How Does Attachment Theory Relate to Sex & Intimacy?
I want talk about attachment because it’s vulnerable and it touches our foundational beliefs about love and safety. Being educated about why we do what we do to bond builds awareness, self-compassion and a greater perspective into our relationship triggers.
Studying attachment is rich terrain for healing and integrating personal patterns of anxiety, control, and self-protection. Many behaviors associated with our attachment template can be the drivers of self-hatred, jealousy, controlling others, withdrawal, blame and judgment.
My desire is to normalize, and bring awareness to our basic need to attach and experience secure connection.
We all need to know that we belong and that we’re part of the whole. We all need safe places to feel seen, loved and held, no matter how messy and unbuttoned we are.
We live in a world that peppers us with messages of how we should be, which often goes against our authentic needs and desires. Advertising campaigns convey that we’re not enough as we are while suggesting that their product or service will fix our inadequacies and brokenness. And closer to home, we may suffer from the conflicts that occur in our most intimate relationships when people try to change us into the fantasy of who they want us to become for them.
The need to change, judge, and control one another isn’t usually linked to an intention to hurt each other. These fear-based, reactive behaviors are a desperate plea from our attachment template to satisfy our needs for security and stability.
Exploring our attachment template is an opportunity to find compassion for ourselves and others, and to consciously embrace a radically truthful connection with ourselves, all living beings, and the planet herself.
To learn more about attachment theory, an ever-evolving exploration of our universal need to attach and bond, please visit my blog article: Attachment Theory: An Overview.
Attachment theory overview
Attachment theory is based on infant and interpersonal neurobiology research. This framework is designed to map the complexity of relationship patterns and the specific strategies we use to navigate our needs for connection, safety and belonging in relationship.
Our need to belong, feel safe, seen, attuned to and celebrated reside at the core of our human experience. When our needs aren’t being consistently met, we interpret, and subsequently believe, that connection is not reliable. As a result, we typically develop either a pattern of self-reliance, to avoid the pain of rejection and abandonment, or a pattern of becoming overly dependent on others to meet our needs and save us from the pain of our perceived aloneness.
We share a universal need to belong and feel that our existence matters. When this need is challenged or questioned, we will call upon our defense mechanisms to protect our vulnerability or assuage our anxiety and fear.
Our attachment template is constructed during our early life experiences. It becomes our relational operating system as an adult.
There are two primary attachment states, secure and fear-based. We tend to orient towards different attachment states based on our external relational environment as well as our inner state.
To learn more about attachment states and identify yours, please click here.
The influence of missed experiences in adult intimacy and relationships
Depending on our relational environment, a multitude of missing experiences can occur. If our needs go unmet consistently enough we encounter developmental missing experiences. The result of these missing experience heavily influence our beliefs about ourselves and our relationship to others.
Our missing experiences during the four phases of our primary attachment period are significant contributors and the engineer laying down the tracks for our beliefs and behaviors as an adult. As adults, some early attachment templates material that we might hear or observe are:
I want someone to read my mind;
They need to pay attention and get it right;
I don’t trust other people will be able to help me;
I’m not sure I exist without someone else reflecting me;
You need to take care of me;
Something is wrong with me;
You’re bad, and untrustworthy, when you don’t do what I want you to do. So, I will withhold my love until you do what I need to feel safe
Applying attachment theory to relationships, sex and intimacy
Many relationship challenges are a result of attachment dynamics not being consciously seen, understood, and discussed openly.
Most of us don’t realize, that intimate relationships (lovers, partners, friends, and even colleagues) will reveal aspects of our attachment template. If we want to integrate and embody more of ourselves then it’s a worthy endeavor to study the behaviors that arise when we feel threatened, vulnerable, and fear abandonment or rejection in all types of relationships.
If revealing and embracing our attachment patterns is left in the shadows, then we will operate subconsciously through protective behaviors that create disconnection, criticism, blame and shame (whether towards ourselves or others).
The good news is that when we see and take responsibility for how we operate, we create conscious choice and invite our intimate relationships to a whole other level of freedom and acceptance.
Some examples of attachment templates in action are:
blaming another for disappointing us, or blaming ourselves for disappointing another
abandoning our needs to avoid disappointing another
expecting another to read our mind (and having strong reactions when they don’t)
withholding and pulling away to self-soothe or avoid conflict
resentfully (or subconsciously and habitually) saying yes when we mean no
patterns of control which can look like forcing our agenda to avoid feeling vulnerable
arenas where we feel safe and confident to set boundaries and arenas where we let our boundaries be steamrolled
Control tactics can appear obvious when they present themselves as aggressive demands. Yet, manipulative strategies can also be subtle and covert. These defense mechanisms were established because it was too vulnerable to directly ask for what we want and risk being rejected or losing connection.
It’s an art and practice to receive each other’s differences without taking it personally. And when we do take it personally, it takes great heart and awareness to suspend patterns of blame (external off-gassing) and shame (internal off-gassing). When possible, the way through is to look within and take responsibility for our patterns of protection. We need loving support (from the inside and outside) to engage in the healing journey required to welcome the vulnerable edge that lives within our reactive defensive patterns.
Questions to contemplate:
What needs are you seeking to have met by a partner, that when unmet, lead you to collapse or explode?
Are you familiar with the attachment states you go to when you feel threatened?
What behaviors or experiences trigger a sense of relational threat for you?
Have you observed the common attachment states of your partner and those closest to you? What is that teaching you?
Do you feel overwhelmed when someone needs you a lot? Do you also love the safety and feeling of belonging that their reliance gives you? How do you feel about playing caretaker?
How do you handle feeling needy? Do you feel afraid your partner will abandon you if you don’t have consistent reassurance of their commitment and care for you?
Do you feel confused by contradictory experiences? You may not want to be anywhere but on the couch snuggled with this person tonight, and the next morning, you may want to run away from your lover’s consuming need for your attention or your need for them. If you often feel this kind of push-pull, do you know why?
What does attachment theory have to do with sexuality?
A lot more than we might think! People are inspired to have sex for a myriad of reasons. In addition to pleasure, procreation and orgasm, sexual expression holds the keys to repair emotional and psychological missing experiences related to safety, trust, bonding and love.
Pairing the study of our attachment patterns with our sexual desires can reveal hidden gems into the mysterious world of our subconscious. It can illuminate why we stay in relationships that are no longer aligned, or why we break up and get back together for sex when all the other parts of the relationships are a bumpy ride on the struggle bus. And hopefully, this exploration can foster self-compassion for how complex it is to be an ego-centric mammal who seeks to bond with other ego-centric creatures.
Studying our relationship to sex can reveal a lot about how we seek attachment and our most common states of secure and fear based responses to stress in relationship. It can also reveal how we pull away and detach when trauma or core wounds get touched in relationship. It reveals whether we find safety by seeking closeness and intimacy at all times, or by seeking a distanced approach that preserves our autonomy.
I want to acknowledge that sex doesn’t always create connection and attachment for everyone, due to complex history and life experiences. Our experience with love, security, safety, bonding and intimacy can be riddled with missing experiences. For many, sexuality is also cast into a confusing realm when there has been sexual trauma. This includes physical trauma but extends into energetic and emotional infractions of sexually predatory energy from someone in the family or at school during early years of life. Since there hasn’t been “an action taken” these energetic or emotional transgressions can be dismissed mentally but they have impact. The mind-body has stored these experiences into the brain as a threat that can quietly result in behaviors of avoidance of sexual expression or promiscuity in disembodied ways.
Our innate desire for intimacy has a broad range. On one end, we may seek sex as medicine for deep union and connection. On the other end, sex can be perceived as a threat if it’s connected to a traumatic experience. And everything in between.
We are born to love and feel safe inside of ourselves and with others, emotionally and physically, but for many this journey has been rocky and complicated. Some of us experience the process of early bonding as filled with more confusion and pain than love. Many of us have created layers of protection in childhood to keep our vulnerable and innocent hearts safe. I’m one of those people, and my journey to bond, trust and surrender into love has been an ongoing experiment and exploration. My sexuality has been a key pathway for healing and integration.
Patterns of protection can make it harder to bond in deep and trusting ways as adults. The process of healing these wounds is delicate and requires heaping doses of self compassion, personal responsibility, support and grace.
Feeling bonded is essential, and contributes to our need to belong and know that our existence matters. Sexual relationships open the door to attach in ways that we don’t with our non-sexual connections. Sometimes, even when the romantic relationship is over, it’s harder to leave because the fear of losing the bond subconsciously feels life-threatening. Sexual relationships can often mirror patterns from childhood when our dependence on our primary attachment figures was essential for our survival.
Our early attachment template becomes our map to orient towards relationships and bonding. The same factors we needed as a baby to bond are primary drivers that assist us in attaching to our sexual companions. Having sex mirrors much of what we needed as babies to feel secure and attached.
I want to end with a brief introduction to how our social engagement system and hormones contribute to our attachment bonding and sexual drive.
Our social engagement system
As mammals, we’re wired to seek safety and threat 24 hours a day. There are four primary ways we instinctively respond to perceived threats.
Freeze: The impulse to shut down, freeze, or even dissociate when the threat of emotional difficulty, physical threat or shame arise.
Flight: The impulse to react to a threat by taking flight through withdrawing and seeking space away from the threat.
Fight: The impulse to react to a threat by either fighting with anger, blame, or judgment.
Social Engagement System: There is a fourth way our nervous system responds to threat, the Social Engagement System (SES). This system is our ventral vagal nerve, discovered by Stephen Porges. The SES helps us to move from a threat state back to a regulated state through relationship. When we feel safe and secure connection with others their presence, sometimes words aren’t even needed, become our source of regulation when we’re thrown off center.
What is this mysterious ventral vagal nerve? And how does it help us to bond and regulate through connecting with others when we are triggered?
We all intuitively know our vagal nerve to some degree. If you’re feeling stressed and someone you love makes eye contact with you, gives you a warm smile, or reaches to offer a comforting hug, you likely feel the warmth and a sense of relief.
The vagal system guides eye contact, hearing, eating, speech, singing, nursing, kissing and smiling. Some researches agree that it also facilitates heart to heart contact. When we receive cues from others’ eyes, voices, facial expressions that feel safe and receptive to our needs, then our system will kick on the parasympathetic branch to help us relax and settle. Safe and trusting connections and relationships can be a counterbalancing resource to states of overwhelm and activation. We can offer this to one another by being a safe and loving presence. How powerful!
The Social Engagement System (SES) helps us to return to parasympathetic states through connecting with people we trust and feel safe with. By connecting with safe allies, our parasympathetic will de-escalate our trigger response through rest and system regulation.
Engaged eye contact, feeling a heart connection, hearing a soothing and familiar voice and experiencing loving facial expressions can automatically shift us from threat and into regulated states of being.
These nonverbal cues are not tracked by our cognitive and cortical part of the brain. They’re more limbic-oriented, just like when we were in our first few years of life and mapping the world through our body sensations.
This vagal nerve and system have been known for over a hundred years, but so much about it remains a mystery. Researchers are identifying that in addition to serving as a nervous system regulator, it’s charged with other powerful benefits. If you’re geeky like me and you want to know more, explore this article on 9 fascinating facts about the vagus nerve. I imagine that over the next few decades, it will become a household name and a shared resource to consciously share with each other to support regulation.
What activates and builds our social engagement system?
Babies need touch. Their needs require a certain level of attunement and attention in order to survive. Attuned and loving connection is no less relevant to the baby’s need for food, safety, shelter and protection. Eye contact, facial expressions and physical touch all contribute to bonding and safety in connection. As adults we continue to seek these regulating exchanges with one another to find stability and ground, and much of this happens during sex, in nonverbal ways, just like when we were babies.
One way babies bond is through eye gazing. This is an evolutionary design to ensure that a caregiver will tend to a baby’s needs since the its survival depends on it. Eye gazing releases bonding hormones that open heart connection and activate an impulse to nurture. Eye contact is often practiced during sex to deepen a bond and connection between lovers. A friend of mine jokes that this same evolutionary trick is the reason why puppies are so cute and irresistible. Maybe that’s a stretch, but it’s true! It’s hard not to fall in love with a puppy, and in doing so it’s easier to care for the puppy through its shoe-devouring and potty training debacles.
In addition to eye contact, another social engagement behavior is facial expressions. A baby seeks reassurance through facial and nonverbal cues of connection and care. We do the same when bonding as adults. Our facial expressions can deepen trust, care and safety, or cause fear and anxiety.
Babies are soothed by skin-to-skin touch. It regulates the nervous system and supports feelings of connection and union. Again, this experience is replicated in sex. There are not many times in our lives when we are bare skin with another. Skin-to-skin contact facilitates the release of hormones and neurotransmitters that regulate our mood, health, and well being.
How do hormones contribute to attachment bonding, sexual desire, and drunken states of lust?
Some of the following are primary hormones that serve us to bond, pursue sex, and become engorged with states of lust and desire. Very specific hormones are released during the time of bonding with our primary attachment figures. Many of these are mimicked again as adults through our sexual expression. Let’s take a look at these key players that cause us to lust and desire more sex from a physiological perspective. These same chemicals encourage us to commit to bonding with another person, even when we fear loss, rejection, or heartbreak.
Oxytocin, also known as ‘the love hormone,’ serves as a bonding agent between a baby and mother during pregnancy, and especially in the golden hour after birth. Oxytocin release continues through consistent touch, eye contact, and loving facial expressions, which create a sense of safety and trust.
Eye gazing, facial expressions and physical touch all contribute to the release of oxytocin, the love bonding hormone. It’s also known as the cuddle hormone, since it’s released when people snuggle up or bond socially.
Sex incites an increased production of oxytocin. Before orgasm, oxytocin, released from the brain, surges into our bloodstream and opens our hearts, making it a high contributor to forming strong emotional bonds.
Endorphins are our natural pain-killing hormones. The area of the brain involved in pain reduction is highly activated during sexual arousal, causing endorphins to be released to decrease pain and serve as natural mood-boosters and stress relievers.
During orgasm, endorphins accompany the release of oxytocin, causing a decrease in pain as well as other pay-offs. Endorphins released during sex and orgasms increase intimacy and bonding between partners. They’re proven to lift our self-esteem and provide additional health benefits. How? They soothe nerve impulses that cause pain such as menstrual cramps, migraines, and joint pain. Endorphins stimulate the immune system cells that fight disease and serve as natural immune boosters. Researchers have found that individuals who have sex regularly also have higher levels of Immunoglobulin A, which is an antibody that protects us from infection.
Dopamine is a particularly well-publicized player in the brain’s reward pathway. It’s released when we do pleasurable things such as spending time with loved ones and having sex. High levels of dopamine, and the related hormone norepinephrine, are released during sexual attraction. These chemicals make us giddy, energetic, and euphoric. They can even lead to decreased appetite and insomnia. You may remember times where you’ve felt so in love you couldn’t eat or sleep!
These hormones create the impulse to attach and fuel lust for your lover. They are the glue that bonds us in the beginning of our relationships. They also help us to overlook characteristics or differences in the beginning that will eventually cause distress or dissolution. Similar to enduring a cute puppy’s shredding of the trash all over the floor, these hormones give us a temporary blindness that allows bonding to take root and differences to be overlooked.
Studying our sexuality and attachment states invites us home into our wholeness
We live in a world filled with Love. We also live in a world riddled with shame.
It’s ironic that for centuries, sexuality has been repressed through social, religious, and cultural messaging. As a collective, we’ve been controlled and alienated from feeling safe to connect to this healing aspect of ourselves and each other. The consequences of this type of suppression and shame is coming out sideways in violent and harmful ways. The public exposé of sexual repression, expressed through non-consensual power dynamics, has set flame to the concealed sexual abuses in church environments, the entertainment industry (the #metoo campaign), and intentional war crimes of rape as to further induce fear, control and power over.
The painful ways in which we repeat cycles of attaching to circumstances and people who repeat childhood wounds can be devastating, leaving us feeling helpless and broken. Similarly, the ways we avoid intimacy by escaping through workaholism, addictive habits or porn can be additional forms of distancing. While it might be satisfying and safer to keep a safe distance from deep intimate connections, there is also likely a part that secretly wishes for love and connection without drama and pain, unsure of whether it exists or how to find it.
Sexual expression can be a precious portal that allows us to feel sacred union with all of life, including our most wounded and broken parts.
As I study attachment patterns within myself and with my clients, I see how much of our sexuality is driven by our human need to bond and connect. Our sexual desire can often be a way to find ground and safety with another person to assuage feelings of separation and aloneness. We each have missing experiences that our subconscious seeks to resolve and repair. For those on a conscious path, seeking sex is akin to a cosmic wink that seduces us into our evolutionary process, so we can integrate our wounds and transform separation into reunion.
Early attachment templates set the course for how we relate to bonding, and our capacity to surrender into trust with others. Sexual bonding provides us a chance to surface these shadows in the spirit of repair, rather than reinforce outdated ways of being and loving. Hormones are the cocktails that encourage us to seek sexual connection and bonding to fortify this impulse to merge and remember we are not alone.
Our unique dance and relationship to how we bond or avoid attachment needs to be held with compassion and understanding.
Whatever attachment state you find yourself in, I hope you can approach these behaviors with compassion and curiosity. They represent an opportunity to witness your intelligent attempt to resolve a missing experiences you had in childhood.
We’re wired to remember our wholeness.
Alone and together, we can change the fractures of separation inside of ourselves that have become projected onto our mother earth and all of her divine creatures of land, sky and sea.