Relationship researchers, matchmakers and people seeking connection with one another and fulfilling relationships are interested in what ingredients go into sexual and relationship satisfaction. Presumably, though intervention and outcome research is still scant and no one has figured out the secret to happy relationships for everyone, understanding the underlying factors and modifying or compensating for them may help people improve their relationships. Of course, not everyone wants a monogamous dyadic relationship, but starting with couples is easier from a research design point of view, and dyadic relationships remain more common and present challenges in spite of their seeming simplicity. It is important to extend relationship research further with regard to other forms of relationship.
Mark and colleagues (2017), the authors of the current study, note that much of the prior research on relationships has looked at a narrow demographic sample, focusing on primarily college age adults in heterosexual relationships. Do findings in such research samples extend to a more diverse population?
They report from prior work that sexual satisfaction is predictive of relationship success. Improving sexual satisfaction has been shown to improve overall relationship satisfaction. Furthermore, in heterosexual couples, attachment style has been noted to affect sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction. People with an avoidant attachment style tend to avoid intimacy, be emotionally withdrawn, and try to be more self-reliant, including in sexual matters. With anxious attachment, on the other hand, people tend to feel unsure of their worth and seek reassurance, but tend to be more preoccupied with their own needs over the needs of their partners.
They report that people with an anxious attachment style are more likely to agree to have sex when they don’t want to, leading to serious issues and lower sexual satisfaction. Overall, both avoidant and anxious attachment are associated with lower sexual satisfaction, and attachment style may also affect sexual desire. Sexual satisfaction has been positively correlated with both higher sexual desire in couples as well as with similar levels of sexual desire between partners. When there is lower sexual desire, or larger differences in sexual desire, satisfaction is lower.
They did not discuss the impact of disorganized attachment, which would be likely to be associated with sexual and relationship difficulties at least as much as other forms of insecure attachment, such as anxious or avoidant attachment, and is correlated with developmental trauma and borderline personality disorder.
With the goal of looking at a more diverse population, Mark and colleagues recruited 995 participants to complete an online study evaluating attachment style and correlating different attachment styles with different relationship measures. Of the 995 participants, 64 percent were cis-gender women, 31 percent were cis-gendered men, and 6 percent genderqueer. Fifty-five percent of the participants identified as straight 11.5 percent as gay, 7 percent as lesbian, and 20.5 pecent as bisexual. Eight-seven percent were white, 62.5 percent were married or living together, 80 percent had at least one child, most had at least some college education, and the average age was 33 years old, ranging from young to older adult with a standard deviation of about 9.5 years. Less than 50 percent identified with a particular religious affiliation.
They completed online measures which have been shown to be both valid assessment tools and more accessible for participants to complete with privacy, rather than in person, when issues like sexuality and relationships are involved. Measures included:
- The General Measure of Sexual Satisfaction Scale;
- The General Measure of Relationship Satisfaction;
- The Sexual Desire Inventory, Dyadic Subscale;
- The Experience in Close Relationship Scale, which assesses attachment style.
Women and genderqueer participants reported significantly greater anxious attachment than men, though the effect size was small. Bisexual participants were more anxiously attached than heterosexual, again with a small effect size. There was no difference found in sexual or relationship satisfaction amoung different groups by gender or sexual orientation. Women on average reported lower sexual desire than men, with a small to medium effect size, but genderqueer participants did not report lower sexual desire.
Avoidant and anxious attachment styles both predicted lower relationship and sexual satisfaction, though avoidant attachment had a much more significant negative effect. Avoidant attachment predicted over 23 percent of relationship satisfaction and over 15 percent of sexual satisfaction, compared with near 6 and 3 percent, respectively, for anxious attachment. Consistent with findings in younger, heterosexual couples, avoidant attachment was most problematic for sexual and relationship satisfactions in this more diverse sample regardless of sexual orientation or genderqueer status.
The study authors hypothesize that attachment style development may preceed sexual and gender orientation determination, or they may simply be independent of one another. Avoidant attachment leads to clear issues with withdrawal and subsitition of relationship and intimacy with self-reliant behaviors, leading to sexual and relationship problems. In this study, avoidant attachement style was associated with decreased sexual desire, whereas anxious attachment style was associated with increase sexual desire. Avoidant partners may rely more on masturbation and pornography, in an effort to avoid intimacy and be self-reliant, which may blunt sexual desire for one’s partner. While anxious attachment may lead to issues because of difficulty attending to the other person’s needs over one’s own, the preoccupation about being accepted and validated may compensate by creating a greater need to please partners and find them sexually appealing in order to meet those very needs for validation and acceptance.
Understanding how attachment style may contribute to relationship and sexual dysfunction is crucial for those seeking more satisfying relationships, and for clinicians and relationship experts helping individuals and couples. Changing attachment style may take a long time, if it is even possible, but understanding the particular behaviors and underlying expectations and assumptions which go along with sexual and relationship difficulties for avoidant and anxious attachment styles provides targets for modification.
For example, being aware of avoidant attitudes and behaviors allows for greater awareness and the possibility of making choices intended to move toward greater closeness, rather than withdrawal, and greater mutuality, rather than self-reliance ― beyond any desire or effort to change the underlying avoidant approach. For those with a more anxious attachment style, it may be useful intentionally to pay more attention to the other person’s needs, as well as to be aware of and manage insecuries about being wanted and fearing rejection so that such anxieties lead to greater sharing and closeness, rather than driving a wedge into the relationship ― for instance, if the other partner either feels neglect and/or suffocated. If unaddressed, over time attachment style may play out in a couple as maladaptive dynamics (for example, what colleagues and I term “irrelationship“), leading to decreased sexual and relationship satisfaction, and increasing unconstructive conflict, loneliness and distance.