When “Getting Deep” Gets Deeper: How Attachment Styles Show Up in Our Sex Lives
Life often throws us curveballs, and most of us don’t expect to dodge those in the bedroom during any given stage of a relationship, especially after we’ve gotten to third base. Alright, enough with the baseball analogies. What I’m getting at is what psychoanalyst John Bowbly channeled into attachment theory, which asserts that our first experience with a primary caregiver in childhood sets the tone for our perceived security in relationships throughout our lives. Attachment theory quickly evolved to include four attachment styles, including anxious, avoidant, disorganized, and secure. Whether or not physical intimacy is central to your close relationships, each of these attachment styles can narrow down how you view sex, approach sex, and overall experience sex in various contexts. Let’s take the opportunity to understand how each style finds itself between the sheets and how we get deep!
This attachment style is fairly common among adults and even representation in mainstream television– some examples include Carrie Bradshaw & Mr. Big from Sex and The City, Rue & Jules from Euphoria, and Parks and Recreation’s very own Leslie Knope & Ann Perkins. Throughout genres, these characters all share traits of anxious attachment, mainly seen in their strong dependence on the other for reliable contact that actively reassures where they stand in the relationship. Anxiously attached people have a tendency to overthink their behaviors, wondering about the right thing to do and being fearful of rejection when their partner distances themselves– similar to Rue and Jules’ dynamic. Anxious, or preoccupied, attachment reflects the inner world of someone who is focused on the notion of maintaining proximity to their partner.
What this looks like in sex and intimacy: In intimacy, this attachment can manifest in a dynamic where one person is allocating more energy and effort into maintaining the relationship; sexually-speaking, this looks like avoiding your sexual needs and preferences in order to satisfy those of your partner or seeing sex as something that keeps them close. Carrie Bradshaw is a classic example of this as the show depicts how much more she thinks about the relationship than he does. She expresses her love in overt ways and is preoccupied with their future, because Big does not fully allow her into his life and she worries that he never will. Because of this, she tends to relax her boundaries to justify being close to him and in avoiding her sexual preferences and needs, she finds herself in a position where sex is less about achieving pleasure and more about sustaining the connection to Big.
When you log onto Bumble, Hinge, or any other dating app, is narrowing down who you’re looking for something you put a lot of thought into? Chances are, if you’re regularly selecting options for something ‘casual’ or ‘no strings attached’ it may be because you’d rather not get emotionally invested- you might have an avoidant attachment. You might feel like you have to break off all connections when they become more intense, or emotionally demanding. An example in the media is Chuck Bass from Gossip Girl and you guessed it, Mr. Big from Sex and the City. The two both tend to keep a distance from emotional closeness and vulnerability, channeling their struggle into unhelpful behaviors that ultimately spell bad news for their relationships.
What this looks like in sex and intimacy: Alright, let’s set the stage– you match with someone on a dating app and schedule a time to hook up with the sole intention of relieving stress. You know what you want from your partner and have firm expectations of what the interaction will look like… Your sexual partner arrives and attempts to strike up a conversation, asking questions you find too personal for a standard “hook up”, and after you finish the encounter, they bring your hand to their face and you are quick to pull it away, then they leave at your request. You might feel turned off by their attempt at connection and remind yourself that you needed the physical release and it’s hard finding someone who really means it when they say ‘it’s just sex’ to them in your DMs.
Disorganized attachment, often referred to as ‘fearful-avoidant, is the last of the insecure attachment styles we will cover. In the words of Katy Perry, fearful-avoidant individuals experience hot-and-cold responses and behavior patterns in relationships. You might have a disorganized attachment if you find yourself driven by a fear of rejection and abandonment by your partners, which puts you in a tricky position where you simultaneously doubt your partners’ intentions AND anticipate their deception all the while craving their love and approval.
What this looks like in sex and intimacy: We see this attachment on the intimacy spectrum in the lyrics of many songs by our favorite artists. To name one, Japanese-American song-writer Mitski puts these feelings to words in her song ‘I Bet on Losing Dogs’ with the lyrics: I wanna feel it/ I bet on losing dogs/ I always want you when I’m finally fine/ how you’d be over me looking in my eyes when I come. Here we see that craving for closeness, where they access the part of them that deeply desires the physical closeness of an intimate partner. The last couple lines almost feel like an admission of, “I don’t want you around when I’m vulnerable,” because they know what losing dogs do.. which makes it easier for them to disconnect emotionally while they foresee the outcome. The narrator leans toward that softness in the final line, where they revel in the consummation of the connection, feeling valued and reassured when the partner’s attention is entirely focused on them during a moment of intense intimacy.
So, if you’ve read through the above styles and felt totally unrepresented, it’s because I led with our insecure attachments; however, in all fairness, attachment is fluid, meaning it can evolve and adapt. I fully intended to pull an example from a common book or story, but the thing about secure attachment is, you’re less likely to find it in literature, movies, and television. The scarcity in media isn’t because securely attached people have a bad reputation, but because they are often too comfortable in relationships when it comes to expressing their needs, setting boundaries, and showing vulnerability. Many creative minds argue that the lack of uncertainty in securely attached characters makes it difficult to create arcs and mark character development, as much of this growth is marked by struggle as we see in representations of anxious, avoidant, and disorganized styles. So, without an example, I’m left to paint a picture that emphasizes someone who feels good about themselves, good about their relationships, and hardly questions the role they play in them.
What this looks like in sex and intimacy: If you’re securely attached, you might feel like once you cross the threshold of the bedroom, your wildest fantasies and desires are in reach and the only thing you’ve got to do to actualize them is by expressing what you want to your partner, or, with their enthusiastic consent, by pursuing them yourself. You might feel most like yourself in these moments, connecting on physical and emotional levels with the knowledge that both your preferences and desires are of the utmost importance. You cherish these encounters in their authenticity and being physically present with your partner only contributes to the existing bond of mutual trust, understanding, and intention. These feelings often accompany committed, long-term relationships, but are not exclusive to them and may even be present in open, long-term relationships.
What can you do to address your attachment challenges in the bedroom?
- If you haven’t already, identify your own attachment style and read more about it. You might be surprised to find that there is overlap in many life domains.
- The more you know about your attachment style, the greater opportunity you have to explore its origins and practice acceptance, which is highly encouraged within individual and couples therapy.
- Go into sex and relationships being conscious of what emotions and triggers require your awareness in order to take care of yourself and your partners.
- Turn toward your partners in the moment, creating a space where you can safely express your feelings and experience; this action ultimately grants you the opportunity to foster emotional closeness that feels authentic to your wants and needs.
While attachment styles are very telling about how you step up to the plate in relationships, the way you swing the bat often depends on the way your partner pitches. What I mean by this is that, whether you are securely attached or not, you may enter a relationship with someone who has an insecure attachment. Yours and your partner’s attachment styles are part of the equation that reflects your respective wants and needs, oftentimes predicting sex practices and sexual satisfaction within your relationships. Let yourself hit all the home runs!
At Emma Schmidt and Associates there are so many trained, skilled, and compassionate professionals that would love to help and support you. Our team has training in sex and relationships so we can help you address any attachment challenges, in the bedroom, and in general. We also offer tele-health if coming in is too big of a step at this moment. We are just happy you are reaching out for support.
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The therapists at Emma Schmidt and Associates are skilled relationship and sex therapists. However, that’s not the only mental health service they offer. Our therapists treat general mental health and relationship concerns. We offer anxiety treatment, depression treatment, trauma and PTSD treatment, EMDR, and relationship and couples therapy. In addition to offering online therapy in Ohio, we also offer online therapy in Kentucky, and online therapy in Indiana. Contact our office to learn more about the many ways our team of skilled clinicians can help you thrive.