Attachment Theory Unboxed

angie gunn relationships
Attachment Theory originated out of a white supremacist, patriarchal, cis-hetero, ableist, colonial, perspective…

Basics for Decolonizing Attachment

  • Not deterministic or causal
  • Not black and white in terms of what a “healthy” family (secure patterning) is
  • Not seated in mononormative, heteronormative, cis cultural frameworks
  • Default monogamy exacerbates attachment distress- the singularity breeds relationship insecurity, possessiveness, control and manipulation dynamics to get needs met,
  • Sex vs. relationship needs are distinct/ not always in sync
  • Considering neurodiversity and complexity of human development
  • Noting institutionalized/ systemic trauma at every stage of development
  • Notice impact of intergenerational trauma and oppression on attachment style

“…This is not a question of whether to abandon psychology; it is a question of whether psychological knowledge will be placed in the service of constructing a society where the welfare of the few is not built on the wretchedness of the many, where the fulfillment of some does not require that others be deprived, where the interests of the minority do not demand the dehumanization of all.” – Ignacio Martín-Baró, The Role of the Psychologist translated by Adrianne Aron

Attachment and Sexuality: The Bigger you are, the more connected you can be 

He told me not to speak unless I had something meaningful to say. So my tiny throat closed up and stayed silent. He mocked my thoughts and ideas, so I questioned their value and silenced myself. He said my difficulty with sexual climax was my fault, so my body closed in. He questioned my friends and hobbies, perceiving them as a threat to our family. So I cut them off… discarding my community and my paint brushes and sheet music in the same bin.

You see, when your trauma is relational (enforced/ inflicted by your closest connections) survival means mitigating the trauma (or denying it entirely) in order to preserve belonging. In those moments, the threat of abandonment, loss of identity from belonging with that person/ family, is more devastating than the harm experienced in it. The price of admission is smallness, shrinking yourself to fit the tiny boxes the family has designed for you.

This is one example of attachment wounds that I experienced, both in my family of origin and my early partnerships. I shrank to survive, grew so small that I could fit anywhere I was needed, adapting to caretake and keep the system functioning… no matter how broken it was. Not surprising, when I freed myself from these trauma reinforcing relationships and systems, it was really challenging to understand what it felt like to be BIG, to understand and seek my pleasure, to take up emotional space.

Attachment is the language used to describe our neurobiological patterning around safety in relationships, first learned in infancy. In simple terms: how does our brain and body respond to/ show up in connection with others and why? There are two primary axis on which we tend to fall: anxiety and avoidance. Anxiety speaks to the level of safety/ comfort we have with ourselves (how big and full can we be?) and avoidance speaks to the level of safety and comfort with others (how safe and reliable they are).

Unlike early thought, attachment is not linear or deterministic, it is constantly evolving and changing as it’s impacted by internal and external factors, and within each subsequent relationship. The patterns can have a significant impact on sexual expression with others (and sometimes solo sex) because it speaks to our body’s ability to self regulate, relax and show up fully in mutual pleasure. When considered from the lens of trauma and survival, your attachment patterning will adapt to suit the new place of belonging or retreat if that place presents a threat. These patterns show up in confusing and subtle ways at times, impacting our arousal, orgasm, erections and presence in sex. But with insight into our trauma and attachment histories, we can build bridges to healing within and forming meaningful connections with others.

Most of the current research focuses on attachment patterns and sexuality primarily with heterosexual, monogamous couples. This perpetuates the problem around understanding our neurobiology, because we were socialized into systems which exacerbate attachment wounding through idealized versions of love/ belonging/ partnership etc. We’re trained from day one to believe that “healthy” and meaningful partnership and love is with THE ONE person, and often the opposite gender. In this framework, sex is inextricably linked to the idealized relational bond (which alone seems out of reach for most) and has no space to grow or flourish as a separate part of your well-being and expression. I’d like to suggest that the more differentiation you give sex from the relational structure, the more capacity you will have to heal both. For example, if you (like much of the research indicates) link security in attachment to desire from and with your partner, and a sense of closeness achieved in sex, what happens when one member of the partnership has shifting desire? We assume the relationship/ love/ safety has somehow also shifted. This fallacy destroys relationships daily, as sexuality (and arousal patterns/desire) is incredibly complex and made up of many factors- with emotional/ relational closeness being just one factor. The more space we give for sex to exist separately, the more expansive and BIG you can become in every domain of well-being.

Here’s a few strategies for starting this journey within yourself:

  • When we moved into adulthood, we needed space to become our own primary attachment source, instead of replacing the gap left by our parents with a partner. Get help from a therapist, coach or other resource to address your attachment wounds and focus on anchoring in your own capacity to “re-parent” yourself, be a safe container for unconditional love, acceptance, and predictability in how you care for you. Then, no matter what changes you go through relationally, you will still be there for you.
  • Gain awareness of the attachment patterns you engage in with partners (both now and historically). Are you more likely to question yourself/ feel insecurity/ anxiety/ fear that you’re not okay/ withdraw from your pleasure in favor of others (anxious patterns)? Or are you often resistant to deep connection/ vulnerability/ closeness with others (avoidant patterns)? Talk with partners about these patterns and start to notice them, and ask for what you need from your partner to practice shifting those subconscious instincts. Repetition in a regulated relationship heals attachment wounds.
  • Practice separating desire/ arousal from relational assumptions or needs. Can you visualize and give space for your sexual self to exist outside of the relational space? What are the edges of your erotic potential, fantasy, exploration? Do you need to create different relationship structures to best align with your whole self?
  • Notice what it feels like to offer space for yourself to be BIG. Big in words, ideas, expressions, desires. Love the bigness, and work on slowly sharing more of it with others in your life.

Relational trauma is not a fixed path of despair and chasing or running from love and pleasure. Instead it’s a portal to personal healing, growth, and opportunity to find all the nooks and crannies within your pleasure.

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