Love Style, Sex, and Stress
Love Style. By about two months of age, an infant begins to take an intense interest in the mother’s face, especially the eyes. Thus begins the first real communication: the gaze-avert game. Baby looks into mother’s eyes (gaze); mother is there with a smile, and they both get excited; baby looks away (avert), and they both relax. Baby looks back (gaze) and, ideally, mother is there with a smile and a friendly voice; baby smiles and looks away (avert). And so it continues.
In the laboratory, when mother and infant wore electrode caps to show a printout of brain activity and electrodes to monitor heart rate and other physiological measures, the neurosciences made a startling discovery. The measures for both mother and infant showed an identical activation in the same area of the right brain and stress levels that were completely synchronized. Both nervous systems were activated when the two looked into each other’s eyes, and a relaxation response was triggered in both during the avert phase.
This is nature’s original wireless connection. Mother and baby are essentially instant-messaging, left eye to left eye, right brain to right brain. The look in the mother’s eyes, her tone of voice, and her smile or frown become the implicit nonverbal messages that signal safety or threat to the baby. In this way, mother and baby become a mutual stress-regulatory system.
But it doesn’t stop there. Our parents’ ability to regulate our stress in childhood can affect whether we are secure or insecure in a sexually intimate relationship twenty or more years later.
Attachment styles in childhood
This affect synchrony, in which mother and infant are energetically tuned in to each other, becomes the basis for a secure attachment in which the mother allows the baby to disengage and is present and available with an expressive face when the baby comes back to reengage.
A secure attachment style in a child tends to be associated with an attentive, warm, and intuitive mother who can allay her child’s distress. Soft eye contact, smiles, and a warm and soothing tone of voice help an infant to achieve a sense of calm after being upset. These facial expressions and gestures become the unspoken, implicit messages that balance his or her nervous system and foster a sense of safety, self-worth, and trust.
An insecure-anxious attachment style tends to be associated with an anxiously intrusive mother who doesn’t allow the child to disengage. Such a child lacks confidence and has a tendency to cry and be clingy and dependent. The implicit messages of threat here may be darting eyes, a tense and high-pitched tone of voice, and a tight mouth.
An insecure-avoidant attachment style may be the result of depressed, rejecting, or unavailable mother. These children may actively avoid their parents; they have learned to rely on themselves and take care of their own needs. Here the implicit messages may be an expressionless or detached face, avoidance of eye contact, and a tight down turned mouth.
An ambivalent attachment style is likely to develop in a child whose mother or primary caretaker is inconsistent or undependable. These children never know when they will be loved or wounded by the same person. They are likely to learn to be cautious about the temporary nature of love and suspicious of the likelihood that a good feeling can turn bad in an instant. Their parents’ faces and demeanors can turn in an instant from being affectionate and nurturing to punishing and threatening.
Naturally, a warm and attentive father can have a major impact on an infant, especially if he shares in infant and child care or is more emotionally available than the mother. Sometimes the “primary caretaker” of an infant is in fact a male, so although I use the term mother in describing the earliest parent-child dynamic, a mother can be a “he.” When parents follow more typical sex roles, a father still contributes to the attachment styles of his offspring but may have his greatest impact after infancy, at the toddler stage and later, especially in how he may affect mother’s emotional state when she is caring for the baby
Adult attachment and love styles
Phillip Shaver, a research psychologist at the University of California at Davis, and his colleagues have provided solid evidence of the continuing influence of attachment style into the adolescent and adult years, affecting the mates we choose and how we interact with them emotionally and sexually.
Hundreds of studies provide ample evidence that the four basic attachment styles—what I’ll simply call secure, anxious, avoidant, and ambivalent—persist into our adult years and affect how we interact in intimate love relationships. Essentially these patterns are neurologically wired “working models of relationship,” or adult love styles. These love styles are our mental and physical habits in intimacy. They strongly influence our beliefs and expectations about intimacy. Our love style especially shapes how we are likely to deal with stress in a relationship and how that stress will affect our sexual responses.
Secure love style. According to the data, people with a secure love style tend to be at ease with emotional intimacy. They value closeness and have long, stable relationships. Under stress, they reach out for support and appear to be well equipped to handle painful emotions. They are likely to be supportive when their partners are distressed. Secure people tend to be comfortable with their sexuality and are likely to have sex both for pleasure and as an expression of love and caring.
Anxious love style. People with an anxious love style were typically raised by anxious and intrusive parents, which engendered in them self-doubt, a tendency to depend on other people’s approval for a sense of self-worth, and a heightened fear of rejection and of being unloved. Under stress, these men and women tend to be needy and are apt to interpret relationship issues in a negative way. They are more likely than others to have emotional conflict in their day-to-day interactions. Anxious people are also more likely than others to engage in sexual activity for reasons other than for pleasure—perhaps to be reassured of their desirability or to safeguard a relationship. However, they also tend to be passionate lovers.
Avoidant love style. Avoidant men and women were typically raised by unresponsive, depressed, or distant parents. This could be a result of growing up in a large or troubled family or for any other reason that would make them learn to rely on their own resources at an early age. These people put a high value on self-reliance and are less comfortable with emotional closeness or expression. Under stress, avoidant individuals may shut down, shun intimate contact, and opt to be alone. Research shows that these men and women often report having a lower sex drive than their partners do. Under stress, they are also more likely than others to have sex out of a sense of obligation rather than for love or pleasure.
Ambivalent love style. These people were raised by inconsistent parents, perhaps loving one moment but harsh the next, and tend to have mixed feelings in relationships. They may desire warmth and intimacy but then get uncomfortable and feel engulfed when their partners try to get physically or emotionally closer. If their partners are anxious, these people may become avoidant; if their partners are avoidant, they may become anxious. Two ambivalents together can make for some really confusing nonverbal, implicit messages. A more seriously ambivalent love style, known as disorganized attachment, is the result of a traumatic childhood, where the caregiver was unstable or disturbed and both a source of comfort and fearful alarm. An adult with a disorganized attachment style, who is fearfully avoidant in a relationship, is unlikely to be able to sustain a loving relationship without the benefit of therapy that specifically works to unlock the trauma.
The insecure couple
When two insecure people get together, a common scenario is for an anxious person to pair up with an avoidant person. This is the familiar “pursuer and distancer” type of relationship. The anxious person pursues the avoidant one, pressing for more closeness and more sex to fulfill a need for reassurance. The avoidant partner then begins to feel smothered and needs more space but may consent to sex primarily to placate the other.
Under stress, the insecure coping strategies are triggered. The anxious partner needs contact; the avoidant partner needs to get away. Naturally, making love not for love or pleasure but for reassurance or out of obligation is not going to be very thrilling or sexually fulfilling for either partner.
Even if they’re careful about what they say to each other, their bodies are in constant nonverbal communication: tense and critical eyes, a downturned mouth of disapproval, a lack of eye contact, sighs of impatience, and a kiss that is more of a kiss-off than a sign of affection. These rapid-fire facial expressions or gestures may occur in a microsecond and register on a subconscious level yet cut deeper than words.
Family transference and sex
I see people project their family issues onto their partners all the time. One woman who lost all desire for sex began to see that she had transferred her anger toward her father onto her husband. Her husband was very much like her father, she said. In one session, she came to realize that the constant criticism and resentment she leveled at her husband was the behavior she wished her mother had exhibited with her own husband (my client’s father) in response to his emotional abusiveness many years ago. This client had seen her mother as a weakling and now saw her own willingness to complain to her husband as a sign of strength.
Family transference can be activated in the earliest stages of an intimate relationship. The fellow who was eager to leave a lovely woman he admired in order to curl up with his computer at home felt freer to be himself when he was alone. As soon as he got together with a woman he cared for, he felt a need to please her and to forget about himself. That’s something he also always felt toward his needy and depressed mother. No surprise there.
Even under the best of circumstances, transferring family feelings to a committed partner is hard to avoid. Teri came from a loving, supportive family and developed a secure love style. Yet sex was never discussed, and she learned at a very early age to cut off her sexual feelings at home. Andy, her fiancé, had a less than ideal family situation and a more anxious love style. Teri said that after his parents divorced, Andy developed a special bond with his mother that Teri thought was a little too close.
Soon after he and Teri moved in together, Andy started to go through a hard time related to his work, and he reached out to Teri for support. That’s when Teri came to see that in her mind, Andy had become her brother.
How exactly are these unresolved issues transferred? One way is through the subtle nonverbal cues sent back and forth between partners in daily proximity that signal “we are family.”
Research has shown that infants establish memories even at the earliest stages of life. Although these cellular and tissue memories typically remain as neural foundations for the entire life span, they are not something we are aware of. They are implicit memories, imprinted in the neural network of the right brain as sense memories that influence eye contact and facial expression, smiles and frowns, body gestures, vocal tone, and heartbeat—our own and our partners’.
These implicit memories may involve sense memories like smell and touch; visceral sensations in the chest, stomach, or gut; nervous activation; muscular tension; sensations of pleasure or pain; and feelings of anger, fear, sadness, or excitement. It is very likely that Teri’s comforting of Andy triggered sisterly memories in her that started a process of shutting off any sexual interest.
Since we don’t have the ability to conceptualize these experiences or describe them, what is retained is implicit—experienced on an unconscious and emotional level. Yet they are significant aspects of a very primal, sensory process that underlies our bodily expectations and emotional triggers.
UCLA psychiatrist Dan Siegel has focused on the role that implicit memory plays in our everyday experiences. Implicit memories give us our subjective sense of ourselves and form mental models programmed in the brain that automatically interpret present events. Most important, minute sensory elements and similarities of a present situation with a past one can trigger implicit emotional memories from the earlier situation without our ever being aware that something is being recalled.
A couple communicates on this subtle level of nonverbal right brain–to–right brain messaging all the time, especially during sexual intimacy. A solicitous pat on the back can make you feel as though you’re with a doting relative, and an instantaneous fl ash of disapproval can create a childhood sense memory of anxiety without ever registering what spurred that emotional reaction. These are the same kinds of micro-expressions, communicated in a nanosecond and picked up in a glance, that Malcolm Gladwell described in his bestseller Blink. In the coming chapters we’ll look at how to recognize and learn from this subtle level of implicit communication.
Sex, stress, and the nervous system
When we talk about security versus insecurity and how people respond to the inevitable challenges in a relationship, what we’re really talking about is how they respond under stress. To understand how stress can be so detrimental to loving sex, you have to take a closer look at the nervous system and at what it means, physiologically, to be stressed.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is a set of nerves that runs from the brain to the spine and to every organ, gland, and muscle of the body. It affects such functions as heart rate, respiration, digestion, perspiration, dilation of the pupils, and sexual arousal. The ANS has two subdivisions—the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system—that act antagonistically to either energize and activate us or to relax and calm us down.
Under threat, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) shoots adrenaline and other stress hormones into the bloodstream and triggers the emergency fight-or-flight reaction. Every part of the body contracts, and the breath is held or shortened. Blood drains from the thinking part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, and into the reflexive part of the brain, the amygdala, a cluster of neurons in the limbic system associated with anger and fear, and into survival mode, automatically engendering either aggressive behavior or retreat and escape. For example, suppose you’re walking down a quiet street and you see someone coming toward you who, for whatever reason, looks dangerous to you. You hold your breath. Your heart starts to beat hard in your chest, and you’re thinking fast about what you could do in a pinch. You get more and more tense as he gets closer. The muscles in your chest and gut contract. You’re hypervigilant.
Now let’s say that as you approach your suspected foe, he smiles and nods at you, and his eyes look friendly. He passes you by and the danger is over. The first thing that happens is you exhale a big breath of relief. Whew! Next you may find yourself panting with excitement and feeling great about what just happened. You may even laugh about it. That breath—that whew—triggers the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which floods the body with endorphins, the body’s natural opiates, and other biochemicals that induce relaxation and possibly jubilation. Whereas the SNS triggers fight-or-fight, a survival response, the PNS triggers a restoration response. The muscles and organs begin to let go, the blood vessels widen, breathing slows and becomes more rhythmic, and the eyes moisten and sparkle. The PNS is also known to be associated with a conservation of energy, because it regulates the combination of excitement and relaxation and balances your power output. When you are in autonomic balance, you are not squandering your energy by revving up more than necessary.
Stress is a natural, unavoidable part of life, but we need to be able to balance our stress with restoration, to relax and replenish our resources. People under chronic stress are in a persistent state of SNS hyperarousal, as though they are in constant danger. Their bodies are tense, they’re hyperalert to any possibility of threat, and they’re prone to knee-jerk reactions based more on past events than on being responsive to the present situation, which is the province of the PNS. All of these tendencies can make for very disappointing sex, because SNS stress prevents PNS restoration and replenishment.
Sexual desire, enthusiasm, and orgasm depend on both sympathetic activation and parasympathetic expansiveness. The rapid heartbeat and panting breath are sympathetic functions. Erection in a male and lubrication in a female, on the other hand, are parasympathetic. Orgasm depends on a high state of both sympathetic and parasympathetic arousal.
A secure relationship: an antidote for the deficits of childhood
The evidence shows that the couples who are the most sexually satisfied in their relationships are most likely to involve individuals with a secure love style. Morris Eagle, a professor emeritus at Adelphi University, posited that an insecure individual is more likely to see the partner as a stand-in for one of the parents (or for a sibling) and to stop regarding the partner as a sexual person. The more unresolved the original attachment, especially when there are painful feelings of guilt, anxiety, or resentment, the more likely an insecure person will respond to an intimate as a parent or a sibling. In that case, the insecure person will either become sexually turned off or, as Andy did with Teri, turn off the partner.
There’s an abundance of evidence that insecure people can become secure through a secure relationship. People who become secure as adults as a result of enjoying a nourishing relationship are often referred to as earned secures.
The major challenge for insecure couples is to create the kind of intimate relationship that promotes feelings of security and trust in each other’s love. This is the kind of interaction that offers the greatest possibilities for emotionally gratifying sexual pleasure.
Those of us who grew up to be insecure adults were very likely not effectively nurtured through our stress when we were infants and children. Without parents who modeled comforting skills for us, we may not know how to do it for anyone else. And even if we do have partners who can be nurturing when we’re under stress, we may still be uneasy with the closeness or suspicious of another person’s motives for being so nice.
The neurological research shows that the brain and the nervous system are programmed to generate specific intimacy habits. These are often inter generational patterns, handed down from grandparent to parent to child. Two people together can, however, overcome the deficits of their original attachment and free themselves to fully love and be sexual with each other.
The evidence shows that exposing ourselves to emotionally positive experiences and developing skills that foster intimate connection can break through the programming and rewire the brain and the nervous system. The result is a livelier, sexier, more loving relationship, along with an increase in each partner’s sense of security in the world and his or her ability to take greater pleasure in everyday life.
One of the best ways a couple can reduce each other’s stress and generate a feeling of emotional safety is by holding each other for several minutes at a time and breathing deeply in each other’s arms. The lying-in-arms that takes place between mother and infant—face-to-face, eye to eye, and heart to heart, with smiling, cooing, baby talk, and rocking together—is the basic unit of intimacy. It’s also what lovers do when they fall in love. They lie face to-face and heart to heart, sucking at each other’s mouths and bodies, talking baby talk, and rocking together. Primal intimacy is all about a shared felt-sense of mutual attunement.
As adults, we have the same ability to become synchronized with each other and the same needs for playfulness and de-stressing as we did as infants. We also have the same potential to become mutual stress regulatory systems for each other. The same mechanisms of attunement that reduce an infant’s stress and create a sense of safety and security in his or her body are still present and responsive in the adult nervous system. We crave an attuned other to reassure us and to play with us. A tender look, smiling eye contact, being held close to a warm body, and hearing a friendly reassuring tone of voice all have the power to trigger the PNS, stimulating pleasurable feelings and relieving debilitating tensions.
Partners in trouble are not in attunement, especially when they get into their areas of stress. Talking often raises each other’s stress level rather than lowering it. Neither one listens, often both become dismissive, and they blame, shame, and criticize each other. Many times these people are replicating the kinds of conflict they witnessed between their own parents when they were growing up. Their bodies become defensive and closed off. If they would just shut up and hold each other, they might be able to calm down and become more open to listening to each other and working things out in fairness to both.
Heart-to-heart physical contact is a basic physiological mechanism by which we mutually regulate each other’s stress. A warm hug is like a shot of good feelings. Holding someone in distress is the surest way to calm that person down, to soothe him or her and instill a sense of safety. The same interactive regulatory mechanisms that create security in an infant create security and peace in adults.
Many of us grew up without the benefit of this basic stress reducing interaction. The skills addressed in the subsequent chapters are precisely the kinds of behaviors that can help to reduce stress in oneself and in one’s partner and generate a greater sense of security and capacity to play and enjoy oneself.
Optimal stress and self-regulation
From the moment we get up in the morning to the moment we get back into bed at night, our waking hours bring many opportunities to be stressed. A disagreement with a partner, hassles with the kids, rushing to work, disappointments or frustrations during the day, or even a positive experience like moving to a better office can all raise our stress level. Stress is natural and unavoidable, but there’s an ineffective way to respond to the situation and an effective way.
There’s a growing recognition that stress can be good for us. Even after we have gone through terribly difficult times in life, post-traumatic stress can turn into post-traumatic growth. A person who has suffered greatly can learn from and gain something valuable from a painful experience.
What’s positive about stress is that it is adaptive: the body’s physiological response to threat or change generates a surge of energy that helps us to survive. The ill effects of stress are caused by chronic hyperactivity of the emergency system and the survival mode and little PNS restoration.
Generating a level of continual alarm and readiness for danger produces a hypervigilance that sees threat everywhere and causes burnout. On the other hand, when stress is moderate and levels rise appropriately in response to a situation and then return to a resting state, stress can stimulate learning, memory, and problem solving.
The key to keeping your stress down to an optimal level of functioning is self-regulation. This consists of learning body-based methods that will help you to be responsive to the present situation rather than react with emotional habits based on the past. Some people learn self-regulation when they are children from comforting parents, particularly if the parents are able to manage their own stress. Many of us, however, have to learn this skill as adults.
The principle of relaxed excitement
For most people, especially those of us who have grown up feeling insecure and unsure, excitement and relaxation are often seen as opposites, but in fact they are intricately connected. Think about it. Certainly during difficult or troubling times, when we have to function at our very best, the key to success rests on our ability to be energized (even when we are scared and our hearts are pumping) and relaxed (thinking clearly, staying focused, quieting the racing heart) at the same time.
Maybe we’re at work, dealing with a crisis or some off putting office politics, yet we also need to be effective and creative. Perhaps we have to deal with a disappointing or discouraging turn of events or a frustrating disagreement with someone we love. Maybe we feel anxious and insecure. Perhaps we have to do something exhilarating, like give a talk in front of a group of strangers. We want to be able to calm down and not be overwhelmed by our excitement.
This is especially crucial when it comes to achieving loving sexual pleasure. When people want to improve their sex lives, the very sense of urgency to reach a sexual goal can sometimes cause tension, which then militates against achieving the goal. By relaxing into the excitement, a person can function at an optimal stress level without the debilitating feelings of pressure and strain. This is what Canadian physiologist Hans Selye, the original stress researcher, called “stress without distress.” It consists of being highly energized, focusing on the task at hand, and staying positive and hopeful. There are several methods that can help us to develop these skills.
Conscious breathing is the primary somatic tool for tuning into as well as calming the internal body. Slow, deliberate, complete breaths and a few quick sighs are the most reliable ways to trigger the PNS and a relaxation response. Deep breaths expand the belly and the rest of the torso with each inhalation and relax those areas with each exhalation.
When we’re tense, we automatically grip the chest and belly muscles by holding the breath and allowing only shallow inhalations and exhalations. When we inhale deeply, we can deliberately aim to fill the belly, stretch and widen the rib cage and upper back, and lift the chest. The increased movement in the torso and respiratory musculature awakens and amplifies visceral and muscular sensory perceptiveness.
When we’re in a state of relaxed excitement, both sides of the nervous system are operating, and we experience what’s called autonomic balance. As you will see, fulfilling sexual activity completely depends on high sympathetic and parasympathetic activation at the same time.
Deep breathing is also a highly effective method for pausing a knee-jerk reaction based on past experience and allowing you to assess the current situation before you act. The brain is programmed on the premise that the past is the best predictor of the present. Under threat, the brain in survival mode wants a quick reflexive reaction to escape danger. I think of it as the “feet-don’t fail-me-now” response. As a result, you may automatically read threat into a situation where there is none and react defensively or even with hostility and aggression. I see partners overreact to each other all the time. They “nuke” each other with emotional blasts that set off a proliferation of highly damaging counterblasts that they never fully get over.
If you take a few deep breaths, you might see that there is a better way to handle the situation. Breathing deeply allows you to stay energized yet relaxed and to slow down your response. That way you can take in more of what is actually happening in the present and choose a more appropriate and effective way to handle it.
Self-regulate with new ways of doing things
Step three in the program offers exercises to identify your love style and that of your partner and how each of you tends to deal with stress. There are several exercises for self-regulating stress and a few simple stretches that take only a few minutes to practice. Step Three: Self-Regulation Objectives: To recognize your relationship patterns and to practice methods for releasing tension in the body and quieting the mind You are likely to see yourself in one of these love styles. This is not a definitive, scientific, diagnostic test. These descriptions are merely suggestive, aimed at helping you find a gut feeling of the style you relate to most. As always, start with the basic embodiment exercise: a few complete breaths, a couple of sighs, and a felt-sense inventory.
Identify your love style
Once you’ve identified your love style, you don’t have to do anything about it. The most important thing is just recognizing your patterns as they come up in your relationship. Pay particular attention to the sensations in your throat, chest, and diaphragm. (Note: The descriptions of the parents may apply to only one parent or to both of them.)
The secure love style
My parents were attentive, loving, and helpful. Growing up, I felt safe and had fun. I trusted my parents and could go to them to share my concerns. Now I feel comfortable with myself and with sharing my true feelings. In a relationship, I know that if my partner and I listen to each other, we’ll be able to work things out. I trust my partner. When I’m under stress, I have faith in myself that I’ll be okay, but it’s always nice to get a hug and reassuring words from my partner. I feel comfortable with my sexuality. I enjoy sex. When I’m in a relationship, I enjoy sex for the pleasure it gives my partner and me and as an expression of our love.
The anxious love style
My parents were often uneasy and not always responsive to me when I needed them. They could also be critical and hard to please. I felt lonely as a child, and I doubted myself and my self-worth. Now I have a tendency to share too much about myself with people who probably don’t really care. In a relationship, I know I tend to be needy when I’m under stress. If my partner is not available when I’m looking for reassurance, I have a tendency to feel sorry for myself or get angry with my partner. When my partner and I are having sex, I feel good about our relationship. When we’re not having sex, I feel unsure about us.
The avoidant love style
I grew up in a large or a troubled family. My parents were not very available because they were either too busy or depressed. Still, I may have felt they cared about me. An older sibling or another family member took care of me, although I was left on my own a lot. Now I continue to value my independence, and I need my space. I am most comfortable in a relationship that is not very demanding. I’m not into a lot of self-disclosure and intimate talks. When I’m under stress, I prefer to be alone. My sex drive is usually lower than my partner’s. I sometimes have sex just to please my partner and because it’s good for our relationship.
The ambivalent love style
My parents were inconsistent. Sometimes they were there for me, and at other times they were abusive. I couldn’t always tell which way they would be. Now I have mixed feelings in relationships. Sometimes I need to be close to feel reassured, but then I may feel overwhelmed and need to get away. I don’t always know what will make me feel better. My sex drive varies a lot with my emotions.
Identify your partner’s love style
If you are in a relationship now, and knowing what you know about your partner, how would you identify his or her love style? If you are not in a relationship now, look back at your most recent relationship, and knowing what you know about that person, how would you identify his or her love style? It might be helpful to look back to the last one or two relationships you had before the most recent one and see if you keep picking people with the same love style. If you do, what does that tell you? Identifying your partner’s love style may help to make you more forgiving of how he or she deals with stress. It may also inspire you to help him or her deal with stress. If you are in a relationship now and you share this information and he or she disagrees, drop it. No one ever appreciates being psychologically diagnosed by a mate. Take it from me. As we go along in this program, you will find a number of exercises that are aimed to help you and your partner become more loving and more secure in your love.
The heart of desire
Keys to the pleasures of love
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