You’re on the road less traveled–navigating consensual non-monogamy in a monogamist culture. You value this way of being in relationship with others and you also struggle with insecurity, jealousy, anger, and fear of abandonment. Your monogamous friends say things like, “I don’t know how you do it. I couldn’t. I’m just too jealous.” And while they mean it kindly, it makes you wonder, “Am I too jealous and insecure to do this? Am I poly enough?”
You’ve seen the Buzzfeed quizzes inviting you to find out your romantic attachment style and passed the shelves of books about developing secure attachment in your romantic relationship, but all the content you’ve come across assumes secure relationships exist only in the confines of monogamy. It leaves you wondering, “Can I ever feel secure in my relationships while practicing polyamory?”
You absolutely can develop secure, attachment-based relationships with multiple partners in the context of consensual non-monogamy (CNM). In fact, there’s nothing inherently more secure about a monogamous relationship than a non-monogamous relationship. Secure attachment doesn’t come from structural ties, such as legal marriage, living together, or sharing finances or children, but rather from how we attune to, stay present with, and respond to our partners.
“When we rely on the structure of our relationship, whether that is through being monogamous with someone or practicing hierarchical forms of CNM, we run the risk of forgetting that secure attachment is an embodied expression built upon how we consistently respond and attune to each other, not something that gets created through structure and hierarchy.” – Jessica Fern, author of Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma and Consensual Non-monogamy (Fern, 2020, p. 122)
What does it mean to have a secure, attachment-based relationship? Creator of attachment theory, John Bowlby, argued that secure attachment requires the relationship to serve as both a safe haven and secure base. Fern explains,“I see being a safe haven as serving the role of accepting and being with me as I am, and a secure base as supporting me to grow beyond who I am.” That is, in securely attached relationships, our partners are a source of support and comfort who respond to our distress (safe haven) and are a platform from which we can explore, take risks, and pursue independence (secure base).
So, how can you increase security in your multiple relationships to serve as both a safe haven and secure base for your partners? In her book, Polysecure, Jessica Fern presents the HEARTS acronym to highlight the skills and ways of being in relationships that cultivate secure attachment.
Secure attachment is facilitated, in part, by experiencing our partners as responsive to our needs for presence and proximity. Fern explains, “When we experience our partners as being here with us, it results in the positive beliefs that our partners care about us, we matter to them and we are worthy of their love and attention. Conversely, when our partners are unavailable, unresponsive or mentally elsewhere, attachment insecurity can arise” (Fern, 2020, p. 175).
Being here with your partners is not just a matter of physical proximity though. It instead requires a conscious presence and attentiveness when we are with our partners. Of course, quality time matters in all relationships – non-monogamous or otherwise – but difficulties navigating limited availability and complaints of lack of presence may be especially high in CNM relationship structures.
To improve your and your partners’ sense of being here with one another, try these tips adapted from Polysecure:
- Discuss with each of your partners how available you want to be to each other and what your capacity is (e.g. frequency of communication, in-person time, forms of communication).
- Be intentional about setting aside consistent time to be fully here and present with each of your partners, including those who you may live with but may rarely get distraction-free time with.
- When you are struggling with being present with a partner, name it. If you’re feeling pulled away due to a stressful situation at work or a conflict with another partner that’s requiring extra attention, having the self-awareness to recognize that you’re not fully present and acknowledging this goes a long way to help regulate your partner’s attachment system.
Expressed delight entails conveying to your partners what you enjoy about their very being and is a foundational element of cultivating secure attachment. Expressed delight goes beyond expressing gratitude for what your partner does for you and instead focuses on who they are as an individual.
“Even when people have a healthy sense of self and esteem, they still need positive feedback as to why their partners cherish them and choose to be with them, especially when, theoretically, they can choose to be with many others” (Fern, 2020, p. 181).
Expressed delight can be shown through our words, actions, eyes, and touch. To practice expressing delight in your attachment-based relationships, try these tips presented by Fern::
- Consistently communicate to your partners through written or spoken word what you find unique and special about them.
- Develop a gratitude practice with your partners where you set aside time to express appreciation for the ways you’ve supported and shown up for each other. This practice might be daily, weekly, or at the end of time spent together.
To be a safe haven and secure base for our partners, we have to be able to emotionally connect with and understand their internal world. “Attunement is meeting your partner with curiosity, wanting to understand their feelings and needs. It is the feeling of being seen, understood and “gotten” by the other” (Fern, 2020, p. 184).
Feeling understood, supported by, and connected to others helps us tolerate and regulate our emotions and in turn offers us a sense of safety and security. In CNM, it can be difficult to stay attuned to multiple partners at the same time or can be challenging to attune to partners as they experience jealousy or express excitement about a new partner or relationship.
To practice attunement in your polyamorous relationship, try these strategies:
- Listen to your partners with curiosity rather than with the goal to “fix” their feelings. Try to take your solution-oriented hat off and replace it with soft eyes, a warm face, and an open heart.
- Slow down your conversations with partners by practicing paraphrasing and reflecting back what you believe you heard them say before responding.
Rituals and Routines
Routine and regularity are like a soothing balm for our attachment system. “The mundane rituals of everyday life can put many of our worries to rest and remind us that we are an integral part of our partners’ lives, and the profound rituals of commitment ceremonies and rites of passage can significantly deepen and strengthen our bonds” (Fern, 2020, p. 187).
In monogamy, there are societally recognized and supported rituals – such as marriage, having children, moving in together – that reinforce the relationship’s validity and commitment. Likewise, in monogamy, daily routines might develop more naturally from cohabitation. In CNM, relationship rites of passage may be less clear or societally recognized and daily routines might require some creativity between partners who do not live together.
Consider the following ideas to cultivate secure attachment with your partners through rituals and routines:
- Develop bedtime or waking routines with each of your partners, whether you live together or not. Give space to your nesting partners to create such routines and rituals with other partners too.
- Create holiday, birthday, and anniversary rituals between partners that honor the relationship, even if they are not celebrated on the actual date. Give your partners autonomy to spend their holidays and birthdays as they wish even if it is not with you.
Turning Towards After Conflict
Research from The Gottman Institute has shown that happy couples experience arguments, being mean to each other, defensiveness, and other forms of rupture just like unhappy couples. What differentiates happy and unhappy couples is not whether conflict occurs, but rather how quickly and how genuinely the couple moves towards repair following conflict.
Successful, securely attached partners are able to admit responsibility for their part in conflict and let go of their attachment to “being right” in order to heal the relationship. Fern writes, “I often tell couples and multiple partner relationships that you can have all the communication techniques and conflict resolution skills in the world, but they do nothing if you still have an attitude of wanting to either be right or prove your partner wrong” (Fern, 2020, p. 193)
When facing conflict with your partners, try these suggestions to practice turning towards one another:
- Keep your desire to “be right” in check and remember and focus on your desire to be in the relationship.
- When conflict escalates to the point of name-calling, criticism, or blaming, take a time-out. Let your partners know that you need a breather and decide together when to come back and resume the conversation.
Secure Attachment with Self
The final letter in the HEARTS of being polysecure is about developing a secure relationship with ourselves. Cultivating secure attachment with one’s self involves applying the HEART of polysecurity to yourself, and it deserves its own article to take a deeper dive. To get started, Fern proposes these questions for your consideration:
- Being here with myself – In general, how comfortable or uncomfortable do I feel being alone with myself? What are the subtle and overt ways that I avoid being present with myself?
- Expressed delight for myself – Do I struggle with critical and shameful inner parts that sabotage my ability to value and appreciate myself?
- Attuning to myself – In what ways do I try to use others to regulate so that I don’t have to self-regulate? What would self-regulation look like for me?
- Rituals and routines for a secure self – What routines and rituals do I have that support me in my well-being and self-care? What routines and rituals do I need to add into my day or week?
- Turning towards self after inner conflict – How do I treat myself when I make a mistake or fall short of my own standards and expectations?
So, if you’ve taken one of those online quizzes and discovered you have a pattern of being anxious or avoidant in your attachment relationships, rest assured, it is still possible to form secure attachment-based relationships with multiple partners in non-monogamy. Your jealousy, insecurity, and fear does not negate your identity. You are poly enough.
Fern, J., Rickert, E., & Samaran, N. (2020). Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma and Consensual Nonmonogamy. Thornapple Press.
Wildflower Center for Emotional Health is a therapy practice with offices in Chicago (River North) and Oak Park, IL. We offer in-person services at each of our locations as well as online therapy to anyone in Illinois. We specialize in perinatal and reproductive health, trauma and PTSD, anxiety and depression, relationships, sex and intimacy concerns, and more.Learn More