Are intimate human relationships driven by sex or are they driven by security?     Jeremy Holmes, Professor of Psychotherapy at the University of Exeter and author of  ‘The Search for a Secure Base’, would support the latter.  His is a domesticated view of sexuality.   He argues that our most fundamental needs are for security,  and good sex can only take place within a stable partnership. Good sex, he asserts, is like good conversation or good therapy, a mutual inspiration, the creation of something new that either partner could not achieve alone.  That can only occur if both partners are relaxed and trusting.  Insecurity leads to defensiveness which closes up creative possibilities. 


Holmes is an advocate of attachment theory.  He opposes Freud’s assertion that the intimacy we enjoy with our mothers in infancy, rather confusingly termed ‘infantile sexuality’, drives and conditions our attachment with each other.  Holmes believes that our needs for attachment precede and set the secure base for sexual exploration.


Speaking last month at The West Yorkshire Playhouse for The Harry Guntrip Trust, Holmes explained how notions of attachment and sexuality are quite contrary to each other.  ‘Attachment is  about familiarity’, he asserted, ‘but sexual excitation is about the  strangeness of the other – the unknown.  Mother mirrors all aspects of an infant’s behaviour except those that are explicitly sexual.  This non gratification of sex leaves the infant with a hunger for sexual intimacy, which is only gratified when they meet their future sexual partner.’    


Holmes equates sexuality with exploration; a search for novelty and excitement. As the experiments by Mary Ainsworth so clearly showed,  children who feel secure in the love of their mothers,  will play quite happily when she leaves the room and welcome her with a smile and hug when she returns.  As those children grow up, they carry the consistency of their mother’s love in their minds, creating the confidence to explore and seek the excitement of genital sex with a novel partner.  Without a secure base, we cannot trust, cannot imagine, cannot explore and are unable to enjoy satisfying sex.     


The psychoanalyst, Lawrence Eagle, imagined an essential conflict between sexuality and attachment, writing that mature relationships are always a trade off between our needs for attachment and security and our needs for exploration, sexuality and excitement.  The challenge is how to negotiate these conflicting needs. If you have too much attachment, sex won’t last, he argues, but if you have too much excitation, the relationship won’t last.  


Eagle’s dichotomy appears to indicate that biologically, human beings are not created to be faithful to one partner for all of their lives – and marriages are only held together by social pressure.  Or maybe that is a male perspective; the imperative of the ‘hunter’ in whom sex plays out the metaphor of exploration and conquest.  Many women have a different imperative – the gatherer –  the creation of a stable home and investment in the children.  Sex is then seen as reaffirming, consolidating, reassuring and bonding.  But maybe these different roles were socially conditioned by much harsher environments.        


It is true that as couples become more ‘attached’ and familiar with each other, they make love less often, but that does not necessarily imply that the relationship has become boring.  There are other sources of excitation besides sexuality.  As they grow together in companionship, successful couples develop a shared enthusiasm for creating a home together and raising their children, and for mutual interests within and outside the community.  Indeed, it could be that as couples mature and become more confident with each other, sex is needed less as a source of reassurance.   We might even say that with ageing couples, if sex has to be co-opted to shore up the relationship, it must feel very insecure.      



While acknowledging the perspective of  The Lone Ranger,  human beings are a social species.  Our families and social groups supply meaning and purpose to our lives.  The theory that sexuality and attachment are somehow in conflict seems wrong, not only from a viewpoint of the family and society, but also from an evolutionary perspective.  Why would we have a built in libidinal drive that threatens the health and very existence of our children?    


Freud’s notions of infantile sexuality make more sense if we transpose the term ‘intimacy’ for sexuality.  Freud said that ‘ultimately the ego is a body ego’. Attachment is physical before it is psychological.  We emerge from our mother’s body and attach to the breast.  We are reassured by cuddling,  kissing and stroking. Our mothers feed us, clean us, keep us warm, hold us.   If this is sexuality, it is not as we as adults know it; it is a whole body intimacy.  It is a physical attachment and as such, the nature of this early physical attachment cannot fail to set the template for  intimate and less intimate attachments later in life.  If it is confident and trusting, then, unless something happens to undermine that early experience, we will form confident and trusting adult relationships.  But if it is ambivalent or worse, even hostile, our adult relationships will lack trust and continue to be challenging and difficult.     


I would accept entirely the notion that secure attachment is a prerequisite for loving and confident sexual intercourse,  but that attachment is fundamentally a bodily attachment. We are physically attached to our mother before we are emotionally attached.  Our emotions, after all, are physical feelings put into context. 


Throughout life, physical intimacy is the foundation of good attachment. When couples fall in love, their intense physical desire fuels an intimacy, that dismantles defences and creates the bodily and emotional trust for lifelong attachment.  I wonder whether Holmes is right when he implies that good sex only occurs in the context of secure attachment.  His view is predicated on what he means by ‘good’.  Is this good sensation, morally right, or life enhancing?   Many couples have told me that their best sex occurred during the risky time of courtship, serving to consolidate trust and fix memories. 


Sex is not just a pelvic experience – like defaecation,  it is imbued with layers upon layer of memory and meaning.  It is those representations that make it ‘good’ or not.  ,  But the sexual experience itself emphasises and consolidates meaning by biological mechanisms.  Brain scanning has shown that orgasm can dissociate the hippocampus, releasing oxytocin (the attachment hormone) and reducing anxiety.  Couples relax and talk more openly, more freely, after sex. 


But it’s not just sexual intercourse that creates bonds, any type of physical relationship can do it.  The pain of natural childbirth and the intimacy of breast feeding also releases the love hormone oxytocin, which affirms the close bond between mother and child necessary to maintain the provision of care until maturity.  The physical intimacy of soldiers, the mutual fear, the pain of injury  creates life long friendships.  The same kind of bonding takes place in sports teams.  Families that are close and intimate stay together throughout life undeterred by geographical distance.  All of these examples suggest to me that within healthy relationships, sexuality, like other aspects of physicality is not in conflict with attachment, it is an essential part of an iterative interaction.        


Indeed I would go so far to say that if attachment and sexuality are separated, it is a recipe for disaster.  Love affairs offer the physical excitement of being in love without the possibility of resolution into trusting life-long relationships.  But when disconnected from attachment and used instead to gratify narcissistic requirements, sex can become a weapon in a struggle for dominance, deployed to manipulate, exploit and humiliate.  Lacking a satisfactory resolution, the romantic make believe must inevitably disintegrate into a grievous power struggle.  Selfish and debased, the physical relationship becomes by stages, addictive, sado-masochistic and hostile and may, in a climate of deception and betrayal, release forces that are terribly destructive, even lethal.   


If sexuality without attachment can be lethal, then attachment without sexuality can be moribund. If physical intimacy threatens the relationship by creating a dangerous dependence or releasing the fury emanating from a previous betrayal, then it is avoided and the relationship dies.     


But in many couples, attachment and sexuality are not so much disconnected as  unstable.  When attachment is insecure, sex is so often employed in the service of security – and herein lies the problem.  Just as an insecure, anxious child, becomes fretful if left and clings to its mother, so an insecure man or woman may only be able to feel secure after sexual intimacy.  Sex then becomes a rite of passage, a ticket to security.  We’ve fucked; therefore we must love each other. We’re safe – for the moment.  This insecurity can, however,  be exploited.  Some women learn to excite their partner’s jealousy in order to feel needed and then administer sex as an anxiolytic.  



To my mind, the distinction between sexuality and attachment is false dichotomy in healthy relationships and a dangerous one in those that are insecure.  Far from being an impossible combination,  physical intimacy is the magnetic force that bonds loving couples together and maintains the lifelong attachment necessary to raise their family  and then assist the children raise their families in turn.    But in the absence of a secure attachment or the prospect of a secure attachment, the magnets are reversed.  Then sexuality can be deployed to manipulate and control, keeping suspicious couples in a destructive division.