As children we have an inborn need to seek security, reassurance, and comfort in times of need. If we’re fortunate these needs are readily provided by parents and family. Insecurities arise when adults are unreliable or rejecting. When this happens the child becomes concerned as to the availability of support and may start to adopt either avoidant or anxious coping strategies.
One way of thinking about avoidant and anxious strategies is to think of push or pull mechanisms. The avoidant person pushes away potentially close relationships as a result of mistrust and denial of attachment needs. In contrast, the anxious person pulls people in. Their anxiety that a partner won’t be available when needed results in huge self-doubt over their own abilities to cope. But other unmet needs, such as the need for approval and to avoid being abandoned, often motivates the adult to use sex.
Anxiously attached adults are often described as “hard work,” “dramatic,” “needy,” or “suffocating.” There’s nothing positive in such descriptions and it’s easy to see why when we examine some of the dynamics involved.
Anxious attachments can place a severe strain on a relationship, for a couple of reasons. Here are two examples:
Jack loves his partner, but he struggles to accept that with her good looks she isn’t cheating on him. He secretly checks her phone and email but finds nothing. This should reassure him, but now he wonders if she’s just really good at covering her tracks. Jack manufactures arguments in which, despite a lack of evidence, he accuses his partner of cheating on him. He thinks by putting her under pressure he can assess her true commitment to their relationship. Jack can’t see that his own behavior has the potential to drive a wedge between them.
Jill thinks her partner is a cheat and a gambler. He openly flirts with other women and has spent several unexplained nights away from home. The bills are piling up yet his obsession with online gambling shows no sign of slowing down. Jill can’t bring herself to do or say anything out of fear he will leave her.
In both these examples, the fear of abandonment is key to the dysfunctional relationship. Jack is a afraid that at any moment, his partner will leave him, and Jill is afraid to leave.
Anxiety avoidance is a complex issue but can broadly be considered as a fear of intimacy. The avoidant adult fears becoming smothered within a relationship. Their approach to sex can be quite varied but in general they struggle to connect fully. Sexual encounters may be transitory or, within a relationship, may be avoided, tolerated, or simply used as a means to gain something. There is a tension in the sense that they may feel deprived by the effects of their own avoiding, and so turn to sex in an attempt to reconnect. Clinical Psychologist Anne Stirling Hastings, Ph.D., identifies nine types of avoidant sex, but she makes the point there are many more. Of interest is the fact that sex addicts are identified as anxious avoidant. The sex addict achieves the pleasure of intimacy without the need for emotional attachment. Robert Weiss, MSW, the relationships expert, provides a useful summary of common intimacy avoidant people.
In order to provide a summary of attachment issues, I’ve glossed over quite a lot of detailed information. Attachment issues can range from the mild to the extreme. The examples I’ve given are fictitious but plausible illustrations.
Attachment therapy is well established and usually takes the form of individual or couples therapy. The struggle for some clients is the very fact that they have attachment needs. In the more extreme forms an avoidant person will deny any need of therapy whereas a person with anxious attachment may suffer if they sense any fracture in the therapeutic relationship.
There are also a few things we can do ourselves. Attachment issues do not necessarily equate with denial, so if we know our sensitivity levels are set to “high” we can do certain things to ease the situation. For example, many things that “press our buttons” can probably be ignored or returned to later once we’ve calmed down. This stops us becoming reactive and gives us time for a more considered response.
Secondly, be aware of the danger of misreading facial cues. It’s quite common for neutral or “I’m thinking” expressions to be viewed as a threat. Facial expressions can easily be misread, so be aware of this.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.