Your attachment style is formed during childhood and has a significant impact on your relationships as an adult, especially if you have an insecure attachment. An “attachment” is the bond that children form with their first caregiver. That caregiver is usually a parent.
Attachments are formed when a child signals and a caregiver responds. The type of attachment you begin with your primary caregivers creates a working model of relationships. Simply put, the way a bond develops eventually informs our adult relationships – how we find, keep and end them.
Additionally, insecure attachment styles play a role in sex addiction. Lack of attunement and adverse developmental experiences inform our attachment styles and emotional regulation.
It’s not just an assumption that individuals with an insecure attachment are more likely to exhibit signs of sex addiction; it’s been studied. In Sexual Compulsion – Relationship with Sex, Attachment, and Sexual Orientation, the authors found that insecure attachments positively correlate with compulsive sexual behavior.
Let’s explore this a little deeper.
What Are Attachment Styles?
Attachment style is a way to group people based on the level of anxiety and avoidance they experience in relationships and how they respond to different factors within those relationships. As mentioned previously, our attachment styles can determine how we find partners, keep partners, and how we end relationships. Attachment styles can also predict relationship satisfaction.
The 3 Attachment Styles
Fraley, Waller, and Brennan categorized the three different attachment styles in their report, The Experiences in Close Relationships Revised. Though the numbers are self-reported, about 56% of people identify as secure, 20% are anxious, 23% are avoidant, and 1% are a combination of both anxious and avoidant.
Secure Attachment Style
As adults, individuals with secure attachment styles tend to have stable and long-term relationships. Some other characteristics of this style include having high self-esteem, enjoying intimacy as well as independence, and sharing feelings with others.
Anxious/Preoccupied Attachment Style
Individuals with this insecure attachment style are, as the name suggests, anxious about and preoccupied with their intimate relationships. Some characteristics of this style include displaying “clingy” or “needy” behavior and requiring constant reassurance and validation. A strong fear of abandonment is present. Those with this insecure attachment style generally view others in a positive light but have a negative self-image.
Avoidant Attachment Styles
Avoidant attachment styles have been sub-categorized based on whether the individual is fearful of intimacy or dismissive of intimacy.
Another insecure attachment style, individuals who fall in this category find that their intimate relationships create feelings of both fear and desire. These individuals want intimacy but they have a hard time trusting or depending on others. Additionally, emotional regulation is hard for them and they tend to avoid attachment to avoid being hurt.
On an emotional level, individuals with this insecure attachment style are strong, independent, and self-reliant. They do not want others to depend on them, they don’t depend on others, and they do not seek out the support or approval of others. Additional characteristics include high self-esteem, avoiding intimacy, and suppression of feelings (especially in conflict).
What is Attachment Theory?
John Bowlby, a British psychologist, was the first person to consider the attachment theory. Bowlby describes his theory as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” and was interested in the separation anxiety that children experience when their primary caregivers are not around.
The central theme of attachment theory is that caregivers who were nurturing, responsive, and available to the needs of their child allowed them to feel secure, thus creating a secure attachment style. However, children whose needs were not met consistently, or ever, go on to develop one of the three insecure styles of attachment. Additionally, Bowlby believed that the way children bonded with their primary caregivers in childhood continued through life and impacted future relationships.
Stages of Attachment
As children grow, they begin to form bonds with their caregivers. Rudolph Schaffer and Peggy Emerson observed 60 infants during the first year of life, every four weeks, and again at 18. This data allowed Shaffer and Emerson to observe four phases of attachment.
- Pre-Attachment (Birth to 3 Months): No particular attachment observed with a specific caregiver.
- Indiscriminate Attachment (6 weeks to 7 months): Preferences for primary and secondary caregivers begin to show as infants develop trust that their caregivers will respond to their signals. During this stage, infants begin to recognize familiar and unfamiliar people, responding more positively to their primary caregiver.
- Discriminate Attachment (7 months to 11 months): Strong attachment and preference for one person is evident. Separation anxiety is displayed when infants are separated from their preferred caregiver, and concern is present in the company of strangers.
- Multiple Attachments (9 months and older): Bonds with others begin to form – such as older siblings, grandparents, and the father.
Factors that Influence Attachment
Attachment opportunities and the quality of caregiving are the two main factors that influence attachments. Children without primary caregivers, such as those raised in orphanages or that bounce around foster homes, are more likely to develop insecure attachment styles. Without opportunities for attachment, children are unable to build trust with others.
As stated earlier, when caregivers respond quickly, consistently, and correctly to signals from their children, trust is formed. Children learn that they can depend on their caregivers. However, insecure attachment styles are formed when children’s needs go unmet. A lack of attunement manifests in two ways:
- The child does not receive what they need, but the parents chaotically attempt to calm the child.
- The child does not receive what they need, but the parents also do not react to their signals.
Children whose caregivers continually do not fulfill their needs often do not feel safe. Feelings of unimportance, abandonment, and danger develop instead of a sense of security or trust. These children often grow up feeling that they are a burden to others.
While adverse developmental experiences may play a role in attachment styles, it’s interesting to note that divorce is not one of them. In an article published by Kelly A. Brennan and Phillip Shaver on Attachment Styles and Divorce, they dig into a 1987 study by Hazan and Shaver. That study found that divorce, in and of itself, is unrelated to attachment style. Their research concluded that instead, adult attachment style is more reliant on the perception a person has about their relationship with their parents as well as how their parents interact with one another. Brennan and Shaver noted that marriages that remain intact despite distress often create insecurity in children. However, after divorce, various arrangements can promote security or insecurity.
How Insecure Attachment Correlate with Sex Addiction
Individuals with insecure attachment styles are typically unable to self-soothe and, instead, seek comfort from others. As we know, lack of attunement in childhood and other types of trauma is at the core of sex addiction. Emotional dysregulation often occurs when children fail to securely bond with their caregivers.
Addiction, whether sex or other symptoms, is often a byproduct of a highly dysregulated autonomic nervous system. As children, caregivers were unable to model appropriate ways to find and receive comfort from others. So, as adults, they attempt to self-soothe underlying issues (such as depression) through the use of sex, love, or other behaviors. However, these behaviors provide only temporary relief and the behavior becomes cyclical.
Feel bad. Self-soothe with sex. Temporarily feel better. Feel bad (again). Rinse and repeat.
Since lack of attunement leads to insecure attachment styles, we can assume that insecure attachment and sex addiction are correlated. A study by Leedes in 1999 found that sex addicts had a much higher rate – 95% – of insecure attachment style than the average. If you recall earlier, 44% of people identify as having an insecure attachment.
Leedes developed a theory based on two emotional dispositions:
Securely attached individuals are more comfortable with interpersonal relationships.
Insecurely attached individuals use fantasy to create a false sense of security.
When we apply his theory to sex addiction, these individuals may attempt to create an attachment through relationships that do not require intimacy, such as pornography or sexual relationships.
Additionally, a 2004 Gentzler and Kerns study set out to understand how sexuality and attachment styles are linked. They found that individuals with an insecure attachment, specifically the avoidant attachment styles, were more likely to:
- Participate in sex earlier.
- Have fewer committed relationships.
- Hold less strict beliefs in regards to sexual behavior.
It’s no surprise that individuals with insecure attachment styles make up the majority of sex addicts. At Begin Again Institute, we have long held the belief that the root cause of sexual addiction is a dysregulated autonomic nervous system due to developmental trauma. Addictive behavior, including sex addiction, is a desperate attempt to regulate our maladaptive autonomic nervous system.
When you enter our 14-Day Men’s Intensive for sex or porn addiction, we seek to understand that trauma, heal it, and stop your addiction at the root. Join us for our next session and begin the healing process.