Attachment styles, sex & intimacy

© Malcolm Idoine for Auckland Therapy Blog, 7 Jan 2019

attachment theoryWhat is attachment theory?

Perhaps the most profound idea to emerge in psychotherapy in the 20th century is that of attachment. Starting in the 1950s, this theory developed from careful observation of children and their caregivers. This theory has been validated by large amounts of research over many countries and cultures. It has stood the test of time, and has had far ranging influence in infant development, child rearing, education, counselling, psychology, as well as understanding adult love, intimacy and relationships.

Secure attachment

The basic idea is very simple, almost self-evident. Babies are extremely vulnerable and totally dependent on their caregivers for their very survival. From early in infancy, children form very strong bonds with their primary caregivers for nurture and safety. Their worlds revolve around their parents and caregivers as they gradually explore their world, venturing away from their caregivers to explore, trusting they can return for security.

So, ideally the caregivers are reliable enough, and intuitively know their child well enough, to respond to its needs (physical, emotional & psychological), yet allowing the freedom for the child to expand its world. Within these nurturing bonds, the child's mind, personality and sense of self gradually emerges. Such children are termed securely attached ; they are free to explore and develop, knowing they always have a safe place. All going well, they will gradually internalise that sense of security, develop independence, self-confidence and a sense of mastery in the world, while also capable of forming stable, loving and secure relationships as adults.

Insecure attachment

For many different reasons, often outside caregivers' control, things are not always so rosy. For what even reason the child may not experience reliable caregiving and not be able to rely on its caregivers for attuned nurture and protection. The child may still form a very tight bond with their caregivers, but this bond will be undercut with a level of deep insecurity. 

In response, the child may become fearful and clingy, seeking comfort from their caregivers but finding little (anxious attachment). On the other hand they prematurely start protecting themselves and shield themselves from the caregiver, other people and the world in general (avoidant attachment). These are the two main types of insecure attachment. The anxious version is generally much more obvious but the avoidant one is just as insidious.

A third style of insecure attachment known as disorganized attachment may develop in children who have experienced serious ongoing disruptions or unstable and unpredictable caregiving. Unsurprisingly, they are likely to respond to the stresses of life and relationships with chaos and emotional instability.

Adult attachment

A good deal of research has validated the relative stability of attachment styles from childhood into adulthood. Children who are insecurely attached will most likely still grow into high functioning adults. However, they are likely to take insecure styles of relating into their adulthood. Further, these deep patterns of attachment are likely to surface in intimate relationships.

Simplistically, the more insecure your attachment as a child, the more likely you are to have dissatisfying relationships. It may be difficult to trust your partner, feel secure or be vulnerable with them. For example, the avoidant partner usually finds emotional intimacy difficult so fearfully or hostilely withdraws into their own space. While the anxious partner often worries about being abandoned so frequently seeks reassurance and attention (sometimes negative attention is better than none).

Though it has been less well researched and documented, attachment styles may feed directly into sexual styles of adulthood. In the bedroom, attachment styles may play in various ways. For example you may desire the physicality of sex but be uncomfortable with emotional closeness. On the other hand you may desire emotional closeness but feel this gets in the way of your full sexual expression. These are two over-simplistic examples of how attachment style and and sexuality may interrelate.

Also, insecure attachment also predisposes people to anxiety, depression and other psychological disturbance. This is because people with insecure attachment are likely to experience the world as unsafe and not meeting their needs. This can also make it difficult to reach out or accept help so can be a barrier to seeking therapy. Once in therapy insecurely attached people are likely to want to be "fixed" by the therapist without risking any vulnerability or getting into "messy feeling stuff". Also it can take time to develop trust with a therapist.

These dynamics may become more pronounced in times of stress, further impact psychological wellbeing.

Seeking help

It is important to note that attachment styles are not rigidly fixed categories. They can be modified, responding to context, circumstances and interpersonal dynamics. So the good news is that change is possible:

  • Child & Adolescent psychotherapists are highly skilled working with children and their caregivers to repair attachment disruptions and set things on a more secure path.
  • Couples therapists are highly sensitive to observing the attachment dynamics of couples, thereby helping them understand themselves and each other. This can help a couple develop more fulfilling ways of relating (including sex and intimacy).
  • Adult psychotherapists can help their clients gain insight into unconscious attachment patterns, helping to navigate them more effectively.
  • Also long-term therapy can provides a secure base and a reparative experience of a reliable and attuned relationship, this allowing  a second chance to develop an internal sense of security.