Expressions of sexual desire can impact attachment styles: study

Attachment describes the way in which humans form deep and enduring emotional bonds. We develop these systems very early in life, usually through parent-child interactions, and they shape the way in which we interact with those who we form similarly deep bonds with in the future. The effect of attachment styles on intimate relationships has been extensively studied in academic literature.

However, a research team led by Moran Mizrahi decided to look at the association in reverse. Their study, available in a 2016 issue of the European Journal of Social Psychology, demonstrates that insecurities arising from attachment styles may actually be impacted by expressions of desire and intimacy in sexual relationships.

Sixty-two heterosexual Israeli couples participated in this study. All relationships were fairly new (2-4 months) to eliminate variations due to familiarity. Each couple completed surveys at three different times over a period of 8 months, and took part in an initial videotaped lab session where they discussed their love life. Surveys included items that measured attachment-specific anxiety and avoidance, two common variables of interest when investigating attachment styles. Videotaped sexual discussions were coded and inspected for expressions of sexual desire, along with displays of intimacy.

Analyses showed that average relationship-specific anxiety levels fell over time, with the progression being moderated by displays of sexual desire. The effect was visible for both men and women, but male anxiety was reduced with fewer female expressions of desire, while anxiety in females only decreased as male sexual desire increased. Displays of intimacy promoted reduced anxiety in men but not women. Relationship avoidance lessened over time for men alone, more so when partners displayed high levels of intimacy, and also when sexual expression by partners was low. Women experienced mild drops in avoidance with partners who displayed low levels of intimacy.

According to this research, expressions of sexual desire and intimacy can have a significant impact on attachment-related anxiety and avoidance tendencies for both genders, but the manner in which each variable interacts appears to vary (sometimes drastically) by gender. These findings suggest that the processes supporting attachment may also differ between genders. For example, men appear to be impacted by intimacy while women do not, which the authors note was a particularly unexpected result. They also suggest that men’s negative reaction to high sexual desire in female partners may be a result of paranoia arising from parental uncertainty faced by males throughout evolutionary history.