Jill McDevitt, Ph.D., has been fascinated by human sexual behavior since she was a teenager. “As a young person, I was very confused about sex and sexuality. I recognized that adults got weird about sex,” the sexologist for CalExotics says. “For instance, I noticed sexuality was used openly in advertising, but then the grownups got all bashful and uncomfortable discussing it in any serious way. Those subconscious messages led me to feeling pretty anxious and ashamed of normal experiences I was having, like puberty, developing crushes, being curious about sex, and so forth.”
She sought information to help contextualize and normalize her experience, and then decided to pursue a career to help others do the same. McDevitt earned a B.A. in Sexuality, Marriage, and Family in Canada, then moved back to the U.S. to pursue a Master of Education degree and Ph.D., both in Human Sexuality.
She learned about Attachment Theory in undergrad psychology and sexology courses, and says it’s fascinating how decades-old theories and frameworks come in and out of mainstream consciousness and popularity over the years. “In recent memory, I’ve seen things like communication styles, love languages, mindfulness, birth order, radical acceptance, mindsets, sex-positive feminism, and other socio-sexual frameworks have their time in the pop culture spotlight, which I find so intriguing. It seems like it’s Attachment Theory’s time to shine.”
Since asking your date, “What’s your attachment style?” is the new “What’s your zodiac sign?” we reached out to McDevitt, who’s celebrating 15 years as a sex educator, to find out how understanding attachment styles can be a useful tool in learning more about ourselves and our partner when it comes to sex and intimacy.
MH: What is attachment theory and how does it relate to sex?
JM: Attachment Theory is a concept that describes bonds and relationships and is based on the assumption that bonding is an intrinsic need of all humans. It was originally a theory around the bond between infants and their primary caregiver and how safe and secure, or not, the infant feels that their needs will consistently be met by this adult. Depending on the caregiver’s response to the infant’s needs the child develops not only a particular style of emotional bond with the adult, but also a life-long pattern of being in relationships with others. These different styles are Attachment Styles.
This relates to sex because romantic and/or sexual relationships are relationships in which that bond and attachment style pattern can show up. Like an infant seeks attachment and bonds with their caregiver, adults also seek emotional security and support from their romantic partners. Research has demonstrated that one’s attachment style plays a role in influencing their motive for having sex, their perception of sexual experiences, and how sex is used to meet a variety of different emotional needs.
What are the four attachment styles?
Theorists identified four attachment styles in infants, which are secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure-ambivalent, and insecure-disorganized.
♥ Secure: When a child seeks affection, support, or comfort from their caregiver, and the caregiver consistently responds quickly and with warmth and sensitivity, the child believes that the world is safe, their needs will be met, and that they can explore because they know they have a safe and secure base to return to.
♥ Insecure-Avoidant: In this case when the child seeks affection, support, or comfort, their caregiver is distant and disengaged. The belief the child in this case develops is that their needs probably won’t be met, and they become emotionally distant from the caregiver. This correlates to dismissive-avoidant attachment in adult attachment theory.
♥ Insecure-Ambivalent: When attempts by the child to bond with the caregiver are met with inconsistency; sometimes the caregiver is warm and sensitive and quick to respond, and other times they are distant and neglectful, the child doesn’t know one way or the other whether their needs will be met, and they become anxious and insecure in the face of not knowing what to expect. This correlates to anxious-preoccupied attachment in adult attachment theory.
♥ The Insecure-Disorganized infant attachment—in adults called Fearful-Avoidant—is the least common and has the least amount of research, so I’m going to focus on the main three.
Generally speaking, how does someone with secure attachment perceive sex and intimacy?
Research has demonstrated that securely attached adults seek and easily develop emotionally intimate sexual relationships. In committed relationships, they feel stable, and don’t worry much about being abandoned, hurt, cheated on, etc. from their partner. As a consequence of this peace of mind, sex for securely attached people tends to be more mutually satisfying. They perceive their partner as caring and seek comfort from them. They are also attuned to when their partner needs comfort, and they consistently provide it. Sex is perceived as an expression of, and means for promoting, this closeness.
What does sex mean for someone who’s anxiously attached?
In the research, anxiously attached individuals, like securely attached folks, also desire and seek closeness with a partner. But unlike the secure folks, when anxiously attached folks convey this need, they perceive their partner as being inconsistent and undependable with their response. This perceived reluctance to provide comfort and care leads to worry about being abandoned. Sex is motivated by their need for emotional intimacy, with sex itself being viewed as reassurance that the partner does in fact care and won’t leave them.
How does someone with avoidant attachment feel about physical intimacy?
Like the anxiously attached, individuals with avoidant attachment do not trust their partner will reliably respond to their bids for comfort and connection, but instead of anxiously pursuing it, they avoid it. They are uncomfortable with emotional intimacy and if/when their partner seeks comfort or connection from them, they respond by rejecting it or being unavailable. They learn to trust and depend on only themselves. For instance, one study showed that those with avoidant attachment are more likely than the other attachment styles to masturbate and watch pornography. Their perception of partnered sex is as a method of redistributing power in the relationship – maintaining, reclaiming, or exerting their power over their partner, or their need for preserving their independence.
If you’re curious about learning what your partner’s attachment style might be, what are some examples of questions you might ask your partner before taking things to the next level of intimacy in order to find out what theirs might be?
Curiosity is great, and as I mentioned, knowing a partner’s attachment style can help you both to have a happier, smoother relationship that meets both of your needs, so there’s no shame in being curious about your partner’s style.
That said (not to call you out, but for educational purposes I’ll point out) that this very question has an insecure attachment style vibe to it. The reason I say this is because when I get a question like this, it’s usually about someone trying to enlist my help to decode their partner’s attachment style in order to make deductions about their interest in higher levels of intimacy, either because that’s very much wanted and a source of concern about the relationship’s future if they aren’t interested (anxious), or because that’s a sign that it’s time to jet if they are interested (avoidant).
So how would one ask them from a securely attached standpoint?
Securely attached people tend to be more comfortable being upfront and straightforward about just outright asking. Like,“Hey, I’m curious: What’s your attachment style?” They’re also more comfortable revealing their distress. For example: “So, I’m interested in taking things to the next level of intimacy, but I have some concerns that you’re not there yet. Can you give me some insights about how you’re feeling about that?”
When dating someone with a secure attachment style, what are they looking for when it comes to intimacy?
Open and honest communication is going to be an important component to a relationship with a securely attached person.
What’s exciting about sex for a secure attacher?
Due to the safety of a secure base, open and honest communication, and securely attached people’s tendency for high self-esteem, these folks tend to be more open to explore new things sexually and generally have a wider sexual repertoire than others. They have the communication skills to discuss and negotiate their sexual desires and curiosities, the sense of safety that they can explore things sexually and then retreat back to safety if it doesn’t work out, and the self-esteem to know that if this exploration isn’t what they or their partnered hoped, this doesn’t mean they are “bad in bed” or “unattractive” or other fears commonly expressed about sexual exploration in less secure folks.
In other words, sexual exploration requires a willingness to be vulnerable, and those with secure attachments are more easily willing to be vulnerable. Securely attached couples tend to have long, stable, mutually satisfying sexual relationships.
What turns on an anxious attacher the most?
Individuals with anxious attachment styles want to be and feel accepted. Those with anxious attachments are more likely than others to have sex just to keep their partner happy and avoid rejection, and tend to be more concerned about not pleasing their partner sexually so that “bad sex” won’t be a reason for their not being accepted.
If your partner is anxiously attached, you could help them get turned on by reassuring them that they are cared for, and they are accepted just as they are. Remind them that you find them desirable, you are attracted to them, and they are safe to speak up about their needs and desires. Show interest! Ask them questions about what they like, their favorite sex position, or something sexual they’ve fantasized about.
Equally, what turns off someone with an anxious attachment style?
Folks with anxious attachment can find themselves preoccupied with worries about their bodies, sexual performance, and making themselves attractive and desirable to their partner so that they accept them. It’s difficult to enjoy sex when your mind is somewhere else, which may be why anxiously attached people tend to have lower levels of sexual arousal, pleasure, and satisfaction.
Not being able to stay present is a major turn-off for everyone but those anxiously attached seem to be especially prone to it. Training the brain to stay aware in the present moment through mindfulness practice has been demonstrated by research to be an effective strategy for this.
What are some ways that you could make an anxious attacher feel safe so they can be open to explore intimacy?
In addition to the affirmations and reassurances I mentioned before, consider also telling (and showing!) your partner that their thoughts and opinions are valid and they are safe bringing them up, not just sexually, but also what you have for dinner.
What are some examples of post-coital aftercare that an anxious attacher would appreciate?
Say things like: “That was great”; “You’re amazing”; “I love being with you.”
What is an avoidant attacher looking for when it comes to intimacy?
Those with avoidant attachment styles tend to have lower desire for sex than the other attachment styles and are the group most likely to dismiss the importance of sex in a relationship.
These folks are more likely than others to pursue short term 3-4 month relationships, and so-called hook-ups and one-night-stands that allow for a sexual relationship without the high levels of emotional intimacy typical of long term relationships.
What does someone with avoidant attachment style need from their partner in order to want to have sex?
Given this context, what an avoidant attached individual needs to possibly want to have sex is autonomy. They want to not feel stifled or feel they are risking their freedom or independence by being intimate in this way. As the partner of an avoidant attachment style person, this could mean establishing clear boundaries and reassuring them that you will respect those boundaries and their autonomy. Also set your own healthy boundaries that you expect from them.
What turns them on?
In long-term relationships, having sexual fantasies that do not include their partner is a method for avoidant attachment folks to keep sexual intimacy at arm’s length. Another is sexting photos, which research has shown is correlated with this attachment style, presumably because texting nudes requires less emotional intimacy than in-person nudity, or even word-based sexting.
What types of sexual positions do avoidant attachment seem to enjoy the most and why?
Foreplay, especially of the variety that involves acts commonly seen as more intimate, such as kissing, caressing, and “pillow talk” might be something an avoidant attached person would find overwhelming and uncomfortable. Sex positions that have more distance with little to no eye contact, like rear entry/doggy style, might be more in the comfort zone of these folks.
What does an avoidant attachment need post-coital?
They probably need space.
If you’re not sure what your attachment style might be, what are some ways to check in with yourself when it comes to how you feel about sex to give you a better idea?
While there is an abundance of “attachment style quizzes” online, many are more for entertainment purposes and may not necessarily be valid, reliable, or based on science.
I recommend using one of the official inventories researchers use. These include the Adult Attachment Scale, the Relationship Style Questionnaire, and the Experiences in Close Relationship Scale, among others.
Additionally, you might check in with yourself about things like:
If you answer yes to the below, these are high levels of the above are signs of secure attachment:
♥ How easy is it to be affectionate with your partner?
♥ How comfortable do you feel sharing your deep personal thoughts and feelings with your partner?
♥ How sensitive are you to your partner’s moods and emotions?
If you experience high levels of the below, those are signs of an anxious attachment.
♥ How frequently do you notice feelings of jealousy or unease when your partner is away without you?
♥ Do you worry about your entire relationship after one argument?
♥ How concerned or distressed do you get if your partner asserts boundaries, like saying they need some alone time, telling you they’d rather masturbate tonight then have sex, or asking you not to look at their phone?
Additionally, high levels of the below are signs of avoidant attachment:
♥ How much do you want to pull away when someone starts showing serious romantic interest in you?
♥ How boring or suspicious do you find potential partners who are kind, sweet, and freely giving of love and affection?
♥ How demanding do you find your partner’s requests for your time, advice, affection, and attention?
Why is knowing one’s attachment theory helpful when it comes to intimacy and relationships?
Having a framework for thinking about ourselves and how we relate to others and the world can be very helpful. My opinion as a sexuality educator is that you can’t have too many tools or too much knowledge when it comes to making sense of our sexuality. Knowledge about your own attachment style can be helpful in not beating yourself up if you notice thoughts and behaviors in yourself that feel destructive to relationships, and instead enable you to gain some understanding and self-compassion about what you’re doing and why, and what the unmet need is. Knowledge about a partner’s attachment style can make it easier to work together to help them feel safe and loved in the way they need.
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