Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science

Integrating the Attachment, Caregiving, and Sexual Systems into the Understanding of Sexual Satisfaction

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science

Integrating the Attachment, Caregiving, and Sexual Systems into the Understanding of Sexual Satisfaction

Article excerpt

Attachment theory stipulates that adult love relationships are governed by three interdependent behavioral systems: attachment, caregiving, and sex (P. R. Shaver, C. Hazan, & D. Bradshaw, 1988, Love as attachment: The integration of three behavioural systems. In R. J. Sternberg & M. Barnes (Eds.), The anatomy of love (pp. 68-98). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), but few studies have explored the link between the caregiving and sexual systems. In an attempt to complement current research, this study was designed to provide a better understanding of sexual satisfaction by exploring the interplay of these three systems. Specifically, we examined a model in which the dimensions of romantic attachment and caregiving predicted reasons for engaging in sexual intercourse that served a caregiving function and, ultimately were related to sexual satisfaction in a sample of 152 adults who were cohabiting with a romantic partner. Path analyses revealed that individuals low in attachment-related avoidance scored higher on caregiving proximity and sensitivity, which in turn were associated with having sex to express valuing one's partner, and higher sexual satisfaction. Individuals who score higher on attachment anxiety simultaneously reported lower caregiving sensitivity, which was negatively associated with having sex to express valuing one's partner and reported having sex to express this same value. Attachment anxiety was also associated with scores on the measure of exerting too much control while providing care. This was in turn associated with using sexuality to enhance one's sense of power. Our model explained 16% of the variance in sexual satisfaction. Findings are discussed in light of attachment theory and implications for couple therapy.

Keywords: attachment, caregiving, sexual motives, sexual satisfaction, romantic relationships

Problems in the sexual domain often result in frustration and conflicts in adult love relationships (Bergeron, Benazon, Jodoin, & Brousseau, 2008), and the resulting sexual dissatisfaction is a frequent motive for entering couple therapy (Doss, Simpson, & Christensen, 2004). Because a significant proportion of adults report sexual distress (Bancroft, Loftus, & Long, 2003; Mulhall, King, Glina, & Hvidsten, 2008; Smith et al., 2011; Vanwesenbeeck, Bakker, & Gesell, 2010), it is crucial to conduct research aimed at identifying and understanding factors underlying sexual dissatisfaction. Attachment theory offers a comprehensive framework for understanding romantic relationships and explaining sexual difficulties (e.g., Brassard, Péloquin, Dupuy, Wright, & Shaver, 2012; see Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007, for a review), and clinicians are beginning to integrate the theory and associated research findings into couple therapy focused on sexual distress (Johnson & Zuccarini, 2010). Attachment theory postulates that love relationships are governed by three interdependent behavioral systems: attachment, caregiving, and sexuality (Bowlby, 1969; Shaver, Hazan, & Bradshaw, 1988; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007). These innate systems develop and gain complexity over time as a result of repeated interpersonal interactions with close others (Bowlby, 1969). They organize individuals' responses in ways that, according to evolutionary history, fostered individuals' survival and reproductive success. The three systems are believed to influence one another, although they remain conceptually and psychologically distinct (Mikulincer, 2006).

The relations between the attachment system and the other two systems, considered individually, have received empirical support, but studies documenting the theorized relation existing among all three systems simultaneously are still lacking. Further, although there is research demonstrating an association between attachment orientations and sexual satisfaction (e.g., Brassard et al., 2012; Butzer & Campbell, 2008), much less is known about the interplay between attachment, motives for engaging in sexual behavior, and sexual satisfaction, especially in adult committed relationships. …

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