Attachment and its effect on sexuality.
We marry with a commitment that sex will continue to make our union alive and complete. With sacred vows we commit onto sexual fidelity—an alive sexual relationship solely with our chosen partner. Over and over again, we make love and grow in secure attachment. Oxytocin chemical binds us. Attachment means we can tolerate our partner’s differences and don’t demand sameness. With expectancy, we see our partner discover their purpose, calling, and work in the greater world. Their vision and separate needs are a priority to us. At the same time we co-create a vision for our partnership. We are careful not to let one sphere override the other. We stand next to each other on separate journeys holding hands. At home and in bed we face each other to refuel and reenergize for the tasks ahead. Sex is both the result of our efforts at connection and the way we form an unmatched intimacy. It nourishes our bodies and our spirits. Unafraid, we surrender to orgasm in the presence of our lover. Desire is the electric space between us. A sexuality of hope means that much of the time we can be present, relaxed, and enjoy the pleasures of touch and orgasm.
This sexuality of hope represents the result of two securely attached people who marry and continue to desire. It’s the fantasy of every lover. As a goal, we must find the part we play that limits the outcome. Psychoanalysts and authors, Christopher Clulow and Maureen Boerma explain how the disorders of desire are the result of disruptions in attachment early in life,
“It is not hard to contrast the sexuality of hope associated with secure attachment to the sexuality of despair associated with insecure attachment and evident in the emotionally uninvolved sexual behavior of a ‘dismissing’ encounter, or the heightened sexual activity of a ‘preoccupied’ encounter driven by fear of abandonment.”[i]
Hope allows us to feel that connection to people will bring us fulfillment. But sexual and emotional distancers/dismissers don’t believe that they need an “other.” Early in life, they come to feel that needs for affection and attention will not be met and so diminish even their sense that they might have these needs. Often times, a sexual distancer will say, “I really could be happy never having sex again.” Their pursuing sexual partner cannot quite make sense of this, because they are willing to do whatever will make their partner sexually delighted. When making love, the dismissing partner may appear and feel bored and unattached. The quality of the encounter may feel like “just sex” without a loving connection. It might seem mechanical as if to offer the heart would be dangerous. If the sexual life continues as routine, their partner may complain about not feeling “wanted personally.” Kissing is often avoided because it’s too intimate. The distancing/dismissing partner may describe themselves as having low libido or their partner may refer to how empty the encounter seems. At an extreme, compulsive porn use or masturbation, may meet the physical needs of the distancer and spare them any need for real person-to-person interaction. (Lots of females with low desire tell me they continue to masturbate but do not make love.)
Preoccupied sexuality is anxious. As children, needs might have been met intermittently, at random, rather than when the child needed it. Pursuers developed a pattern of clinging, maybe whining and nagging to make their presence and needs matter to their caretakers. When Carla, a sexual pursuer and emotional distancer would make love to Angela, her mind was filled with resentful thoughts about how little they had sex. Her anger and fear of being toyed with made the sex they were having seem frenetic and unfulfilling to her wife. Love-making ended with repetitive arguments—“hey, that was great, why don’t you want to do that more often?”—and negotiations for how soon they would have sex again. Angela said that Carla never seemed relaxed and happy afterwards. She felt Carla was pre-occupied with sex but didn’t really want her particularly. In both patterns of preoccupation or dismissal – people often complain of impersonal sex. Because each encounter feels unfulfilling, there is often a frantic desire to increase sexual intensity hoping that there is something out there with enough excitement to fill the empty places inside, perhaps another person (or two), a different sex act a taboo location. I support the need for creative sexual variety in marriage but I’m speaking of an escalating pattern of cravings that don’t seem to be satisfied. The efforts of their partner toward creativity are often sabotaged by anxious scrutiny for perfect atunement. Fear of not having enough, of being starved drive the sexual pursuer toward feeling dissatisfied and acting critically.
Both sexual distancers and sexual pursuers, in and of themselves not always dysfunctional, can move to the outer ends of the dynamic and develop a miserable pattern of dismissal and preoccupation. Since, we tend to balance our partner, a sexuality of despair results leaving each partner far from feeling supported as an individual and nourished by intimate connection.
Our first step toward resolution is to stop blaming each other. These patterns are mutually maintained by slyly subtle movements by both partners. Desire almost always has its roots in the marriage not in one person. Mourning the losses (after first recognizing) of childhood frees us to give and receive love n our present. Learning to reflect on your own part in the dynamic rather than focus on your partner’s problem is the fastest route to secure attachment. Committing to meeting your partner’s needs as they see them is an act of the will and is love. Opening up emotionally during sex to passion, to surrender, to involvement can breathe life into a cycle of dry, mechanistic sex or anorexic sexuality and withheld romance.
Clulow and Boerma, Dynamics and disorders of sexual desire, Chapter Five in Sex, Attachment and Couple Psychotherapy, Karnac Books, Ltd. (2009)