Intimacy. Jealousy. Commitment. Sexual fulfillment. Here's how all these important pieces of close relationships are affected by your attachment style.
This is part two of a three-part series of episodes on how attachment affects your intimate relationships. Last week, we looked at the four attachment styles.
Let’s say you’ve been dating someone for three months, and things have been going well. You have a great connection; you share a sense of humor; you like each other’s friends; you haven’t seen any red flags. You haven’t been going on dates with anyone else for a couple of months now. One evening, this person’s hanging out at your place and brings up the idea of becoming exclusive and officially becoming a couple. What’s your reaction?
- Sure, let’s give it a shot! I really like you, so let’s see where this goes.
- Whoa, whoa—slow down! I don’t think commitment is my thing. Maybe we should take a step back.
- Wait, what? My toothbrush is already permanently installed in your bathroom, you've met my parents, and you know all my secrets. We’re way past “exclusive.”
- Yes. No. I don’t know. Are you mad? I really like you. I need space.
Your response probably largely depends on your attachment style—your patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving in the way you bond with others. They generally fall into four different styles.
- Fearful-avoidant (a.k.a., disorganized)
Of course, every relationship is affected by different circumstances. Your response here about commitment will depend on a lot of factors. But think of all the romantic or other close relationships you’ve had or attempted. Do you see a pattern? What about other aspects of relationships like intimacy? Trust? Jealousy? These are affected by your attachment style, too.
Let’s examine a few different aspects of relationships that often determine how they start, develop, and, perhaps, end.
Deciding to commit to a relationship can be a rational, economical process of weighing pros and cons. But it’s not hard to imagine that there are less rational processes at work, too. Including attachment. It’s no surprise that people with dismissive-avoidant attachment styles feel the least committed to their romantic relationship out of all the attachment styles. On the other end of the spectrum, securely attached people feel the most committed. Researchers who followed the activity of people with avoidant styles for a few months found they were most likely to have a break-up.
Researchers who followed the activity of people with avoidant styles for a few months found they were most likely to have a breakup.
Of course, it makes sense for people with avoidant attachment styles to experience breakups more often. They feel uncomfortable with emotional closeness and believe they don’t need or want intimacy. Sometimes, they even pride themselves on their lack of need. So, the first conflict or downturn in excitement levels in their relationship might be enough to make them end it. Alternately, their lack of wanting to commit and get close might push their partner to make the decision.
2. Jealousy and trust
Jealousy is a natural emotion we sometimes feel when we're in a close relationship. The emotion helps us identify threats to the relationship. It's perfectly natural to get jealous if you see your romantic partner flirting with someone else or receiving a lot of attention from a potential rival. Jealousy only gets problematic if it's out of proportion to reality, or leads to unhealthy behaviors like intensely monitoring your partner or restricting their independence.
Researchers have found that those with the anxious-preoccupied attachment style are the most likely to engage in surveillance of their partners.
Researchers have found that those with the anxious-preoccupied attachment style are the most likely to engage in surveillance of their partners. They also feel worse when they're experiencing jealousy than people without this attachment style.
On the other hand, those who are dismissive-avoidant feel less fearful and sad than other attachment types when they get jealous. But both of these insecure attachment styles are associated with more irrational beliefs in a relationship when compared to people with secure attachment. This is likely because both anxious and avoidant people have difficulty trusting.
Insecurely attached people not only feel more jealousy, but they can be more prone to making their partners jealous on purpose. Specifically, having an anxious-preoccupied or fearful-avoidant style makes a person more likely to induce jealousy. Anxious-preoccupied people use more aggressive communication while fearful-avoidant people tend to be passive-aggressive.
3. Emotional intimacy
One attachment researcher has described four prerequisites for being able to have intimacy in a relationship:
- Ability to seek care
- Ability to give care
- Ability to feel comfortable with an autonomous self
- Ability to negotiate
These abilities, unsurprisingly, are affected by attachment style. Securely attached people are more connected to their romantic partners, with more engagement in the relationship, more communication, and more shared friends. They are also more authentic in the way they express themselves in the relationship.
Of course, intimacy applies to platonic friendships too. Another study specifically brought friends into the lab to observe them interacting with each other. The researchers, as “flies on the wall,” did not observe any differences between friend pairs of different attachment types, but the securely attached participants themselves felt that their conversations involved more sharing and were more supportive.
4. Sexual enjoyment
Securely attached people also have greater sexual intimacy with their partners, with more open communication about sex and overall more sexual satisfaction. Insecurely attached people were more likely to have anxiety or inhibitions about communicating about sex with their partners.
In men, having both anxious and avoidant attachment styles are associated with a higher chance of experiencing sex addiction. In women and girls, insecure attachment can be the reason for aggressive behaviors, which allows them to provoke other people to engage with them without having to be vulnerable.
Insecurely attached people were more likely to have anxiety or inhibitions about communicating about sex with their partners.
This was not only the case among straight men and women. In a diverse group that included gay, straight, cisgender and genderqueer participants, attachment style was a big predictor of sexual desire and satisfaction. Interestingly, a person’s attachment style was a better predictor of sexual satisfaction than sexual desire was. When it comes to enjoying your sex life, having a healthy attachment style may even be more than physical desire.
It’s clear that having a secure attachment style has benefits. People with secure attachment are not only more likely to have more stable and long-lasting intimate relationships, but also healthier and more satisfying ones.
But if you have an insecure attachment style (through no fault of your own), does that mean you'll struggle with intimacy forever? In part three of my attachment mini-series, we'll look at how to overcome insecure attachment through openness, hard work, and a little bit of luck.