The ability to maintain a sense of self and autonomy while invested in a close relationship predicts increases in sexual desire over time, according to new research published in the journal Sexual and Relationship Therapy. The new findings provide insight into how attachment and differentiation of self are related to relationship functioning among married couples.
“There are lots of ideas about how to make sexual relationships stronger,” said David B. Allsop of Dalhousie University, the corresponding author of the new study.
“Some people think it is best to focus on couple bonding, what researchers call attachment. Others think it is best to focus on balancing a sense of self and autonomy with attachment, what researchers call differentiation. We wanted to see whether it’s better for couples’ sexual relationships to focus on couple bonding or, in contrast, to focus on balancing an individual sense of self and autonomy with couple bonding.”
Allsop and his colleagues examined two waves of data collected by the Flourishing Families Project, a longitudinal study of inner family life. The sample included 286 married couples, who completed assessments of differentiation of self, communication quality, relationship quality, sexual satisfaction, sexual desire, and attachment style in 2010 and again in 2011.
Contrary to expectations, the researchers found no evidence that levels of anxious or avoidant attachment predicted changes in sexual desire over time. However, they did find that two aspects of differentiation of self predicted changes in sexual desire for both men and women.
For men, lower emotional cutoff was associated with subsequent increases in their own sexual desire. Men with lower levels of emotional cutoff disagreed with statements such as “I have difficulty expressing my feelings to people I care for” and “When things go wrong, talking about them usually makes it worse.”
For women, lower emotional reactivity was associated with subsequent increases in their own sexual desire. Women with lower levels of emotional reactivity disagreed with statements such as “At times my feelings get the best of me and I have trouble thinking clearly” and “If someone is upset with me, I can’t seem to let it go easily.”
“We found that differentiation predicted increases in sexual desire over time more uniquely than attachment did,” Allsop told PsyPost. “So, finding the balance between your sense of self and autonomy with the level of couple bonding in your relationship may relate to increases in sexual desire over time more so than couple bonding alone does.”
The researchers also found that women with higher sexual satisfaction in 2010 tended to have decreased emotional reactivity in 2011, while men with higher sexual desire in 2010 tended to have decreased anxious attachment and emotional reactivity in 2011. Greater emotional cutoff tended to increase avoidant attachment among women, while men in higher avoidant attachment tended to have partners with reduced emotional cutoff.
“We also found that couples’ attachment and differentiation levels predicted each other across time,” Allsop noted. “So, better differentiation may relate to better attachment and vice versa.”
As with any study, however, the new research includes some limitations.
“Couples in our sample were middle-aged, in mixed-sex marriages, and were from a Northwestern city in the United States, so our results may not apply as well to those older or younger, in other relationship types, or from different places,” Allsop explained. “Doing the study again with younger couples would be interesting because younger couples are often so focused on attachment, so the results might differ among this group.”
“It is important to remember the couple bonding is still very important for couple sexual desire levels,” he added. “What our study adds is that trying to balance couple bonding with your sense of self and your own growth may be even better for sexual desire than focusing on couple bonding alone.”
The study, “Longitudinal associations between attachment, differentiation of self, and couple sexual and relational outcomes“, was authored by David B. Allsop, Amber A. Price, Veronica Hanna-Walker, Chelom E. Leavitt, Emily H. Milius, and Shayla M. Driggs.