How Attachment Styles Influence Sexual Desire

Sexual relations form an important part of a romantic relationship. How you behave in all your relationships is, to a certain extent, determined by the attachments you developed in childhood. This is just as relevant for sexual relationships.
How Attachment Styles Influence Sexual Desire

Last update: 18 July, 2022

Sex is part of our natural ecosystem. However, the fact that it’s an inherent part of our nature, in the sense that we have really sophisticated mechanisms for this function, doesn’t imply that it’s without its difficulties.

Research suggests that problems in this respect often have their origin in unhealthy attachment styles. These directly attack trust and complicity in the development of sexual relationships, as well as expectations or the interpretation of events.

Attachment is defined as ‘the fondness for something or someone’. Sexual desire is ‘the desire for sexual pleasure’. Both concepts are related. In fact, we can see it evidenced in our day-to-day.

Attachment problems occur when, for instance, one person depends on their partner too much, even if they know that it’s not really appropriate to do so. Or, when someone has a partner with whom they have trouble relating sexually but they pretend otherwise to keep them happy.

“There is no love without sexual instinct. Love uses this instinct as a brutal force, as the brigantine uses the wind.”

-Ortega y Gasset-

Couple talking in their bed
The way we’ve learned to relate to each other influences how we do it sexually.

Types of attachment

The ability to establish links can occur in different ways, depending on the experiences we’ve had and our personal characteristics, among other variables.

John Bowlby, an English psychoanalyst, developed the theory of attachment. He emphasized that there are different types of attachment and that these are essential in the behavior and development of humans. Mary Ainsworth, an American psychologist, also contributed to this theory. She conducted experiments to find out about the interaction between the child, their primary caregiver, and a stranger in a familiar environment.

Therefore, attachment theory arose from the analysis of how an infant relates to their caregiver. These are the different types of attachment:

  • Secure attachment. The child learns to create trusting relationships with others.
  • Anxious and ambivalent attachment. The child learns that they have no influence over the behavior of others. Their parents are attentive or indifferent and the child is unable to establish a link with their behavior.
  • Avoidant attachment. The parents are unavailable and the child learns that they can’t count on others.
  • Disorganized attachment. This is a mix of anxious and avoidant attachment and is caused by insecure or neglectful behavior by the parents.

How we’ve learned to relate to each other influences how we do it sexually. In this sense, Attaky, Kok, & Dewitte (2021), studied the differences in desire and its association with sexual satisfaction. They also tried to understand how these relationships are sensitive to the type of attachment.

The researchers studied 100 couples. Their findings suggested that higher sexual desire levels were associated with lower avoidant attachment scores. When the identified attachment style was anxious, there was also greater desire.

The study also found that people with higher avoidant attachments have less interest in sex due to wanting to avoid intimacy. On the other hand, those with higher anxious attachments use sex as a connection or comfort.

Other studies also support this idea, proposing that avoidant attachment is related to intimacy problems and self-sufficiency behaviors. This causes sexual problems in the relationship and lower sexual desire. Therefore, people with this type of attachment may be more dependent on masturbation and pornography.

While anxiously attached people need to be validated by their partner, they’ll tend to try and please them to satisfy their own need to be accepted. Consequently, they usually present a greater sexual desire related to that need. This means that people with avoidant and anxious attachments can experience problems in their sexual relationships.

What about securely attached people?

Because they’ve developed skills in recognizing that everyone can have different perspectives, individual emotions, and strong boundaries, securely attached people tend to trust their instincts and be more assertive concerning sexual desire.

They might develop lower or higher sexual desires, but they always take into account their own intentions and their understanding of others.

Couple kissing in bed
Securely attached people develop their sexual desire with themselves, but also others, in mind.

Attachment and sexual desire: establishing a healthy path

By suggesting that the bond we develop with our main caregiver in childhood conditions our sexual desire, it could project the idea that we’re destined to form toxic or healthy relationships, depending on the type of attachment we’ve developed. Nevertheless, this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.

However, if it does prove to be a problem, there are some tools available to help. They’re the following:

  • Learn to regulate your emotions. If you’re more avoidant, you should try and increase the intensity of your emotions. If you’re anxious, learn to decrease your emotional intensity.
  • Control your impulsiveness. Learn to delay jumping into action, and pause before initiating or agreeing to have sex.
  • Communicate. Ask questions to get a greater perspective and understanding of your partner’s point of view.
  • Separate your emotions from your perceptions with regard to the way you see your partner.

In short, the type of attachment can determine sexual desire. People with insecure attachments tend to have more problems. Those with anxious attachments fear abandonment and want to merge completely with their partner. This often causes the partner to yearn for space.

On the other hand, people with avoidant attachments fear rejection, have difficulty expressing their feelings, and tend to avoid intimacy. Consequently, they’ll have less sexual desire.

Identifying your type of attachment will help you to know what patterns you fall into. In addition, getting to know yourself will help you establish healthy sexual relationships, taking into account your own genuine sexual desire and respecting that of your partner.

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  • Attaky, A., Kok, G., & Dewitte, M. & Dewtte, M. (2021). Attachment orientation moderates the sexual and relational implications of sexual desire discrepancies. Journal of Sex & marital Therapy, 48(4), 343,362. https://doi.org/10.1080/0092623X.2021.1991537
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