The Psychology of Sex: Let’s Get Attached

The Psychology of Sex: Let’s Get Attached

Why we love the way we love and fuck the way we fuck

Penetrating the depths of our modern-day sex wows and woes through the psychological and physiological musings of Playgirl’s resident sex therapist, Jamye Waxman, MEd, LMFT.

What is attachment theory?

In a nutshell, attachment theory suggests that the quality of an infant’s bond to their primary caregivers shapes how they relate to other important relationships in their adult life (the romantic and sexual ones). Initially developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the late 1950s, this research examined how a parent’s presence and attunement to their child (ages 0-5) impacted their sense of security and stability in the world around them.

What they found, and what still rings true today, is that the quality of the relationship matters. If the relationship provides a safe, consistent and secure environment for a child, they will develop secure attachment—feeling confident to explore on their own and navigate separation well. However, if the caregiver is neglectful, unpredictable or rageful, these blossoming buds don’t fare so well and the child will develop an insecure attachment style.

The diverging styles were observed through Ainsworth’s Strange Situation experiment, a controlled process of staged interactions between a child, their caregiver and a stranger. She found that depending on how the child related, or didn’t relate to their caregiver, one of four attachment styles emerged.

  • Secure Attachment: The child gets upset when their caregiver leaves, but moves toward this same caregiver for comfort and love upon their return.
  • Anxious Attachment: The child gets upset when a parent leaves, and angry or passive when the parent returns.
  • Avoidant Attachment: The child may, or may not care at all when the caregiver leaves. The child acts as if the parent isn’t there when he or she returns.
  • Disorganized Attachment: The child presents in a disorganized or disoriented fashion when the parent returns.

What does this all mean for sex?

Understanding how we attract, or repel, intimate relationships requires us to look at our own relationship origin story.

Those fortunate enough to grow up with secure attachment may still struggle with the normative challenges of dating, relationships and satisfying sex, but for the most part securely attached people have higher self-esteem and can more easily engage in healthy relationships built on a foundation of connection, confidence and mutual respect.

However, a secure attachment style doesn’t always produce sexual fireworks. That’s partly because predictability and stability don’t measure up to the passion and excitement of a relationship that is always on the brink of break-up, a thing that insecurely attached partners may unconsciously seek out.

For those who grow up with insecure attachment, stability can be a bit more challenging. For the anxiously attached, there can be a pattern of falling in love more easily and quickly and the belief that “someday my prince will come”. This can lead to unrealistic, unattainable or unsustainable expectations in and out of the bedroom. As a result of the desire to feel wanted and loved, many anxiously attached partners tend to use sex not only to feel connected with their lover, but also to self-regulate their own heightened sense of internal distress.

Meanwhile, avoidants are more likely to be “one and done.” This could be good for more of that casual, unattached sex, but leads to commitment phobia. And just because an avoidant doesn’t really want you, doesn’t mean they don’t want you to want them. Avoidants can be good at doing novel and memorable sex acts to leave that lasting impression and may only desire a next romp when they don’t feel suffocated or needed.

Avoidants and anxiously attached people tend to pair off with one another, finding their way into an Anxious/Avoidant cycle that leaves them both excited and exhausted by the relationship. In a lot of these scenarios, an anxiously attached person will come off as “needy” or “smothering”, leaving the avoidant to shut down and turn away. Once the anxiously attached person retreats, the avoidant will come and spread some of their smooth love jam back into the relationship, allowing the anxiety to come return to what they think is love and begin the cycle again.

Meanwhile, those with disorganized attachment styles aren’t as predictable and can love you one minute and leave you the next. When it comes to sex, they can be fiery and passionate sometimes and cold and detached the next. If you want to ride that ride, buckle up.

Of course, there’s no umbrella that fits all the ways anxious, avoidant, disorganized and securely attached people have sex, but it is true that how we love and who we attach to starts with how we were loved and comforted early on. As we jokingly say in therapy, if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.