Student Research in Psychology at
Southeast Missouri State Univesity

Chapter 16:
Psychological Attachment and Human Sexuality

Amelia K. LeGrand, William E. Snell, Jr., and Martha Zlokovich
Southeast Missouri State University

 
       
Acknowledgments.  Portions of this research was conducted by the first author as partial fulfillment of her senior research seminar, supervised by the second author.  These data were presented at the annual meeting of the Southwestern Psychological Association, Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Also, gratitude is extended to XXX-Editor (xxx) and two anonymous reviewers for their peer-review commentary (this chapter was previously published in the xxxxxxx).

       
Proper citation:   LeGrand, A. K., Snell, W. E., Jr., & Zlokovich, M.  (2002).  Chapte
r 16:  Psychological attachment and human sexuality In W. E. Snell, Jr. (Ed.).  (2002).  Student research in psychology at Southeast Missouri State University. Cape Girardeau, MO: Snell Publications. WEB: http://cstl-cla.semo.edu/snell/books/intimate/intimate.htm.

     

Abstract

          Attachment behavior involves the nature of peopleís close relationships with others.  According to Bartholomew (1993), there are 4 distinct attachment styles:  secure, preoccupied, fearful, and dismissing.  The purpose of the investigation presented in Chapter 16 was to examine the relationship between these four attachment tendencies and human sexuality.  It was predicted that womenís and menís attachment tendencies would be predictive of their approach to their sexual relations.  The results provided evidence that:  (a) a secure attachment tendency was directly related to a companionate and caring approach to sex; (b) a fearful attachment was related to a game-playing approach to sex that lacked compassion and selflessness; (c) a preoccupied attachment style involved a possessive, dependent approach to sex; and (d) a dismissing attachment style involved a game-playing approach to sexual relations, coupled also with a relative lack of possessiveness and selflessness.  The discussion focuses on the implications of the current results for womenís and menís sexual relations.

 

Chapter 16:
Psychological Attachment and Human Sexuality

         In recent years, an increasing number of researchers have begun exploring the influence of attachment styles on adult romantic relationships (e.g. Bartholomew, 1991; Feeney & Noller, 1990; Hazan & Shaver, 1987; Simpson, 1990).  Most of this research was based on Bowlby's pioneering work on attachment behavior in infants (1969, 1973, 1980).

Childhood Attachment Theory

            Attachment behavior results when an individual develops or maintains a closeness with another who is identified to be better equipped to deal with the world (Bowlby, 1988).  It is most obvious when the person is afraid, fatigued, ill, or in danger.  Bowlby observed that infants became emotionally attached to their primary caregivers and emotionally distressed when separated from them.  When separated from the mother, an infant goes through a series of emotional reactions (Hazan & Shaver, 1987).  In an effort to reestablish contact with the caregiver, the infant cries, actively searches for comfort, and may resist the care of others.  The goal of this attachment system is to gain a sense of security (Sroufe & Waters, 1977).  The infant then comes to rely on the attachment figure as the base of his/her security. 

            Specific patterns of attachment behavior between infants and their caregivers signify different types of relationships.  Ainsworth, Blehar, Walters, and Wall (1978) identified three distinct patterns of infant attachment behavior:  secure, anxious-resistant/ambivalent, and avoidant.  Secure infants actively seek contact with their caregivers for security or protection when distressed, and generally are confident in exploration of their surroundings.  Anxious-resistant infants display ambivalence toward their caregiver when distressed and an inability to be comforted.  Avoidant infants are characterized by avoiding contact or interaction with the caregiver. 

            According to attachment theory, during infancy and childhood people develop internal representations of others as well as themselves (Bowlby, 1973).  Although these mental images may change, these representations ultimately continue throughout the life cycle, especially in the absence of traumatic life stresses (Scharfe & Bartholomew, in press).  Specifically, the infant-caregiver relationship becomes a model for relationships in later life (Bowlby, 1969).

Attachment in Adulthood

            Although attachment behavior is most observable in infants, it continues throughout the life span (Bowlby, 1988).  Consistent with this continuity notion, Hazan and Shaver (1987) expanded the idea of attachment to adult romantic relationships.  Based on the three infant attachment styles developed by Ainsworth et al. (1978), Hazan and Shaver identified similar patterns which characterize adult behavior.  Adults who are categorized by a secure attachment style tend to see themselves as being valued and worthy of the support and affection of others and to see others as being trustworthy and reliable.  Secure individuals develop closeness with others easily and feel comfortable with interdependency between partners.  Anxious/ambivalent individuals tend to feel misunderstood, unappreciated and perceive others as undependable.  They usually are unable to commit to a long-term relationship or they worry that their partners do not truly love them.  Those who have an avoidant style of attachment are emotionally distant and view others as unreliable.  They are uncomfortable being close to others and have difficulty trusting or depending on others (Simpson, Rholes, & Nelligan, 1992).

            Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991) expanded further on the model of adult attachment patterns proposed by Hazan and Shaver.  Their expanded approach was based on extensive questioning, self-reports, and partner-reports of young adults about their intimate relationships (Bartholomew, 1993).  In this manner, Bartholomew (1991) developed a four category model of adult attachment patterns with two underlying variables:  perception of self (dependence) and expectations of others (avoidance).  Each of these mental representations can be either positive or negative in nature, resulting in a fourfold attachment typology (i.e., secure, preoccupied, fearful, and dismissing) involving the positive and negative concepts of self and others.  A secure attachment style is characterized by a positive concept of self and others.  An individual with a secure attachment is comfortable with his/her personal autonomy and intimacy with others.  Individuals with a preoccupied attachment style view themselves negatively but have a positive concept of others, which drives them to relentlessly seek personal fulfillment in their intimate relationships.  They strive for self-acceptance by gaining others' acceptance.  A fearful attachment style is characteristic of individuals who feel unworthy and untrusting of others.  Individuals with this style avoid close relationships to protect themselves from anticipated rejection.  By contrast, a dismissing attachment style is typified by a sense of self-love but a negative desire for intimate contact.  These individuals protect themselves from disappointment through exaggerated independence and avoidance of intimate relationships.

            The purpose of the present investigation was to extend the concept of adult romantic attachment to the sexual aspects of people's intimate relationships.  More specifically, this investigation examined the relationship between the secure, preoccupied, fearful, and dismissing attachment tendencies, as measured by the Relationship Scales Questionnaire (Scharfe & Bartholomew, in press), and the the ways that people approach their sexual relations, as measured by the Sexual Approach Questionnaire (Snell, 1993).

Sexual Styles

            A sexual style is defined by Snell (1993) as the way individuals approach the sexual aspect of their intimate relationships.  This approach can be based on a variety of perspectives.  According to Snell (1993), people vary in the manner in which they approach their sexual relations, and the Sexual Approach Questionnaire (SAQ) was developed to measure eight specific ways that people approach their sexual relations (i.e., sexual styles):  (1) a passionate, romantic approach; (2) a game-playing approach; (3) a companionate, friendship approach; (4) a pragmatic (i.e., logical and rational) approach; (5) a possessive, dependent approach; (6) a selfless, all-giving approach, (7) a sensitive, caring approach; and (8) an exchange, quid pro quo approach toward sex.

            A passionate approach to sex is characterized by a passionate, romantic approach to sexual relations.  Those who take a game-playing approach to their sexual relations play the field.  A companionate, friendship approach to sexual relations is typical of the individual who prefers a slowly developing, lasting, and committed sexual relationship.  An individual with a pragmatic approach to sex is logical and takes a shopping-list approach to finding a sexual partner (i.e., the right person with the right attributes).  A manic sexual approach is defined by the individual who is dependent and possessive toward his/her sexual relationships.  An all-giving approach to sex is characteristic of the individual who is altruistic, selfless, and all-giving to his/her sexual partner.  A communal approach to sex involves sexual relations that emphasize caring and concern for a partnerís sexual preferences and needs.  An exchange sexual approach is characteristic of a person who keeps "tabs" on the "sexual favors" that s/he does for the other, with an expectation of being repaid in the near future.

            Based on the aforementioned literature, it was anticipated that peopleís attachment tendencies would form the basis from which they approach their sexual relations with others.  Several specific predictions were advanced.  Individuals characterized by a secure attachment style are comfortable with being intimate with others, and thus secure individuals should engage in a caring and sensitive approach to their sexual relationships.  Preoccupied individuals are driven to find relationship fulfillment in their partner; these people are very possessive of their mates as well as dependent on them.  Thus, it was expected that the preoccupied attachment style would be related to a manic type of sexual approach.  Fearful individuals are afraid of being intimate and avoid close relationships with others.  They may form relations but only for a short time; therefore, it was predicted that they would be less likely to take a friendship approach to their sexual relationships.  According to Bartholomew (1993), individuals who display a dismissing style of attachment try to protect themselves from disappointment by avoiding intimacy.  Thus, it was anticipated that they would take a game-playing approach to their sexual relations in order to avoid closeness.

Method

Participants

            Two hundred and two undergraduate students (64 males and 138 females) enrolled in lower and upper level psychology courses at a small Midwestern university were asked to volunteer to participate in the current research.  They received partial course credit for their participation.  Approximately 58% of the participants were 16 to 28 years of age, and the remainder were older.  Most (92.1%) of the sample were Caucasion-American, 6.4% were African-American, and 1.5% were of other ethnic backgrounds.  Approximately 77% of the participants had never been married, but 20% of the sample had children.  Over 55% of the participants reported being in a dating relationship, an additional 17.5% were cohabitating, and 19.5% were not currently in a relationship.  Most of the sample (91.1%) reported having been in love one or more times, and only 8.9% stated they had never been in love.

Materials

            Sexual Approach Questionnaire.  The Sexual Approach Questionnaire (SAQ; Snell, 1993) is a multidimensional self-report instrument designed to measure eight specific approaches to sexual relationships.  The SAQ is a fifty-seven item, 5-point Likert scale (from strongly agree to strongly disagree) that includes questions for each of the eight sexual styles:  (1) a passionate, romantic approach to sex ("I feel a strong "chemistry" toward my partner."), (2) a game-playing approach to sex ("I like playing around with a number of people, including my partner and others."), (3) a companionate, friendship approach to sex ("I expect to always be a friend to my sexual partner."), (4) a pragmatic (i.e., logical and rational) approach to sex ("Before I made love with my partner, I spent time evaluating her/his career potential."), (5) a possessive, dependent approach to sex ("If my partner became sexually involved with someone else, I wouldn't be able to take it."), (6) a selfless, all-giving approach to sex ("I would be willing to go out of my way to satisfy my sexual partner."), (7) a communal sensitive, and caring approach to sex ("I had to "care" for my partner before I could make love to him/her."), and (8) an exchange orientation toward sex ("I think people should feel obligated to repay an intimate partner for sexual favors.").  Preliminary evidence for the SAQ shows that it has acceptable levels of reliability, ranging from .79 to .91 (Snell, 1993).  Higher SAQ scores corresponded to greater amounts of each respective sexual approach.

            Relationship Scales Questionnaire.  The Relationship Scales Questionnaire (RSQ) is a measure developed by Bartholomew (Scharfe & Bartholomew, in press).  The RSQ is a thirty-item self-report instrument that was designed to assess four attachment styles:  (1) secure ("I find it relatively easy to get close to others."), (2) preoccupied ("I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like."), (3) fearful ("I am not sure that I can always depend on others to be there when I need them."), and (4) dismissing ("I am comfortable without close emotional relationships.").  Scores for females had an average reliability of .53, ranging from a low of .45 to a high of .58, and males' self-report scores had an average reliability of .49, ranging from a low of .39 to a high of .58 (Scharfe & Bartholomew, in press).  Higher scores indicated greater amounts of each respective attachment style.

            Other Scales. Also included in this questionnaire were other scales measuring important aspects of sexuality, relationship variables, and contraceptive behavior.  They were not specifically relevant to the predictions at hand and thus were not analyzed.

Procedure

            After students arrived at the testing room, a questionnaire packet was given to each participant.  The purpose of the investigation was briefly described to the subjects and they were asked to complete the informed consent sheet.  Complete confidentiality and anonymity were guaranteed.  The questionnaire booklet was completed in approximately 45 minutes.  The subjects were then completely debriefed.  Small groups of 11-30 students participated in each session.

Results

            A series of Pearson correlations were computed between the Relationship Scales Questionnaire (RSQ) and the Sexual Approach Questionnaire (SAQ).  These correlations are presented in Table 1.  Gender related correlations between the attachment styles and the sexual approaches were also computed.  These correlations are presented in Table 1 but will not be discussed because no predictions were made based on gender.  Since a large number of correlations were computed, only significance levels greater than .001 will be interpreted.


Table 1

Correlations Between the SAQ and Attachment Styles for Females and Males


SAQ

                        Attachment Styles                   

Subscales

Secure

Fearful

Preoccupied

Dismissing


1.

 Romantic, passionate approach to sex

 

Females

.17*

-.08

-.07

.11

 

Males

.17

-.18

-.17

-.21

 

Combined

.18**

-.12*

-.10

-.01

2.

Game-playing approach to sex

 

Females

-.18*

.31***

-.11

.22**

 

Males

-.33***

.24*

-.27*

.40***

 

Combined

-.23***

.28***

-.18**

.30***

3.

Companionate, friendly approach to sex

 

Females

.19*

-.15*

-.06

-.14

 

Males

.23*

-.34**

.22*

-.27*

 

Combined

.21***

-.21***

.05

-.19**

4.

Logical, rational approach to sex

 

Females

.21**

-.13

-.04

-.15*

 

Males

-.05

.07

.14

.02

 

Combined

.14*

-.07

.03

-.11

5.

Possessive, dependent approach to sex

 

Females

.13

-.02

.23**

-.26***

 

Males

.16

-.32**

.19

-.35**

 

Combined

.14*

-.12*

.22***

-.29***

6.

Selfless, all-giving approach to sex

 

Female

.26***

-.25**

-.03

-.22**

 

Males

.12

-.22*

.15

-.35**

 

Combined

.19**

-.23***

.02

-.24***

7.

Sensitive, caring approach to sex

 

Female

.27***

-.16*

.00

-.14

 

Males

.19

-.28*

-.03

-.15

 

Combined

.25***

-.20**

-.00

-.15*

8.

Exchange, quid pro quo approach to sex

 

Female

-.05

.15*

.04

-.24**

 

Males

-.13

.04

.08

.20

 

Combined

-.10

.12

.03

-.06


Note.  Combined N = 201-202; n for females = 138; n for  males = 63-64.  Higher scores on the SAQ correspond to greater amounts of each of the SAQ subscales.  Higher scores on the RSQ indicate greater amounts of each respective attachment style.

*p < .05.           **p < .01.            ***p < .001.
 

            Secure Attachment.  An inspection of Table 1 indicates that individuals who reported a more secure attachment with their intimate partner were more likely to approach the sexual aspects of that relationship in a sensitive, caring manner and with a companionate, friendly perspective; in addition, they were less likely to approach their sexual relationship with a game-playing perspective.

            Preoccupied Attachment.  The correlations presented in Table 1 reveal that the preoccupied attachment subscale was positively correlated with the SAQ subscale designed to measure a possessive, dependent approach to sex.  Thus, people who reported being preoccupied with their intimate relationships were more likely to be possessive about their partner and to take a dependent approach to their sexual relationships.

            Fearful Attachment.  Those individuals who described themselves as having a fearful attachment style were more likely to approach their sexual relations in a game like fashion, but were less likely to take either a companionate, friendship approach or a selfless, altruistic approach to their sexual relationships (see Table 1).

            Dismissing Attachment.  An inspection of Table 1 shows that individuals characterized by a dismissing attachment style reported taking a more game-playing approach to their sexual relationships.  Additionally, it was found that these same individuals were less likely to be characterized by either a possessive, dependent approach or a selfless, all-giving approach to their sexual relations.

Discussion

            Attachment behavior develops in infancy and becomes a model for later life relationships (Bowlby, 1969).  The purpose of the present study was to examine the relationship between  attachment styles and the manner in which people approach their sexual relationships.  As predicted, several patterns of results were found.  A secure attachment style was positively associated with a caring, sensitive perspective toward oneís sexual relationships, and also with a friendship but not a game-playing view of sex.  A fearful attachment was related to a game-playing approach to sex that lacked compassion and selflessness;and a preoccupied attachment style involved a possessive, dependent approach to sex.  Additionally, we found that a dismissing attachment style was characterized by a game-playing approach to sexual relations, coupled with a relative lack of sexual dependency and altruism.

Conclusion

            Relating attachment tendencies to sexuality is a relatively new area of study, and further research needs to be conducted to gain greater insight into the nature of this relationship.  One area that was not fully addressed in the current research concerns the issue of gender and age differences in the way that attachment styles influence peopleís approach their sexual relationships.  These two factors may play an important role in the link between attachment styles and sexual styles.  Since the sample in this study consisted of mostly traditional college students, the use of an older population in a future study is needed.  Secondly, in the current investigation a game-playing sexual style was found to be related to three of the four types of attachment styles.  This pattern might be partly explained by the tendency of the stereotypical college students to play the field and to not settle down until later in life.  Womenís and menís expectations about sexual styles may also be an important area for further research.

            The present study indicates that there is a relationship between attachment and sexual behavior.  As such, it represents a preliminary step toward gaining greater knowledge and insight into the impact of attachment patterns on the sexual styles of adults.
 


References

Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E.,& Walls, S.  (1978).  Patterns of attachment:  A psychological study of the strange situation.  Hillsdale, NJ:  Erlbaum.

Bartholomew, K., & Horowitz, L. M.  (1991).  Attachment styles among young adults:  A test of a four-category model.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 226-244. 

Bartholomew, K.  (1993).  From childhood to adult relationships:  Attachment theory and research. In S. Duck (Ed.).  Learning about relationships (pp. 30-62).  Newbury Park:  Sage Publications.

Bowlby, J.  (1969).  Attachment and loss:  Vol. 1. Attachment.  New York: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J.  (1973).  Attachment and loss:  Vol. 2. Separation:  Anxiety and anger.  New York:  Basic Books.

Bowlby, J.  (1980).  Attachment and loss:  Vol. 3. Loss.  New York:  Basic Books.

Bowlby, J.  (1988).  A secure base:  Parent-child attachment and healthy human development.  New York:  Basic Books.

Feeney, J. A., & Noller, P.  (1990).  Attachment style as a predictor of adult romantic relationships.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 281-291.

Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. R.  (1987).  Conceptualizing romantic love as an attachment process.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511-524.

Hendrick, C., & Hendrick, S. S.  (1986).  A theory and method of love.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511-524.

Hughes, T. G., & Snell, W. E., Jr.  (1990).  Communal and exchange approaches to sexual relations. Annals of Sex Research, 3,149-164.

Scharfe, E., & Bartholomew, K.  (in press).  Reliability and stability of adult attachment patterns.  Personal Relationships.

Simpson, J. A.  (1990).  The influence of attachment styles on romantic relationships.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 971-980.

Simpson, J. A., Rholes, W. S., & Nelligan, J. S.  (1992).  Support-seeking and support-giving within couples in an anxiety-provoking situation:  The role of attachment styles.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62, 434-446.

Snell, W. E.  (1993, April).  Sexual styles:  A multidimensional approach to sexual relations.  Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Southwestern Psychological Association, Austin, TX.

Sroufe, L. A., & Waters, E.  (1977).  Attachment as an organizational construct.  Child Development, 48, 1184-1199.


 

 

Copyright  © 2002
William E. Snell, Jr., Ph.D.
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