By Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Communication is one of the keys to establishing a healthy sexual relationship. However, the quality of sexual communication varies tremendously across couples—an observation that has prompted researchers to explore why. A new study published in the Journal of Sex Research suggests that our attachment style is one potentially important factor to consider.
In this study, researchers from the University of Waterloo recruited 81 heterosexual couples and examined how each partner’s levels of attachment anxiety and avoidance were linked to positive and negative communication during a video-recorded discussion about a problem area in their sex life. Trained research assistants viewed all of the interactions and coded them along various dimensions, including the extent to which each partner displayed warmth, affection, hostility, and dominance.
Generally speaking, people who have a lot of attachment anxiety require a lot of reassurance from their partners. They also fear being abandoned and rejected. By contrast, people with a lot of attachment avoidance tend to be uncomfortable with intimacy and try to avoid getting too close to others.
Researchers had expected that people who were high on either trait—attachment or avoidance—would have a tendency to exhibit more negative and less positive communication during the discussion.
As predicted, they found that people who had a more avoidant attachment style exhibited more signs of negative communication and fewer signs of positive communication. Also, the more avoidant someone was, the more inclined their partner was to resort to negative communication, too.
Surprisingly, though, there was no link between attachment anxiety and sexual communication for either partner.
This ran contrary to the researchers’ predictions and is inconsistent with previous studies finding that anxiously attached people tend to report having more sexual communication problems.
However, the authors believe this discrepancy may stem from anxiously attached persons being hypervigilant during sexual discussion. As a result, perhaps they’re more likely to notice and remember sexual communication difficulties, or maybe they just have a lower bar for what counts as a communication problem. In other words, someone who is anxiously attached might interpret or recall a relationship discussion very differently than an outside observer.
Overall, these findings suggest that our sexual communication patterns seem to depend, at least in part, on our attachment style. While attachment anxiety doesn’t necessarily seem to hamper effective communication, attachment avoidance would appear to be a significant communication barrier. This tells us that being comfortable with intimacy in general seems to be an important prerequisite for having healthy and productive discussions about sex with a partner.
McNeil, J., Rehman, U. S., & Fallis, E. (2017). The influence of attachment styles on sexual communication behavior. The Journal of Sex Research.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is an award winning educator and a prolific researcher and scholar. He has published articles in some of the leading journals on sex and relationships, written two textbooks, and produces the popular blog, Sex & Psychology. Dr. Lehmiller’s research topics include casual sex, sexual fantasy, sexual health, and friends with benefits. He is currently the Director of the Social Psychology Graduate Program and an Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at Ball State University.