Polysecure (2020) unites attachment theory, which explains the different types of attachment people form with each other, with consensual nonmonogamy – the increasingly popular practice of having multiple romantic partners. By learning more about your attachment style, you can develop healthy relationship habits, even in nonmonogamy.
Learn about attachment theory and discover why it’s so important in consensual nonmonogamy.
What are you like in a relationship? Are you comfortable and engaged when you’re spending time together? Do you understand your own and your partner’s feelings, and can you both talk about them? And what’s it like when you’re apart – do you miss them? A little bit, or a lot? Or do you carry on like normal?
No two relationships are quite alike – but by categorizing people into one of four attachment styles, attachment theory can help you understand why you are the way you are with other people – and it can help you develop healthy habits, too.
Now here’s the curveball: What if you’re in more than one relationship?
You probably already know how emotionally demanding relationships pretty much always are. But even if you’ve only been in monogamous relationships before, I’m sure you can imagine how much harder it can get when there are multiple people involved.
That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t give it a try. Consensual nonmonogamy is growing in popularity at the moment; more and more people are learning how it could be right for them. But it certainly helps to know a thing or two about attachment styles. And that’s where this summary comes in.
It will talk you through the basics of both attachment theory and nonmonogamy – before explaining how the two link up, and how you can work toward a secure attachment style in a nonmonogamous context.
Now, this is more of a guide to how to develop healthy nonmonogamous relationships than a fully-fledged introduction to the topic. If that’s what you’re after, we recommend other titles from our library – for example The Ethical Slut by Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton.
Attachment theory links how people are in relationships to their personal histories – especially early childhood.
Before we get to polyamory, let’s talk about attachment – because the attachment theory model of looking at relationships is going to affect how we talk about nonmonogamy.
Attachment theory was developed by the British psychologist John Bowlby, and – just as the name suggests – it explains the different types of attachments that people form. But, in fact, it was an experiment by another psychologist, Mary Ainsworth, that best illustrates those different types.
In her “Strange Situation Procedure” experiment, Ainsworth placed a young child and their parent in a playroom – and then got the parent to leave for a short while. She looked in particular at how the child’s mood changed when the parent left and then came back, and how much they explored the room and played with toys.
Plenty of the children were essentially fine. They were comfortable exploring the room at first, somewhat distressed when the parent left, and relieved when they returned. Those children showed what attachment theory calls a secure attachment style.
Other children demonstrated one of the several insecure styles instead.
Some showed the avoidant style – called the dismissive style in adults. They explored the room independently – whether or not their parent was there – and their mood barely changed when the adult left and came back.
Children showing the anxious style, meanwhile, which in adults is called the preoccupied style, often explored the room very little – initially staying close to their parent, and then, when the parent left, showing a lot of distress.
The final style wasn’t categorized at the time, but it’s now known as the disorganized style, or in adults fearful-avoidant. It’s harder to identify initially, as people with this style can vacillate unpredictably between dismissiveness and preoccupation.
OK, so those are the four styles. As you’ve probably already worked out, which style a child has depends to a great extent on their experiences: if a parent is often absent or disengaged, a child might become dismissive as they realize they need to fend for themselves. If a parent is overly present, on the other hand, or themselves show signs of anxiety, the child might become overly dependent and hence preoccupied. Fearful-avoidant style often (not always!) develops in children who’ve had particularly difficult parental experiences, because there are trust issues.
This is where the issue of trauma comes in. Trauma can actually be defined more simply than you may realize: it is simply any experience of broken connection. That can range from a scarring one-off incident all the way through to a recurrent problem in childhood, like having to move house frequently. The traumas that we all experience play a big role in the attachment styles we develop.
Another thing you’ve probably worked out already is that early attachment styles map onto our adult selves. The way we act in adult relationships is affected by the attachments we had with the most important people in our early lives – parents. So people who were anxious as children may well go on to be preoccupied in adult relationships – and so on.
But – and this is important to bear in mind – your attachment style isn’t fixed. No one’s is! Other aspects of your life besides your parents, including relationships, can influence your attachments; plus, you can work to develop healthier habits. If you want to develop a secure attachment style – a pretty sensible aim – it’s within your power to do so. Whatever you do, don’t box yourself in to your attachment style, or use it to excuse patterns of behavior. Don’t say, “My attachment style made me do it.” You can work to change.
Rather than thinking of the four styles as completely separate, it’s helpful to think of them as the four quadrants on a graph, with one axis charting high to low avoidance levels, and the other axis high to low anxiety. If you have a secure attachment style, you’re in the quadrant with low avoidance and low anxiety; if you’re fearful-avoidant, you’re high in both. People with the preoccupied style have high anxiety but low avoidance, and those who are more dismissive have high avoidance but lower anxiety.
Charting it on a graph is a useful reminder that it’s a spectrum – people can be more or less extreme along each axis, and not every person with a particular attachment style is the same. And what’s more, there are positive aspects to different positions on the grid. People with a less extreme dismissive style, for instance, are more focused on positive traits like self-sufficiency, and don’t become overwhelmed by emotions. And people with the preoccupied style tend to be especially attuned to other people’s feelings – potentially a very valuable skill when it comes to adult relationships.
All of that said, everyone benefits from having a secure attachment style, whatever sort of relationship you’re in. And as you’ll hear next, in the context of nonmonogamy, secure attachment becomes especially important.
In nonmonogamous relationships, understanding attachment styles is particularly important.
Let’s put attachment to the side for a moment, then, and look at the other piece of the puzzle: nonmonogamy.
We don’t have time in this summary to give you a full, detailed overview of the history of nonmonogamy. Suffice to say that, while there has been growing awareness of different relationship styles in recent times, we certainly haven’t yet seen the large-scale societal shift in attitudes around nonomonogamy that has occurred regarding sexual orientation, gender, race, and so on. Nonmonogamy remains a niche.
Monogamy, though, isn’t quite as widely practiced as people tend to proclaim. The proportion of married people who admit to cheating on their partners is somewhere around the 50 percent mark, after all.
But consensual nonmonogamy, or CNM, is not cheating. It’s a completely different thing.
What is it? Well, it comes in many different forms – in fact, you can plot them on another four-quadrant graph, with the axes representing high to low sexual and emotional exclusivity. Monogamy is high in both, while swinging, for instance, would involve high emotional exclusivity but low sexual exclusivity.
Hierarchical forms of polyamory – in which one partner is acknowledged as a primary partner and others as secondary – are actually fairly near the center of the graph. Relationship anarchists, as you can probably guess from the name, are low in both forms of exclusivity.
So now we come to it: How does consensual nonmonogamy relate to attachment theory?
The first thing to say, unfortunately, is that there isn’t enough research on this yet – in general, work on attachment theory has focused on monogamy.
But the research that does exist is interesting. You might naturally assume that people drawn to nonmonogamy would have insecure attachment styles, but this is often not the case at all. Attachment anxiety levels – one of those two axes on the attachment theory graph – were found in one study to be much the same in CNM and monogamous relationships, while attachment avoidance levels were actually lower in CNM.
So what information there is on CNM and attachment theory is encouraging, and suggests that people involved in CNM relationships are actually often more trusting and less jealous than monogamous people.
The author’s own experiences as a therapist chime with that conclusion. At the very least, we can definitely say that secure attachment is possible with several romantic partners – you can be polysecure.
It makes sense, if you think about it: children, after all, typically form bonds with more than one adult – both of their parents. There’s nothing about secure relationships that says you can only have one of them.
But before we get on to how to achieve polysecurity, there’s one important thing to note: it’s individuals who are polysecure, not couples or groups of people. As you’ll hear, in addition to the work that couples often need to do if they move toward nonmonogamy, people do need to work on themselves individually. The hardest part may well be controlling your own feelings – it’s a move that can expose a lot of insecurities.
The other thing to bear in mind with CNM and attachment is that there is something insecure about nonmonogamy – inevitably. Monogamy, even if it doesn’t work out, is all about two people making a permanent and binding commitment to each other. But nonmonogamy acknowledges the constant possibility of change. And that can be a hard thing for people to cope with, whatever attachment style they have.
On the other hand, there’s something quite comforting about that, too. In CNM, you could say, your partners – all of them, however many that is – are with you because they want to be, not just because you’ve made that formal agreement with each other. Which is kind of beautiful, don’t you think?
Cultivating a secure attachment style is vital when you’re polyamorous.
So how do you do it? How do you become polyamorous while also maintaining a secure attachment style?
Well, first off, you should acknowledge that there’s a risk here. When a couple begins to experiment with polyamory, it can seem much like Mary Ainsworth’s experiment did when the child’s parent stepped out of the room – insecure attachment styles may emerge.
But the author has developed a framework to help people work through that, known by the acronym HEARTS. So for anyone interested in learning how to develop a secure enough attachment style that you can be comfortable with nonmonogamy, these are the things that you need to consider.
H stands for here – it’s about being physically present for your partner. Availability is one of the key problems in nonmonogamy, because people have to divide their time among multiple partners. So the H is there to remind you of how important it is to make the most of time spent together. Messaging one partner while sitting on the couch with another, for instance, isn’t the way to go.
E is about expressing delight. It’s vital to make it to the stage where you’re not just tolerating your partner having multiple partners, but actively pleased for them. The author even has a word for that: compersion – when you’re happy that your partner’s happy with someone else.
The A is for attuning yourself to each of your partners – potentially in different ways. Emotional bonds between people depend on feeling heard and understood. Getting attunement right can be as simple as properly following what a partner is going through, and asking how that work meeting went, or how their sick relative is doing.
There are two Rs: rituals and routines. Monogamy often ends up meaning there’s a little too much in terms of routine – but it’s that sort of daily familiarity that helps to build a secure connection between people. In nonmonogamous setups, the regularity of routines is one of the things it can be especially hard to cultivate, as aligning schedules is inevitably more complex. So make sure to add in any little rituals that you can in order to further the bonds between you and a partner – whether that’s just through making sure you mark birthdays or other celebrations together, or establishing a regular date night together.
T encourages you to turn toward each other – specifically, after you’ve fought. Get out of the mindset of trying to prove your partner’s wrong and you’re right. Talk things through properly with each other – perhaps when you’ve both calmed down.
And what about the final S? That actually stands for your self – and it might just be the most important one of the lot.
You might think the hard part about nonmonogamy is how to manage multiple different partners – but in fact it’s about yourself. Until your relationship style with yourself is secure, it’ll be an uphill struggle to fashion secure relationships with anyone else, let alone multiple people.
Each of the HEART steps above can also apply to yourself: the H for here becomes a question of how effectively you enjoy time alone, for instance.
The A for attunement is maybe the most important of all when it comes to yourself. Being truly in tune with yourself can be especially difficult if your relationship style is insecure – if you have a tendency to be preoccupied, it might feel uncomfortable to ask yourself what you really want, rather than projecting out onto other people; and if you’re more dismissive, you might struggle to admit to yourself that you need external support. People with the fearful-avoidant style might struggle with both of those issues, and have further trust problems as well.
But confronting these questions head-on – and working through them – is paramount.
Nonmonogamy takes all kinds of forms, but the one thing that’s obviously consistent across all of them – kind of the whole point of it, in fact – is that various people are involved. But all of the complexities that those multiple relationships might lead to will count for nothing if you’re not secure with the person you’re always going to be closest to, and the one person who’s absolutely always there: you.
Attachment Theory looks at the different sorts of ways people act in relationships – forming either a secure attachment style or one of several insecure attachment styles, which may involve anxiety issues, avoidance issues, or both. Cultivating a secure attachment style is vital for anyone interested in consensual nonmonogamy – and the best starting point is to become secure in your relationship with yourself.
About the author
Jessica Fern is a psychotherapist, public speaker and trauma and relationship expert. In her international private practice, Jessica works with individuals, couples and people in multiple-partner relationships who no longer want to be limited by their reactive patterns, cultural conditioning, insecure attachment styles and past traumas, helping them to embody new possibilities in life and love.
Naava Smolash, who sometimes writes under the pen name Nora Samaran, is the author of Turn This World Inside Out: The Emergence of Nurturance Culture (AK Press, 2019).
Eve Rickert is the co-author of More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory (Thorntree Press, 2014).