongest drives and motivators for people (coming in a close second to fear and anxiety). Given that it is so natural, it seems that we all should know how to navigate the social/sexual environment. For people with secure attachment styles, their strong emotion regulation and social perspective taking skills, combined with strong self-concepts and abilities to set boundaries, make navigating sex manageable. But for many people, particularly those with insecure attachment styles, navigating the social/sexual environment can cause confusion, heartbreak, and pain.
If only you could meet your true love and have amazing sex forever. Or, if you could just opt for a life of celibacy and happily be free of this sex curse forever. Unfortunately, biology won’t release most people to do that. So, learning to negotiate the social/sexual environment is necessary, particularly for those with one of the three insecure attachment styles.
In order to develop skills to navigate this area, we fist need to understand how those skills develop naturally in the context of secure attachment. Securely attached people are typically raised by parents who consistently acknowledged and validated their emotional experiences. So, they grow up trusting in the accuracy of their own emotions. By extension, they develop a capacity for empathy and the ability to accurately read emotions in others. After validating the child’s emotions, the secure parent then coaches the child to either “up-regulate” (make themselves happier/less distressed) their emotions after negative experiences or forestall gratification and delay action when excited or anticipating positive rewards. Thus, secure individuals learn to control their own emotions and are not impulsive or prone to being hijacked by strong feelings.
Because secure parents validate the children’s feelings and talk openly about how the child may feel differently from the parent, secure individuals also develop strong perspective taking skills and what is known as a “theory of mind.” Having a theory of mind means that you can see and understand how other people may look at the same situation but have different perceptions and thoughts about it than you do. Because securely attached people are in touch with their own emotions, have strong boundaries, and know that everyone has their unique perspective they have well-differentiated "self-states.” Having a differentiated self-state means that you know where your own emotions and ideas stop and those of other people begin.
When securely attached people become interested in someone romantically, they may feel strong positive emotions, but they do not get overwhelmed by them. Being able to keep a clear mind, they are able to accurately perceive emotions in others. By extension, they tend to be relatively good judges of other people’s motives and intentions. Because of this, they tend to trust their gut instincts. They also know that other people may look at the same situation and have very different ideas than they do. In other words, they know that it is possible for them to exhibit little interest in a dating partner and have the person misread them and make romantic advances anyway. They also know that just because they have a strong attraction and interest in someone else, that feeling is not always reciprocated, and the other person may not always have positive intentions.
Because of these qualities, securely attached people tend to be able to read other people’s intentions well and determine if they are safe (emotionally and physically) as sexual partners. But even if a determination is made that the attraction is there and that the other person’s motives are pure, securely attached people know how to delay gratification and set and maintain strong interpersonal boundaries. Thus, they may delay having sex with a new romantic partner until they know that there is a good chance of having a positive relationship with this person.
In contrast to those with secure attachment styles, people with an insecure attachment style may find the dating process, and navigating sex and intimacy, difficult and nerve racking. The patterns of relationship formation, dating, and initiation of sex may be very different, however, for each of the styles.
Those with dismissing attachment styles want relationships and sex as much as anybody…at least before they get into a relationship. But they were usually raised by adults who did not validate their emotions, exhibited overly strong personal boundaries around closeness, did not provide the mirroring needed to develop good perspective-taking skills or theories of mind, and discouraged overt displays of affection.
Because of these childhood patterns, adults with dismissing attachment may be romantic and charismatic until they develop strong feelings. (Sounds backwards, doesn’t it?) They may come on strong, sweep a partner off their feet, and initiate strong sexual experiences. But because they compartmentalize their emotions, dismissing people can separate sex from love. As a matter of fact, if a romantic partner engages in sex with the dismissing person too early in the relationship, the dismissing person may erect a psychological wall that cuts off the sex from the love aspects of the relationship. They may actually lose interest in the love aspect of the relationship because having sex relieves the tension state that helps form a bond to romantic partners. Dismissing women also may consent to sex even when they don’t want to, simply out of a sense of obligation to the relationship (Impett & Peplau (2002) and not because they are sexually attracted per se.
Recommendation: If you have a dismissing style and want a lasting relationship, see if you can lower your interpersonal boundaries and tolerate the relationship and love first, and then move into having sex.
Those with preoccupied attachment styles really want relationships and love. But they may be particularly prone to confuse sex with love. People with preoccupied attachment styles were usually raised by parents who provided inconsistent validation or mirroring of emotions and may have been self-absorbed and modeled poor interpersonal boundaries. As children, individuals with preoccupied styles may at times have found themselves being responsible for their parents’ emotions rather than the other way around. Thus, they may have developed some confusion around differentiating their parents' needs and emotions from their own. This breaking down of boundaries and inconsistently applied rules for relationships can result in adult confusion about where one’s own emotions and perceptions end and those of another person begin. This undifferentiated self-state can lead to feeling overly responsible for other people’s feelings and confused about other people’s intentions, particularly around sex.
Moreover, preoccupied individuals tend to have relatively poor emotion regulation skills, may get hijacked in emotionally charged situations, and may be relatively impulsive. When one combines this set of attributes with poor interpersonal boundaries and misreading others' intentions, it should come as no surprise that Impett and Peplau (2002) found that preoccupied women are the most likely to give in to unwanted sex with their partners. They may want sex themselves, but they also may hope that sex will result in intense love feelings that will be reciprocated.
The problem is that this pattern puts the preoccupied person at significant interpersonal risk. They may have sex to avoid rejection and obtain love and intimacy, but if they have sex too early in the relationship, they may bond and form strong attachments to people who do not have the best of intentions. Because they are overly self-focused and have poor boundaries and undifferentiated self-states, they may also believe the sex partner has stronger feelings for them than may be the case. In the end, the preoccupied person may be the one who falls in love too quickly after having sex.
Recommendation: If you have a preoccupied style and want a lasting relationship, try taking your attention off the sex and focus on having fun. I recommend trying to wait for a month before initiating sex with a new partner. That way, you won’t fall for someone before finding out if they are likely to reciprocate your affections. If a dating partner turns away from you because you didn’t jump in the sack quick enough then they didn’t deserve you anyway.
Those with fearful attachment styles are likely to be highly ambivalent about romance and sex. They may want strong connections and sexual experiences. On the other hand, they may be overwhelmed by the confusion and strong emotions sex evokes. In childhood, parents may have been “frightened or frightening,” or they may have been emotionally unresponsive to the point where they were not able to validate the child’s emotions, help them learn emotion regulation skills, set boundaries, or engage in perspective taking. By extension, strong relationship experiences and sex might result in the person becoming emotionally disorganized and confused.
Those with fearful styles may possess characteristics of both the dismissing and preoccupied styles. But they also have experienced relational (if not physical or sexual) trauma. It should come as no surprise, then, that sexual experiences may evoke very strong and potentially negative emotional experiences.
Recommendation: Take it slow. I don’t mean to simply wait a month and then sleep with someone. I am suggesting that there are various aspects of sex that do not involve going all the way. Try starting with sensual kissing and see how much you can tolerate and then advance to more intense aspects of sexual activity from there.
Recommendations for all attachment styles
- Know your own emotional system; how accurate it is and how closely your emotions correspond to what is really going on in the social environment.
- Learn to control/regulate your emotions; if you are more avoidant, learn to raise the intensity of your emotions. If you are more preoccupied, learn to lower the intensity.
- If you are impulsive, learn to delay action and take time outs before initiating or agreeing to have sex.
- Communicate and ask questions to get a greater perspective and understanding of the other person's view of things.
- Learn to separate your emotions and perceptions from those of your dating partners.
- Remember that sex does not always correspond with love.
Overall (except with coercion, aggression, or violence) learn to be compassionate toward one another, especially around sex. Most of us have been socially conditioned to keep our true feelings about sex, ourselves, and our relationships a secret. Your prospective sex partners will often have ideas, stories, and experiences that you will not know about early in a relationship. Just remember that if you knew this information, most of their behaviors would make perfect sense.
Disclaimer: We live in an age where relationships and rules around sex can be fluid. In this post, I am not making a judgement about recreational sex or different arrangements that can be made outside of dating or romantic relationships. That would require a different discussion. I have limited this posting to prospective romantic partners and dating relationships.
Kotera, Y., & Rhodes, C. (2019). Pathways to Sex Addiction: Relationships with Adverse Childhood Experience, Attachment, Narcissism, Self-Compassion and Motivation in a Gender-Balanced Sample. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 26(1/2), 54.
Impett, E. A., & Peplau, L. A. (2002). Why Some Women Consent to Unwanted Sex with a Dating Partner: Insights from Attachment Theory. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 26(4), 360–370.
WEINSTEIN, A., KATZ, L., EBERHARDT, H., COHEN, K., & LEJOYEUX, M. (2015). Sexual compulsion - Relationship with sex, attachment and sexual orientation. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 4(1), 22.