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How Growing Up With Unavailable Parents Can Affect Your Sex Life As An Adult

Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Image by Guille Faingold / Stocksy
October 13, 2020

Having a strained or negative relationship with your parents throughout your childhood can have a significant impact on your life even long after you stop living under your parents' roof. It can affect your long-term mental health, sense of self-worth, and the way you relate to other human beings in your life, particularly in romantic relationships.

Even the way we approach our sex lives—and how good sex feels to us—can be affected by our earliest childhood experiences. Past research has shown that many types of distressing childhood experiences are linked with having trouble enjoying sex as an adult.

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A recent study published in the International Journal of Sexual Health has now found that one particular type of childhood experience—having a neglectful or unavailable parent—is also associated with sexual difficulties in adulthood.

The link between childhood neglect and sexual difficulties.

A team of researchers surveyed 374 adults about their experiences of childhood neglect. About 12% had experienced at least one form of physical neglect, but a whopping 65% of people had experienced at least one form of emotional neglect growing up. That included having one or both parents who did things like:

  • Ignored them regularly
  • Wasn't there when they needed them
  • Didn't tend to their emotional needs
  • Didn't respond to calls for attention or support
  • Struggled to understand their emotional needs
  • Didn't really talk to them
  • Generally didn't seem to love them
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The researchers also asked respondents about their adult sexual experiences and their sense of personal identity. They found that people who'd had more of these experiences of having neglectful, unavailable parents also tended to have more sexual difficulties, such as sexual dissatisfaction, sexual dysfunction, negative feelings around their sexuality (feeling ashamed about having sex, for example), or risky or harmful sexual behaviors.

Lacking the ability to assert sexual needs.

Why would unavailable parents lead to more sexual trouble?

One mediating factor the researchers found was identity trouble. People who had more unavailable parents also tended to have a less stable sense of self. In the paper on their findings, lead author Noémie Bigras, Ph.D., and her fellow researchers explain that these experiences of childhood neglect may mean that a child grew up without sufficient engagement, stimulation, and interpersonal mirroring that are needed to develop real knowledge of oneself.

"Neglectful, unavailable or unresponsive parents, oftentimes, fail to be attuned to the internal world of the child, which in turn, tend to hinder the development of a rich and coherent sense of self as well as the capacity to reflect on one's own and other's internal states," they write. "The development of the child's sense of self and the child's understanding of their own and others' mental states could be thought of as essential skills for a positive and healthy sexuality later on."

When you're not as secure in who you are and not in touch with your own needs, it can be very hard to know what you want sexually and to assert your sexual needs with partners.

"These results suggest that, years after having experienced neglect from attachment figures, it can still influence a person's sexual life through its repercussions on impaired identity," the researchers write. "By not receiving sufficient care and attention from their caregivers, survivors may have internalized that they are not important to others and have little personal value, altering the development of a solid sense of self. This, in turn, might lead to poor abilities to care for themselves, to know what they like and need, and to act in ways that make sense to them in the long run."

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How to heal.

If you're an adult who grew up with a neglectful or emotionally unavailable parent, know that there are ways to heal so that you can move on to having healthier relationships as an adult—and more satisfying sex.

The idea that our relationship with our earliest caregivers can affect how we relate to romantic partners is the basis of attachment theory. Of the four attachment styles, the more rare fearful-avoidant attachment has been linked with having a lot more sexual partners than others, a lot more sexual compliance, and out-of-control sexual behaviors. But all insecure attachment styles can contribute to having an unsatisfying sex life.

A good therapist can help you unpack your childhood experiences, understand how they've affected your sense of self, and help you develop a secure attachment style. In particular, the researchers emphasize the importance of learning how to identify and express your emotions clearly.

"The development of the capacity to identify, to understand one's own feelings, and to express them in an intentional efficient manner...could promote a healthy and more satisfying sexuality," the researchers write. "Fostering a greater sense of self in therapy could also help individuals to more easily acknowledge their sexual preferences and boundaries, recognize their right for sexual pleasure, gain enough confidence to communicate their sexual needs and interests, and potentially diminish the presence of sexual disturbances."

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Kelly Gonsalves
Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor

Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.

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