The Anxious-Avoidant Dynamic in Sexual Relationships with Jamie Brazell (Part 2)
We are back this week with the final piece of the Sex & Attachment Interview Series with Jamie Brazell! We are continuing our conversation about the anxious-avoidant relationship pattern, and Jamie is providing some tools and resources she offers to her clients when they are coping with this dynamic.
Jamie Brazell, M. Ed., LMFT, CST is an incredible clinician and is a wealth of knowledge about sex and sexuality, intimacy, and relationships. If you missed the first two interviews about Sex & Attachment, you can go here for the first interview, and here for Part 1 of the Anxious-Avoidant Dynamic interview. You can also learn more about Jamie and her work by visiting her website and connecting with her on social media.
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Thank you for joining us for this series. I'm so happy to be here with you.
Elizabeth: When you talk about the anxiety that builds in the relationship when there has been a lot of declining, I think you speak to a prominent dynamic which is “I’m so tired of feeling shut down or rejected that I just don’t want to make a reach now. I don’t want to be affectionate with you because then I might want to be sexual with you and you shut me down and you say no and I don’t want to risk feeling hurt anymore.”
Jamie: And then neither partner is taking the risk because it doesn’t feel worth it to make yourself vulnerable. That becomes a shared experience. And there can be underlying trauma, too. It doesn’t have to be a big trauma. Just the little wounds that relationships can hold. Over time, it can feel like a bunch of little cuts that haven’t healed. There hasn’t been any repair.
E: I want to clarify—the anxious-avoidant dynamic and high desire/low desire are two different layers in a relationship. Is that right? You may have a person who is on the avoidant side who is the higher desire partner, or an anxious partner who is a low-desire partner? Sometimes we appreciate having labels and concepts to help us put our relationship in perspective, so we might have that tendency to say “my partner must be avoidant because they are not interested in having sex with me right now”—when really it seems like those two things can be separate.
J: Exactly. You can be a securely attached person and be high desire or low desire. When we are talking about the anxious-avoidant dynamic, it’s beyond the desire piece—it’s the communication patterns. It’s the willingness to go there with somebody. I mean, I don’t know anyone who is having gastrointestinal issues and is in the mood for sex. You know? I don’t think people need to be pushing themselves. I’m going to quote Dan Savage again! He talks about the concepts of “good, giving, and game” and people misinterpret it and assume it means you should be up for anything your partner wants all the time. He has said you should not push yourself further than your comfort zone. It breaks my heart when I see people really trying to meet their partner’s needs and they are overextending themselves. That can be really traumatic.
E: And ultimately it’s not serving the relationship. When we come back to the attachment perspective, if you are in a position where you aren’t feeling safe or secure, there’s a difference between that and feeling uncomfortable. If you are consistently feeling like you are going way beyond your own personal boundaries or comfort zone, that’s not going to improve your relationship. Especially if you are feeling that on the inside and you aren’t communicating it with your partner. If something is hurting or feels really yucky or triggering, your partner needs to know that’s going on. If you are over-extending yourself, your partner needs to know that. I also believe that your partner should receive that information in a respectful way.
J: I absolutely 100% agree. It’s heartbreaking to say the least to have that experience. It can sound kind of shocking to be on the receiving end of the news that behaving that way is not serving the relationship, especially when we come from an anxious attachment background. By doing this, you aren’t getting any closer to your partner. You and your needs are also a part of this relationship. Sometimes humans will do the opposite of what they need to be doing to get their needs met. It’s counterproductive.
E: Absolutely. That goes back to anxious attachment when you’re in the anxious-avoidant trap and you’re wanting to connect with your partner but you’re being critical and harsh and trying to get your needs met in a backwards way. You want to connect but you show up totally differently and that’s confusing to your partner. And when you decide you are going to participate in something sexually and be super uncomfortable, it won’t feel good for you but your mindset is that your partner will know you are trying to meet their need and they’ll see you in a certain way.
J: And how much resentment is that potentially going to cause? Resentment comes from us not being able to express our own needs.
E: And even the lack of support! When I do something that feels scary or risky, I really need my partner’s support. But if I’m doing that with my partner and they don’t know I’m feeling that way, I feel completely alone and isolated. And that is so sad.
J: Yes. That’s a hard feeling. You can see how that might turn to anger sometimes. Regardless of whether you are higher desire or lower desire and you are anxiously attached, of course you feel angry. You have to play guessing games all the time. Your partner isn’t communicating with you. That sends mixed messages. Anxious people tend to be good at reading others. It’s incredibly frustrating when you start questioning yourself or second-guessing yourself because you’re supposed to be good at it, and you’re good at it with other people, but you can’t read your own partner or understand what’s going on for them.
E: It’s very disorienting. It turns everything you thought you knew about yourself, how you are in relationships, completely upside down. It’s very confusing. So I’m curious, that being said, is there anything you want to suggest or recommend or offer to folks who are finding themselves in a mild form of this dynamic and are feeling frustrated and are experiencing that run and chase dynamic in their partnership?
J: What I tend to do in those situations when it’s more mild, not something where a couple is in crisis—
E: Because in crisis you would recommend therapy?
J: Yes, and I would recommend each partner have their own individual therapy and be doing their own attachment work and learning about their own attachment styles. When you’re in crisis, you need a lot of support and you can’t just lean on each other. It’s too much. In long-term relationships in general (including open and poly relationships), relational systems become isolated because it’s hard to talk about your partner or partners to your family or friends. This is especially true if you’re going through something really personal and your partner feels shame and you don’t want to share that with your people. You might have a person in your life who can hold all of your “stuff” without shame or judgement, and they’ll be able to treat your partner the same, and other times people don’t have those types of support systems (or all of your friends are therapists). But sometimes we don’t have that. It’s helpful if the couple is in crisis that they have that support. For those that are in mild versions of this dynamic, I recommend individual therapy always because that can be a part of good self-care.
Intimacy-building exercises at home can be really helpful. Sometimes you have to start slowly. I recommend the free Gottman app. I love it—I’ve done it with my partner and we found it to be surprisingly fun. Anything where there are opportunities to explore conversations around sex and intimacy (which are two different things—sex being where desire lives and intimacy being where closeness lives) is positive for relationships. You can also do some of these activities during your therapy sessions if you have access to a sex-positive therapist who can open up the conversations. And building communication around sex is so helpful. The Scarleteen website is great. There are also youtube videos, TED talks, and podcasts you can listen to together, or audiobooks you can listen to in the car. I encourage you to go after the sex education you deserve but didn’t have the opportunity to have. I love connecting people with resources. You won’t see yourself in everything—especially if you’re in the margins sexually or gender-wise, and it’s so frustrating when the material isn’t written with you in mind. Or maybe you are a sexual trauma survivor (which doesn’t necessarily have to be in the sexual assault area, but maybe you had a sexual trauma during your first gynecological exam and now you have pelvic pain), and you won’t always see yourself in the literature about sexual trauma. The literature is getting better and more inclusive, but it’s slow. Continuing to look for things that you feel connected to or relate to. You get to empower yourself. What’s going on with you or what you’re experiencing isn’t weird or bad. We are always trying to break through cultural shame.
Thank you, Jamie! I appreciate you and am so grateful for your time and energy throughout this series.
p.s. If you are a person who has a primarily anxious attachment style in relationships, I created something just for you: The Healing Anxious Attachment Online Course. By the end of the course, you will have a new framework for creating secure relationships, more confidence and self-love, and tried and true strategies for navigating anxious tendencies.
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