by Jonah Lehrer
Except from the recently released A Book About Love
The language of attachment theory is not romantic; it obeys none of our time-tested cliches. When scientists recast adult love in terms of attachments, passion seems to become little more than a prelude; the sensuality is gone, replaced by talk of “proximity seeking” and “separation distress.” This is not the wild lust of a Hollywood movie or the fated coupling of a Nicholas Sparks novel. This is love as function. More flannel pajamas, less frilly lingerie. But the clinical language is misleading.
The power of attachment theory is that, even as it addresses our need for safety and comfort, it also helps us understand the persistence of desire. The explanation is rooted in a paradox, which was first noticed by Bowlby: children who are securely attached are also far more willing to explore the world, take risks, and enjoy novelty. When we have a secure base, we are better at dealing with our feelings of insecurity.
What’s more surprising, perhaps, is that this principle also seems to apply to adults. If we are securely attached, we’re better able to explore alongside our partners, trusting them to take us to new place. Maybe we tag along to a ballroom dancing class or try a new food they’ve cooked for dinner or listen to them explain the joys of Marvel comic books. The details don’t matter. What does matter is that our attachment is also a source of surprise, that we use its safety to try things that we’ve never before tried.
This pattern is even apparent in the bedroom, as studies show that people who are securely attached tend to spend far less time fretting about sex and much more time enjoying it. In an unpublished 1994 survey, Hazan and colleagues found that measures of attachment were “systematically and strongly related to the kinds of intimate sexual activities a person enjoys, with secure individuals enjoying a wider range of sexual activities.” When people in a relationship were securely attached to each other, they were more willing to experiment with novelty and kink; the bed had become a playground. More recently, a 2012 review of fifteen published studies found that securely attached partners reported having sex more frequently and were more satisfied with their sex life. Other studies have found that avoidant individuals have less sex (but masturbate more), while insecurely attached women are far less likely to report “orgasmic experiences.”
What accounts for these differences? Unless spouses feel confident in their love, they won’t be able to enjoy all the delights afforded by the body. Instead, they’ll be too wrapped up in the usual anxieties of nakedness. How do I look in this light? Am I taking too long? Not long enough? Where should I put my hand? There? Is that okay? As Phillip Shaver and Mario Mikulincer write, “These positive mental representations allow secure adults to relax their defenses and be less preoccupied with sexual performance, which, when combined with enjoyment of closeness, is conducive to ‘letting go’ sexually and experiencing maximal sexual pleasure.” Too often we think of sex as a purely physical act, a performance of nerves and friction, like the scratching of an itch. But desire is so much more complicated than that – it is always tangled up with our deepest needs and associations. We never actually fuck our brains out.
The emotional entanglement of sex also helps explain why simply having more sex doesn’t solve any of our relationship issues. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon recently conducted a study that makes this clear. Sixty-four married heterosexual couples had been randomly assigned to one of two groups. The first group received no instructions or advice on their sex life. The second group was instructed to double the frequency of their sex acts. Unfortunately, this extra copulating didn’t improve their marital happiness. If anything, it was associated with a slight decrease in sexual desire, sexual enjoyment, and overall happiness levels.
This failed intervention contradicts the long-standing link between sexual activity and life satisfaction. One study concluded that having sex once a week, as opposed to once a month, provided a boost of happiness equivalent to having an extra $50,000 in savings. However, these correlations are often misleading, as they don’t account for the real reason sex makes us happy. It’s not about the orgasm, which we are perfectly capable of accomplishing on our own. It’s about what the sex means to our relationship, how it triggers feelings way below the skin.
The mingling of fleshy pleasure and emotional intimacy helps explain another reason securely attached couples have better sex: they’re more willing to please each other. That’s the conclusion, at least, of a 2013 study led by the psychologist Amy Muise at the University of Toronto of forty-four long-term couples. After closely tracking their bedroom experiences for three weeks – the partners were asked to rate their enjoyment after every sexual activity – the scientists found that the best predictor of desire and “sexual benefits for the self” was whether spouses felt motivated to meet their partner’s sexual needs. The researchers refer to this tendency as “sexual communal strength.” This tendency might seem like an obvious contradiction – people feel more desire when they try to satisfy the desires of another person? – but it reflects the intense give-and-take that makes lasting love possible. The best sex is not about sex. It is about getting as close as we can, in the most literal sense, to another human being.
Secure attachments lead to better sex.But the converse is true, too; when our attachments wither, the passion tends to disappear. As the couples therapist Sue Johnson notes, sexual issues are often the “canary in the mine” of a relationship, a tangible symbol of an emotional loss. Happy spouses attribute only 15 to 20 percent of their contentment to their sex life; unhappy spouses, in contrast, say 50 to 70 percent of their problems are rooted in sexual issues. While many of Johnson’s patients insist that a lack of sex is a primary cause of their relationship issues, she sees sexual issues as mostly a side effect,triggered by larger attachment insecurities. “What’s really happening is that a couple is losing connection,” Johnson writes. “The partners don’t feel emotionally safe with each other.” Over time, this situation creates a dangerous feedback loop, as a lack of attachment leads to a slackening of desire, which only leads to less attachment and even less desire.
To stop this spiral, Johnson has pioneered, along with Les Greenberg, a form of couples therapy known as emotionally focused therapy, or EFT. The therapy is founded on the principles of adult attachment; it assumes, Johnson writes, that people “are emotionally attached to and dependent on your partner in much the same way that a child is on a parent for nurturing, soothing, and protection.” While earlier forms of marital counseling treated marriage as a rational bargain – the couples were taught how to become better negotiators – Johnson’s insight was that you can’t bargain over the basic human need for love. Her EFT sessions focus on revealing and strengthening the attachment bond, teaching partners to be sensitive and attuned to each other, just like a good parent. Instead of pretending we don’t need comfort, Johnson tries to create “hold me tight” moments, when people discuss their fears and admit their need for connection. EFT sessions, Johnson says, do not include “learning how to argue better, analyzing your early childhood, making grand romantic gestures, or experimenting with new sexual positions.” The goal is create a more secure connection.
This sounds nice, but is it effective? The initial evidence suggests it is: in randomized, controlled trials, approximately 90 percent of couples show significant improvements after undergoing eight to twenty EFT sessions. What’s more, these improvements appear to be long lasting. When Johnson and her colleagues followed up with patients several months after the end of their therapy, they found that the percentage of people saying their relationship has “recovered” or was in “recovery” continued to increase.
This doesn’t mean good sex is just a side effect of security, or that every person you’re closely attached to knows how to make you climax. Desire is a cipher, and it takes time to crack the code. While couples therapists are currently debating the importance of treating sexual problems directly, and not as a by-product of underlying relationship issues, most everyone agrees on the importance of candor and honesty about the bedroom. Sex gives rise to feelings for which there are no words, just awkward sounds. But we’re more likely to get those feelings when we use our words to say exactly what we want.
Love is a labor. Even good sex takes work. When a relationship endures, it is not because the flame never burns out. It is because the flame is always being relit.
A Book About Love, by Jonah Lehrer, is now available from Simon & Schuster. Jonah Lehrer is a writer, and the author of How We Decide, and Proust Was a Neuroscientist. He graduated from Columbia University and studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He’s written for The New Yorker, Nature, Wired, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. He lives in Los Angeles, California.