While our attachment style plays a huge role in how we balance our need for connection and independence within our relationships, they also significantly impact our sexual expression.
Bowlby described adult relationships as the intertwining of three distinct systems: the attachment system, the caretaking system and the sexuality systems. Within these three systems: the attachment system is considered primary.
What this means is that how our attachment system is functioning (whether we feel safe and secure versus anxious and fearful) determines how our other two systems function. If we are insecurely attached, our sexual relationship will be impacted by the anxiety and uncertainty within our relationship. When we have safety and security within our relationship it provides a solid foundation for our sexual system to function well and for us to balance our need for connection and sense of self more easily.
When we are connected to our sense of self, we can bring our preferences, longings, and desires and share them with our partner while inviting them to do the same. At the same time, our need for connection motivates us to blend these individual preferences, longings and desires into something new that benefits, honors and satisfies both partners equally.
Couple’s therapists will often identify a couple’s relational cycle, noting who is pursuing and who is withdrawing and how the two individuals handle the tension created in moments where needs go unmet, or conflict arises.
However, less attention is often paid to the couple’s sexual cycle or the way in which attachment needs are being channeled into and impacting the sexual dynamics within the relationship. Sometimes the relational and sexual cycle match up (one partner is advocating for more relational closeness and more sex) and sometimes the relational and sexual cycle vary (one partner is advocating for more sexual closeness and one partner is advocating for more relational closeness).
Let’s look at how these relational and sexual cycles can align or not align for different couples.
When the Sexual and Relational Cycle Align
For some couples, the relational and sexual cycle will align. For example, Ken and Stacy have been married for ten years. Ken tends to be the emotional pursuer in the relationship and is anxiously attached. He feels any disconnection from Stacy acutely and will pursue connection with her. Often, he does this through initiating sex. For Ken, sexual connection with Stacy solidifies his sense of safe bonding and love with her in an intensely tangible way. Ken is the pursuer both relationally and sexually.
Stacy, on the other hand, is avoidantly attached. She needs emotional distance to feel safe and emotionally grounded. Close emotional or sexual connection can be challenging and anxiety-producing for her. As a result, she tends to stay very busy with the kids and her work world where she can feel competent and in control while avoiding the emotional or sexual intimacy that creates vulnerability and uncertainty. Stacy is the withdrawer both relationally and sexually.
For each of the individuals in this couple, the relational and sexual cycles align. Stacy and Ken each express their insecure attachment styles consistently in how they approach both the emotional and sexual parts of their relational bond.
When the Sexual and Relational Cycle Do Not Align
Mark and Jacob have been married for ten years but together for twenty-five. Mark comes from a stable loving family and has a secure attachment style. He tends to be less anxious when conflict or disconnection arises and while he doesn’t always handle it perfectly and can get hurt and angry with Jacob, he is usually able to weather the relational storm and come back to a place of feeling safely connected to his partner.
Jacob, on the other hand, is avoidantly attached. He tends to maintain emotional distance from Mark, staying busy with his demanding law practice and hobbies. Emotional intimacy is challenging for him, and it takes significant resources for him to be emotionally vulnerable with Mark. However, Jacob tends to be the pursuer in the relationship sexually. He often initiates sex and wants sex more frequently than Mark. For Jacob, sex is a way to connect with Mark that allows him to feel the joy and safety of being connected. Jacob channels his need for connection into the sexual relationship and pursues sex to get these needs met.
For Jacob, his relational style is avoidant, but his sexual style is more anxious. When too many days go by where he does not sexually connect with Mark, Jacob begins to feel anxious and to pursue sex more intensely. Sexual connection with Mark, helps Jacob to feel safely connected and less anxious.
All couples experience the challenges of self needs versus relational needs and develop patterns for dealing with these challenges. Insecurely attached couples will often have rigid patterns that can increase rather than decrease relational (and often sexual) dissatisfaction.
Sexual betrayal layers on top of whatever pattern already exists within the relationship. Securely attached couples are often able to access more flexibility and creativity in solving the issues that betrayal trauma introduces to the relationship. Insecurely attached couples on the other hand, will often experience a spike in rigidity as the fear and panic introduced by the betrayal escalates the rigid coping patterns even further. These coping strategies are brought to bear on both the relational connection as well as the sexual relationship between the partners.
My hope is that this blog series will help those of you dealing with betrayal trauma to identify the different elements that play a role in what is happening in your relationship.
Sometimes, because sexual betrayal is so painful and overwhelming, it can become the only thing we are focused on, and we start to think all our relational issues or patterns stem from betrayal. However, the reality is that betrayal is often coming in and layering on top of our existing attachment styles, our sexual growth process, our maturity around interdependence, sexual functioning issues, and our ability to be relationally vulnerable and intimate with our partners. Taking the time to look at each of these elements and think about how they were functioning prior to betrayal and then how betrayal has impacted them is an important part of the healing process.
About the Author:
Michelle Mays, LPC, CSAT-S is the Founder of PartnerHope.com and the Center for Relational Recovery, an outpatient treatment center located in Northern Virginia. She has helped hundreds of betrayed partners and sexually addicted clients transform their lives and relationships. Michelle is the author of The Aftermath of Betrayal and When It All Breaks Bad and leads the field in identifying and crafting effective treatment strategies for betrayed partners.
Braving Hope is a ground-breaking coaching intensive for betrayed partners around the world. Working with Michelle will help you to move out of the devastation of betrayal, relieve your trauma symptoms and reclaim your life.