Sex is an Attachment Behavior! Dr. Carol Ann Conrad, EdD

There are lots of blogs and blog posts that quote the research that extolls the virtues of sex. Here’s one that identifies the hormones release during orgasm. Oxytocin is the “cuddle hormone” along with other endorphines such as dopamine, and some that act like an analgesic to pain. This is all true, and there’s plenty of research out now that shows how important contact comfort and connection is for bonding and reducing pain Click Here. We know that a healthy, connected romantic relationship increases life expectancy, increases health, and in general people are happier when they are in a loving relationship. Some of this is just plain common sense! Of course we are happier when we are connected and feel loved!

Attachment Theory

However, we don’t often think about sex as an attachment behavior! Attachment has been used to describe how children connect to their parents as infants. But attachment is so much more, as John Bowlby, the father of attachment theory said, “from cradle to grave” we need connection and attachment with a precious few people through out our entire lives.
Our blueprint for attachment begins as an infant when our primary care taker, most often our mothers, respond to our needs consistently. In the last 70 years or so, attachment theory has been researched and is now generally accepted as an accurate theory of the childhood developmental process.  Check out this most recent book by Kent Hoffman about how to create security with children.
However, in the last 25 years, research has turned to understanding love through an attachment lens. As Sue Johnson in her latest book, Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Relationships”  (I recommend listening to it rather than just reading it because Sue is the reader, and her English lilt and voice is riveting), says “The new love sense is overthrowing long-held beliefs about the purpose and process of romantic love as well as our sense of the very nature of human beings…sex may impel us to mate, but it is love that assures our existence.” Love IS what makes the world go around, and mother nature lines up for us to feel love and sex together through the release of a chain of amino acids or “hormones.”

The “love” hormone

When mothers are nursing their babies there are two hormones released, one is Prolactin, which is part of the creation of and secretion of milk, but the other is Oxytocin, the “bonding” or “cuddle” hormone! Yes, the same hormone that is released to create bonding between a mother and her baby, is released during lovemaking and orgasm to create bonding between a couple! Scientists have experimented with oxytocin and found that injecting it into humans increases the feelings of intimacy and trust, even between strangers! Love and orgasm, sex and closeness are meant to draw two people together. It is the secretion of these hormones that increase connection and love, along with loving behaviors that reinforce a feeling and sense of closeness and connection so that love is lasting, even for a life-time of love. Check out this fun video that talks about the science of love, oxytocin is the “potion of devotion!”

Three Kinds of Sex

While as human beings, we can indeed “separate” love and sex, they are designed to be together. Sex without love, is defined as “sealed off sex” by Dr. Johnson. When sex is sealed off from a sense of connection with a partner it is necessary to increase the novelty and ways in which to have sex. Couples often need more and more sex, or more sexual stimulus in order to feel aroused or excited. In a long-term relationship, that just isn’t very realistic, especially in creating a lasting and fulfilling sex life.  Sealed off sex often leads to difficulties for couples in their relationship. Often as a therapist I find this kind of sex leading to fights and negative patterns of interaction in a couple’s relationship. It can sometimes lead to infidelity as the connection is lost, resentment increases even as the distance widens, and one or both partners can get pulled into another relationship to compensate for what is lacking in their current one.  It’s often difficult to bring these partners back together again. A pornography addiction or a sexual abuse history (or both) are among the very common ways in which a person can disconnect their emotions from sexual interaction.  Sometimes it essential to get individual therapy around those issues in order to heal the split between sex and love.

Another kind of sex Dr. Johnson identifies is “solace sex.” When one or both partners feels anxious about their partner’s love and caring for them, when they feel afraid of their own needs and afraid to openly talk about their emotional needs with their partner, sometimes they begin to use sex in order to find solace or comfort for their fears. With solace sex, couples may have sex frequently, but it is never satisfying. It’s as if they are saying, “I’m unsure you love me so I need you to ‘show’ me with frequent and intense sex.” This can look like a demand for sex many times a day or a week, without it ever feeling fulfilling or satisfying. Couples who use sex to be reassured of their partner’s love are trying to feel a sense of connection, but without being emotionally vulnerable. This also leads to problems in a relationship, more often than not, resentment can build in the partner that is being demanded of, which increases the insecurity in the one seeking solace through sex.

Secure Sex

Then there is the third kind of sex, the most secure form of sex that Dr. Johnson identifies in her Love Sense book, as “synchrony sex.” This is where a couple feels more secure with each other, less anxious or afraid of rejection, or disconnection. This is where a couple feels safe to play, safe to say what they want or need, safe to ask for what they want, and safe to enjoy just being sexual with each other without the need for constant reassurance. Synchrony sex is secure sex where love and connection are combined heartily with sexual interaction.  Secure sex is fulfilling sex, where novelty is not needed nor demanded in order to feel satisfied because it’s not about acrobatic positions! The more secure, or in other words, the less anxious and afraid we feel with our partner, the more safety and security to know our partner is accessible, responsive and engaged, the freer we are to play and enjoy the experience.

Sex is part of a positive pattern of attachment

When there is sexual engagement and oxytocin is released, trust and security increases. When outside the bedroom we feel that our partner will show up and be with us, accept us, and have our back, the easier it is to have a safer sense of our partner. Security and safety are reinforced into a positive cycle when we view sex as part of a healthy secure attachment relationship.
For more information on how to create a positive pattern of safe sexual connection and secure emotional experiences with your partner you can attend a Hold Me Tight weekend for couples. See This Link for the next coming couple retreat in the Richland, Pasco, Kennewick, WA area!