What do you do when you want to spice up your sex life? We usually start thinking about new positions, or lingerie, or maybe traveling to some exotic location with our spouse. Physical things. But what if the key to great sex was found in a completely different dimension?
Outline: Sexual Experience Types & Attachment
The research we’re looking at today will actually have a profound impact on the whole scope of your married life. So this is definitely going to be a pivotal topic for many couples who are reading. We are going to talk about attachment. I know that sounds like something to do with velcro but attachment in the science of relationships is simply about the love bond between two people. So every time you read “attachment” just think “love bond” so that this new term doesn’t throw you off.
What we’re going to see is that the quality and nature of your attachment to your spouse has the largest impact on your sexual satisfaction. If you’re in a sexless marriage, or you have a lot of conflict about sex, it almost always comes back to this attachment issue. The only exception would be if there is a genuine sexual disorder such as erectile dysfunction or vaginismus— those may be related to physiological issues or they may find their root in other things like childhood sexual abuse. But: if you solve the attachment issue you’ll also have a safe place to talk about these other issues, and I would certainly recommend you do so with a qualified sex therapist.
We will look at how attachment affects different ways of experiencing sex, and finish with a look at 7 steps to growing a secure attachment in a sexual context.
Three Experiential Patterns of Sexual Intercourse
The first thing you need to know is that both men and women experience sexual intercourse in one of three patterns:
Relationship-centered orientation: This pattern is all about being connected to your spouse on an emotional level during sex. So it is about the “individual’s feelings of being loved and esteemed by one’s partner and the desire for partner’s involvement, as well as the sense of being the subject of love (i.e. feelings of love toward the partner, and attentional and emotional focus on her/his needs and reactions.) [i]” This is healthy, whole-person sex that encompasses both physical and emotional experience and is focused on both giving and receiving from your spouse.
Worry-centered orientation: This pattern revolves around a focus on you and your own worries over giving and receiving from your spouse. This includes worry about “the personal vulnerability and sense of estrangement related to sexual activity, the negative and immoral meanings of this activity, the lack of partner’s sexual competence, and the potential evidence of one’s sexual inadequacy, along with the occurrence of interfering thoughts[ii]”. This is sex that’s not going well. Anything from doormat sex to abusive sex to my body-is-here-but-my-brain-is-not kind of sex. Or if you’re lost in self-consciousness. It’s not engaged sex.
Pleasure-centered orientation: This pattern reflects sex on a more basic level that’s focused on pleasure and not on the emotional experience. It’s about “the orgasmic cycle of excitement-pleasure-relief-satisfaction, which is accompanied by a sense of power and strength and two complementary states of mind — cognitive/emotional dissociation from the environment and focused attention on reaching the orgasm [iii].”. This is sex that’s purely about crossing the finish line; focusing on the physical sensations, with no real person-to-person connection.
Gender Differences in Sexual Experience
Remember, men and women both experience sex that falls into these three patterns. But there are gender differences in how much of each they experience and what they are looking for:
- Women demonstrate higher relational orientation in their descriptions of sexual intercourse.
- “Women’s experience of heterosexual intercourse was more ambivalent in nature in comparison with men’s experience.” In that, “Women, compared with men, experienced more disappointment with their partner, along with worries and interfering thoughts.”
- While women were more concerned about getting more love from their spouse during heterosexual intercourse, men were more concerned about getting more sexual variety.
So: Houston, we have a problem. Basically they’re saying that women fluctuate between a worried orientation and a relationship orientation and men tend to see sex from a pleasure orientation. There’s a misalignment here and this is why so many couples aren’t experiencing deeply satisfying sexual intimacy.
Why Do Men and Women Experience Sex Differently?
I think there are some definite societal influences. Let’s acknowledge that briefly but what we need to talk about is what is happening inside the relationship because changing that is more accessible than changing culture.
At the same time, we need to look at our own perspectives on sex. This is especially true for men, who have this pleasure orientation. I think there’s a huge problem in that we’re socialized to believe that we need to release and that the best sex happens with the most ideal female body type. We need to think through both of these carefully.
If it’s about the release, what’s the difference between using your hand and using your wife? If it’s really just about crossing the finish line — that’s objectifying to your wife and completely neglects the relational aspect of sex. Surely this isn’t the perfect intimate experience that God had in mind when he created sex for us?
I want to challenge husbands out there to see sex not as something you need for release- not just as a pressure valve that needs venting once in a while but as a means of connecting more deeply with your wife. And when you orgasm, it’s not because you’ve crossed a line but because you’re experiencing the pinnacle of human connection with this very precious singular person — your wife — who gets to see you and know you and experience you in a way that nobody else does. And afterwards you don’t just roll over and fall asleep, you hold her, you affirm her beauty, you continue to enjoy her presence. Sex is biological, sure, but it can be so much more than that.
Secondly, I think that much of our wives’ worry-centered orientation comes from their insecurities about their bodies. Many of these are prompted by a worldview that says the best kind of sex only happens with perfectly endowed women. Or men, for that case — this can go both ways.
Think about this. Suppose there are 1 million men with “perfect bodies”. And 1 million women with “perfect bodies”. That begs the question: are the other 7.399 billion people in the world condemned to having mediocre or less than satisfying sex? Would God really design us like that? It cannot be.
One of the things I’ve been working on for a number of years is the conscious rejection of this worldview. This is not about whether Verlynda is in the 1 million or not. It’s about what it means for the rest of the world even if she is. And what does it mean for us as a couple as we age? How many 70 year olds do you see on the covers of glossy magazines? What does it mean for us as an old couple? And yet we’re told by these older couples that sex gets better as you get older. We need to be very cautious about the messages we send each other as spouses around physical attributes and we need to pray that God will keep shaping our thinking and affection to see our spouse as the most beautiful person we know.
Attachment and Sexual Experience
I want to think about attachment. Remember attachment is about the love bond between you and your spouse. Not velcro. There are three main styles- avoidant, anxious and secure:
- Avoidant attachment “reflects the extent to which a person distrusts a relationship partners’ goodwill, strives to maintain behavioral independence, and relies on deactivating strategies for dealing with relational threats [iv]”. This is all about keeping your distance emotionally for fear of getting hurt, and often entails fleeing from problems rather than facing them.
- Anxious attachment: “reflects the degree to which a person worries that partners will not be available in times of need [v]”. This is where you don’t feel that your spouse can be relied upon to be there, so you act in a controlling or clingy way or do whatever you think will keep them wanting to be with you. You hold on too tightly because you don’t fully trust that your spouse will always be there when you need them.
- Secure attachment: “is defined by comfort with closeness and faith [vi]”. This is where anxiety and avoidance are both low, and you fully trust your spouse and understand that they are always there for you, enabling you to be less clingy and more of a separate, secure individual.
So you have avoidant, anxious and secure. Attachment styles are often formed early in life and modeled after our relationship with our primary caregiver or parent. These styles of attachment and behavior obviously affect a lot more than just sex. You might, for example, notice some similarities with the different styles of fighting we talk about here. Now, remember our three patterns of sexuality: relationship-centered, worry-centered and pleasure-cantered. Let’s tie attachment to patterns of sexual experience.
Relationship-Centered sex is affected like this:
Higher anxious attachment = lower feelings of being loved and higher desire for involvement from your spouse during sexual intercourse. At its extreme, it means using sex to reassure yourself of the love bond. This can look very needy, and never satisfying; if your spouse has ever said they feel like they’ll get lost in you or can never meet your expectations, you may have anxious attachment impacting your intercourse.
Higher avoidant attachment = lower feelings of being loved and of love toward your spouse. Less focus on your spouse’s stated needs. This feels more like disconnected sex. Like you’re doing it but you’re not really making that connection. Something in your childhood told you it wasn’t safe to be very close to the most important people in your life so you hold yourself back, now, from your spouse.
Pleasure-Centered sex is affected by attachment type something like this:
In Pleasure-Centered Sex, higher attachment anxiety produces a stronger focus on one’s own needs during sexual intercourse. I think this could potentially look like selfish sex or even possibly like very hot sex — wow, you really went off the charts on that one — but the connection is not there even though the pleasure may be impressive. Now, these researchers had a second part to their study and confirmed this: attachment anxiety amplified the effect of positive or negative sexual experiences. So it was either really good or really bad.
On the avoidant attachment side, it probably works against you. Typically the pleasure-related feelings would be weaker and there would be more of each spouse focusing on their own needs. So I don’t think anyone would leave feeling terribly satisfied. Again, in the follow up part of their study the researchers observed that this attachment style inhibited the positive relational effect of having sex, and inhibits the detrimental effects too. So where anxious attachment amplified both positive and negative experiences, avoidant attachment was a wet blanket- it mutes the good and the bad.
Worry-Centered sex is affected too: both higher anxiety and higher avoidance were associated with more aversive feelings about sex. Obviously if you distrust your spouse or are worried about whether they’re really available, this is going to compound your feelings in an activity as intimate as sex. You’ll feel an aversion for sure.
The bottom line here is that attachment issues are going to have a negative impact on sexual intercourse. This is why I’m saying that emotional intimacy is the key to great sex: because when this piece is not present, you may have the occasional fireworks but I don’t think there’s any way you’re going to be able to say that you have a thriving, passionate sex life or marriage.
Once again we’ve created a bonus guide for our much appreciated supporters. If you’re reading this and you’re thinking, wow, my spouse and I need to talk about this, then you need this guide. The guide is about creating a safe place to talk about sex in your marriage. We show you how to do that and then we give you the questions you need to talk through in order to start having the conversations you’ve been avoiding. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People. You can find out more about this guide here (link to it).
How to Create Secure Attachment in Your Sex Life
Now we want to talk about what secure attachment looks like and how to improve your relational attachment in order to improve your sex life.
Remember we’re aiming to create emotional intimacy in order to improve our sexual intimacy in our marriages. We’ve written before on ways you can increase the intimacy and connecgion in your marriage- you can look at our post on the subject here. To create emotional intimacy you have to have safety. Obviously you don’t share your most private emotional parts with people who aren’t safe.
Secure attachment is about creating a safe haven in the marriage; a place where the strength of your relationship buffers against stress and uncertainty. It’s also about creating a secure base: a place from which you can explore and adaptively respond to the world around you so that you can try new things or better cope with new challenges. But secure attachment is more than that: it’s also a place where you can stand back and reflect on yourself and on your spouse’s state of mind.
So it’s OK to explore who you are and how you are relating to each other. This, in turn, enables greater emotional risk-taking so that you can reach out empathically and provide support for others. Having a secure base and feeling totally safe with your spouse better enables you to cope with conflict and stresses that arise in life. It also fosters autonomy: the more connected you are to your spouse, the more you trust that they’ll still be there if you pursue your own life, the more separate and different you can be. Secure relationships tend to be happier, more stable and more satisfying because all these parts work together for good [vii].
There are all these great benefits to secure attachment but let’s think about this in terms of married sex. Remember that secure attachment leads to a relationship where you can “communicate more openly, assert needs more easily, be more empathic and responsive to your spouse, and explore physical and emotional closeness in and out of the bedroom [viii].
This is why this post is called, “Emotional Intimacy is the Key to Great Sex” — it’s actually secure attachment that is the key, but nobody knows what that means until you explain it!
What’s really cool is that when you start to figure this out you end up creating a positive cycle in your marriage between the sex and this bond. So the stronger the bond, the more satisfying the sexual experience becomes. And the more satisfying the sex becomes, the stronger the bond becomes over time. To quote the researchers, “Satisfying sexual encounters [strengthen] the couple’s bond and a more secure bond continues to build more erotic and more satisfying sex.”
There’s a very clichéd view of marriage that says that passion deteriorates within long term marriages. The research we’ve been citing today shows just the opposite. I love the fact that this affirms what we already knew to be true from Biblical values around marriage. Long term monogamy is the way to go: sexually, relationally, and emotionally.
7 Steps for Building Secure Attachment in Your Marriage and Sex
Johnson & Zuccarini (2010) suggest there are seven steps that you need to go through in order to see stronger attachment, leading to greater intimacy in your sex life. My suggestion is that you get the worksheet we offer to our patrons as you are going to have to have some conversations here. If you’re getting stuck, reach out to me and we can set up some counseling just to make sure you get this right.
- Figure out where you fall on that attachment insecurity, avoidance or anxiety spectrum. You need to understand your default position and how this is problematic in your sexual patterns and the scripts that you go through with your spouse.
- Next, you need to literally create an agreement with your spouse that emotional safety is going to become the foundation for a new level of sexual openness and responsiveness. You will both be open to new things and new ways of thinking because you are starting from a position of safety and non-judgment. Often, to stereotype the most common pattern, this is going to look like the wife saying I am going to open myself to you sexually in exchange for you opening to me emotionally. This should be hard work for both of you- by that I just mean it should not be one-sided.
- You know your patterns. You have this safety agreement in place. Next you need to explore the negative cycles of your sexual interactions. How do anxiety and avoidance play into your sex life together? As you discuss this you must agree to and adhere to safety during conversations about sex: no put downs. No unkind or embarrassing remarks. The utmost of respect and care is called for.
- Next you want to think about the emotions linked to your problematic sexual patterns. This is personal work — not with your spouse, yet. Think about how these emotions tie back to these attachment needs that are present. For example, you may feel sadness around your sexuality because of fears of rejection and abandonment. You may feel shame or fear due to the belief that you are inadequate or unacceptable. This could be related to an anxious attachment style: you’re working very hard to compensate for these very real fears that are stampeding through your head during sex.
- Disclose these sexual fears and needs to one another. Again, this must be in the context of a safe and responsive environment.
- You have to do something with the information your spouse has given you. If you’re not sure what to do, ask. Agree that this is going to be a period of exploration, experimentation, discovery and learning. That means you’re going to stumble and fall on the journey to success. But you have to take these emotional realities and figure out how you can support your spouse during their moments of expressed vulnerability and weakness. For example, if your wife wants to be held after sex, you’re going to hold her, you’re going to affirm her and your acceptance of her. Wherever those emotional and attachment needs tie over to physical interaction, you’re going to make those connections in a way that builds each other up.
- The researchers concluded with suggesting a model of sexuality that should be embraced. It’s a very poignant summary so read it slowly so that you can really think it through. “[Sexuality] is seen as erotic exploration and play, as a safe adventure in which erotic excitement comes from the ever new moment-to-moment engagement with an accessible partner. This is a model that suggests that physical practice and emotional practice make perfect rather than the cliché view that passion and long-term attachment are antithetical [ix].”
Hopefully this has given you something to think about, and some honest questions and answers to work through with your spouse. But: remember that there is no magic formula for a secure marriage and a healthy, thriving sex life. Don’t walk away from this thinking that you can tick the seven steps off a list and then expect fantastic sex every time. There are still differences in drive, motivation and all kinds of other factors between you and your spouse that will affect how sex feels for each of you on a night-by-night basis (we talk about some of them here). On top of that there are all kinds of life issues and distractions that can get in the way of great sex in even the most connected of couples. Sometimes you’re just gonna have an off-night. And that’s fine.
This is not a one-conversation solution. If you want the thriving and liberated sex life that comes from a secure attachment, you’re committing to a journey. A journey together. It’s going to take time and practice but the amazing thing is that you never arrive: this is a constant, life-long unfolding and unmasking and undressing of one another as you grow closer and closer to gather. This deepening intimacy is both an erotic and emotional quest and one that God has designed for your mutual blessing, growth and pleasure.
[i] Gurit E. Birnbaum and Dafna Laser-Brandt, ‘Gender Differences in the Experience of Heterosexual Intercourse’, The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 11.3/4 (2002), 143–58.
[iv] Gurit E. Birnbaum and others, ‘When Sex Is More Than Just Sex: Attachment Orientations, Sexual Experience, and Relationship Quality’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91.5 (2006), 929.
[vii] Susan Johnson and Dino Zuccarini, ‘Integrating Sex and Attachment in Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy’, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 36.4 (2010), 431–45.