A new study sheds light on how insecure attachment styles are related to motives for engaging in sexual activity with one’s romantic partner. In addition, the research provides evidence that these sexual motives play an important role in the link between attachment styles and emotional experiences during sex. The findings have been published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
“Attachment theory postulates that three behavioral systems (attachment, caregiving and sex) are central to optimal couple functioning. However, there are very few studies that have actually looked at how the interplay of the three systems works in practice,” said study author Noémie Beaulieu, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Montreal.
“Moreover, research shows that individuals with attachment insecurities tend to report lower sexual well-being, but our knowledge of the possible role of supportive behaviors (the caregiving system) in this association is limited. Katherine Péloquin, my research supervisor, was already working on the interplay of attachment, caregiving, and sex. With this new study, we were able to examine some of the associations between the three systems in the exact context where they interact, that is, in the bedroom! This had never been done before!”
Attachment theory describes how people bond with others and maintain their relationships. People can be secure or insecure in their attachments, and insecure individuals can be either anxious or avoidant. People with an anxious attachment style are fearful of rejection and have feelings of unworthiness, while people with an avoidant attachment style tend to distrust others and shun intimacy.
For their study, the researchers recruited a sample of 149 Canadian mixed-sex couples. To be eligible for the study, the participants had to have been in their relationship for at least 5 years and had to have been living together for at least 6 months. The couples had been cohabitating for 6.80 years on average.
The participants completed a baseline assessment of attachment orientation. They were then asked to fill out surveys every evening for 21 days regarding their sexual motives and emotions during sexual activity. For example, the participants reported whether they had engaged in sexual activity “to express love for my partner” (caregiving motive) or “to feel reassured about my relationship” (attachment motive).
“The results suggest that people with higher attachment insecurities tend to engage in sex for reasons that are driven by insecurity. This means that they have sex for reasons that reflect their attachment-insecurities,” Beaulieu told PsyPost.
“For instance, we found that individuals with higher attachment avoidance were less likely to have sex to show love to their partner and care for them. Conversely, individuals with higher attachment anxiety more often reported having sex to reassure themselves about their relationship and to feel closer to their partner.”
“Engaging in sexual activity for these ‘insecurity-driven motives’ was associated with more negative emotional experiences (more negative emotions and less positive emotions) during sex for both the individual and their partner,” Beaulieu explained. “However, individuals higher in attachment anxiety were also more likely to engage in sex for caregiving motives (to show love and care for their partner), and this was associated with their own as well as their partner’s more positive emotional experiences during sex.”
“This suggests that these people are not always focused on or overwhelmed by their doubts and fears, which might enable them to more fully engage in the moment and be more attentive to their partners’ sexual cues, which would lead to a more positive sexual experiences for both the anxious individual and their partner. In other words, our results mean that attachment representation drive the reasons why people have sex with their partner, and these reasons for engaging in sexual activity then appear to shape how individuals and their partner feel when they have sex.”
But the researchers noted some limitations. For instance, the participants had a relatively high level of sexual satisfaction and were mostly White.
“I think the biggest limit of the study is the lack of diversity in the sample,” Beaulieu explained. “For one, participants in our sample were really satisfied in their relationship and sex life as well as very sexually active. These couples may not represent all long-term couples in the general population. Indeed, the results might differ in couples who experience significant relationship distress since stressors (whether inside or outside of the relationship) tend to impact what goes on in the bedroom.”
“Second, the participants were very homogeneous in terms of gender, sexual orientation and race,” she added. “Replicating our study with more diverse samples, including more ethnic-racial diversity and people from the LGBTQ2+ community might also reveal some nuances in the results.”
The study, “Why do you have sex and does it make you feel better? Integrating attachment theory, sexual motives, and sexual well-being in long-term couples“, was authored by Noemie Beaulieu, Audrey Brassard, Sophie Bergeron, and Katherine Peloquin.