Part One: Avoidant Attachment Style
Sexual betrayal always creates a sexual injury for betrayed partners. This injury can be mild to severe and can be experienced in many ways. But, because the betrayal is sexual in nature, it inevitably impacts the sexuality of the betrayed partner.
One common pattern in relationships impacted by betrayal trauma is that the cheating partner has been sexual with porn, an affair partner, or numerous partners outside the relationship, but within the relationship there is very little or even no sex at all. Not everyone has this story of course, but a significant percentage of the betrayed partners identify with this pattern.
This lack of sexual interest can create profound confusion for betrayed partners. Many partners have said to me, “I thought my spouse was not a sexual person, that they just weren’t that into sex or maybe there was something going on for them that caused them to shut down sexually. But now I find out there’s this second life where they’ve been very sexual but kept that secret.” This incongruence creates confusion for betrayed partners who can start to wonder, “Is there something wrong with me, am I not desirable or attractive to my partner? Why would they rather be sexual with porn or someone else than with me?”
When this pattern is present, it is easy to feel rejected by the cheating partner. However, often the dynamics that are driving your significant other’s behaviors are separate from you and related instead to issues like attachment style, sexual and emotional development, sexual shame, childhood trauma issues etc.
In this post and the ones following we are going to look at some of the dynamics that can impact this sexually avoidant behavioral pattern. Let’s begin by exploring how attachment styles can impact sexual behavior.
Avoidant Attachment Style
Every person has an attachment style. Our attachment style is formed when we are babies and toddlers based on how we are responded to by our caregivers. We are wired to bond and come out of the womb cooing, crying, latching and reaching – all behaviors that solicit attention, care and bonding from our parents. Our attachment style is formed through the patterns of consistent responsiveness and availability we experience (or don’t experience) from our caregivers. This pattern of learned bonding stays with us throughout our lifespan informing the partners we choose and how we connect to and operate within our relationships.
About 50% the population is what we call securely attached. These individuals learned in childhood that their caregivers (usually their parents) would be there for them and would respond to their needs at least most of the time. When the bond was ruptured through lack of attention or relational stress the conflict was quickly repaired and safety was restored. As a result, securely attached individuals bring an assumption to their relationships that their partner will be responsive and that when relational stress occurs it can be overcome and safely resolved.
The other 50% of the population is what we call insecurely attached. There are two coping patterns that develop to cope with insecurity in the relational bond: an anxious relational pattern and an avoidant relational pattern.
Those with an anxious attachment style tend to up-regulate when they experience relational distress or disconnection. This means they become anxious and hyper-aroused in the face of relational threat. This anxiousness gets expressed through pursuing connection with their significant other. If they can get safe connection back in place, they can relieve their anxiety and feel better about themselves and the relationship.
The second form of insecure attachment is a coping pattern of avoidance in the face of relational threat. Individuals with an avoidant attachment style down-regulate in the face of threat meaning that they tend to with-draw, move away, or numb themselves to cope with relational discomfort. Their go-to move when there is uncertainty in the relationship is to pull away to try to calm the emotional dysregulation that the relationship is creating.
For some avoidantly attached individuals, this emotional shut-down and withdrawal extends to their sex life. Because being relationally close can carry the risk of encountering emotional overwhelm, it feels easier to maintain distance even within relationships that are very important to them. This emotional distance can easily merge with the person’s sexuality and create a pattern of sexual distancing or avoidance as well.
Instead of maintaining close emotional and sexual connection with their partner, they may instead look for other ways to be sexual that don’t require the level of emotional risk that they encounter in their primary relationship with the person who is the most important to them.
This may make you feel a bit crazy as the betrayed partner. If you are the most important person to them then why have they had affairs, or compulsively turned to porn or other acting out partners while avoiding you? These behaviors make you feel like the least important person to them. The reality is that for all of us, the person who is most important to us, who is our primary attachment figure – this person is also the riskiest relationship we have. If this person hurts us, it will truly devastate us because of how important they are to us.
As a result, some individuals with an avoidant attachment style will maintain both emotional and sexual distance from their partner to manage the level of risk and vulnerability they experience in the relationship. They may instead look for ways and places to be sexual outside of the relationship as these encounters don’t carry the risk of emotional vulnerability and potential overwhelm.
Porn in particular is incredibly low risk. There is no relational component that must be negotiated in any way. Instead, one can pull up images on a screen, engage in fantasy and masturbation and never have to deal with the uncertainty of engaging with a live person. Strip clubs, paid sexual encounters and anonymous hookups are all emotionally low-risk.
The more a person engages in low-risk sexual encounters the more anxiety-producing higher-risk encounters will become. The relational and emotional muscles needed to move toward closeness with one’s partner and to risk vulnerability within the relationship become atrophied from underuse. Sex within the primary relationship becomes something to be avoided in order to also avoid the emotional risk that comes with it.
If avoidance of sex within your relationship while acting out outside the relationship is a pattern for your cheating partner, it’s important to know that this can change. If your partner is willing to enter a recovery process and do the work, they can learn how to reconnect sex and relationship and build the muscles involved in risking emotional and sexual closeness. They can move toward being securely attached by learning to tolerate the feelings that prompt them to withdraw or avoid and move toward instead. It is in the moving toward that relational safety is created for both partners.
Next week we will look at another element that can create the pattern of avoiding sex within the primary relationship for the cheating partner.