We know the following about sex addiction: It is an intimacy disorder, a dissociative disorder, a brain disease, and surprisingly (or not so much) it is not actually about sex. We also know that it is an attachment disorder that begins in childhood.
There is a biological need in the human brain that is responsible for creating as well as regulating our connection to our attachment figures. The Attachment Founders in the fifties and sixties, Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby, asserted that the connection between infant and caretaker was just as important for a child’s survival as was food, water, shelter (Levine, A., Heller, R. Attached, p. 23). This was coming off of the heels of a generation that warned against “coddling” children, along with avoiding giving too much attention to infants, and promoted letting them “cry for hours and train them to eat on a strict schedule” (Levine, A., Heller, R. Attached, p. 22).
Research has consistently shown that based on our upbringing as well as environmental factors, how we each form bonds varies. Some become securely attached to their primary caregivers, while others form anxious attachments, and still others form avoidant attachments. Understanding one’s attachment style is useful in understanding how and why people behave the way they do in their most intimate relationships.
According to Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller (2010),
“Secure people feel comfortable with intimacy and are usually warm and loving; anxious people crave intimacy, are often preoccupied with their relationships and worry about their partner’s ability to love them back; avoidant people equate intimacy with a loss of independence and constantly try to minimize closeness (p. 8).”
For those with intimacy disorders, not surprisingly, most have anxious or avoidant attachment styles. What is the reason for this?
We know that over 70% of individuals with sexual addiction come from rigid, authoritarian, and disengaged households where addiction is already present among family members (Carnes, P. Facing the Shadows, 2010, p. 5). For individuals that grew up in a perceived dangerous, high intensity environment, it was likely not safe to feel what they were feeling, let alone invest time, energy or effort on their caregiver because of fear that the attachment to them may end abruptly. Therefore, someone with an avoidant attachment style developed survival skills of detachment including mentally/physically checking out.
For individuals that grew up in an environment riddled with hyper vigilance and control from a caregiver, they may have learned to stay close to their attachment figure for fear that if they strayed too far, something bad might happen. They tend to feel overly sensitive and hyper-aroused at the slightest hint that something is wrong, therefore having an anxious attachment style (Levine, A., Heller, R. Attached, p. 13).
For individuals who have an avoidant attachment style, they tend to have “Love Avoidant” behavior, where they tend to operate off of a “catch and release” mentality, withdrawing from their partners when they feel vulnerable. This is a result of them not feeling comfortable having any needs, as well as asking for what they need, and having their needs be met consistently. All of this tends to stem from childhood. However, some of this behavior is perpetuated by adult situations. Therefore, individuals with avoidant attachment styles dismiss having needs at all and “move on” to other people and things (i.e., sex, drugs, food, substances) before being rejected. While females with sex addiction at times will present as having characteristics of love avoidance, more male sex addicts tend to present with this type of attachment style.
For individuals who have an anxious attachment style, they tend to have “Love Addicted” behavior, where they cling to their partner, fearing that if they have any space, the relationship will end and their partner will find someone else. They often have a keen sense of when anything is wrong in the relationship which increases them feeling hyper-aroused, and often causes them to reach out to their partner obsessively for reassurance (text, call, email, etc.). They often need constant reassurance from their partner that the relationship is ok and are very sensitive to any signs of rejection. They have a difficult time asking for what they need from their partner (Levine, A., Heller, R. Attached, pg. 93). Oftentimes female sex addicts present as having this type of attachment style; however, males do at times present as anxiously attached as well.
There are specific types of problematic sexual behavior that tend to correspond to each attachment style. For instance, many individuals who are addicted to pornography tend to have an avoidant attachment style and present as love avoidant. Pornography acts as an escape into a fantasy world where the addict believes they can still get their sexual needs met without having to deal with being vulnerable or rejected. This type of coping, viewing pornography, creates a delusion for the addict that by living in fantasy world, they will escape the difficult emotions and life situations that cause them to seek this type of escape to begin with. Unfortunately, this is often not the case, particularly if and when spouses and loved ones find out about the addiction.
In contrast, individuals who have long standing affairs, have one relationship after another, or who engage in certain exhibitionistic behavior (i.e., stripping, prostitution, escorting) tend to have an anxious attachment style. They seek approval, validation and a sense of feeling worthwhile by having multiple (even if fleeting) relationships. While they may experience a sense of comfort from having multiple relationships or one that is longterm, they tend to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of being anxious and ultimately alone.
Individuals with avoidant attachment styles often have a hard time with someone who is anxiously attached, mainly because they “squelch intimacy” by creating “deactivating strategies” to cause distance (Levine, A., Heller, R. Attached, pg. 116). Some examples of a deactivating strategy includes the following beliefs and actions: “I am not ready to commit”, “I haven’t found the right one”; flirting with others, keeping secrets, and avoiding closeness (Levine, A., Heller, R. Attached, pg. 117). They push people away as a result of their own internal discomfort, especially if their partner acts clingy and needs reassurance. They struggle to be in relationships for a long period of time and as a result make up the highest percentage of individuals in the dating world (Levine, A., Heller, R. Attached, pg. 94).
Is it possible for an anxiously attached person or an avoidant attached person with an intimacy disorder to become securely attached to someone who has a secure attachment style? And if so, how?
Individuals with intimacy disorders who have anxious or avoidant attachment styles can learn how to attach to securely attached individuals. It takes time but is possible.
At Namasté Center for Healing, a big part of our treatment approach is helping individuals with intimacy disorders (sexual addiction, sexual addiction-sex offender potential, sexual anorexia) understand their attachment styles and work to improve their ability to feel securely attached in their relationships. We do this via individual and our weekly therapy groups via education.
Anxiously attached individuals do well with securely attached partners because securely attached people (from Levine, A., Heller, R. Attached, pg. 97):
“… are comfortable with closeness and don’t try to push you away” “… are consistent and reliable and won’t send mixed messages when you are upset” “… see your well being as top priority” “… feel comfortable telling you how they feel” “… are very stable; they also feel comfortable with commitment.”
When an anxiously attached partner is feeling needy and dependent, their securely attached partner comforts them, is consistent, and offers loving support. This decreases their fears about the relationship and in time creates a sense of lasting ease and comfort in the relationship;hence, secure attachment.
Avoidant attached individuals may struggle at first with being with securely attached individuals, mistaking the security and normalcy they feel as “boring.” However, if they can begin to identify when they are implementing deactivating strategies such as pushing their partner away, and learn to manage their internal discomfort with being close, they will likely feel more comfortable being in the relationship. Along with this, focusing on mutual support instead of focusing so much on self-reliance is crucial so that the partner does not have to work so hard. Mutual support allows both individuals to feel comfortable doing their own thing knowing they are in it together(Levine,A., Heller, R., Attached, pg. 128).
Anxiously attached individuals do not do well with avoidant attached individuals because their anxiety is constantly triggered by an avoidant because they tend to distance themselves when the anxiously attached person needs reassurance and closeness. They also send mixed messages which to an anxiously attached person feels like rejection. As a result, anxiously attached individuals often feel crazy when in reality their attachment system is constantly activated, which at times can be mistaken for passionate love, when it is not (Levine, A., Heller, R. Attached, pg. 93).
By understanding one’s attachment style, individuals, especially those with intimacy disorders, can begin to learn how to be in a relationship with their partner by asking for what they need, sitting with discomfort, practicing mutual support, focusing on the positives of the relationship, and self-soothing in healthy ways. This takes consistent practice and often involves partners also understanding their attachment styles and being involved in the treatment process, but is well worth it in the long-run.