Written by therapist Megan Hanafee-Major
As we explore what we already feel about our sexuality, we often notice areas of hurt. As Stephanie Paulsell, professor and minister, says in her discussion of Honoring the Sexual Body, “what a fine line there is between what heals and what wounds.” Wounds from media, past relationships, unmet or unrealistic expectations, sexual education, social and cultural messages about sex and the body, family/spiritual/cultural values about sex, trauma, and more can negatively influence the health of our sexuality. Because sexuality is inherently relational, our attachment styles and attachment injuries can play a significant role in these wounds.
Attachment wounds occur when we feel abandoned or our trust has been violated, particularly in relationships with caregivers and significant others. The pain from these experiences causes our brains and bodies to set up defenses to avoid future, similar hurts. This may be helpful in the moment, but in the long run these defenses make it hard to emotionally connect and rely on others. The pain of our attachment wounds can resurface when our brains fear that we will be abandoned or violated again. Because of this, it doesn’t matter so much what the specific event was that initially caused our wounds, but that the event was significantly harmful or threatening to our emotional wellbeing. Attachment wounds can be heightened in circumstances or relationships with increased vulnerability, like a sexual relationship. Seemingly insignificant events can compound on an existing wound. Although our minds may be trying to keep us safe from future wounds by building these walls, it makes it difficult to feel safe and secure while they are still up. We can begin to heal these injuries by taking down our defenses and having new, healthy, and safe experiences with vulnerability.
How Attachment Wounds May Manifest
These wounds will manifest differently for everyone since your experiences are unique to you. One example of how this may look is with an attachment wound that causes a fear of abandonment. If someone experienced a physical or emotional abandonment from a caregiver while young, they may notice thoughts and fears that their romantic partner will abandon them. This can affect their view of themselves with thoughts like, “if I was better, my partner would never want to leave, therefore I need to be perfect.” It could also impact their relationship through feeling like they need to verify that their partner is still committed by sending texts like, “are you sure you still love me?” or, “are you mad at me?” often. The person might even notice that their spiritual life is influenced with thoughts like, “everyone in my life abandons me, so God will too,” or, “I am being punished for some terrible wrong I did.” Someone with this type of attachment wound may find themselves using sex with their partner as “assurance” that their partner won’t leave them or still loves them. Or, they may notice that when their partner doesn’t want to have sex or be physical, they automatically think that their parter is upset with them or is planning to leave them.
Identifying and Restoring our Attachment Wounds
Working to identify and restore our attachment wounds will be a different process for each person, but will undoubtedly include many parts of their life. This is just one example of how that may look. Perhaps you find yourself nodding along to that example, or maybe it seems like the complete opposite of you. The journey toward a healthy sexuality is as unique as each individual.
As we discover inner wounds that affect our sexuality, we are likely to notice feelings and reactions about ourselves and our bodies. A healthy sexuality encompasses a healthy and positive attitude toward ourselves and our bodies. Just as our attachment styles and wounds impact the way we interact with others, it impacts our experience of ourselves as sexual beings.
Evidence from couples and sex therapists suggest that when a person is able to attune to their own physiological and emotional responses during a sexual situation, they feel more secure with their partner. Acknowledgment of our body’s limitations as well as its goodness may be simpler for some than others. Perhaps you were told messages from society, church, or family that a part of your body was ugly or broken. It can be hard to see ourselves as sexual beings if we see our bodies as, “bad,” or, “unworthy of love and care,” in some way. Stephanie Paulsell writes in her book Honoring the Body: “As we move between affirmation of the goodness of the body and refusal of anything that diminishes or degrades the body, we must learn to repudiate the ways in which our culture values and protects some bodies more than others because of race or gender or sexual identity. When we renounce the privilege that attaches to some bodies and makes possible the denigration and violation of others, we proclaim that all bodies are reflections of God’s good creation, deserving of reverence and care.”
Pursuing Healthy Sexuality
Whatever may hinder you from seeing yourself as a sexual being (being disabled, single, an older adult, celibate, asexual, etc.) doesn’t have to stop you from pursuing a healthier sexuality. Sexual health encompasses our physical self as well as our relational and spiritual selves. MORE
Sex is often the primary thing that differentiates romantic relationships from other close relationships. It makes sense, then, that our relational health directly impacts our sexual health and vice versa. When we identify relational attachment wounds that affect the health of our sexuality, we can work to build up safe and secure relationships.
Research shows us that when individuals embody more secure attachment styles, they can better use sexual experiences to increase their emotional closeness with their partner. These couples more often see the benefit of sex as a way to feel more connected rather than purely pleasurable physical sensations. Conversely, if a couple experiences dissatisfaction with their sexual life, it can reflect interpersonal dissatisfaction and insecure attachment. If each person in the relationship works toward a healthy sexuality as individuals, they can better use sexual experiences to reinforce emotional intimacy within their relationship together.
Expanding Our View of Sexuality
When we expand our view of sexuality beyond sexual behavior, we can more fully live into what Paulsell describes as, “one of the sweetest gifts that God has bestowed.” This is mirrored by research that shows that among sexually active couples, those who were happiest in their sexual lives used a, “broader, more flexible,” definition of sexual intimacy. When the goal of sexuality within a relationship is closeness and connection, satisfaction can occur within not only penetrative intercourse, but a broad range of physical and sensory activities. For example, if a couple only considers sexual intercourse as, “sexual behavior,” they may miss out on the intimacy that other actions can provide. Something as simple as cuddling before bed can help heal attachment wounds by reminding the couple that they are there for each other. This can become particularly important if, for whatever reason, intercourse is not an option. A healthy sexuality sees the benefit of these actions in their ability to support the overall health of a person’s wellbeing.
Sexuality is Spiritual
Sexuality creates a beautiful bridge connecting our spiritual self and our physical body. We are healthiest when we are attuned to both. Whether or not you ascribe to organized religion, your spirituality is inherently tied to your sexuality. Our sexuality reveals in us an innate desire to know and be known, to love and be loved. For centuries, philosophers have noted the deep connection between spirituality and sexuality and hypothesized that when we seek health in one, we inevitably explore both.
This can be especially true if we look from a Christian viewpoint. When we know God as the creator of our physical and spiritual being, we can see Him as the creator of our sexuality as well. Debra Hirsch writes, “If we are created in the image of God, then our sexuality reflects something of who God is. Sex is not just a means to the end of the propagation of the species, or even for fun, but to make the Creator known.” Fully living into a healthy spirituality can support a healthy sexuality.
Counseling is a secure place to begin this journey and there are wonderful resources available too. Attachment writings by Dr. Sue Johnson such as Hold Me Tight or Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller can walk you through how your attachment style impacts your life and relationships. Faith-based books like Redeeming Sex by Debra Hirsch and Honoring the Body by Stephanie Paulsell speak to the relationship between spirituality and sexuality. Conversations such as these can feel awkward or uncomfortable, but the gift of a healthy sexuality is worth working toward. If addressing attachment wounds to restore a healthy sexuality is a goal for you, don’t hesitate to reach out to one of our therapists here at Optimum Joy!