A study on 194 New Zealanders showed that mindfulness buffered the link between anxious emotional attachment and maladaptive sexual motivations. Anxiously attached individuals who were more aware of their motives and reasons for behavior were less willing to engage in sex to avoid conflict or for self-affirmation reasons. But these findings were different for avoidantly attached individuals. The study was published in the Journal of Sex Research.
Sex is often seen as something people engage in to pursue pleasure and intimacy. Indeed, research reports that people who pursue sex for those reasons report higher sexual and relationship satisfaction. However, pleasure and intimacy are not the only reasons why people engage in sex. People sometimes engage in sex in order to avoid the anger of or rejection by their partner.
At other times, people may engage in sex in order to affirm themselves and gain partner’s approval. Research shows that people who engage in sex to avoid partner’s anger or other negative consequences report lower sexual satisfaction and have more negative attitudes towards sex.
Emotional attachment patterns are associated with sexual motivation. These patterns are a combination of two factors – anxiety (characterized by low self-worth, great worries about possible rejection and the availability of others and intense emotions when the person is concerned about emotional attachment issues) and avoidance (characterized by the expectation that others are untrustworthy, due to which the person avoids closeness and dependence on others and handles attachment concerns by avoiding emotions).
Attachment pattern characterized by both low anxiety and low avoidance, the so-called secure attachment style, is considered best for mental health and wellbeing, while researchers link all the other patterns, called insecure attachment styles, to various adverse outcomes. Previous studies have linked these insecure attachment styles to maladaptive sexual motivations.
Studying the relationship between sexual motivation and insecure attachment patterns, researchers also focused on mindfulness – the ability of a person to calmly acknowledge and accept one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. Mindfulness was shown to be a factor beneficial to mental health in a wide range of scenarios. But does it change the relationship between insecure attachment styles and the motivation to engage in sex?
To answer this question, Holly Dixon and her colleagues surveyed 194 adult, mostly female (85.1%), mostly heterosexual (75.3%), English-speaking New Zealanders, most of whom were in a monogamous relationship (93.3%). Study participants completed assessments of trait mindfulness (Five Factor Mindfulness Questionnaire, FFMQ), attachment insecurity (Revised Experiences in Close Relationships Questionnaire, ECR-R), and sexual goals (Sexual Motivations Scale, 4 of the 6 scales were used).
As expected, high attachment anxiety was associated with lower levels of 4 of the 5 aspects of mindfulness. Higher attachment anxiety was also associated with higher levels of maladaptive sexual motivations – engaging in sex for self-affirmation reasons, to avoid negative consequences and to win partners approval. Avoidantly attached individuals showed higher motivation to engage in sex for partners approval but lower to engage in it in pursuit of intimacy.
However, when mindfulness was entered into the equation, results showed that high attachment anxiety was not associated with higher willingness to have sex to cope with problems in high mindfulness individuals. This was associated with aspects of mindfulness that were related to being aware of one’s feelings (Acting with awareness) and not judging one’s own feeling (Non-Judgement).
Acting with awareness aspect of mindfulness changed the association between anxious attachment style and motivation to have sex for self-affirmation and between avoidant attachment style and both the motivation to have sex to cope and for reasons of self-affirmation.
“…There are ways to reduce the extent to which attachment anxiety manifests in maladaptive sexual motivations. The development of mindfulness may afford more anxiously attached individuals greater internal security and ability to regulate their fears, such that they may operate in ways that are more conducive to wellbeing.”, authors conclude.
The study highlights an important role mindfulness plays in sexual motivation. However, it should be noted that these results were obtained on a sample that was mostly female, culturally uniform and was solely based on self-report data. It remains to be seen whether studies on males, on more culturally diverse samples and using different data collection techniques would produce similar results.
The study, “Containing Attachment Concerns: Does Trait Mindfulness Buffer the Links between Attachment Insecurity and Maladaptive Sexual Motivations?”, was authored by H. C. Dixon, L. M. Reynolds, and N. S. Consedine of the University of Auckland, New Zealand.