Years ago, I sat down to dinner with a woman I liked very much. We had discovered an intense sexual connection and then tried to hang a relationship on it. But something was wrong in our romantic relationship and we both knew it.
In this conversation, we were both frustrated and confused: We could talk and laugh for hours, and yet in moments of distress we just couldn’t seem to turn to each other for comfort and soothing, not in a way that was satisfying.
In a conventional monogamous relationship, that would have been the end of it—because in monogamy, you’re hunting for “the one” who can do it all for you. But we weren’t monogamous. We were polyamorous, and we both had other partners with whom we felt safe and secure. However, because we were unconsciously following the monogamous script of the dominant culture, our conversation started to escalate into an argument. Suddenly, I stopped.
“We’re poly,” I said. “We don’t have to do this.”
She knew what I meant. Was it really so disastrous that she and I could only have amazing sex and close friendship? Couldn’t we just have what we had, and not try to make it into something that it wasn’t? Was it necessary to make each other feel bad for not living up to an ideal in which we didn’t even believe?
In monogamous, heterosexual terms, we were “friends with benefits” discovering that we probably wouldn’t become more than that—and in this conversation, we decided that was a good thing. In fact, we became, and remain, close friends.
Not every relationship can develop a sense of attachment, as I discovered that day with my friend. Almost by definition, it’s rare to find someone to serve as your secure base and safe haven. “This happens when our partners care about our safety, seek and respond to our distress, help us to co-regulate and soothe, and are a source of emotional and physical comfort,” writes therapist Jessica Fern in her recent book, Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma, and Consensual Nonmonogamy.
In her book, Fern applies insights from decades of research testing the theory of attachment to people who are striving for secure relationships with more than one partner. Polysecure goes a long way toward clarifying what’s at stake in discussions like the one I had on that day: If it wasn’t secure attachment that we had, then what could we get from each other that would enrich both our lives?
It would be a shame, however, if only polyamorous people read Polysecure—because, as this book reveals, polyamorous relationships have a great deal to teach everyone about how to create dependable, enduring connections with others.
Attachment theory basics
As Fern describes in her opening chapter, researchers John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth developed attachment theory in the middle of the last century to explain why some children showed intense distress when separated from their parents.
When parents consistently respond to hunger or discomfort in babies, suggested Bowlby and Ainsworth, kids learn that they matter. If parents don’t, they can create a sense of insecurity in their children. When parents pose an actual physical threat, love and abuse get tangled up in the nervous systems of those who survive.
Subsequent research found that these childhood experiences with our caregivers shape our adult relationships, because they condition—in deep, unconscious ways—what we can expect from the people we love. Adults with a “hyperactivated” attachment system are more likely to make constant bids for attention, positive and negative, because they’re worried that loved ones will get bored and wander away as their parents once did. In contrast, children who suffered abuse or loss will deactivate their attachment system in adulthood: Since people are scary, then it’s better to expect the worst and not ask them for help. There are several different ways for psychologists to categorize adult attachment styles, but in her book, Fern breaks them out into four basic units: secure, dismissive, preoccupied, and fearful.
This research doesn’t mean we’re doomed by tough childhoods. As many recent studies find, it’s completely possible to repair these wounds. “Meaningful contact with teachers, friends, lovers, mentors, therapists, or other relatives who can empathically resonate and securely bond with us can all assist us in adjusting our attachment style towards becoming more secure,” writes Fern.
What does this have to do with polyamory? A lot, she suggests. In many ways, monogamy tries to externally create the conditions for secure attachment even when the individuals involved do not internally have secure attachment styles: legal marriage, home ownership, sexual exclusivity, and children stitch people together to a degree that is difficult to unravel. As Fern warns, however, this structure provides only the illusion of emotional security:
Secure attachment is created through the quality of experience we have with our partners, not through the notion or the fact of either being married or being a primary partner. The narratives people have about love, marriage, primary partnership, and how to achieve relationship security are powerful, so much so that just the idea of being in love, married, or in a primary partnership can lead us to think we are experiencing attachment security when in reality we might not be.
Most forms of consensual non-monogamy (and there are many, as Fern describes) take that structure away, and so often lay bare our childhood wounds and attachment issues. For example, fear of abandonment can become intense when your spouse goes out on dates with others; asking for what you need can trigger greater anxieties of rejection when your mate has other “options.” In this sense, polyamory forces you to deal with past traumas, whatever their type—and quite often, it compels previously monogamous couples to take a fresh, hard look at their attachment to each other.
As Fern argues throughout her book, polyamory can also reveal how optional attachment is to successful relationships. In consensual non-monogamy, you can have sex and friendship without attachment—as I did with my friend—and there’s nothing wrong with that kind of relationship. You can also have attachment without sex in a romantic relationship without anyone feeling a deficit. If one or both of the partners still want sexual connections, they’re ideally free to pursue them.
I always like to say that polyamory is the ability to have different kinds of relationships—and Fern’s book taught me that secure emotional attachment doesn’t need to be a part of every one of them.
How to cultivate attachment
When I came to my partner Michelle, I was a fairly straightforward example of a dismissive attachment style. For much of her life, Michelle’s was anxious and preoccupied. She had already started repairing herself before she met me, and fortunately for me, she brought a remarkable amount of wisdom to helping me find safety in her. In our case, this mainly meant training me to attune to my own emotions and communicate needs that arose from insight into myself.
We ultimately developed a rare depth of attachment; we’re secure enough so that we’ve been able to love others without weakening our bond. In fact, loving other people (and kids and cats) together has strengthened our relationship.
In light of Fern’s book, it was funny for me to re-read the part of my journal that covers the time when I pair-bonded with my other partner Angela, with whom I’ve also developed an attachment. In my recording of events, I was watching Michelle watching me watching Angela. What I was really watching, I realized on reading Polysecure, was our attachment: As I opened myself to feeling connected and secure with Angela, I didn’t want to damage the attachment I had with Michelle.
As I’ve discovered, becoming the attachment figure for two women is an enormous responsibility, but there’s nothing unnatural or impossible about it. We can be the attachment figure for multiple children; we can have many best friends. We’re built for love—the problem is that we’re often afraid of love, because of the fears early experiences with love have instilled in us.
Being the attachment figure for more than one person can risk stretching us too thin, but that doesn’t just happen in polyamory. It can happen when we have more than one child, or if our own parents become childlike in old age—and those situations can threaten attachment with partners, as our attention shifts to those in need. That’s why Fern’s lessons for holding multiple attachments can be widely applied outside of romantic relationships. If we cultivate awareness of attachment styles and the attachments themselves, then we can more skillfully manage them.
I won’t give away the secrets of Fern’s book in this review, but I will say the roadmap she offers for cultivating secure attachment with multiple partners is extremely helpful, and perhaps even revolutionary. At the end of the book, she stresses that people pursuing such relationships must, above all, earn a secure attachment with their own selves.
“In polyamory, we need the internal security of being anchored in our inner strength and inner nurturer to navigate a relationship structure that is considerably less secure,” she writes. “You must be a priority in your own life.” While that may be more necessary for those who are polyamorous, everyone can benefit from her ideas for how to attune to our own selves and treat ourselves with kindness and delight.
Polysecure is a must-read for polyamorous folks and for therapists with clients who are practicing consensual non-monogamy. However, I believe that its insights and messages could open doors for people who have, or are hoping to find, a single partner. We all carry unconscious beliefs about what love is and what it can be—and we can all benefit from asking ourselves if those beliefs really are leading us to the love we need.