If you’ve ever found yourself feeling disconnected from your partner in the bedroom, you may want to consider the role that attachment styles play in sexual relationships. Attachment styles are a psychological framework that describes how we relate to others, based on our early experiences with caregivers. And while attachment theory has long been studied in the context of parent-child relationships, researchers are now beginning to understand how it applies to adult relationships – including our sex lives.
There are four primary attachment styles: secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant. Each of these styles comes with its own set of tendencies and behaviors that can influence how individuals approach sexual relationships.
A Note on Attachment Theory
It’s important to note that attachment theory, like other frameworks, isn’t predictive or prescriptive. Frameworks and theories are created to help us understand the world around us so that we can make clearer choices toward our goals. You’ll see me say things like “likely” and “typically” throughout this piece in hopes of making clear that your attachment style isn’t the ultimate determinant of your sexual experiences, nor does it serve as a litmus test for relationship compatibility. These are not labels, but rather, guides that help us better understand how we interact with others. Our attachment style is a reflection of our own developmental history, showing how we learned to manage the balance (or imbalance) of emotional closeness and autonomy in our earliest relationships. More often than not, our attachment behaviors come into play during times of conflict and stress, making it an opportunity to self-reflect on what it is that we require to feel secure and supported in our sexual relationships.
Secure Attachment Style
Securely attached individuals are typically comfortable with emotional intimacy and can communicate openly with their partners about their desires and boundaries. They’re also more likely to view sexuality as a positive and important aspect of their relationship, whether or not they are interested in having sex. In the bedroom, they tend to prioritize pleasure for both themselves and their partners and encourage their partners to be open and vulnerable. They are not typically alarmed by separation and find the most pleasure in interdependent relationships (where each partner still has a life outside of the other). When problems arise, securely attached folks tend to approach them collaboratively, seeking the support of their partners to find a solution that works for everyone.
This attachment style originates from consistent and responsive caregiving during childhood. The securely attached learned to trust that if they needed support or care, it would be available to them, even if not immediately. Periods of solitude were unthreatening because they were temporary, and closeness wasn’t painful because it wasn’t overwhelming. This created a secure base from which they could explore the world and form satisfying relationships, in addition to cultivating a fulfilling sex life.
Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment Style
On the other hand, anxious-preoccupied individuals, often struggle with anxiety and insecurity in their relationships. They may feel constantly worried about their partner’s feelings or the state of the relationship, and this can impact their sexual experiences. For example, an anxious-preoccupied partner may be hyper-vigilant about their partner’s pleasure, leading them to prioritize their partner’s needs over their own. This makes them likely to ignore their own boundaries or bypass boundaries set by others.
Partners of anxious-preoccupied lovers can be thrilled by the constant flow of attention and affection, and anxious-preoccupied lovers’ eagerness to please can make them passionate and attuned lovers. However anxious-preoccupied lovers can also be overwhelming or reactive to their partners. This is because the pursuit of sex is often accompanied by the need to manage attachment distress through the comfort of proximity. Anxious-preoccupied individuals are likely to seek constant reassurance and validation from their partners regarding their worth and desirability and feel very threatened by the possibility of being alone. Sex can become a test of relationship strength; when there is constant instability in a relationship, having frequent or passionate sex can act as a tool to soothe fears of emotional disconnection. When anxious-preoccupied individuals have sexual concerns, they will likely keep them to themself indefinitely. They might over-analyze the issues, want to talk about them exhaustively, or bring them up indirectly through passive-aggression or by downplaying the problem’s importance.
This attachment style can develop from inconsistent or unpredictable caregiving during childhood, such as if caregivers were inattentive, punishing, narcissistic, or emotionally stoic. Some caregivers try their best to be available but are misattuned to the unique needs of the young person they are raising. For young children, who naturally see themselves at the center of the universe, this can create a deep-seated belief that they don’t deserve the care and positive attention they need to form a secure sense of self. They had too much space and not enough emotional closeness. To compensate, they learn to ‘over function’ and people-please in their relationships, striving to earn the love and affection they so desperately seek. And yet, despite their best efforts, a lingering fear of being abandoned or rejected can persist, shaping their behavior and attitudes well into adulthood – even in the bedroom.
Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment Style
For dismissive-avoidant individuals, independence and autonomy are highly valued qualities and are often prioritized over intimacy in everyday life and romantic relationships. Rather than emphasizing the emotional aspects of sex, dismissive-avoidant partners may view it as primarily physical, focusing on achieving orgasms or other personal goals (making their sexual debut, the “thrill of the chase”, etc.) without prioritizing intimacy and connection. They struggle to trust others and as a result, dismissive-avoidant partners tend to not do a lot of communicating, which puts strain on their sex lives. Good sex is built, in part, from robust sexual communication. Negotiating consent, sharing likes and dislikes, exchanging fantasies, and even flirtation can be missing from these relationships in a way that can make things less pleasurable and/or more transactional.
In bed, they may appear aloof or disengaged, or they may focus on becoming highly skilled at pleasing their partners without fully engaging emotionally. This behavior is not about lack of care, but rather, it serves as a protective mechanism against the vulnerability that intimacy inevitably brings. When in distress, they emotionally retreat, shut down, and withdraw. Sex can be a way to avoid conflict – a person with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style may initiate sex as a distraction from a problem or a concession to avoid discussing something further. This can go as far as having sex as a way to keep the relationship from progressing beyond something casual instead of being explicit about their needs and desires.
Dismissive-avoidant individuals typically have a history of caregivers who were emotionally distant, physically absent, or dismissive of them. Sometimes this was for reasons outside of the adults’ control, such as struggles with illness or working long hours outside of the home. Nevertheless, this style of upbringing can lead individuals to feel that emotional closeness is both unattainable and dangerous, and they may learn to keep their needs and desires to themselves to avoid being hurt. Alas, connection is a basic human need, and dismissive-avoidant individuals struggle to balance their desire for intimacy with their fear that emotional vulnerability will lead to pain in their relationships. In abstaining from emotional closeness, they often lose clarity on what they themselves want from others or from life in general. Even if they love someone, they may choose to leave a relationship before their partner has the chance to leave them to maintain their independence and avoid the risk of emotional pain outside of their control.
Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Style
Finally, fearful-avoidant individuals struggle with both anxiety and avoidance in their relationships. They desire autonomy and intimacy but also fear vulnerability and abandonment. In the bedroom, this can manifest as unpredictable or extreme sexual behavior. It can be difficult to understand their sexual needs or trust in their sexual decision-making because they may not show a consistent or reliable pattern of behavior. Showing patterns of both the dismissive-avoidant and the anxious-preoccupied attachment styles can be very confusing for their partners and for themselves. They often feel confused or overwhelmed in their relationships and they may find it difficult to make sexual decisions that honor their desires and their boundaries. This makes them likely to feel regret and likely to struggle to negotiate satisfying sex with their partners. Compulsive sex, emotional withdrawal during sex, having sex that is triggering or upsetting, and/or pursuing poorly negotiated or high-risk sexual activity can be regular occurrences when fearful-avoidant lovers are in attachment distress.
This attachment style can develop from caregivers whose emotions or behavior were frightening, dangerously unreliable, or neglectful. This attachment style is most often a result of early life trauma, whether a traumatic event early in childhood that made the child mistrust their caregivers or an ongoing unsafe emotional or physical environment. Because of the unstable nature of their early world, fearful-avoidant individuals didn’t have an opportunity to learn where to put their trust, and as a result, often feel unsafe both alone and with others. In terms of sex, this attachment style can result in difficulty establishing emotional and physical intimacy with a partner.
So, what can you do if you find that your attachment style is impacting your sexual relationship? It’s worth remembering that attachment styles can evolve and change over time, especially with the help of supportive relationships. This doesn’t mean you need an invested partner or the buy-in of your friends or family for support. Emotional support groups, therapy, coaching, and even literature like workbooks or guides can act as sources of support for you on your journey. Creating a secure base for yourself allows you the emotional safety you need to help you confront your past experiences and address your current patterns of behavior.
Learning to understand and manage our attachment styles can help us to have more fulfilling sexual experiences and relationships overall. Attachment styles are not fixed personality traits or labels, but rather a tool to help us better understand ourselves and our needs in relationships. By being open to exploring our attachment styles, we can work towards building more meaningful connections with ourselves and our partners, both inside and outside of the bedroom.
Shadeen Francis, LMFT, CST
Sex and Relationship Therapist, Media Personality, Speaker, and Author
Gillian ‘Gigi’ Singer, MPH
American Board Certified Sexologist, Sexuality Educator, and Sex Ed Content Specialist