Having A Lot Of Sex But Can't Connect With Anyone? Read This
Kelly Gonsalves is the sex and relationships editor at mindbodygreen. Her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.
Having a lot of sex can be great. When you're single, it often means a lot of exploration, meeting new people, and having novel experiences, many of which might be deliciously low-pressure, of-the-moment affairs.
But while some people consciously seek out a lot of casual sexual experiences for the physical pleasure, the excitement, or any other number of reasons, others might find themselves having a lot of sex with a lot of different people without much of a reason at all.
A new study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy analyzed a particular personality type—called the fearful-avoidant—that tends to have a lot more sexual partners than other people and also tends to be a lot more sexually compliant, meaning you have sex when someone asks you for it even if you yourself have no sexual desire.
What is fearful-avoidant attachment?
You might be familiar with attachment theory, which holds that our style of connecting with other people is a direct reflection of our earliest experiences with our caregivers, as well as other influential relationships in our life. Those who grew up with a lot of attention and love as kids generally end up with a secure attachment style as adults, meaning they have generally healthy relationships where they feel secure, loved, and able to love back. Those whose parental relationships were unreliable or nonexistent end up with an insecure attachment style, which can fall into two categories: anxious attachment or avoidant attachment. People with an anxious attachment style crave affection and often come off as "needy" in their relationships, whereas people with an avoidant attachment style tend to do the opposite and push others away out of a fear of intimacy.
Most explanations of attachment theory neglect to mention that there's actually a fourth style as well, known as disorganized attachment or fearful-avoidant attachment. This is an attachment style that's both anxious and avoidant. The researchers of the present study define fearful-avoidant attachment as "reluctant to engage in a close relationship and a dire need to be loved by others." You don't want to be intimate with anyone, and yet you desperately crave affection.
Fearful avoidance is seldom talked about and not well-researched because it's much rarer than the other three attachment styles, the researchers explain, but some studies say these types of people have "the most psychological and relational risks."
"Results of empirical studies converge to show that individuals with such tendencies have the most severe form of difficulties in regulating emotions in interpersonal relationships," they write. "They have a more negative perception of others' support and less commitment and satisfaction in a couple relationship; they are also more likely to show violence in their couple relationships. Moreover, fearful avoidance or disorganization has also been shown to be linked with borderline personality disorders or dissociative symptoms."
How it affects your sex life.
This latest study involved a survey of 600 men and women about their romantic styles and sex lives. It found those with fearful-avoidant attachment styles tended to sleep with more people over the course of their lifetime and tended to be more sexually compliant. (That is, when someone solicited sex from them, they were more likely to say yes.)
So why do fearful-avoidant people do this? The researchers theorized it has to do with "out-of-control behaviors" developed in response to the confusion of both wanting connection but also feeling repulsed by it.
"Out-of-control behaviors have been shown to be linked to problems in the regulation of emotions and, in particular, an inappropriate response to negative mood," they write. "For example, sexual contact may be initiated to meet emotional needs caused by depression or to distract oneself from depression-inducing thoughts. Similarly, the elevated anxiety felt in fearful avoidance may motivate the individual to increase closeness with a partner by using sexual activities, whereas the elevated avoidance tendency may almost simultaneously motivate the individual to break the bond with this partner (this would be specific to fearful avoidance, as anxiety in itself makes breaking up unlikely to happen), which is in turn followed by the search for a new partner. This endless alternation between approach and avoidance may result in apparently out-of-control sexual behaviors."
Now, having a lot of sex in and of itself is not a bad thing. But doing it out of a simultaneous craving and fear for connection when you don't even really have any desire for sex itself? That can quickly become draining and perhaps even destructive, especially if you start finding yourself saying yes to sex you don't want or to sex that puts your physical well-being at risk. If you're also breaking connections with people when you really desire to get closer to them, you're putting your mind and heart through a lot of ache due to your own fears.
What to do.
Do you have a fearful-avoidant personality type? It might be hard to tell without consulting with a professional. While there is an online test you can take to determine your attachment style, it may not distinguish clearly between fearful-avoidant and other two insecure attachment styles because the former is so rare and is, in fact, a combination of the other two.
Either way, if you're relating to any of the above and feeling nervous, take a deep breath. The good news is that attachment styles are malleable and can be adjusted through conscious intention and practice. No matter your attachment style, if you're worried your sex life and/or relationships aren't healthy, here are a few ways to get things back on track:
1. Look into therapy.
Studies suggest trauma might be a key factor in creating fearful-avoidant attachment, and plenty of research has found some people who experience sexual trauma respond by becoming "hypersexual" (i.e., having tons of sex with a lot of different people, sometimes in risky ways).
"Working on 'unresolved trauma' may thus be a path to resolve sexual difficulties, even if the trauma is not itself related to sexuality but more generally to relationships with significant others in the close environment," the researchers of the present study write. "It also means that an individual with an apparent active and busy sexual life may by this means be trying to hide negative emotions and be struggling with them."
The researchers recommend pursuing a type of therapy that focuses on attachment, such as emotionally focused couple therapy.
2. Develop a mindfulness practice.
It's essential that you start understanding why you make the decisions you make regarding your sex life and relationships, and mindfulness—the practice of being present and aware of one's emotions—can be a good way to work on building up your self-awareness.
"In relationships, shifting from reactiveness to responsiveness can lift us out of our early attachment patterns toward a healthier, more secure style," licensed marriage and family therapist Linda Carroll, M.S., writes at mbg. "Next time you feel a partner coming too close or moving too far away, listen to what each of you is saying and how it's said. You might notice that your words in emotional situations trigger a physiological reaction of fight or flight. Simply becoming aware of each other's old fears is the first step in preventing them from controlling us."
3. Be honest with your partners.
If your goal is to ultimately form a close emotional bond with someone, you'll need to tell that person exactly what you want and why you struggle with it. This way, you can both work on solutions to help overcome your hurdles and get closer.
"With any prospective partner you meet, you should be honest about your own attachment type and what it means," Peter Lovenheim, author of The Attachment Effect: Exploring the Powerful Ways Our Earliest Bond Shapes Our Relationships and Lives, writes at mbg. "There's no point in pretending to be more eager than you are for intimacy, cuddles, and soul-mating. You want, after all, to find someone who accepts your attachment type and will be comfortable with you just as you are."
4. Get real about self-compassion.
This isn't just a feel-good catchphrase for you. At core, people with fearful-avoidant personalities are suffering from relationship insecurity—an instilled belief that people in your life are going to reject or leave you, just like your earliest caregivers or loved ones did. You need to actively work to break that toxic mindset that views yourself as unworthy because of what happened in your past.
"Here's the truth: There's no person out there who can heal your attachment issues," couples counselor Margaret Paul, Ph.D., tells mbg. "True healing occurs when you learn to be the loving parent that you never had to yourself. In what ways did your childhood hurt you? How can you give yourself the security, support, and validation you never had?"
At the end of the day, there's nothing wrong with having sex with a lot of people and enjoying independence—as long as it's coming from a healthy place and serving a healthy purpose. Whether you're seeking physical delights, novelty, or emotional connection, your sexual lifestyle should nourish you. With inner work and conscious effort, you can get your lifestyle to match up with your real needs and desires.
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