What is attachment theory? How do different attachment styles show up in our most intimate relationships and in our sex lives?
Therapist and social justice consultant Aida Manduley joins us to discuss attachment theory and how we can learn about ourselves and our relationships with this powerful tool.
Resources Mentioned In This Episode:
Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship by Stan Tatkin PsyD MFT
Transcript of Exploring Attachment Theory Episode
Podcast transcripts are generated with love by humans, and thus may not be 100% accurate. Time stamps are included so you can cross reference or jump to any point in the podcast episode above. Thanks to our supporters on Patreon for helping to make podcast transcripts possible!
[00:00] Hi. Welcome to Speaking of Sex with the Pleasure Mechanics. I’m Chris from pleasuremechanics.com, and on today’s episode, we have a fabulous conversation with Aida Manduley about attachment theory, and how different styles of attachment show up in our most intimate relationships and our sex lives.
[00:21] Come on over to pleasuremechanics.com for the full podcast archive, and while you are there, go to pleaseuremechanics.com/free to sign up for our free online course so you can get started building a more satisfying and fulfilling sex life on your own terms. That’s pleaseuremechanics.com/free.
[00:46] All right, so on today’s episode, we have one of my favorite thought leaders in the sexuality field, here with us to talk about attachment theory and how it shows up, and what we can do to manage our own attachment styles in and out of the bedroom. If you don’t even know what I’m talking about by attachment styles, you are in for a treat.
[01:10] Attachment theory is one of the primary lenses that relationship therapists and sex therapists and all kinds of therapists look at to think about how we have learned to love, how we have learned to co-regulated with other human beings, and how we act in conflict and in moments of threat with other human beings. So this is a primary lens to look at your own patterns within your relationship and your love life in general.
[01:41] Alright, here is my conversation with Aida Manduley.
[01:46] Can you introduce yourself and the work that you do?
[01:48] Yeah, so my name is Aida Manduley. I am Boston-based, though born and raised in Puerto Rico. I am a trauma-focused clinician. I am also a sexuality educator, and I am a consultant/presenter that works with both micro-interventions … a.k.a. the sort of small, one-on-one parts of the work … and someone who also does larger-scale intervention and prevention … so the policy, the rules, the larger events, national work … because I like to do a little bit of everything.
[02:23] And so my mission in my work is to build the better world that can actually hold us all, and that is a world where there’s racial justice, that’s a world where we have more options in the criminal legal system to address harm, that’s a world where pleasure is an option for all those who wanna take it and experience it, and … yeah, all my work is really about fantasy and trying to bring that fantasy to fruition.
[02:54] Mm, I love that.
[02:56] And you’re one of the most brilliant minds that I look to to really think about how these external systems, the social world we live in, impact our most intimate arenas of love and eroticism, and even how we embody our own skin. So thank you for all of that.
[03:18] When I saw you post on Facebook about enjoying talking about attachment theory, I kinda jumped in my seat, because attachment theory is something that we haven’t really tackled in over 300 episodes. I have a sense it’s super important to sexuality and eroticism, but I’ve been looking for a guide in this, so thank you for jumping on the line with us.
[03:42] We’re gonna talk about attachment theory. Can you start us from the total beginning? What is attachment theory? Why is it important?
[03:49] For sure.
[03:49] So attachment theory is this idea that we work to connect to primary caregivers when we’re young … particularly in times of distress … and that the ways that we bond or don’t bond with them physically and emotionally sets up a blueprint for how, then, we connect to other important figures in our future, whether that’s bosses or partners or other family members and things like that. So it accounts for some of this biological drive to connect and feel safety, but it also then looks at how that gets woven through with experience. So attachment theory is not purely a biological theory, it’s not purely a social theory, and there is a lot of work around it. A lot of research focused on children … and that’s kind of where the theory started … and then there’s also been research on attachment in adults specifically.
[04:44] We have a lot of research, and we still have, honestly, more questions than we have answers, but for me, it feels really important because it is something that allows us to have language and context to discuss how we build relationships and why. And to me, it can help people give context and words to address their relationship needs and their issues.
[05:10] Is it something that’s gonna work 100% for everyone? No. Nothing … nothing works that way. But to me, it feels like a helpful shared language that we can use to talk about our wounds and the way that we can heal from them to build better relationships with any person in our lives, but particularly in what we consider intimate relationships, whether that’s romantic or sexual or something else.
[05:34] Beautiful. And so what is attachment? What does that look like between a child and a caregiver? What role does it play for us as humans? Why do we learn this skill?
[05:46] For a lot of reasons. Part of it is dealing with distress. So part of the reason we biologically want to attach to a caregiver is because we are experiencing the world and we’re trying to figure out how to do it and how to do it safely. So part of it is about calming ourselves down if we’re freaked out as babies, but part of it is also to learn about how to be in the world.
[06:10] Very early on, when we’re zero to two or three, our caregivers … whether that’s parents or someone else … these are the people that we as children are relying on to teach us, what does it mean to be a human? How are we supposed to react to things? Am I a different being than you? Are we the same kind of being? And so all these really big, existential questions are getting addressed through the relationships that we have. And that obviously varies across cultures, it varies depending on the household setup people have and what they’re exposed to … that all of it at its core is about the relationships that we have, and what those teach us about what it is to be human, how we’re supposed to deal with our emotions, the role that emotions have in our lives and all of that stuff.
[07:02] So attachment relates to how we get calmed down when we are in distress, how those caregivers react to us if we reach out to them, and it’s not just about physical reaching out. It’s also about emotional reaching out.
[07:19] One of the main gaps that I’ve seen when people talk about attachment is just assuming that it’s all about the physical outreach, and, “Oh, I had parents that were very involved. They went to all my soccer games and they took me to ballet and they helped me financially, so of course I had a great upbringing. Of course I have secure attachment. Everything is fine.” And when we actually dig a little big deeper, we see that, “Oh, they were there for you financially and physically and materially, but you could never talk to them about your feelings. They never expressed interest in your inner workings. They never were there for you when you were upset.” And so that creates a disconnect. That creates a gap or a void, and it can lead to what we would call and attachment injury.
[08:11] And so it’s all about the relational piece, and how others react to us in relationships … whether that’s physical, whether that’s emotional, whether that’s verbal … and it starts very, very young.
[08:26] So I’m hearing this piece of finding safety and comfort with other humans, and being able to return to that place of safety and comfort when we perceive threat or when harm comes.
[08:39] You know, I have a four-year-old daughter, and I’ve seen this cycle, and it’s so interesting how it gets further and further away from your body. You know, she becomes a toddler and falls, and then immediately runs back into our arms and we kind of co-regulate. Is this the kind of system we’re talking about? That being an independent person in the world, but then having other humans to come home to and find safety with. Is that [crosstalk 00:09:08]
[09:08] Exactly. Yeah, that’s exactly it. And so the hallmark of what is considered secure attachment … we have secure and insecure attachment. There’s only one type, allegedly, of secure attachment … for now … and then we have various types of insecure attachment.
[09:23] For someone who has secure attachment, the idea is that they are both able to return to a safe haven, and that’s usually related to other people, but also a safe haven within themselves, and this person having the ability to explore, with some degree of security and with some degree of confidence. So you can be away and close, and both of those are doable, they feel easy, to some extent, and like there are options.
[09:53] Versus if you have insecure attachment, one of those arenas is compromised. Maybe you don’t feel like you can ever go to a safe haven. You don’t feel like you have anyone that you can rely on or connect to or maybe you feel really freaked out at the idea of someone trying to connect with you and you actually avoid it and fear it and dismiss it or minimize it. And so secure attachment gets formed by having those caregivers be there for you, and the cycle of secure attachment is someone … let’s say a child, in this case … a child experiences distress, or perceives a triggering event or something that’s starting to get their system activated. That provokes some level of anxiety, or alteration in their body. They generally then try to seek a connection to their caregiver, try to look toward the parent or the grandmother or anything like that, for some kind of reassurance or mirroring, and in a secure cycle, that adult or that caregiver will give them a good response.
[11:00] And a good response has a few different components, but primarily, a good response involves an acknowledgement of whatever the emotion is or whatever that child is coming with. It involves some co-regulations, so I can mirror the distress that you’re feeling, but I’m not as freaked out as you are, so I can give you a little bit of security and like, “Hey, it’s okay,” and then a being with. And through that process, then, the child can feel chill, basically, or feel less anxious and de-escalated. And then they know that, “Hey, if I’m ever distressed again, I can probably enter the cycle again. I can seek reassurance and comfort, and I will get it, and then I will feel fine, and this is an option for me.”
[11:44] Whereas if it’s an insecure attachment cycle, at some point in there, there’s a breakdown. So either you’re distressed, you feel anxious, you seek connection, and you get a bad response … and then we fork off into either, when you get a bad response, you say, “Okay, I just need to try harder. I’m gonna do that again. Let me seek connection again,” and you get stuck in a loop … or, very often, you seek connection, you get a bad response … or there’s no response … and then you’re like, “Okay, time to give up because I cannot trust anyone. Time to fling myself into the Sun and suppress the hell out of every emotion I ever have again. ‘Cause I can’t rely on any of you. Peace.” And then you just don’t try to connect again, or it feels really fraught.
[12:32] And then the other cycle is one that’s more erratic, where you may not even seek connection. You might seek connection sometimes, but you get a bad response and you get stuck in one of the two loops and it’s messier, and each of those cycles corresponds with a different insecure attachment style. Which I know is also one of your questions, so maybe I can briefly give an overview of that.
[12:57] Perfect. That last one, did you call it “erratic” or “erotic”?
[13:03] Erratic. I’m sure it’s erotic for someone, too.
[13:07] But yeah, so we have the secure attachment style in adults, which is that cycle where there’s a good response and there’s some de-escalation and chill. Then we have anxious preoccupied, which is the one where you get a bad response but you seek connection again.
[13:23] For someone who’s anxious-preoccupied or has that as their primary attachment style, they do a lot of reassurance-seeking, there may be a lot of nervous energy, they want intimacy and they want approval, sometimes to the point of dependence. They’re afraid of abandonment or rejection. But also … some might qualify those as negative things … but also people who are more anxious-preoccupied tend to care a lot about how other people feel. They can be very empathetic. They can be very kind. They can be very observant.
[13:55] And so, as I talk through each of these, one of the things that I want listeners to remember is, none of these is a bad thing. None of these attachment styles is inherently more valuable than another, or better than another. If you’re securely attached, congratulations. But the idea isn’t to shame or malign any attachment style, just to say, “Hey, these are different. Some will face greater struggles in our world than others. How, then, do we interact with each other with as much compassion as we can, knowing some of these cycles and what it might take for us to get out of them?” So I just wanna say that really loudly, ’cause this can get very easily into, “Well, the avoidance and the anxious people are terrible,” and that’s not the point.
[14:42] So secure, we got that one. Anxious-preoccupied, talked about that one. Dismissive avoidance, which is mine. And I like to say that’s the one that I have as my baseline operating system. Sometimes I use a machine metaphor, so here we are. And I feel it’s important to acknowledge that, because often therapists have this clinical distance where we pretend that none of this affects us, none of this is relevant to us, we are perfect and all securely attached. And it’s not true.
[15:14] And I think that if I can be open about, “Hey, I have this particular style and this is how I’m making it work for me,” or, “This is how I’m getting security,” or, “This is how I’ve dealt with my baseline dismissive avoidant attachment style to build healthy relationships,” I think that can also be a really hopeful thing to share with people, so that if they feel like they’re stuck or they feel like, “Oh, I have this style that’s not helpful, I guess I’m living in this forever,” and it’s like, “No, you can make a difference. You can change things. You can build new strategies for yourself.” So I like to very clearly own my dismissive avoidant baseline operating system.
[15:54] People with dismissive avoidant attachment styles can be really confident, very independent, they feel very strongly about self-sufficiency often, and they generally report that they have very few emotional needs, like, “I’m good. I’m all set. I got me.” That’s kinda the upside of it.
[16:20] The sort of a little bit more complicated side of it is that if you’re dismissive avoidant, intimacy can freak you out. One of your biggest fears is of having other people control you, having other people depend on you, having other people hampering your freedom and kinda being stuck, and some of the strategies that people with dismissive avoidant use are suppression and distancing. So rather than having the anxiety and trying to be close and just running toward someone, they just … throw up a peace sign and are like, “I’m all set. Heck you forever. I don’t need this, I don’t need you.” And so it can be really difficult to build intimacy in that way.
[17:07] But it can also be really, like the word says, dismissive of other people’s feelings, and the dismissive in the title is not about necessarily dismissing other people’s feelings. It’s about dismissing certain kinds of connection and avoiding it, but I’ve seen a lot of dismissals. I like to bring that up as well.
[17:28] And then, the final one is fearful-avoidant, which comes from the same attachment style in kids as the previous one, but also, I think, relates a lot to what’s called disorganized attachment, or mixed attachment. And that is the one that is more noticeable because it’s erratic, and there’s this push/pull. Like, “I wanna get close to you, but then I’m gonna push you away, and I really want you, but I’m freaked out, so I’m gonna run away. I both highly avoid the intimacy and the connection, and I also have a lot of anxiety about it, but I also want it,” and it’s the one that’s a little bit more volatile, I would say. And again, not as a judgment, but as a … this one has a little bit of a mix. It’s a combo platter. And it’s sometimes a little bit harder to predict than the other ones.
[18:27] And so those cycles for each are a bit different when we perceive threat, and it’s really useful for people to know which one they gravitate to, which one might be part of their original programming for their flesh computer, because then that can give them a clue as to why they are getting triggered or activated during certain conversations or interactions with their partner. And especially if they can see what dynamic they’re creating between the two of them, what cycle they’re creating, it becomes much, much easier to intervene and change it. Because you have to name it before you can fix it.
[19:06] For example, if we have someone who’s dismissive-avoidant with someone who’s anxious-preoccupied, that’s gonna be quite tough. ‘Cause you have someone who’s like, “Please, please, please, please, come to me,” and the other person’s like, “I am freaked out. I need to run far away,” and the person then keeps chasing. And it becomes a really unhelpful cycle where everyone’s unhappy and no one’s getting their needs met, but they think it’s the other person’s fault. Or they think that somehow they’re ruining it, and rather than getting caught up in shame, we can say, “Okay, this is the cycle that we’re in. I’m doing that thing where I’m running away,” and then the other person’s like, “I’m doing that thing where I’m chasing after you. What do each of us need, in this moment, to create more trust, more safety, and better emotional regulation so that we can both be present and we can both address whatever actually is the conflict.”
[20:06] I think even just listening to you now, most listeners are probably feeling themselves kind of align with one of these patterns. How do we … over the course of our lives, in our workplace, and then especially in our intimate relationships … start noticing … both about ourselves and about the people we love … and start articulating these patterns? Where are some … you said when a threat comes up … is it usually around fights or conflict that these patterns emerge most strongly?
[20:38] Yeah. I would say so. But that’s also where the question of trauma comes in. Because for some people, they’re always in a low-grade state of anxiety, or a low-grade state of trigger, if not a high-grade state of trigger. So if you’re living in poverty, if you don’t know where your next meal is gonna come from, if you were raised in an abusive household, if you’re currently in a toxic, unhealthy, or abusive relationship, all of those can make it so that it’s really hard to tell when there’s a discrete moment of activation, ’cause you’re kind of always there.
[21:18] That feels important to mention, but regardless, one of the things that I encourage people to do is attune to both physical and emotional changes, and that can be really hard to tell if we don’t have any external measures or places where we’re putting that information, because recalling feelings … especially when you’re activated … or recalling information when your system’s on high alert is really hard. Biologically, neurologically, some of your brain functions a little bit go down the drain when you’re really activated or freaked out. So for me, one of the things that I encourage people to do is to log the emotions or what went on during their day, whether that’s journaling, whether that’s using a mood-tracking app, whether that’s having a calendar where you put highlights and low lights of your day … whatever the form or the shape, some method for tracking so that you can establish patterns over time and see when things come up or how often things are coming up.
[22:28] Because honestly, that’s also one of the biggest questions that if you seek any kind of mental health help, that’s one of the biggest questions that you’re gonna get asked. “How often is this happening? When was the onset of this feeling or this episode? How long did it last?” So if you can do some of that work … whether or not you’re gonna see a therapist or a doctor or anything … it can give you more insight into the when, how, possibly why some of these things are happening.
[22:59] The other piece is to pay attention to what your fears are, and to articulate them. You don’t have to wait for them to be activated to look into them, but sometimes that’s when they come up most easily. So for example, in arguments, when a partner comes to me with an argument, or we’re fighting or anything like that, I know that one of my core worries is that we will be so focused on the feelings and how badly they or I feel that we won’t get to a resolution and how to do it better in the future. So I know that my instinct is to say, “Okay, let’s be done with the feelings now. Can we talk about how we’re not gonna mess this up in the future?” And for a partner who is maybe really stressed out about not being validated or not having their emotional needs cared for, that can be terrifying. And so their fear, in that moment, is that we will focus so much on the “what next” that they will be invisible, that they won’t be listened to again, as a pattern that they’ve had in their life.
[24:08] So if you think about what you’re afraid of when you’re fighting with someone, or what you’re worried will happen in a moment of conflict, that can usually be a really good place to start to see how these attachment styles relate to you.
[24:26] Another piece is looking at … as cliché as it may sound … looking at your upbringing and where you grew up. So kinda doing a little bit of a mental inventory of, “Who was I around when I was growing up? Was it a stable home, or was I moving around a lot? Was I around many adults or simply one? Who could I talk to about my feelings, if anyone? Who would I rush toward if I had a physical injury? Who would I rush toward if I had a complex emotion? Who could hold a secret if I had it to share? When I was young, who made me scared? Who were the people that I very much wanted to flee from? What were the situations that would make me really nervous or anxious or upset? Who was there? What was happening?”
[25:20] Through that mix of tracking what’s happening now, looking at the worries during arguments or times where you clearly identify conflict, and assessing and inventorying your upbringing and what happened when you were young … and when I say young, yes, I mean when we’re children, but I also mean up to the teen years, for sure.
[25:43] With those three pieces, you can have a really, really good starting point … with any one of those, but ideally all three … you have a really good starting point to see what are some of your strengths, and what are some of your points of challenge or some of your wounds in a relationship, and it can be much easier to communicate that with a partner. And having that information for yourself, being able to vulnerably share that with a partner, can help them also be more vulnerable in looking into that for themselves and being able to share. Because you’re not saying, “You’re a jerk and you’re terrible when you argue because you do this and this and this and this.” You’re saying, “Hey, this is some of my stuff. Here’s some of my baggage. How does that interact with the baggage that you have as well?”
[26:34] And not everyone’s ready to do that work. Not everyone’s ready to dig. Not everyone has the tools or the safety, even, to do that. But if we can do a little bit at a time, if we can find the ways to build that into our day and our lives, I think it can have a really, really huge impact … not just for romantic or sexual relationships, but also in the workplace. Because there’s some interesting research about workplace interactions and how that relates to attachment styles as well. Because we’re not just attaching to the people that we want to be intimate with in sexual romantic settings, we attach to people that we see on a daily basis. We figure out how to build those communities at work, and that’s why this, to me, is so important. Because we’re in relationships all the time. We’re a social species as humans. We’re in relationships constantly. And so if we have these tools to better understand our relationships, defacto, they are tools to better understand ourselves and our purpose and how we can be in the world and make it better.
[27:40] Yes. Beautiful. Beautiful.
[27:44] How do you see this playing out in eroticism and the ability to get sexual? I’ve been thinking a lot about how sexuality is kind of built on this platform of the vagal safety of being able to be safely immobilized with other people. So that’s maybe a whole ‘nother podcast, but how does attachment and … because I feel like sex is a little bit of a threat in and of itself. We’re vulnerable, we’re naked, we’re letting people inside our organism. So how do these attachment styles play out in eroticism?
[28:21] Oh my God, great question.
[28:23] So some of the same patterns that I just discussed play out in erotic situations, because part of what’s happening in an erotic situation is we’re communicating with each other, using our bodies, using our words … whether those are text or coming out of a mouth or being signed by our hands, anything like that … we’re using a lot of channels to communicate what we want, what we don’t want, what we’re insecure about or unsure about, to another person. And so sex is just the topic, and I think sometimes we … in the world, societally … treat sex like this very special, specific thing that’s very different from everything else. I’m like, “Yes, and, it’s also really just kinda the same as many other topics. It’s just … we could talk about sex or talk about money.”
[29:14] But the communication pieces that underlie our communication in general are still there. And so looking at … how difficult might it be to ask a partner to do something sexually might be very tied to how hard is it to ask a partner to do literally anything.
[29:36] But with sex, we’re adding layers, generally, of shame … generally, layers of taboo … generally, layers of some kind of societal pressure on top of it … so it’s our usual communication with a bit of a twist, because the topic of sex has its own baggage, culturally and familially. And so the way that some of that plays out is people who are more on the dismissive-avoidant side of things might be less attuned to the emotions of their partner in a sexual situation. They might display a lot of confidence in a sexual situation. They might, out of fear … right, that’s actually what’s underlying it … out of fear of rejection or an inability to cope well with ambiguity or rejection or something like that … they might just never bring up a sexual thing that they’re interested in because they have already given up, preemptively, that it would even be available or something that their partner would be interested in.
[30:38] If you have someone with a more anxious style, they might be really nervous to bring something up, and they might seek a lot of reassurance. They might, when they do a sexual act or have a sexual interaction, check in a lot about, “Was that okay? Did you like that? How was that?” Basically, “Did I do a good job? Am I safe? Are you okay? Is everyone okay?” And so that kind of nervous energy or that checking in might be there a little bit more than if you just had someone with, quote/unquote, “baseline secure attachment”, who would check in. That person cares about your emotions. That person is gonna check in. But they won’t, quote/unquote, “overly” check in, or seem super preoccupied with that.
[31:23] So a lot of this attachment stuff, to me, plays out in how we communicate about sex, what we would think it’s okay to ask for, how much we censor ourselves in our desires, and how safe we feel letting go. And what we classify as vulnerability. Because a lot of people attach vulnerability to certain topics, when I don’t believe that that’s actually the way it works.
[31:49] So a lot of people say, “Oh, talking about sex is vulnerable.” Talking about sex is not vulnerable to everyone. I’m a sexuality professional. For me, talking about sex, generally, isn’t a huge deal. However, talking about my sex life or specific details about my sex life, some of those are really vulnerable.
[32:10] The idea that talking about trauma is a vulnerable act … also incorrect, if we just paint it with this broad brush. Talking about their trauma can be a very vulnerable act for some people, because they’ve had to rehash it so often … especially to be believed … it’s just business as usual. It’s not vulnerable. In fact, the most vulnerable thing some people can do if they have a trauma history and they’ve had to rehash it a lot, the most vulnerable thing they can do is feel joy again, is feel sexual pleasure again. Because that’s the actually terrifying thing, when you’re in a world that says you have to look like this perfect victim, and you have to be perpetually upset to be believed, the scariest thing to do is to fall outside of that trope, to fall outside of the, quote/unquote, “acceptable” range of victimhood.
[33:02] And so this idea of what is vulnerable … ’cause vulnerability is crucial to building intimacy into attachment … comes through a variety of ways. And if we all just assume, “Ah, you are being vulnerable ’cause you had sex with me,” that’s missing the point. ‘Cause for someone having sex, even if it is sharing body fluids, even if it’s getting naked, that might not be a vulnerable act to them. Who even knows if they were embodied at any point during that? They maybe were dissociating half the time.
[33:35] So when we’re looking at attachment styles, and when we’re looking at how they play into our sexual communication or erotic scenarios, that’s again why I would invite people to look at, “What is my style? Or the one that I gravitate to more frequently? What do I do when I really, really want something? Do I run toward it full speed? Do I kinda circle it for a few months and then go for it? Do I run in the other direction?” Because then that can give them a blueprint for what they might be struggling with, what they might wanna communicate to a partner.
[34:11] I’ve had conversations with partners where they automatically say no to things … kind of no matter what it is. No matter if they want it, they will automatically say no. And for my avoidant-dismissive self, I’m like, “Okay. You said no. I’m gonna respect your no and I’m just not gonna ask about it again.” When in fact, what would be more helpful is actually asking them again, or asking them in a different way.
[34:41] So a lot of communication mismatches can happen when people have different styles and don’t know about it and don’t communicate about it. So eventually, after this partner and I had a conversation of, “Oh, you automatically say no to things. It would be helpful if I checked in with you after or gave you another opportunity to reconsider, while still saying, ‘Hey, this is your decision. I’m not asking to pressure you. You mentioned sometimes you automatically so no, so I just wanna check in. Is this a for-sure, 100% no, or was this an automatic no that you might wanna revise? I’m cool either way.’”
[35:23] And that kinda thing honestly wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t been talking about these patterns. I just would’ve been like, “All right, no. You said no. Cool, we’re just never gonna do that.” And the person would’ve probably been like, “Oh, man, but I … maybe I wanted to.”
[35:37] And that’s also where it connects to trauma and our upbringing. If you are in a home where you’re often told you can’t want things, or that safety is contingent upon you being as small and unobtrusive as possible, taking up any space, acknowledging any want, is gonna be really difficult.
[35:57] So in your modeling here of these varsity-level communication skills, you are mentioning various partners. So you live a poly love life, is that right?
[36:10] I do. That’s correct.
[36:11] I wonder what wisdom you’ve found there, because when we are in a poly relationships, I think there’s a little more space to understand what’s yours and what’s your partners, ’cause you get these multiple reflecting ponds. But when we’re in a long-term, committed relationship … and so many listeners of this podcast maybe even have only had one or two long-term, committed relationships … the sense of “we” becomes very murky, like, “What’s yours? What’s mine? And what’s the relationship’s?”
[36:43] So how do you discern that for yourself, and how does your poly experience give you some skills or strategies there that we might learn from?
[36:51] I think you nailed it with this metaphor of the multiple reflecting pools. And that’s a really pretty way of putting it. The less pretty way of putting it, that I’ve discussed with one of my partners in specific, like, “Oh, by having multiple partners, you get to see your shit reflected back at you in multiple directions.” And because you’re … at least for me, because I’m building with different kinds of people that have different styles; I don’t just go for one kind of attachment or body or gender or anything like that … I get to be in multiple roles, and I get to see what behaviors come out in each of those, and how maybe they all connect to certain core wounds that I carry or certain core issues from my upbringing, but also how interestingly flexible we can all be, and then how we process it based on our context.
[37:45] And so the lesson for me has been around seeing my own flexibility and my own change capacity in non-monogamous relationships. And also, if someone’s not polyamorous, if someone’s monogamous, we can still do that. You have more than one human relationship, generally, in your life at a time. How does this play out with the people that you call your friends? How does this play out with the people that you call your family? How does this play out with the people that you call neighbors? There’s always more than one reflection pool, but because of the way that society has structured monogamy and the way that we generally privilege romantic and sexual connections, we often don’t move those lessons and open them up to the full breadth of our connections and our relationships. ‘Cause we’re like, “Oh, this is about dating. This is about long-term monogamy,” or long-term blah-blah-blah, and it’s … a lot of the same lessons and a lot of the same milestones and markers are applicable to a wide range of connections that we have.
[38:53] So that’s another piece that I think feels really important and that I have noticed. Because as I’ve opened up to thinking about my broad sexual and romantic connections, I’ve also applied a lot of those lessons to my non-romantic or non-sexual connections, and found a lot of utility in doing so, as well.
[39:13] The other lesson piece there is that approaching our relationships through this lens of, “How can I be kind toward the things that are painful for you, and how can that be reciprocal?” feels really important. Because … again, I’ll use myself as an example … avoidant-dismissive, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to take on someone else’s baggage. I’m like, “I have worked so hard to manage my own. Why do I have to carry yours? That’s unfair! Meh-meh-meh-meh-meh!” There’s a angry little person in me that’s like, “Ugh! I don’t wanna have to carry your stuff!”
[39:54] But my values … which are deeply related to the reason I’m non-monogamous in the first place … my values around community, my values around building a world that is not just centered on capitalism, my values around understanding that we’re a social species that requires others to thrive, my values around being Puerto Rican and Cuban that make family the center of everything, that make community the center of everything … all of that has taught me that it’s really important and valuable to approach things with compassion and kindness, and think about … reframe it, basically, from, “I’m carrying your baggage because you’re incompetent and can’t carry it yourself!” to, “Hey, we both have a responsibility to our own baggage, and because we are in a relationship together and we care for each other, we have a responsibility, to differing degrees, toward each other’s baggage. Because your baggage affects me, and it is an investment in both our relationship and my own well-being for me to help you with your baggage in as much as I am able to.” And so rather than looking at it as this chore, as this obligation that someone’s just foisting on me, I can look at it as an act of care, as an act of mutuality.
[41:17] That is hard to do if it is not reciprocal, though. Or if you can’t see how it is reciprocal. And so another piece that I guess comes from the land of polyamory is processing. Not that every polyamorous person processes a lot, but the people I tend to hang out with sure do, and so there’s a lot of attention to not just what we’re saying, but how we’re saying it. Not just where we are, but how we are. Not just what we want, but how we want it, and the urgency that we may have around it.
[41:52] So a lot of it is about being able to attune to yourself and others, and in those ways, model more secure attachment. And frankly … the last piece of non-monogamy lessons … is that A.) a lot of the literature on attachment is extremely monogamous, extremely heterosexual, and [inaudible 00:42:14], you know … blah blah blah blah blah. So a lot of it we have to look at critically, and figure out how it works for us, if we’re not monogamous. ‘Cause a lot of attachment literature is actually actively anti-non-monogamy. And 2.) that either extreme of “relationships should be work, relationships are hard” or “relationships should be easy; if it’s hard, you’re doing it wrong.” None of those are actually useful, and none of them are true. Especially for people who have multiple marginalization.
[42:51] Because if you are trying to build a relationship with someone who has trauma … whether that’s diagnosed or not, whether that’s clear or not … if you’re trying to build relationships as a person with trauma, as a person who lives under patriarchy and capitalism and blah blah blah blah blah … there are things that we are carrying that are toxic. There are things that we are carrying that are difficult. There are things that we are carrying that are different. And if you’re building a relationship with someone who’s just of a different culture, regardless of if there’s, quote/unquote, “any trauma” or not, there will be things that will produce conflict. And conflict … especially if you’re attending to all its intricacies … is not simple. If you’re seeing it as simple, you’re missing something.
[43:42] However, relationships … even though they should be partly work … they should also be partly joy. They should also have the things that make you excited to be in it. So if a relationship, for a long period of time … however you define that … is just work and you can find no joy in it, no safety, no sense of pleasure, no sense of reciprocity … that’s a big red flag. I’m not saying that you immediately have to get out, ’cause rough patches are real, especially for the longer a relationship lasts … but if a relationship is so skewed, it’s really important to see why, how long, what are we doing to fix it.
[44:25] And that’s also sometimes what having multiple relationships can throw into such sharp contrast. Because if you’re struggling with one partner, but with another partner, there’s a certain kind of ease and you do feel a connection to joy, you can remember what that feels like. You’re at least aware, “Oh. Not all my relationships have to be like this. So what should I do now? What change do I wanna make or do I wanna request from my partner so that we can be relating differently in a better way?” Not to mimic another relationship, but to give perspective on, “Hey, not all relationships have to look the same, and I have the power to be in relationships in a different way so that if there’s a struggle, I can take some action to make that happen in whatever relationship I’m enmeshed in at a time.”
[45:12] I’m really glad you mention that not everyone will be resourced enough to do this work.
[45:17] So how do you, as a therapist or as a friend, kind of guide people in pacing growth and expansion versus staying safe within the comfort zone?
[45:31] Right, great question.
[45:34] Part of it … unsurprisingly … goes back to the body, and letting your body tell you, and being able to listen to your body when it’s telling you something. Which, again, on a basic level, is something that not all of us are attuned to. Some of us were specifically discouraged from listening to our bodies, or had to dissociate from our bodies as a survival strategy. Especially if there was any kind of early childhood trauma or there has been sexual trauma.
[46:02] But one of the pieces, as far as pacing, is getting a sense for those non-verbal, body-based cues that either we are seeing in ourselves, or our partners are seeing in us. And so I like to encourage folks to be descriptive about themselves and partners, in as much as that’s allowed for them, and notice, “Oh, hey, my eyebrow is twitching,” or, “I’m tapping my feet,” or anything like that. So as a therapist … but also sometimes as a partner and friend … what I’ll draw people’s attention to is what their body’s doing. Or I’ll invite them to think, “Where do you feel tension right now? Is there any part of your body that feels really tight? Is there any part of your body that feels really relaxed?” So that can help with pacing, because those are the first cues that tell us something is activating our system.
[46:52] Before we have an intellectual understanding of threat, we generally have a body-based understanding of threat. Our pupils may change size, our breath may catch, our movement may slow down. We may start to have our adrenaline pumping and we’re getting ready to fight, maybe we’re getting ready to run. Maybe we’re getting ready to try to assuage the person via compliments so that they won’t hurt us or that they’ll protect us. So listening to those body cues and being descriptive about what your body is doing physically or internally, is really, really key to understanding pacing and what you’re ready for.
[47:31] Another piece is around timing. So doing a three-hour-long conversation … especially around really volatile matter … is not useful. So I generally tell people, “Hey, if you’re having a really intense conversation, cap it at 45 minutes and/or give yourself a break between 45-minute chunks. Don’t just perseverate,” because if we give ourselves more time, it can be very easy to lose the thread of what we’re talking about, it can be very easy to get derailed, and our emotional resources generally are going down when we’re in a conflict situation. We’re not getting more resources as we’re in a conflict. So we are trying to do more with less, which is not good math. And I didn’t even major in math, but I know that’s not good math.
[48:22] So having some institutionalized breaks around certain conversations … and again, not to be super inflexible, not to say, “and every conversation will be 45-minutes!” but … if you’re tackling something difficult, make sure that you’re not just talking for three hours. You may choose that your minimum or maximum is 30 minutes, and maybe choose that it’s 120. I don’t particularly care. Just put some kind of break.
[48:51] Another piece, in terms of pacing and figuring out how to do this, is having access to resources. And I mentioned not everyone is resourced, or resourced in the exact same way, but there are resources that we can access. Especially if we know that they’re there.
[49:05] So 1.) people can read books about attachment. There is a book that’s pretty monogamy-centric, but very easy for lay people to read, that has some useful content that people can adapt. It’s called “Wired For Love”, and I believe it’s by Stan Tatkin … and figuring out and sort of taking inventory of who in your life has done this work, is interested in doing this work, if you wanna pursue any kind of professional support, what does that look like? Who would you want to reach out to? There’s a National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color network, which is really great and it’s all across the US. There’s other different resources locally. Often, there’s free therapy in many states for people who have experienced trauma, interpersonal violence, sometimes people who are going through traumatic grief, there’s resources.
[50:06] When I think of resources, I want people to think as expansively as possible. What are the resources that can help all of your sense digest this information? Maybe you’re really terrible at reading content, but you’re really good at listening, so podcasts can be really helpful, whether they’re for therapists or not. Looking at audiobooks can be another resource. Looking at in-person peer support groups can also be helpful. But looking at all the ways human and non-human, intimate and non-intimate, that you can give yourself tools and skills to learn more about attachment, but also practice self-regulation and emotional regulation, and paying attention to your own body. So those would be the main things.
[50:54] And reaching out, ’cause a lot of this is long-term work, so not thinking that you’re gonna have it all figured out or done in one day, one meeting, one class. Seeing it as a marathon, not a sprint, is really integral to being able to actually do the work. ‘Cause if you think that you’re doing it wrong and that it’s taking you too long, you’re more likely to go into a shame spiral about it. But if you can realize, “Hey, the goal here is management. The goal here is not eradicating bad feelings. The goal is having more resources and options, not taking one specific path. The goal here is me being able to be whoever it is that I want to be, and be in good relationship with other people.” That’s a much easier frame to exist in.
[51:40] Mm-hmm (affirmative). To love well and be loved well.
[51:43] Mm-hmm (affirmative)!
[51:45] Aida Manduley, thank you so much for your time.
[51:47] Yay! It was a pleasure.
[51:50] All right, thank you so much for listening. We will be back with you next week with another episode of Speaking of Sex. Come on over to pleaseuremechanics.com for our full podcast archive. To sign up for our free online course, to go pleasuremechanics.com/free. And when you are ready for your next erotic adventure, check out our online courses, where we guide you in everything from couples massage to mindful sex to kinky sex, so you can choose your next erotic adventure with us and get stroke-by-stroke guidance. Go to pleasuremechanics.com, check out our online courses, and use the code “speaking of sex” for 20% of the online course of your choice.
[52:39] All right, this is Chris from pleasuremechanics.com wishing you a lifetime of pleasure. Cheers.
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