The Anxious-Avoidant Dynamic in Sexual Relationships with Jamie Brazell (Part 1)
This week, we are diving right into the anxious-avoidant relationship pattern--one of the most common challenges partners face--and how it shows up in sexual and intimate relationships. Even the mild form of this dynamic can be incredibly frustrating and upsetting in relationships, and I believe it's important for us to look out for how it shows up in our own relationships (and how we engage in it personally).
I'm continuing this really wonderful conversation with Jamie Brazell, M. Ed., LMFT, CST. If you missed our first interview about Sex & Attachment, you can go here to catch up. You can learn more about Jamie and her work by checking out her website and connecting with her on social media.
Again, this blog is on the longer side so we can include as much information as possible. I am breaking this interview into two parts since we can talk about this concept for days! Please feel free to pause and come back to it when you are able or read it in pieces. The next part of the interview will be in your inbox next Tuesday morning!
Please let me know your thoughts and questions! You can hit reply to this email and tell me everything. I can't wait to hear your thoughts!
I appreciate you being here. Thank you for digging into this with me.
Elizabeth: I would love for us to consider how the different attachment styles manage interactions related to sexual experiences and intimacy. Do you see patterns there? Are there specific situations that seem to arise depending on folks’ attachment styles? We talk a lot about the anxious-avoidant relationship pattern—and relationship patterns show up in communication, in intimacy, in all of these different aspects of a relationship.
Jamie: The anxious-avoidant pattern is certainly the most common in my experience.
E: Mine too.
J: Avoidant-avoidant doesn’t usually work and doesn’t happen that much. Usually, people who are not having sex in that type of relationship are okay with it on some level.
E: Right! I would also say that there is usually some other piece of attachment pattern showing up there for at least one of the partners if the relationship continues. We all have all of the attachment styles in varying degrees. When it comes to relationships, it’s just a matter of how much of those styles are showing up depending on the context.
J: Yes! The anxious-anxious pattern tends to come to me with other concerns. They know I’m a sex therapist but I’m also a “regular” therapist.
E: And you can help them no matter what they’re experiencing.
J: Yes, totally. It doesn’t mean there won’t be a higher desire and lower desire partner there, it’s just less pronounced. The anxious-avoidant partnership typically looks like this: the anxious partner is over-functioning and they are pursuing. Over-functioning with sex usually looks like they are the person who is saying “we aren’t having enough sex or the right kind of sex”—which might not be coming from their own desire, but what relationships “should” look like in order to be “healthy.” And a lot of where they are getting that script from is really bad information and mythical sexual beliefs. It’s not always about them being the higher desire partner, but them placing importance on sex and intimacy because they have the belief that sex is what is going to keep their relationship together.
E: Wow, yes. It’s super understandable and it’s also heartbreaking when we think about it from that perspective. That’s hard, and it’s a lot of pressure for that partner to be experiencing in their relationship—that it falls on them to keep the sexual aspect alive and hold the space for that. It’s a lot of work.
J: It’s a lot of feelings of rejection as well. Just like a lot of the interactions in the anxious-avoidant dynamic, this person is pursuing and then receiving a decline. And sometimes the decline can be really harsh.
E: Can you talk a little bit about “declining”?
J: One thing I like to do is just have conversations with people about how they invite and how they decline in relationship interactions. Decline is used intentionally rather than “reject”. The approach matters, and there are a lot of reasons why someone may decline a sexual interaction. Maybe it's triggering, maybe there’s pain. And even if there is pain, sometimes people will still find it hard to speak up. Their partner might really want to know they are experiencing pain (I hope!), so the flexibility piece is huge there and being able to name and sit with the discomfort of communicating.
E: And when we are not taught how to decline or what that could look like, I’m sure that contributes to the harshness you mentioned. For the person who is on the avoidant end of the spectrum, that level of connection and intimacy can feel overwhelming so the shut-down happens quickly in order to reduce the anxiety or fear that is showing up in the interaction. The shut-down is protective, which is very intense for the person who is doing the reaching and making the attempt to connect.
J: Yes. I want to share a story that is not about one specific couple, but about many couples who I see who share similar stories in this dynamic. The anxious partner might reach out and even just put their hand on the avoidant partner and the avoidant partner either rolls over harshly or literally pushes or swats them away. The anxious partner feels like a little kid who's been slapped on the hand or has touched a hot stove. That interaction teaches each person to go deeper into their insecure attachment style.
E: And then the whole concept of shame shows up. "I shouldn’t be asking for this, I shouldn’t be reaching for my partner. There’s something wrong with me because I want this kind of connection. I’m needy. I’m too much." We become attached to that narrative.
J: Brene Brown did a free hour-long educational video on shame shields. It’s packed with information. When we are in shame we tend to go to 3 places, and these are our shame shields. We hide, we shame back, or we people-please. We tend to see the avoidant partner either shut down and hide or shame back, and the anxious partner might shame back and people-please.
E: I also think about the shaming back tendency and how it fits in with the angry part of anxious attachment. There is an underlying anticipation of being rejected, and then the anger that arises is protective because they know it’s coming and then it happens. When an anxious person makes the reach and gets swatted at, and they become angry and resentful, they can participate in shaming back to protect themselves as a result of a clumsy decline.
J: It might even be a cycle where that happens first and then they shift into people-pleasing because they want to hold onto that relationship at any cost. Also, I want to offer another resource today. I often use the Scarleteen website with couples and singles who struggle with communication. I realize it’s directed toward younger folks, but it’s so clear and easy to understand. There are people who might be really great at communicating otherwise but sex and sexuality is one area where they struggle a lot either personally or with their partner. Either way, it’s nice to do an inventory for one’s self just so you can see where you are in terms of body boundaries, language that you like to use for your sexual parts, and relationship choices. It’s really detailed and sometimes just having an option of “maybe” instead of just “yes” or “no” is really good because it taps into that gray area.
E: And I think too that it’s maybe a “sometimes”; just having that conversation to ask each other “is this going well? Are we enjoying this?” And maybe this is a time where we’re not or we are. That’s the flexibility piece again. One of the questions we received last week after our first interview was around the concept of flexibility. I know I introduced it last week. I’m curious about your take on that concept as far as sexual relationships go so we can provide some clarification.
J: Flexibility can be “maybe I’m not in the mood to have the usual sex we have. Maybe I want to try something different.” It would be nice to be able to communicate that with a partner. And for that partner, rather than running away screaming and feeling freaked out, to check in about what they have the willingness to do. They might check in with themselves and ask “do I have the willingness to try this? And if so, can I communicate where my line is if it starts to become too much?” Someone who has a lot of flexibility will be able to navigate through that situation with a bit more ease than someone who is more rigid in their thinking. And flexibility can also look like your partner trying to invite you into a sexual experience and you aren’t in the mood (back to the concept of declining), and you stop and consider that you might not have the energy or desire to meet them exactly where they are right now, but you might consider what you have the flexibility to do. If my partner wanted to have sex and I wasn’t feeling it, would I say “well instead of having the kind of sex we usually have, would you settle for us making out and you pleasuring yourself?” And sometimes just doing that will lead a couple into exploring beyond that. Flexibility is being in the gray area, not just hard yeses and hard nos.
E: Yes, I love that. Even being able to say “not that, but this” is recognizing that your partner has a need and although you may not be able to meet it in the exact way they would like for you to, it’s important to you that it’s met to some degree. You are offering what you feel comfortable doing within your own boundaries.
J: Speaking of boundaries, there are going to be times where it has to be a hard no. It’s perfectly acceptable to say “I can’t right now.” You can do that while accepting the other person has a need. You might say, “I can’t do that right now, but how about tomorrow instead.” It’s the difference between choosing self-abandonment or choosing to say where your boundary is. You are speaking up rather than walking away and saying nothing or saying “I don’t want to talk about it” and shutting it down.
E: Yes! You are keeping the lines of communication open. That makes a huge difference. It doesn’t mean it’s comfortable or easy, but when partners know what’s going on in the relationship, that creates more security, even if it’s difficult. It’s hard to say “this is what avoidant or anxious people do as far as sex goes” because we know there are so many complexities and layers in relationships. I’m wondering about what we can share as far as the work we both do that can be supportive of folks who are finding themselves in the anxious-avoidant trap that can happen and how it shows up in sex and intimacy.
J: I think it’s great to point out that there isn’t any one way to be with this pattern. It can commonly show up where the avoidant partner is retreating and not communicating at all, and the anxious partner is feeling like there should be more and better sex in the relationship, so there must be something wrong. Then the anxious partner is trying to invite and initiate sex and feeling the rejection when there isn’t communication about it. Maybe the avoidant person is being avoidant because their desire is lower in general, or their libido is lower and they haven’t quite figured out what’s going on. Our desires can change throughout our life cycle, which is normal but we aren’t taught that. An avoidant person is more likely to retreat inward as a reflex and to not know how to address these issues. They don’t know how to communicate it with their partner for various reasons, and because there aren’t a whole lot of tools for that communication because of how terrible our sex education is in this country. Maybe they are having a sexual functioning issue. Folks with penises are showing more symptoms of erectile dysfunction (ED) at an earlier age. The research is showing that these folks are coming in with ED and hormone counts that are similar to their grandfathers, for a number of reasons. Folks with penises who experience ED often have so much shame about it. But there are so many facets to what could be happening. It could be that they have lower libido, or they have a need they don’t know how to communicate due to shame. We also have a very small sexual medicine field. You can’t just go to anyone with that concern. So people are shamed even further and are left to figure this out on their own. If the anxious partner is pursuing and the avoidant partner is withdrawing and there is something wrong and they aren’t communicating it, the avoidant partner then starts to feel anxious about the whole process of their partner initiating and them declining. Meanwhile, you have a partner who is anxious on the other end doing a whole lot of guessing work, trying to figure it out, and they are over-functioning and doing this investigative work and they are pulling their partner into therapy and they are beating their head against the wall.
E: I’m curious about the other end of things, too. Sometimes it seems to me that the avoidant person in the relationship is the one who is wanting to have sex in order to connect with their partner. I talk to folks sometimes where the anxious person feels so frustrated because they are feeling like they haven’t emotionally connected with their partner in so long but their partner wants to have sex.
J: Yes! It can go either way. That’s absolutely right. I started with an example of the avoidant partner being the one who doesn’t want sex. Maybe I started with that too to break the stereotype a little bit because in every relationship (just about—I try to stay away from absolutist statements), there is going to be a higher desire partner and a lower desire partner. That varies over time, and people can switch, and you can be almost on the same page with desire, but usually, it’s not the same. And it goes both ways, whether you’re avoidant or anxious or disorganized or secure. A lot of people assume in heterosexual couples that it’s usually the man who wants sex more and the woman who doesn’t, and that’s not always the case. It’s about half and half from what I see in straight relationships. Sometimes the avoidant partner will behave in the same way that you just described and maybe they are wanting to start to have sex and they are going to the anxious partner and the anxious partner is suddenly saying no—now you want sex and you have pushed me away so far.
E: That can be that angry part that shows up for anxious folks—the feeling that all they want is this connection and they finally get it and then it can feel like too much when all of a sudden a partner is open to it.
J: It puts the relationship in sort of an existential crisis. And sex has a funny way of doing that with relationships. Another thing I want to mention is that as a consequence of the anxiety that starts to build up about being on the side of declining, is that the person becomes anxious about rejecting and they are anxious about the pursuing part, so affection stops too because they are worried about turning the partner down again. People in this dynamic don’t want to hurt each other, even if it looks or feels that way when it’s happening.
This blog will be continued next week!
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