It’s hard to understate how the cultural stereotypes surrounding men and women have shaped an entire generation, confusing us as to who we should be and how we should behave. Stereotypes, both in word and lived out through deed, have contributed to the rise of toxic masculinity and militant feminism. They have caused oppression, rebellion, repressed emotion and an unconscious denial of our basic wiring. Universally, societies throughout history have groomed men to think they have to be the tough guys; red-blooded creatures who are the providers, who don’t have emotions and who are to treat women as their own personal property. Admittingly, this is an intentional overstatement, but the sentiment remains true. Men have heard some form of this message throughout our upbringing and it has profoundly shaped the way we behave in the world.   In contrast, we have generations of women who have viewed their core identities almost entirely in extremes. We wonder, are we overly emotional, in desperate need of love? Are we dependent on men to provide? Are we simply to play our role as a homemaker and be quiet?  Different cultures would supply different answers, but in the western world the reaction to these questions has been swift and extreme. We are living in the midst  of a massive pendulum shift, which has accelerated rapidly over the last ten years. Gender wars gave rise to some very productive and positive forms of feminism in the 20th century, leading to a significant advancement in women’s rights. But since then, feminism has split into various camps, the most extreme driven to match men in their perceived tough and emotionless state. If men aren’t going to change, then why don’t we level the playing field? (See: W.A.P.) We’re being facetious, because clearly everyone certainly doesn’t fit neatly into these boxes or embody this type of mindset. There’s a ton of nuance that needs to account for our personal individuality. And we must also acknowledge there remains a sliver of truth in traditional stereotypes, as badly as we’ve abused that truth. But if you’re reading this, we must clarify we are not writing from a radical-right or a radical-left worldview. Rather, we are making a simple observation that these gender stereotypes do exist, they have shaped us in profound ways and they’ve created a funky culture around sex, dating and commitment. Why are we so flippant about sex? Why do we ghost people? Why do we have such difficulty defining the relationship, almost to the point of feeling like we’re burdening the other person if we even broach the topic? Is this because it’s just fundamentally who we are as human-beings? That this is how we were always destined to behave?  Or rather, are we simply being formed by the culture?  The good news is that there is an answer to all of these questions and there is an objective truth to be found. As we’ll learn, we can try to deny our most basic survival needs, but it’s not going to go very well. Sooner or later, we’re going to run into a wall. This conversation begins with one of the most significant scientific discoveries of the 20th century, which is attachment theory.



“As a psychologist and a human being, if I had to give an award for the single best set of ideas anyone had ever had, I’d give it to John Bowlby hands down over Freud or anyone else in the business of understanding people.” - renowned psychologist, Dr. Sue Johnson In the 1950s, our scientific understanding of social psychology and human sexuality was forever changed. Through a series of experiments, John Bowlby ultimately made the discovery that humans have a hardwired need to form attachment with their caregiver. As Peter Lovenheim explains in The Attachment Effect, “in a nutshell, [attachment theory] asserts that because human babies are born helpless, they are hardwired (as we say today) to search for and attachment to a competent, reliable caregiver. Usually this is the mother, but it can also be the father, grandparent, nanny or another adult who’s present and providing for their basic needs.” When we mature into our teen years and into adulthood, our primary attachment figure becomes our romantic partners. Bowlby ultimately defined attachment as the “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” As a rebellion to the narratives we discussed in the opening paragraphs, a common belief has developed in Western society that we can be fundamentally independent. We don’t need anyone, especially not a significant other.  Dr. Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, researchers at Columbia University, comment on this social myth in Attached, “Today’s experts offer advice that goes something like this: Your happiness is something that should come from within and should not be dependent on your lover or mate. Your well-being is not their responsibility, and theirs is not yours.” Do a quick scan of many of the popular publications amongst millennials and Generation Z (i.e. VICE, GQ, Cosmopolitan) and you’ll find these narratives repurposed and repackaged in subtle ways.  We’re constantly being sold the appeal of free and emotionless sex, no-strings-attached relationships where you can set the rules yourself. Like a light switch, we’re told we can simply choose when to turn on (or off) our emotions in any relationship setting. Levine and Heller add to this narrative, “each person needs to look after himself or herself. In addition, you should learn not to allow your inner peace to be disturbed by the person you are closest to… the basic premise underlying this point of view is that the ideal relationship is one between two self-sufficient people who unite in a mature, respectful way while maintaining clear boundaries.”  Scientifically speaking, none of this is true. We are not, and never will be, independent. We don’t get to set the rules of relationships, rather the rules of attachment are hardwired into our human DNA. This truth is so foundational to who we are that attachment theory has been directly connected to brain development. Neuroscientist Regina Sullivan of the NYU School of Medicine writes in a 2012 report, “Even with proper nutrition and perfunctory care, if an infant does not receive affectionate social interaction, her physical development will be stunted and her brain development compromised. In other words, if you don’t receive proper love and care growing up, your brain won’t form properly. With this in view, it’s hard to understate how harmful the cultural narratives of sex and independence are to our basic health. In The Attachment Effect, Lovenheim adds “Our culture, I believe, gets it entirely wrong when it continually sends the message that the most evolved individuals are those who are independent and don’t need anyone else.. That attitude – flies in the face of our biology.” Some of the most trendy ideas today are having casual sex, gangbangs, engaging in threesomes and exploring polyamory. The underlying premise is that consent is everything. That we can make mature, autonomous and informed decisions – and use our bodies however we please without any fallout.  But these ideas do not take into account our biology, psychology and the complexity of relationship dynamics, as well as the basic human need for secure attachment (which we’ll discuss in the next section). Dr. Emily Nagoski, a leading sex educator who has taught at Harvard, says in her bestseller Come As You Are, “we can’t understand sexual wellbeing without understanding attachment, and we can’t maximize our own sexual wellbeing without learning how to manage attachment in our relationships.” There’s a cost to being flippant about sex, to ghosting people and avoiding defining the relationship. There’s a cost to threesomes and orgies. Relationally speaking, humans are wired for “two to become one.”  Levine and Heller teach us in Attached, "Numerous studies show that once we become attached to someone, the two of us form one physiological unit. Our partner regulates our blood pressure, our heart rate, our breathing, and the levels of hormones in our blood. We are no longer separate entities. The emphasis on differentiation that is held by most of today’s popular psychology approaches to adult relationships does not hold water from a biology perspective. Dependency is a fact, it is not a choice or a preference.”


So how does attachment theory play out then, practically speaking? In the 1970s, psychologist Mary Ainsworth devised the Strange Situation Test to observe how attachment works within babies. Levine and Heller call it “probably the most important study in the field of attachment theory.” The results helped develop what we now know as attachment styles, which are broken up into three categories – secure, avoidant and anxious. These styles are some of the most well-attested facts within modern scientific academia. A fourth style, disorganized attachment, combines behaviors from anxious and avoidant people. To break this down further, what we learn from our caregivers and other social interactions growing up significantly impacts what attachment style we develop and how we behave in our adult relationships. From birth, we start forming a mental map that allows us to navigate the social dynamics of our world.  Lovenheim writes, “These early beliefs are about the self in relation to others… Am I lovable? Am I someone other people are going to value and care for? How comfortable am I being close, depending on another person, making myself vulnerable to another person? When I need others, will they be there for me?” If the answer to these questions is yes, then we experience a sense of security. We start to develop the ideal, which is a secure attachment style. Later on in life, those with secure attachment styles have shown to be comfortable giving and receiving love, openly communicating and sharing their feelings with their partner. But if we learn the answer to these questions is uncertain, we develop an anxious attachment style. When our primary caregiver is inconsistent, this manifests in adulthood as insecurity. We often crave intimacy but rarely feel secure, keenly aware of all the threats that might be surrounding our relationship. The last attachment style – avoidant – is developed when we learn the answer to the above questions is no. When there is an absentee caregiver, who is unresponsive to our needs, we learn to shut down and avoid intimacy altogether.  It’s worth noting that you might have an anxious (or avoidant) attachment style and based on your upbringing, it’s obvious to you why that is. But for others, it’s not that obvious. Much of the attachment process, especially when we’re infants, are experiences and memories that we cannot recall. Regardless, this has profound implications for all of our relationships, including how we interact on dating apps and communicate our feelings (both positive and negative). It also provides a big clue as to why we choose to engage with sex the way we do. Let’s explore each style a bit deeper, to identify where you fit on the spectrum.


"It is very important for you to maintain your independence and self-sufficiency and you often prefer autonomy to intimate relationships. Even though you do want to be close to others, you feel uncomfortable with too much closeness and tend to keep your partner at arm's length. You don't spend much time worrying about your romantic relationships or about being rejected. You tend not to open up to your partners and they often complain that you are emotionally distant. In relationships, you are often on high alert for any signs of control or impingement on your territory by your partner." - Levine & Heller Perhaps more than the other attachment styles, modern-day culture tends to glorify avoidant attachment behavior, often in subliminal ways.  We’re told to be self-reliant, to not let a significant other cramp our space or dreams, to keep our options open and as a result, avoid DTRs.  For one of the first times in history, we also idealize the idea of getting married or “settling down” later in life. Particularly in more progressive cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York City, you seem like an oddball if you’re married at 25.  Not surprisingly then, avoidant attachment is most commonly associated with the free sex narratives that we’re constantly reading about in modern media outlets.  Dr. Sue Johnson says that avoidants tend to pursue what she calls sealed-off sex. “This is all about reducing sexual tension, achieving the big O and feeling good about your sexual prowess. The name of the game is sensation, the more the better and performance, or the "God I am hot" quotient.”

Dr. Nagoski adds in Come As You Are, “People with insecure attachment styles (i.e. avoidant)... have more positive attitudes toward sex outside committed relationships, have more one-night stands, and are more likely to have sex just to fit into a social expectation than because they really want to.”

Like... gangbangs. Much of the behavior happening on college campuses in America falls into this category. Students openly talked about suppressing their emotions in the pursuit of socially-accepted sexual behavior, as told in Lisa Wade’s book, American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on College Campus “Hookup culture tells students.. that they can be logical about sex and control their feelings if they choose to. Not just the pleasures and pangs of love, but all of the feelings that sex can spark: insecurity and fear; ambivalence, regret, and confusion; happiness, transcendence, sadness and misery; loathing and awe. Hooking up, they claim, can and should be emotionless.” As a culture, we tend to look at casual hookups or a friend with benefits as harmless. One of Wade’s students said as much, commenting “It’s almost like the free zone where nothing a person does has a real impact on their life.” “It’s always nice to have a clean, emotionless hookup,” another added. Yet if you understand attachment theory, you realize how false this notion really is.  Wade, commenting on this theory says, “it does sound nice, in a floating-in-a-vacuum kind of way, but it’s nonsense, of course. Saying we can have sex without emotions is like saying we can have sex without bodies. There simply is no such thing as an emotion-free human state.” Avoidants split into two categories -- avoidant-dismissive and fearful-avoidant. Dismissives tend to portray themselves as strong, self-sufficient and feelingless, while fearful people avoid strong attachments due to fear of getting hurt. Both subcategories are linked with a suppression and numbing of emotions, where the person prefers not to tell their partner how they feel deep down. It’s difficult to let people in and easier to keep others at a distance. Some of the ways in which avoidants do this, which Levine and Heller call deactivating strategies, are as follows:
    • Saying (or thinking) “I’m not read to commit” – but staying together nonetheless, sometimes for years
    • Flirting with others
    • Pulling away when things are going well
    • Not saying “I love you” – while implying that you do have feelings towards the other person
    • Keeping secrets and leaving things foggy
    • Forming relationships with an impossible future, such as with someone who is married 
 Extensive studies have been done on avoidant attachments and the results are revealing. Levine and Heller explain, “these studies.. tell us that avoidants.. aren’t such free spirits after all; it is the defensive stance that they adopt that makes them seem that way.” Although modern society likes to promote self-reliance as an operating system in modern relationships, we find in time that “self-reliance” often becomes self-sabotage. We may be able to suppress our emotions for a time, but this won’t lead to lasting happiness or the life we long for. The good news?  While life may have molded us into an avoidant attachment, thankfully it doesn’t have to stay that way. There are ways we can change, and develop healthy patterns for our relationships. 



“You love to be very close to your romantic partner and have the capacity for great intimacy. You often fear, however, that your partner does not wish to be as close as you would like them to be. Relationships tend to consume a large part of your emotional energy. You tend to be very sensitive to small fluctuations in your partner’s moods and actions, and although your senses are often accurate, you take your partner’s behaviors too personally. You experience a lot of negative emotions within the relationship and get easily upset. As a result, you tend to act out and say things you later regret. If the other person provides a lot of security and reassurance, however, you are able to shed much of your preoccupation and feel contented.” - Levine & Heller In the court of public opinion, behavior that’s associated with anxious attachments tends to carry the most stigma. In a day and age where self-reliance is glorified, we don’t want to be labeled as “needy” or “clingy”. This makes things even more difficult for those who are actually anxiously attached. On varying levels, anxious attachers tend to be consumed by the fear of losing their partner’s love. We might believe that our partner is better than us and this causes us to be consumed with thoughts that our partner will eventually leave us and/or doesn’t care as much as we do.  In Come As You Are, Dr. Nagoski explains that anxious attachments engage in what she calls solace sex. “People with anxious attachment styles are the most likely to engage in anxiety-driven “solace sex” -- that is, using sex as an attachment behavior.”

But the damage of being anxiously attached extends far beyond sex and the actual relationship itself. Anxious attachment can cause massive disruptions in other areas of our lives, like work, career, friendships and family. Even the most basic, fundamental joys of life start becoming less enjoyable when so much mental energy is wrapped up in ruminating about another person.

This mental unrest makes it difficult to maintain focus or be present in the moment. In Ainsworth’s Strange Situation Test, we observe exactly this. It’s only after the baby feels a secure link with their caregiver, that they can resume other activities – like playing with toys. And isn’t this so often representative of life for anxious attachers? Our equilibrium feels off until the harmony and security is re-established in our relationship. Even when we’re not exploring something serious with something, navigating a culture that has trouble with DTR (defining the relationship) can be maddening.  Although this attachment style is stigmatized, the numbers don’t lie.  Research has consistently shown that 25% of the population is anxiously attached. But as with avoidant attachment, there are things we can do to move towards becoming more securely attached. Anxiety-driven behavior doesn’t have to have the last word in our lives.


"Being warm and loving in a relationship comes naturally to you. You enjoy being intimate without being overly worried about your relationships. You take things in stride when it comes to romance and don't get easily upset over relationship matters. You effectively communicate your needs and feelings to your partner and are strong at reading your partner's emotional cues and responding to them. You share your successes and problems with your mate, and are able to be there for them in times of need." - Levine & Heller As you can guess, secure attachment is the healthiest attachment style. As we mentioned above – those with secure attachment styles are comfortable giving and receiving love, openly communicating and sharing their feelings with their partner.  When we are securely attached, we operate from a secure base. Our culture tends to view committed relationships, such as marriage, as an arrangement that restrains our personal freedom. But if you’re securely attached, the opposite is true. Levine and Heller explain, “it is the knowledge that you are backed by someone who is supportive and whom you can rely on with 100 percent certainty and turn to in times of need.” This style is most often correlated to synchrony sex, which Dr. Johnson boldly says “is the way sex was supposed to be,” adding “this is when emotional openness and responsiveness, tender touch and erotic exploration all come together. This is the sex that fulfills, satisfies and connects.”  Synchrony sex is ultimately linked to how safe and open we feel emotionally with our partner. Dr. Johnson adds, “The key prerequisite here is not wild sexual techniques but a safe emotional bond. The safer we feel emotionally, the more we can communicate, express our needs, play and explore our responses and relax into sexual feelings.” Dr. Nagoski expounds on this in Come As You Are, explaining that the research shows that “secure attachment was associated with every domain of sexual well-being you can imagine. Secure attachers have more positive emotions during sex, more frequent sex, higher levels of arousal and orgasm, and better communication about sex… they enjoy sex more, are more attentive to their partners’ needs, feel a link between sex and love, are more likely to have sex in the context of a committed relationship, and are more sexually self-confident. Secure attachers have the healthiest, most pleasurable sex lives.”

This may be surprising to hear, especially because it stands in stark contrast to the narratives we’re hearing through the media. Yes, attachment is a fundamental fact about our existence, but when everything around you is saying otherwise, it does not feel as though that’s how the world really works.

The truth about sex and attachment is not heard in the locker room or on college campuses. It’s not found in movies, music or porn. And it’s not something we talk about with our friends. If anything, it’s the polar opposite. The cultural narrative about sex is a steady one-track beat reverberating throughout our days. And if nothing changes, a disconnect will continue between what culture is telling us we SHOULD want and what we REALLY need. We can try to deny our most basic survival needs, but it’s not going to lead to the relationships we long for.


Although John Bowlby discovered the science of attachment in the 1950s, the concept has ancient roots. 3,500 years ago, when the first pages of the Bible were written, we read this in Genesis 2: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. This has striking parallels to attachment theory.  Author Tim Keller unpacks this passage, explaining that: “In the Bible, the word flesh doesn’t simply mean your body…The word flesh means a person. When it says the two will become one flesh, it says you’ll be one person. You’re really no longer the same two people, but you’re a third entity. This oneness is tremendously deep. It’s organic. It’s vital. It’s not mechanical.” Again, striking parallels to what we Dr. Levine and Heller say earlier:  “Numerous studies show that once we become attached to someone, the two of us form one physiological unit. Our partner regulates our blood pressure, our heart rate, our breathing, and the levels of hormones in our blood. We are no longer separate entities.” All of this is surprising… until it’s not If the same God who created science is the one who created the Bible, we are simply seeing two different sides of a coin reveal the same truth. Jesus said that all the commandments of the Bible can be summed up into two things: love God and love others (Matthew 22:36-40). In fact, the Bible mentions the word love 745 times in the ESV translation.

Love is the point of it all. It’s why we’re on the Earth. And Jesus was the ultimate embodiment of self-sacrificial love. Perhaps most remarkably, we find that this biblical precedent of self-sacrificial love is forced upon us when we have a child. 

Keller explains in the Meaning of Marriage, “Your new child is the neediest human being you have ever met. She needs your care every second of the day, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week...You make enormous sacrifices in your life, and yet the child, for a very long time, gives you nothing in return. And, while later the child can give you love and respect, never does she give you anything like what you have given to her.” And if we, as parents, don’t embody this self-sacrificial love? It will negatively impact brain development, leading to a world of anxious and avoidant attachers. In Love Sense, Dr. Johnson expounds on the research of brain development right from birth: “Infant monkeys who are isolated from their mother show gross deficits in multiple areas of the brain, including those involved in the processing of emotion, such as the hippocampus.. Isolated babies, such as those reared in institutions, show similar effects. Many sicken and die at an early age. Survivors often mature with attention problems and cognitive and language deficits.” Again, we see how the scientific and the spiritual come together to reveal two different sides of the same coin. This all sounds beautiful, but it begs an important question. If this is the truth, what is our culture really rebelling against?



In 2018, The Atlantic’s Kate Julian wrote a critically-acclaimed piece documenting  “the sex recession” amongst millennials. During her research, she interviewed two students who were tasked with observing long-term committed couples as part of their Marriage 101 class at Northwestern University. “To see a relationship where two people are utterly content and committed,” one woman said, with real conviction, “it’s kind of an aha moment for me.”  Another student spoke disbelievingly of her couple’s pre-smartphone courtship. “I couldn’t necessarily relate to it,” she said. “They met, they got each other’s email addresses, they emailed one another, they went on a first date, they knew that they were going to be together. They never had a ‘define the relationship’ moment, because both were on the same page. I was just like, “Damn, is that what it’s supposed to be like?” That last line is what struck us most personally, because it provides a clue as to what our culture is rebelling against. We’re rebelling against what we've seen. We’re rebelling against bad examples of marriage. We’re rebelling against toxic masculinity and the oppression of women. Good marriages are surprising, because we don’t have examples of them. And when it comes to the Bible, we’ve lived through an entire generation that has badly distorted what this book has to say about sex, marriage and dating. But in the midst of this cultural upheaval, we’ve reached the point of overcorrection. Yes, we’ve made advancements in women’s rights. This is incredible, but we’ve also erased fundamental truths of what it means to be human – like attachment theory. Self-reliance might sound sexy, but in reality, it’s a form of self-harm. We can front and put on a mask, but as Levine and Heller put it in Attached, “our need for someone to share our lives with is part of our genetic makeup.”  It’s worth noting that this doesn't have to be a romantic partner. Some of us are destined to be single and still live incredibly fulfilling lives. But we still need to be securely attached in our friendships. “Bowlby proposed that we are designed to love a few precious others who will hold and protect us through the squalls and storms of life,” Dr. Johnson explains. Of course, the attachment conversation opens up many others, like about monogamy, sex drive and how to deal with sexual desire, to which we've done features on each of these topics. Continue your learning journey by exploring more of our resources on sex here.


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