Passionate Love, Lust, and Attachment: The Neurochemistry of Falling in Love, Bonding, and Staying Lustful! (Pt.2)

Does love lead to lust? Can lust lead to love? And how does all of this somehow end up in our developing an attachment bond with someone else? This is Part 2 of my blog series on adult romantic passionate love, lust, and the formation of attachment bonds in couples.

Passionate Love, Lust, and Attachment: The Neurochemical Relationship Between Romantic Passionate Love, Sex, and Attachment (Blog 2 of 2)

In the early days of passionate love, sexual desire is increased due to increasing levels of dopamine and testosterone. This increased sexual activity may then also be implicated in the development of our attachment bonds. Should you worry that, despite your efforts at restraint, your repeated lustful nights with a new love interest might turn into passionate love and attachment? Can falling in love lead to lust, or can lust lead to love and bonding?

Both women and men have sexual cravings fueled by testosterone. Higher testosterone levels create greater lustful possibilities and motivate us to seek out others for sexual play. Sexual desire is recognized as different than adult passionate romantic love in different cultures and it has been shown to light up different regions of the brain in fMRI studies. In my previous related blog post titled “Passionate Love, Lust, and Attachment: The Neurochemistry of Romantic Passionate Love,” I referred to Fisher’s (2004) work linking higher levels of dopamine with romantic passionate love and how these higher dopamine levels increase the release of testosterone, the hormone of sexual desire. As a result of the romantic novelty, a new partner automatically drives up our testosterone levels because of the related increase in dopamine levels. However, Fisher notes that the reverse may also be true: sexual activity raises testosterone, which also increases dopamine and norepinephrine in our brains, which means you could end up creating a more stable attachment bond and falling in love with a casual sexual partner.

Eventually, romantic passionate love moves into the attachment phase of love. For some couples, this will mean the chemically-induced romantic passionate phase with its more energetic and exciting versions of their sex lives will begin to wane as the comfort, calm, and relaxation of attachment security sets in. With the ensuing shift in neurochemicals, the exaggeration of similarities and the obscuring of differences between partners will also wane and the realization that differences exist may become a source of conflict and diminished connectedness. For some partners, a feeling of sameness and oneness was an important driver of their passion in the first place. For others, these newfound differences will not threaten each partner and can instead become a place of intrigue, curiosity, and new learning. At this stage, secure attachment might provide couples with the best possibilities for navigating the recognition of self-related differences as partners feel enough safety and trust in the relationship to tolerate and explore the difference.

Once the attachment phase of the relationship settles in, Esther Perel (2006), author of Mating in Captivity, notes that couples can struggle to reclaim the passion of these earlier days as it is difficult to reconcile the safety and security of long-term attachment with the excitement of eroticism. For Perel, the erotic is the exotic, meaning desire requires risk-taking, novelty, and space, which can certainly oppose the safety and security focus of the attachment phase of the relationship. Some partners who are securely attached continue to keep a healthy level of desire in their sexual relationships because secure attachment allows them to take sexual risks and create sexual novelty without the fear of rejection. The securely attached are, therefore, able to continue to explore the sexual, erotic, and novel, within the context of a safe, secure, and nurturing relationship (Zuccarini, 2004; 2008; Johnson & Zuccarini, 2010; 2012).

Further neurochemical action tethers together passion, sex, and attachment. Oxytocin is the attachment-related neuropeptide that may be physiologically implicated in the process of moving us from passionate love and lust to an attachment bond with our beloved. For instance, oxytocin increases dramatically during sexual arousal and orgasm, as well as in pair-bonding (Hazan & Zeifman, 1999). What this means is that, while we are lustful, we also benefit from the attachment neuropeptide, which results in a sense of calm, safety, security, and relaxation. We are then motivated to seek out the pleasure of sex and the ensuing sense of calm and relaxation caused by oxytocin. Over time, sexuality becomes a space that can deepen our attachment to another as a result of the release of oxytocin involved in our sexual interactions. In this way, we are tethered together through passion, sex, and attachment in a neurochemical manner!

Clinicians at CFIR work to support clients to develop passionate relationships within the context of secure attachment bonds. The more securely attached you are with your loved one, the more you can take risks to share your passions, fantasies, and explore the erotic without fear of judgement, rejection, and abandonment. At CFIR we recognize that sexual desire that includes novelty and risk-taking can solidify secure attachment, while at the same time understanding that secure attachment can facilitate the risk-taking and novelty required for a relationship of romantic passionate love.

Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych. is CEO and co-founder of the CFIR. He has published book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject of attachment, attachment injuries in couples, and attachment and sexuality. He has taught courses at the University of Ottawa in Interpersonal Relationships, Family Psychology, and Human Sexual Behaviour. He has a thriving clinical practice in which he treats individuals suffering from complex attachment-related trauma, difficult family of origin issues that have affected self and relationship development, depression and anxiety, personality disorders, sex and sexuality-related issues, and couple relationships. At CFIR, he also supports the professional development of counsellors, psychotherapists, and supervised practice psychologists by providing clinical supervision.

Passionate Love, Lust, and Attachment: The Neurochemistry of Falling in Love, Bonding, and Staying Lustful!

We are all hardwired to fall in love, share lustful moments, and bond with others. In fact, there are complex neurochemicals that are released during all of these different phases of relationship development. In this 2-part blog series, I will share important information with you about the neurochemistry of falling in love, how falling in love influences lust, how lust influences falling in love, and how all of this leads to attachment bonding in relationships!

Passionate Love, Lust, and Attachment: The Neurochemistry of Romantic Passionate Love (Blog 1 of 2)

Have you ever found yourself tightly gripping and constantly checking your cellphone awaiting contact from your new love interest? If so, you may be in the phase of the universal experience of adult romantic passionate love. Across history and cultures, we have fallen in love, lusted for others, and attached to them as a result of innate emotion-motivation systems in the brain that drive us to create relationships. In her book Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, Helen Fisher (2004) describes the adult romantic passionate love phase as an initial phase in the formation of an adult attachment bond. Read on to find out how the neurotransmitters in our brain – dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin – are implicated in you falling in love.

First, Fisher described the universal experience of romantic love based on her research. When falling in love, our new partner is imbued with special meaning (i.e., unique, all-important, novel). We also develop strong focus as our beloved becomes the centre of our attention and we pay special notice of our shared events, messages, music, etc. During this period, we also aggrandize our new love. We may magnify positive aspects of our adored one while minimizing flaws and exaggerating our similarities. We experience intrusive thoughts as we just cannot stop thinking about our new loved one. Emotionally, Fisher describes us as being “on fire.” We experience intense emotions and find ourselves feeling anxious, shy, and awkward at times. We have an increase in energy as well. All of a sudden we find ourselves staying up late, having sex all night, and still making it to work … then doing it all over again the next day. This energy burst also comes with a loss of appetite and sleeplessness. Driven by a deep stirring to connect, our moods can shift rapidly from ecstasy to despair depending on whether our beloved is as responsive to us as we would like. We also become hypersensitive looking for clues about whether our beloved is into us or not! Finally, Fisher noted that when we are infatuated, we are more likely to change elements of our personal identity like clothing and music preferences, alter our mannerisms and habits, and even take on new values, all to win over our new love interest.

Once you fall in love, it is hard to turn back, as a result of the numerous neurotransmitters at play. Fisher’s research using fMRI studies found that dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine are the neurotransmitters at the root of passion for our new love. She found elevated levels of dopamine, which is at the root of the hyper focus, high motivation, high energy, and exhilaration, sleeplessness, and loss of appetite. She claims that this neurotransmitter, when heightened during romantic passionate love, creates something within us similar to an addiction process, intense dependency, and cravings to be with our lover. High levels of dopamine are also found in fMRI studies of individuals experiencing a drug addiction. Love becomes so addictive at this point that when you do not have access to your new loved one, more dopamine is released to energize you to focus on further pursuing the reward of being with them. Testosterone, the hormone at the root of sexual desire, is also increased in our bodies as a result of the higher levels of dopamine. In other words, increases in dopamine come with novelty and passionate love, which then increases sexual desire through a heightening of testosterone.

Finally, the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and serotonin are also implicated in romantic passionate love. Increased norepinephrine adds to the high, exhilaration, energy, and sleeplessness we experience, and fuels us to remember the smallest details about our lover. Serotonin is lowered, which results in the obsessiveness and racing thoughts we experience. With increases in dopamine and norepinephrine, and decreases in serotonin, we enter into positive states of mind about the other and obscure negative aspects of the beloved. We are neurochemically primed through these transmitters to also experience a sense of oneness based on exaggeration of similarities and minimization of difference. These effects facilitate a sense of symbiosis, which eventually wanes after about 8 to 12 months when the tidal wave of neurochemicals subsides. At this point, we begin to realize our differences with our beloved, which can then bring on more conflict for some couples. Fisher’s conclusion based on fMRI studies was that adult romantic passionate love is a primary motivation system in the brain and stems from the changes in neurotransmitters summarized in this blog post.

Fisher’s research studies explain why in the early stages of a relationship, particularly during the adult romantic passionate love phase, many partners will describe having had “tons of great sex” and then later wonder “where did it go?!” For those of you who wondered, this chemically heightened period that revs your sexual motor only lasts for about one year. After this period, sex within the context of an attachment bond becomes motivated by different goals. See my other blogs on attachment and sex, including Part 2 of this blog series, to see what happens to couple sexuality once couples move from romantic passionate love to a more stable long-term bond.

Clinicians at CFIR work to support clients to develop passionate relationships and secure attachment bonds. We recognize that novelty and a connection are important contributors to a lifetime of passion. We also support our clients to recognize that falling in love might be a different experience from the process of establishing a secure attachment bond with a partner. Once the adult romantic passionate love phase ends, usually within one year, the dust settles and our self and relationship experience can shift. Learn how to recognize the telltale signs of whether you have found Mr./Ms. Right in a future blog post titled “Is This Mr./Ms. Right or Wrong?: Consider This Dating and Relationship Screener Before You Say ‘I Do’”, so that when the adult romantic passionate love phase settles, you will be ready for a lifetime of love.

Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych. is CEO and co-founder of the CFIR. He has published book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject of attachment, attachment injuries in couples, and attachment and sexuality. He has taught courses at the University of Ottawa in Interpersonal Relationships, Family Psychology, and Human Sexual Behaviour. He has a thriving clinical practice in which he treats individuals suffering from complex attachment-related trauma, difficult family of origin issues that have affected self and relationship development, depression and anxiety, personality disorders, sex and sexuality-related issues, and couple relationships. At CFIR, he also supports the professional development of counsellors, psychotherapists, and supervised practice psychologists by providing clinical supervision.

The Separation-Individuation Process: Being Too Other-Directed Leads to Anxiety and Depression

Blog 2 in a 3 Part Series on the Developmental Roots of Anxiety and Depression: Linking Separation-Individuation to Depression and Anxiety

We all need to find our own “voice” and develop our own authentic identity! In this blog post, find out how anxiety and depression can arise when we are too directed by ‘others’ in our self-development.

When we are unsure of what we honestly think, feel, need, and desire, or are driven too much by what others think and feel, we can become disconnected, “unanchored,” and “decentred” from our authentic and true self. This uncertainty can lead to poor mental health outcomes, including anxiety and depression.

Margaret Mahler, the mother of separation-individuation theory, used empirical research to create a developmental model explaining how we develop a separate sense of our self and identity from our parents as we grow up. To develop a healthy sense of our self, we need to be able to become our own psychological beings – our own selves – separate from our parents. We need to develop our personal self boundary, which can grow and change over time from childhood to adulthood. Our parents, friends, and partners can facilitate and support us to develop our own “voice” and self-definition. They can do this by acknowledging, attuning to, and accepting our individual authentic self-expression (i.e., our personal reactions, thoughts, opinions, feelings, desires, and needs). Eventually, we also then need to tolerate that others will have their own self boundary and self definition and may validate who we are, but not necessarily think, feel, need, or desire the exact same things we do. We need to learn how to develop our own self boundary and respect others’ boundaries.

Sometimes parents can struggle with allowing their child to develop a separate sense of self. A lot of pressure can be exerted on the child to conform to the parent’s self and personality. Some parents leave their child with a sense of guilt, shame, or fear when the child is expressing his or her true authentic self or “voice.” Parents can also put significant pressure on children by being overly harsh and critical to ensure conformity to the parents’ wishes. We can lose confidence in our self and become self-critical to meet our parents’ expectations. Later on, we might then lack the confidence to express our true self to others or perhaps feel unsafe expressing our self-doubts and uncertainties. This high self-criticism and low self-confidence can lead to anxiety and depression.

Throughout our lives, we face many different developmental stages that require us to define and redefine our self boundary and self-identity on an ongoing basis. We need to figure out for ourselves who we are, what we like and do not like, what education and training we are going to pursue, what types of relationships or family we want to create, and what work we will do to become a productive member of society. If we let other people’s thoughts, feelings, preferences, desires, and needs define these aspects of our self for us, we can lose our selves and become “unanchored” and “decentred.”

Clinicians at CFIR support you to develop your own authentic “voice” so that your life’s choices and decisions are rooted in your genuine thoughts, feelings, desires, and needs. We can help you to find your own self boundary and self-definition. We can support you in learning how to direct your life from within. Developing a life that is more rooted in your own authentic and true self creates more certainty and confidence, allowing you to pursue a life that is purposeful, meaningful, and fulfilling.

Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych. is CEO and co-founder of the CFIR. He has published book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject of attachment, attachment injuries in couples, and attachment and sexuality. He has taught courses at the University of Ottawa in Interpersonal Relationships, Family Psychology, and Human Sexual Behaviour. He has a thriving clinical practice in which he treats individuals suffering from complex attachment-related trauma, difficult family of origin issues that have affected self and relationship development, depression and anxiety, personality disorders, sex and sexuality related issues, and couple relationships. At CFIR, he also supports the professional development of counsellors, psychotherapists, and supervised practice psychologists by providing clinical supervision.

Secure Attachment: Relying and Depending on Others May Be an Antidote Against Depression and Anxiety

This blog post is the first in a series of three posts in which I share with you some of the developmental roots of anxiety and depression. These blogs explore how anxiety and depression may be linked to how you learned to attach with others (attachment), how you developed into a distinct, separate person from your parents (separation-individuation), and how your self-esteem developed in your early years (healthy narcissism).

Blog 1 in a 3 Part Series on the Developmental Roots of Anxiety and Depression: Linking Attachment to Depression and Anxiety

We all need other people! Some of us cherish total self-sufficiency and try hard to not rely on anybody else – but we still need other people anyways. Being able to rely and depend on others can improve our mental health outcomes. In this blog, I help you understand the link between secure attachment and positive mental health.

John Bowlby, the father of attachment theory, recognized that our reliance and dependence on attachment figures exists from “the cradle to the grave.” According to attachment theory, we are hardwired to seek relationships with others to help us deal with emotional distress and stress in our lives. In the beginning, as infants, we are highly dependent on our caregivers to provide us with both physical and emotional care. When parents provide sufficient care, we go on to develop a positive sense of our self as lovable and worthwhile. We also go on to develop a sense of others as potentially trustworthy, reliable, and dependable when we are distressed and in need of physical or emotional care. As a result of their responsiveness, we become more securely attached. Secure attachment helps us develop more confidence and self-esteem because our self mattered and continues to matter to others when we are distressed. We are also more easily able to reach out for others when in need of support when facing challenging life circumstances because we remember that others can provide potential solutions to our distress. Secure attachment is a healthy antidote to stress, anxiety, and depression!

Research suggests that individuals suffering from mental health issues also tend to be insecurely attached to others. Insecurely attached individuals are less able to efficiently or effectively signal to others, or do not signal to others at all, when distressed. Developing relationships that allow for reciprocal and mutual caring is important because as humans we are not designed to be emotionally distressed and isolated. When we are alone and isolated with the stress and distress of everyday life, our mental health can deteriorate. Insecurely attached individuals cannot turn to others, or they are not effective in their efforts to seek soothing, comfort, or problem-solving responses from others. In their childhoods, their attachment figures may not have been accessible and responsive to their physical and emotional care needs. As a result of these earlier experiences involving non-responsiveness of caregivers, deep down the insecurely attached individual may feel unlovable and unworthy of care or believe that others will be unreliable, undependable, and untrustworthy when in need of support. In the present day, prolonged emotional distress and stress without a connection to others and without foreseeable solutions can contribute to anxiety and depression symptoms. Many individuals with anxiety and depression have difficulties in their attachment with others.

Clinicians at CFIR can support you to create stronger bonds in your relationships with others through an assessment of your attachment style and treatments that enhance your capacity to develop and maintain healthy relationships. Learning how to experience and express your emotions and needs to others in a safe and secure relationship is central to becoming securely attached. Being able to rely and depend on others, and develop reciprocal and mutual attachment relationships with others, is key to our mental health and wellbeing.

Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych. is CEO and co-founder of the CFIR. He has published book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject of attachment, attachment injuries in couples, and attachment and sexuality. He has taught courses at the University of Ottawa in Interpersonal Relationships, Family Psychology, and Human Sexual Behaviour. He has a thriving clinical practice in which he treats individuals suffering from complex attachment-related trauma, difficult family of origin issues that have affected self and relationship development, depression and anxiety, personality disorders, sex and sexuality related issues, and couple relationships. At CFIR, he also supports the professional development of counsellors, psychotherapists, and supervised practice psychologists by providing clinical supervision.

Attachment Styles in the Workplace

by: Edgar Prudcoi, B.A. 

Do you often struggle with specific difficulties at work and have a hard time understanding where they stem from? Whether it is a consistent difficulty saying ‘no’ to a superior when you feel overworked or having challenges sharing your ideas in a meeting, how we experience and relate to ourselves and others within the workplace affects our overall well-being and career satisfaction. Workplace stress and difficulties we face can be influenced by our unique levels of attachment anxiety and avoidance. 

From a young age and into adulthood, we develop an attachment style that serves as a subconscious mental program that influences the way we perceive and relate to ourselves and others. Our attachment styles shape our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours automatically and often without much conscious awareness. Our attachment style ultimately presents itself in the workplace in various ways; knowing our style can help us improve our work-related functioning and overcome the difficulties we have while at work.

Here are descriptions and tips on how to deal with attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance in the workplace:

1) Anxious Attachment:

Anxiously attached individuals fear upsetting or disappointing people and have doubts about their worth or capabilities. This fear-based attachment style can show up at work through actions such as compulsively checking your email to make sure nothing is wrong, worrying about being liked or valued by colleagues, and seeking frequent feedback or reassurance about your performance. When you worry, the fight or flight mode generated by your nervous system hijacks you in those moments and makes it difficult to focus on accomplishing your work or feel positive emotions at work. 

How to manage anxious attachment at work:

Begin to work on creating a more positive and nurturing relationship with yourself and remind yourself of your abilities, worth, and accomplishments. Explore the parts of yourself that you, your colleagues, and superiors value about you and the evidence that you are an asset at work. 

Take a step back and approach circumstances and interactions at work by developing a positive and realistic self-dialogue rather than taking a critical view of yourself. Doing so may sound like, “the constructive feedback I received isn’t because I am a bad employee, I am doing my best, and now I know what I can improve on to become even better.” 

2) Avoidant Attachment:

Dismissive avoidant individuals may have a positive self-evaluation and a negative view of others as less capable, less intelligent, or unreliable. A fearfully avoidant person will have a fear of an attachment relationship and also a negative view of others as being undependable or untrustworthy. This fear can be experienced in the workplace by avoiding forming relationships because of mistrust or perceptions that you cannot rely on or depend on others. This also may lead to tendencies of micromanaging and monitoring employees and more likely dismissing input from others. If you have a fearfully avoidant attachment style, you may feel “stuck” with your work when you do not trust yourself or others with it. This feeling may show up as not getting started on a project because you feel incapable of completing it and lacking trust in sharing your difficulties with others, which may lead to developing a ‘why bother trying’ mentality. 

How to manage avoidant attachment at work: 

Acknowledge that others may also have valuable ideas or contributions. Approach colleagues and yourself with curiosity rather than judgment or defensiveness. Notice the tendency to put achievements ahead of relationships at work and be mindful of tending to both. Make sure to encourage yourself to communicate with others and develop trust to delegate work and ask for help. Be cautious of thoughts that suggest, “It will be better if I do it.” 

For fearfully avoidant attachments, try some tips discussed to manage the anxious attachment style while also making small and manageable steps to work through what it is you’re avoiding.

Are you ready to better understand and master the mental and emotional parts of striving for a successful career and a balanced life? CFIR’s mental health professionals can help! 

Edgar Prudcoi, B.A. is a therapist at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR) in Toronto and is working on completing his Masters degree in Clinical Psychology at the Adler Graduate Professional School. He supports individual adults and couples to deal with difficulties related to emotion (e.g., depression, anxiety, anger), the effects of trauma, loss and grief, conflict resolution, and relationship functioning.

Attachment Style and Couple Sexual Issues

According to attachment theory, as a result of early year interactions with caregivers, we either become securely attached or insecurely attached—either anxiously or avoidantly attached.  Attachment style then influences sexuality in complex ways. Anxiously attached partners in the bedroom might be seeking out sex for reassurance of self or attachment fears.  For example, they may feel less positive about themselves (e.g., undesirable or unattractive), and/or have worries about the availability, accessibility, and responsiveness of their partner.  Strong sexual desire is fuelled by the need for self and attachment reassurance. Avoidantly attached partners are not motivated sexually in the same way.  These partners are more likely to focus on the pleasure-oriented aspects of sex only and have difficulties with feelings of closeness.  Some avoidantly attached partners will have sex for duty’s sake. Arousal and desire problems arise when anxiously or avoidantly attached partners are unable to fulfill these goals.  

The clinicians at CFIR support couple partners to discover the multiple ways in which securely attached partners experience and explore sexuality. The couple and sex therapy clinicians at CFIR use a wide variety of strategies to support couple partners to build more confidence in their sexuality, greater eroticism, and desire.

Sex and Attachment

by: Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych and Dr. Marie-Pierre Fontaine-Paquet, Psy.D., C.Psych.

Are you struggling with sex in your relationships

How you relate to your partners sexually is affected by how you relate to each other outside of sex.

In the CFIR blog post ‘Anxiety and Your Relationships’, we describe how attachment theory may help you to understand your experience of your self and others in your relationships. We also talk about the concept of attachment style, which includes ways of seeing your self (“Am I worthy of love and care?”) and others (“Are you there for me, will you respond when I need you?”) in your close relationships. Sex can be viewed as an attachment behavior, and thus your attachment style affects how you engage in sex. Attachment anxiety and avoidance can interfere with enjoying sex and creating an enriching and fulfilling erotic life.

If you are anxiously attached, you might have doubts about your self-worth and attractiveness, and about your partner’s availability to meet your feelings and needs. Sex can be a way to obtain reassurance about these things – about whether your partner finds you beautiful or sexy, and about whether your partner loves you, cares about you and wants to be close to you. When sex is a way for you to obtain reassurance and to soothe your deep fears about your self or your relationship, you may become demanding and critical of partners when they do not respond to you sexually in the ways that you hoped.

If you are avoidantly attached, you might find it difficult to be close to your partner during sex because you fear rejection by your partner. You might tend to keep more distance during sex and be more focused on tasks and duties, and on performing in such a way that is pleasing to your partner. It might be difficult for you to access your true desires, feelings, and needs and to share these with your partner. You might also struggle with understanding and being attuned to your partner’s feelings and needs when you are so focused on performance and tasks during sex.

When sex becomes a place filled with fear, it may be difficult for both partners to be in touch with, explore and share their erotic potentials and all that sex has to offer.

Here are some tips on how to deal with attachment anxiety and avoidance during sex:

For the anxiously attached:

  • If you have doubts about your self-worth and attractiveness, start working on nurturing a more positive relationship with yourself and your body – as opposed to overly relying on your partner’s responses to reassure you. Try to explore what makes you feel sexy and nurture these parts of yourself.
  • Try not to over-interpret your partner’s cues as being related to you, how much they care about you and your relationship. Learn to calm yourself and to take a step back to notice all of the other factors that may be influencing your partner’s responses to you.

For the avoidantly attached:

  • Develop more awareness of your true desires, feelings, and needs. Try to take a risk to share these with your partner and talk about what interests and excites you in sex – instead of avoiding taking risks by distancing yourself during sex or even avoiding sex altogether.
  • Learn to be more present to your own and your partner’s desires, feelings, and needs during sex. Recognize when you are distancing from yourself and your partner, and remember that the more you distance, the more you can create distress in your relationship.

A psychologist can:

  • help you find and create a more fulfilling sex life by working with you individually and/or as a couple.
  • assess your attachment style and its impact on your sex life, help you understand your sexual desires, emotional reactions, and needs, and help you communicate these to your partner more effectively.
  • help you learn how to respond to your partner’s desires, feelings and needs to help you build a more secure and satisfying sexual relationship.

Especially when couples feel stuck in constant negative interactions as a result of fears that block sexual fulfillment and erotic exploration, a psychologist can help you better understand these moments and help you create more security in your relationship. Over time, sex can feel less dangerous and become a space to explore and connect in movement, touch and shared emotions of excitement and joy.

Read more about our Relationship & Sex Therapy Treatment Service.

Anxiety and Your Relationships

Written by Dr. Dino Zuccarini and Tatijana Busic

Welcome to our third blog on anxiety! Today, we’ll be sharing some interesting information about anxiety and your relationships to others, such as your partner and children.

Several decades ago a British psychiatrist, John Bowlby, developed attachment theory, which provides a framework to understand how we experience our self and others in our relationships. Attachment theory helps explain the anxiety we can experience in relationships.

Attachment theory suggests that as human beings we are biologically hard-wired to seek out others and to connect to them—emotionally, psychologically and physically. These connections provide nurturance, soothing, contact and comfort to help us ease distress in everyday life.  Attachment is from the ‘cradle to the grave’—-beginning with the soothing, non-verbal communications between a mother and child (e.g., comfort of a mother’s sound, smell and gaze to newborns) through to the nurturing, caring and intimate moments in our adult relationships with our partners (e.g., emotional, physical and sexual intimacy). Our experiences in these close relationships—from childhood and throughout our lives—play a role in determining something psychologists refer to as our attachment style.

When we have experiences in which our primary attachment figures (i.e., mother, father or whomever took care of us when we were younger) have been generally responsive to our feelings and needs growing up, we learn to be securely attached to others.  In these circumstances, we develop a positive sense of our self— we see ourselves as competent, worthwhile, and lovable. We are also more likely to see other people in a positive light— reliable, dependable, and trustworthy. Early attachment relationships are the primary mechanism for developing our capacity for healthy relationships with others. We learn how to tune into our own feelings and needs and express them to others. We also learn how to empathize with others — the ability to tune into what others are feeling and respond appropriately. We also discover how to create closeness with others, while being independent and tolerating distance from our loved ones. 

When we are raised in inconsistent environments — too much or not enough attention from our caregivers — then we might become anxiously attached to others.  An anxiously attached person may have a negative sense of self —and may see themselves as unlovable or unworthy of care — while continuing to hold out hope that others are trustworthy, reliable and will eventually respond to their connection needs.  An anxiously attached individual may experience fear about the availability of important people in their lives—they become preoccupied with how available their partner, friends or family members are to respond to their feelings and needs. These individuals may express a lot of emotional distress to communicate their feelings, needs and concerns to others, and at times, may come across as demanding in their efforts to solicit attention, care and support—this kind of anxious attachment can be overwhelming for others. 

When you are anxiously attached, you also tend to overly rely on your children and partner for reassurance, affirmation and validation.  You overly seek out others to reassure you and to soothe your anxiety about others not being available to you. You may need too much closeness and those around you might feel smothered. Your children and partner may get a sense that there is not a lot of room for them in the relationship — and stop sharing with you as a result — or they themselves might have to increase their expressions to been seen and heard. 

If we are raised in environments where others were harsh and rejecting, we may become avoidantly attached to others. This attachment style makes expressing needs or feelings really hard—the other person is viewed negatively as unreliable and undependable during a moment of need. Avoidantly attached people  experience significant amounts of anxiety as a result of the unavailability of their caregivers—however, their strategy is different than the anxiously avoidant—they learn how to avoid emotions to deal with emotional distress. 

When distressed, avoidantly attached individuals struggle to express their feelings and needs—and, dependency on others for care and support does not seem possible during these moments. When dealing with difficult life moments they dismiss their own and others’ emotions as a strategy to cope—expressing themselves feels risky and may subject them to painful rejection once more.  As a result of this strategy, children or partners may feel that you are unavailable or unable to tune into or attend to their emotional needs while you seek even more distance to avoid difficult feelings. Given these difficulties avoidantly attached individuals often over focus on tasks, rules and duties in their relationships—while struggling to understand others’ feelings and needs. This avoidance often results in significant others becoming anxious and distressed because they feel you are unavailable and unable to connect with them. 

Here are some tips on how to deal with attachment anxiety or avoidance in your relationships:  

For the anxiously attached:

  • If you are anxious and preoccupied in your relationships, start working on developing a greater sense of yourself — learn how to enjoy a good book, find a hobby, keep yourself busy with activities—as opposed to being overly preoccupied with your children and partner.
  • When you are worried about whether or not others are there for you, remember a time that you felt connected to others. Reframe how you think about the absence of loved ones. Try not to get overwhelmed by negative thoughts about their absence (e.g., I’m alone, I miss them), and focus on positive thoughts and feelings (e.g., I look forward—and feel excitement—thinking about my beloved returning home).
  • Try to notice when you may be seeking too much closeness or reassurance from others and try to slow this process down. Although you are feeling fearful or doubtful about whether those closest to you love you—the more you do this, the more they might push you away. Learn to recognize themental and physical cues of anxiety and learn to calm yourself prior to communicating to others.

For the avoidantly attached:

  • Notice what you are thinking and feeling in these situations. Practice giving your feelings and needs a label—What do you feel and need? Take a risk to express these feelings and needs to a close friend or your partner. 
  • Learn how to recognize and attune to others’ feelings and needs. If you are not sure, ask them what they need or how they feel. Remember that the more you distance in moments of distress (yours or others), the more distress you create in your relationships.
  • Recognize when you are distancing from yourself and others. Try to observe yourself inmoments of emotional discomfort and to catch yourself in this distancing strategy. 

A psychologist can help you assess your attachment style and its impact on important relationships (i.e., relationship with family, partner, children, friends and colleagues). After identifying your attachment style, a psychologist can help you to understand your own emotional reactions and needs and communicate to others more effectively. A psychologist can also help you learn how to respond to others’ feelings and needs so your relationships feel more secure and more satisfying. 

Read more about CFIR’s Anxiety, Stress & Obsessive-Compulsive Treatment Service.