Attachment and Intimate Sexual Relationships
Part III of this blog series: a summary of the relationship between defense mechanisms and securely attaching to our significant others and sexual intimacy. See Part I and Part II of this series here!
This blog post will explore how the attachment relationship is a core feature of adult intimate bonds. It will begin by providing an overview of founding attachment theorist John Bowlby’s (1969) ideas, with a brief discussion of research supporting the theory. I will then discuss how the attachment relationship can be applied to understanding adult relationships with a focus on how insights drawn from adult attachment can be applied to help increase a couple’s sexual satisfaction.
According to Bowlby, attachment is a biologically based system that helps vulnerable infant mammals form attachments to their caregivers to help them survive. Healthy attachment in humans is formed when caregivers provide consistent, responsive caregiving leading to feelings of security in infants. But Bowlby went much farther, proposing that attachment was an innovative way to understand aspects of personality in human beings. In his view, Freud and virtually all successive analysts approached the dynamics of personality by working backwards, beginning from the time the client’s personality was more or less developed and then through psychoanalysis, “reverse engineering” the phases of personality. Primary observations, obtained in the analytic setting are traced to their origins and interpreted according to the attendant effects on the client’s psychology, behavior and psychopathology (Bowlby, 1969).
Attachment, according to Bowlby, operates in a more developmental manner. Primary data are drawn by carefully observing how infants and young children operate in defined situations with an eye toward what kinds of experiences expose the quality of the relationship between infant and caregiver. Such observations led Bowlby to conclude that the need for security was a key feature driving the formation of attachment bonds, and anxiety and insecurity were the by-product of poor attachment. Secure attachments, from both a biological and emotional view, would yield the best adaptation for infants and young children. Bowlby draws a distinction, however, between secure attachment and being free from harm, i.e. attachment is not a measure of relative safety; rather it is about the quality of the relationship between caregiver and vulnerable infant (Bowlby, 1973).
Bowlby’s clinical observations and theoretical work have found support in empirical research. Mary Ainsworth (1985) applied attachment theory to the study of infants interacting with their caregivers and in the process created an assessment tool – the “strange situation.” The purpose of the 20-minute laboratory assessment is to alternately stress and give solace to an infant by sequentially allowing the infant to interact with their primary caregiver (usually his or her mother), to encounter a stranger, to be separated from the caregiver, and then to be reunited with her. How the infant interacts with their caregiver and the stranger, how curious s/he is of the novel environment, how able the caregiver is to settle a distressed infant when they are reunited after separation are some of the key observations made which reveal the quality of the attachment relationship.
Ainsworth (1985) concluded that there are four basic patterns of attachment behavior in infants, as follows:
- Secure attachment – An infant is securely attached when s/he cries and protests when her mother leaves the strange situation room, welcomes her upon her return and is subsequently calmed by contact with her. Ainsworth noted that the caregivers of securely attached infants were “sensitively responsive to their [infant’s] signals” (Ainsworth, 1985 p. 28).
- Anxious-avoidant – These children show little emotion if the caregiver leaves or returns to the room. It is believed to be the product of a caregiver who has not been sufficiently emotionally available or responsive to the infant’s signals and need for comfort.
- Anxious-resistant (also called ambivalent attachment) – These children become greatly distressed when the caregiver leaves the room, but ambivalent when the caregiver returns. Ainsworth proposes that it is a product of a caregiver who has not been consistently responsive to the infant’s signals for contact, creating a sense of ambivalence in the infant toward her caregiver.
- Disorganized/disoriented attachment – Ainsworth and her colleague, Mary Main later added this fourth classification. There is a deficit of attachment behavior in these infants. This occurs when caregivers have been particularly unpredictable in their caregiving, so there is no organization to the infant’s attachment behavior, and the infant is often consumed with fright and even terror (Firestone, 2013). Firestone (2013) claims that there is a link between disorganized attachment and the ego-defense of disassociation. “When a parent or caregiver is abusive,” Firestone claims, “the child may experience the physical and emotional abuse and scary behavior as being life-threatening. The child is stuck in an awful dilemma: her survival instincts tell her to flee to safety, but safety may be in the very person who is frightening her.” An abusive attachment figure becomes a source of trauma for the child, leading to disassociation from their selves, with its attendant blocking of consciousness of the traumatic material (Firestone, 2013, p. 1).
There are two types of insecure attachment: anxious-avoidant and anxious-resistant (or ambivalent).
Bowlby’s hypothesis, that the quality of infant-caregiver attachment would impact later development has been borne out in empirical research. Longitudinal research, in particular, has shown that the quality of early infant-caregiver attachment influences the character of the child’s later relationships (Sroufe & Fleeson, 1986). These findings, and correlations of attachment to other features of development as discovered from empirically-based research has been influential in terms of thinking about how individuals adapt to their social worlds and the origins of psychopathology (Sroufe et al., 2005). The next step was to begin to think about how attachment behaviors play out in intimate adult relationships.
Adult Attachment and Intimacy
Cindy Hazen and Philip Shaver (1987) were some of the first researchers to extend attachment theory to adults. They obtained their data by formatting a questionnaire they called a “love quiz” and had it printed in a local newspaper. It was printed in a highly visible section of the paper and referred to on the paper’s front page with a banner headline that read “Tell us about the love of your life; experts ask 95 questions about your most important romance.” (Hazen & Shaver, 1987, p. 514). They used the first three categories of attachment behavior manifesting in infancy and applied them to adult relationships:
- Secure – Securely attached adults view themselves, their partners and their relationships positively. Overall, they are satisfied with the quality of intimacy and closeness they experience.
- Avoidant – These individuals demand a high level of independence and may avoid becoming attached to others. Their views on love were more “sobering” and did not believe in the commonly held romantic notions of love.
- Anxious/Ambivalent – These individuals in relationship are capable of high levels of intimacy; they seek approval from their partners and are overly dependent on them. They reported that it was “easy for them to fall in love although they rarely find what they call real love” (Hazen & Shaver, 1987, p. 515).
The results supported the authors’ original hypothesis, that the three attachment styles, secure, avoidant and anxious/ambivalent were nearly “the same in adulthood as [they were] in infancy” (Hazen & Shaver, 1987, p. 511).
Also, the data supported the hypothesis that people in the three attachment categories experience love differently. They hold different beliefs about romantic love, the accessibility and trustworthiness of their partner’s affections and their own self worth. Attachment orientations entertain different beliefs about the course of romantic love, the availability and trustworthiness of their partners and their own self-worth.
An important qualification made by Hazen and Shaver (1987), however, is that attachment patterns in adults are flexibly organized, in the sense that individuals will express different adult attachment behaviors for different relationships. Not only does this suggest flexibility, but that the character of intimacy a couple shares will be shaped by attachment expectations each of the partners brings to the relationship. Research on attachment conducted by Susan Johnson and her colleagues at the Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy (Caron, Lafontaine, Bureau, Levesque, & Johnson, 2012) supports this idea, that adult attachment must be understood in context, as opposed to a trait possessed by an individual who carries it across social relationships. Johnson and her colleague, Les Greenberg are credited with creating a respected, empirically-validated couple’s treatment (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2013).
A possible interpretation of this claim is that from a therapeutic standpoint, there is workability in regards to establishing a secure attachment between adults. Attachment is a relational pattern. It is not necessary to try to change a personality or alter a trait to make improvements. This interpretation can give hope to couples struggling with issues of intimacy including those surrounding sexual dysfunction. Therapists can honestly inform couples that there is a light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to working with sexual issues which have an attachment component.
Not surprising, that the field of couple’s therapy is recognizing the relevance of attachment theory as a core variable in adult bonding relationships (Johnson & Greenman, 2013). Over the length of a close relationship, satisfaction can fluctuate for many reasons and in many ways. Insights from attachment theory show us that regardless of age, the calming effect of close contact with a loved attachment figure triggers valuable feelings of security and comfort. This may explain findings linking feelings of secure attachment to improved physical and mental health (Johnson & Greenman, 2013; Sroufe, et al., 2005).
According to researchers Peloquin, Brassard, Lafontaine and Shaver (2014), a number of studies have shown a positive link between adult attachment style and the functional quality of romantic relationships. However, there has yet to be a study that has directly investigated sexual satisfaction that is grounded in attachment theory. There certainly is a need for knowledge here. Fifty percent of adults in the mainstream population report sexual dissatisfaction (Laumann, Gagnon, Micheal, & Michaels, 1994, as cited in Peloquin, Brassard, Lafontaine & Shaver, 2014, p. 561), and greater than 60% of couples entering couples therapy report significant sexual distress in addition to other relationship problems (Brassard, Peloquin, Dupuy, Wright & Shaver, 2012, as cited in Peloquin, Brassard, Lafontaine, & Shaver, 2014, p. 561). Given these statistics, it is unfortunate that many psychotherapists fail to blend attachment theory with sexual assessment and treatment planning in couple’s therapy. McCarthy and Thestrup (2008) attribute this to the fact that the professions of sex therapy and couple therapy have evolved separately, creating additional conceptual obstacles to adjoining attachment and sex. The reason for this occurrence is that many psychotherapists feel awkward working with sexual problems (Byers, 2011, as cited in Peloquin, Brassard, Lafontaine, & Shaver, 2014, p. 562) and instead rely on the couples’ work on other aspects of their relationship to naturally improve their sexual satisfaction (McCarthy & Thestrup, 2008, as cited in Peloquin, Brassard, Lafontaine & Shaver, 2014, p. 562).
In a study designed to connect the dots between the relational and sexual facets of couple functioning, researchers Peloquin, Brassard, Lafontaine, & Shaver (2014), used adult attachment theory as a basis for their analysis. Their goal was to consider which aspects of a partners’ romantic attachment is associated with general sexual satisfaction as expressed by both partners. The researchers used facets of a couples’ caregiving behavior (e.g., proximity, sensitivity, control, and compulsive caregiving) to study whether these aspects mediated the relationship between their attachment uncertainties (anxiety and avoidance) along with the reported sexual satisfaction of both partners. This information was procured through questionnaires. The results of this study showed that caregiving proximity mediated the relationship between attachment insecurities and a couples’ sexual satisfaction (Peloquin, Brassard, Lafontaine, & Shaver, 2014). Caregiving proximity is best understood by the question given to participants from the Caregiving Questionnaire, “when my partner seems to want or need a hug, I’m glad to provide it” (Kunce & Shaver 1994, as cited in Peloquin, Brassard, Lafontaine, & Shaver, 2014, p. 565). The researchers concluded that this attachment measure, caregiving proximity, “might be a core component of romantic relationships, lying at the juncture of the attachment, caregiving and sexual behavior systems” (Peloquin Brassard, Lafontaine, & Shaver, 2014 p. 573).
A key proposition in attachment theory is that secure attachments between infants and their caregivers and between adult romantic partners is correlated with the best adaptations in terms of intimacy and comfort levels. Attachment theory as applied to adult relationships indicates that attachment is a relational pattern and not a personality trait and that adult attachment patterns are flexibly organized and therefore different relationships may invoke different attachment patterns. Researchers have uncovered evidence suggesting that the quality of the adult attachment relationship is linked to sexual satisfaction. Not surprising, that the field of couple’s therapy is gradually acknowledging that attachment is a major tenant in adult intimate relationships. Given these findings, we can conclude that attachment patterns, like the ego defenses, impact a couple’s experience of sexual intimacy and sexual satisfaction.
In these three blog posts, I have adopted the view that sexual problems are relationship problems. Instead of viewing sexual dysfunction as merely a performance problem and searching for a cure based on physical mechanics or chemistry, a deeper understanding is required. Both the individualized development of the ego defenses and attachment styles are essential to understanding couple’s sexual problems. Both can operate to create blockages in the expression of sexual desire and erect obstacles to intimacy.
The psychoanalytic view employed in these blogs sees the defense mechanisms as arising from childhood woundings and represent coping mechanisms. Different attachment styles are similar in that they are adaptations to the availability of feelings of security and care in relationships. Together, they point to the possibility that woundings and relational patterns, when better understood, can be both a vehicle for personal growth and can stimulate the evolution of a couple’s relationship. Once this healing takes place and the growth occurs, the possibility is there that a couple can create a different type of sexual relationship that is more intimate and fulfilling. This “mature love” has the potential for a comfort and warmth and may even be characterized by the melting or merging with one’s partner. It also has the potential to release potent forms of desire, an “erotic force” that can lead to new horizons of love and intimacy.
Written by Julie Schmit, MA, LMFT
©2019 Julie Schmit, Shakti Bodyworks, LLC
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