Relationship Security and Sexual Intimacy: Good Bedfellows

sexual intimacy

The need for connection, for attachment and relationship security, is inherent to who we are as people. We are born into relationships (with parental figures) and this need is always with us. Our relationships shape us in profound ways, and the fact that early relationships deeply impact us is now a scientific given.

When our earliest relationships are consistent, loving and reliable, the potential grows in us for feeling secure within ourselves and with others in our life. Through the backdrop of security, we will seek out others for support, guidance, and validation, turning toward them when we are in need. As adults we are guided by an internalized framework that others can be counted on.

For those with a history of secure attachments, solace—rather than strife and disappointment—is anticipated within interpersonal connections.

Research (by such leading attachment experts as John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth & Mary Main) also shows that our sense of security with another allows for greater self-confidence. We’re more likely to explore, take greater risks and seek out new experiences when we know that a secure base (in the form of a loving, emotionally-anchoring relationship) is waiting for us.

Relationship Security and Sexual Intimacy: A Vital Pairing

By her own admission, Karen was overly controlled, self-conscious and stilted during sex. These self-experiences prevented her from enjoying the sensuous pleasures of sex, and they also interfered with her feeling emotionally connected to her partner during sex. Sex was a series of isolated behaviors that she needed to “get through” rather than an unfolding experience that she could get swept away in. Not surprisingly, this frustrated Karen and her partner. As a result, meaningful sexual intimacy was nowhere to be found.

Dr. Sue Johnson, in her new book, Love Sense, describes how our attachment styles play out in our sexual lives. As she describes:

“Many studies now attest to the fact that because secure partners feel safely connected to their lovers, they can access the full richness of their sexuality. Feeling protected gives them the freedom to explore and be sexually adventurous.”

This clearly wasn’t the case for Karen. And the clues to her truncated sex life could be found within her life’s history. Karen, it turns out, always struggled to feel emotionally secure with her partners. When in love, she frequently felt like she was tiptoeing along a highwire without a net. She worried about whether or not she was lovable, and her partner’s reassurances only provided fleeting solace.

Karen’s lack of emotional security followed her into the bedroom. She wasn’t plagued by sexual insecurities about body image or concerns of sexual inadequacy (which could indeed negatively impact one’s sexual experience). Instead, Karen’s insecurities centered around her anticipated fear of rejection. If she was able to articulate these fears, she might say something along these lines:

“If I truly let myself go emotionally or during sex, my partner wouldn’t want me any longer. He’d see an aspect of me that is ugly, a me that is too emotionally and sexually needy, a ravenous and perverse woman. And because of this, I need to keep these parts of myself chained and sequestered.”

Fear of Ourselves, Fear of Our Own Desires

As our therapy work proceeded, Karen slowly gave voice to these debilitating fears. She believed her needs were too big, too ferocious, that she would overwhelm and therefore push her partner away. As a way to compensate for these fears, she created an internal cage to house not only her sexual desires, but her emotional needs as well. This “solution” kept her in a perpetual state of sexual ossification and emotional hunger. And, as she described, her current partner complained that Karen felt unreachable, a distant and elusive shadow.

Karen’s earliest childhood memories centered around the feeling that she was “too much” for her parents, especially her mother. The theme of these painful memories involved Karen’s mother dealing with the emotional fallout of her husband’s repeated infidelities. From Karen’s recollections, her mother vacillated between unpredictable anger and long stretches of despondency. Karen recalled her parents fighting often—the only times that seemed quiet were when her father was gone for extended periods of time. As a child and teenager, she was kept in the dark about the reasons for her parents’ troubled marriage. In short, she had no way to make sense of what was happening to her mother.

As children often do, Karen internalized responsibility for her mother’s emotional plight. As a child, Karen came to believe that her “neediness” was the cause of her mother’s chronic distress and emotional downfall. She carried this into her adult relationships—as an adult, she feared that if she freely expressed herself, her needs would overwhelm those she cared about, particularly her romantic partner.

Part of Karen’s healing would require her to develop a new relationship to herself, connecting with her own needs and experiencing them as appropriate, empowering and vital to her relationships. But this couldn’t happen in isolation. She would need to feel secure with her partner, confident that he could handle her needs in all their rawness and intensity.

Emotional Hiding Isn’t Good for Your Sex Life

Our relationship with ourselves (with our own needs, desires and longings) is continually shaped by our relationship with others…as long as we let ourselves be truly seen by them. This process is short-circuited whenever we hide parts of ourselves.

It is liberating to feel that our loved ones can handle us (our moods, our needs, etc). When we fear this isn’t the case, the danger is that we will either become estranged from them or from ourselves (by denying our needs in order to shield the other from what radiates within us). Neither is a healthy solution for a relationship; this was the dilemma that Karen struggled to overcome.

A fulfilling and rich sex life arises out of a sense of security with our partner or spouse. This process also involves connecting to and accepting our own needs and the intensity of who we are, including the parts of us we wish didn’t exist. When we prevent our partner from seeing all of us (when we hide out of fear or shame), tensions arise within us, tensions that propel us to shut down or to approach and communicate with our partner in confusing and convoluted ways.

Best,

Dr. Rich Nicastro

(Featured image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)