Does Attachment Style Impact Our Interest in Sex?

The term "attachment" tends to make us think about the emotional bond between a young child and their primary caregiver. But over time, researchers have proposed that the same presumptions about attachment between parent and child could be used to understand emotional bonds in adult romantic relationships.

Specifically, those with a secure attachment style tend to report having more happy, trusting romantic relationships. In contrast, those who have characteristics of avoidant attachment tend to be more self-reliant and, consequently, avoid interpersonal closeness, while anxiously attached individuals can doubt their worthiness of love and and actively seek out reassurance from their partners. Those in the two latter categories, perhaps not surprisingly, have been found to report lower relationship and sexual satisfaction.

However, until recently, we haven't known all that much about how attachment style might impact our sexual desire. And, perhaps even more importantly, the research on attachment style and romantic relationships has almost exclusively focused on heterosexual participants, making it unclear whether folks in the LGBTQ+ community would have similar or different experiences.

The Study

In a new study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, Dr. Kristen Mark, Laura Vowels and Dr. Sarah Hunter Murray (yes, that's me!) investigated the degree to which attachment style might be related to sexual satisfaction, relationship satisfaction, and sexual desire in a sexually diverse sample.

Our sample included 955 participants consisting of 63 percent cisgender women, 31 percent cisgender men, and 6 percent genderqueer individuals. With regards to sexual orientation, 55 percent the sample were heterosexual, 20 percent bisexual, 11 percent gay, and 7 percent lesbian. All participants were given questionnaires that focused on their attachment style, sexual satisfaction, relationship satisfaction, and sexual desire.

Minimal Between Group Differences

While the initial analysis found some differences between groups in terms of anxious attachment style (that is, women and genderqueer participants reported higher anxious attachment characteristics than men, and bisexual participants reported higher anxious attachment characteristics than heterosexual folks) the differences were quite small. Furthermore, no significant group differences were found in avoidant or secure attachment. Consequently, the analysis focused on the sample as whole.

How Attachment Impacts Intimate Relationships

The analysis suggests that across sexual orientation and gender identity, securely attached individuals were more satisfied in their sexual and romantic relationships while anxious and avoidant attached folks reported lower satisfaction in these areas.

While both anxious and avoidant attachment styles were significantly and negatively related to satisfaction, avoidant attachment style was found to account for more variation in decreased satisfaction levels. That is, while anxiously attached individuals reported lower satisfaction than those with a secure attachment style, those with an avoidant attachment style seemed to have the biggest negative impact on their sexual and relationship satisfaction.

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A slightly different pattern was noted with regards to sexual desire. Specifically, those with avoidant attachment styles reported lower levels of sexual desire whereas those with higher anxious attachment reported slightly higher levels of sexual desire. The variation accounted for, however, was relatively small.

What Does This Mean?

Men and women's sexual desire has been linked to relationship quality, past sexual trauma, social messages about sex, physical health, personal morals and values—just to name a few. The findings from this study suggest it is worth being curious about to the degree to which our attachment style could also play a role in our interest in sex.

We certainly want to avoid pathologizing healthy variation in sexual interest. But if we are finding ourselves avoiding or showing a strong disinterest in sexual activity, it might be useful to examine our early attachment experiences and whether we feel emotionally distant from our current romantic partner. Similarly, if we (or our partner) is expressing higher levels of sexual interest (in a way that feels concerning or problematic for you or your relationship) it may be worth questioning whether we doubt our worthiness of love and believe our partner wants to be with us or if we are using sex is a way to seek out reassurance of our partner's feelings.

Inclusive Research

Sexuality research tends to be dominated by heterosexual samples. This study included a sexually diverse sample, however it's important to note that this one study should not be considered sufficient evidence for the experiences of the LGBTQ+ population. Additional research is needed to better understand how attachment styles impact LGBTQ+ folks' romantic and intimate relationships.

Sarah Hunter Murray