The Importance Of Attachment In Consensual Nonmonogamy
Shai's Journal November 3, 2021
The following content is an excerpt from Jessica Fern’s book – Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma and Consensual Non-monogamy. Jessica is a trusted friend and contributor to the Leveled Up Love community.
To start, let me say that secure attachment with multiple romantic partners is possible.
Honestly, it’s really a necessity to do CNM (consensual non-monogamy) well and thrive, but we’ll get to that. Just as children do not only bond with one attachment figure, adults do and can have multiple securely attached relationships. When secure functioning is at play within CNM relationships, partners communicate well, trust each other, stick to their agreements, and discuss wanted changes.
They tend to have more compersion for their partners, they act respectfully towards their metamours and while they still do experience jealousy or envy, they are also able to support each other in the process. Jealousy becomes an opportunity for increased clarity and connection and it doesn’t take them or their relationships down.
When I talk to CNM folks who are securely attached, they may admit that their relationships require work and acknowledge that they are not always easy (more people means more complexity, and scheduling is always going to be an issue), but they also describe an underlying sense of ease within and throughout their relationships.
When people are securely attached, they enjoy each other and the process of living as consensually non monogamous.
My experience with CNM clients has taught me an enormous amount about how and why understanding CNM through an attachment lens is so important. As CNM individuals and couples began to seek my counsel, I began to notice two distinct camps: those who were mostly thriving and those who seemed to be barely surviving. For those who were thriving, our work was often short-term.
As these people entered into a new relationship paradigm, they reached out to me for some support, guidance and perspective. They usually quickly expressed that they had got what they came for.
Now better able to implement their CNM journey, they moved merrily along their way.
Every few months, I’d even receive a text or email with photos of their entire smiling polycule around a kitchen table (I kid you not!). These people still reached out for therapy or coaching sessions once in a while due to break- ups, stI scares, uncharted CNM situations to figure out and relationship transitions to process, but overall, CNM was working for them.
They expressed feeling secure, and from my perspective they were enacting their multiple romantic partnerships, as well as their metamour relationships, from a place of secure functioning.
I call these people who thrive with their multiple partners polysecure. This is the state of being both securely attached to multiple romantic partners and having enough internal security to be able to navigate the structural relationship insecurity inherent to nonmonogamy, as well as the increased complexity and uncertainty that occurs when having multiple partners and metamours.
More succinctly, being polysecure is having secure attachment with yourself and your multiple partners. Polysecure people are functioning securely both interpersonal and interpersonal.
Transition Into Non-Monogamy
There may be some people who enter nonmonogamy and are able to be polysecure right off the bat, but for many people this is not the case. All of my clients want to be secure within themselves and with their partners, but often the reality of non monogamy is too complicated, painful, dramatic, confusing and even traumatizing. These people transition to non monogamy and feel more polyinsecure than polysecure.
For some of the individuals and couples I’ve worked with, their CNM struggles mirror the relationship challenges they encountered when previously monogamous, but many people are surprised, even shocked, by the issues they face because they are so unlike their monogamous past.
Among couples who transition from monogamy to polyamory, many had healthy, secure monogamous relationships together and can’t make sense of why they are now having so many communication problems, misunderstandings or fights despite their best efforts to be clear and loving with each other.
Some of these couples feel as if they are falling apart at the seams. For many, the transition to poly (whether solo or with a partner) brings up forms of insecurity, anxiety and even panic attacks that they may not have experienced before.
It is not uncommon for me to hear people say that they theoretically want to be poly, but emotionally they don’t know if they can do it because they feel like they are losing their mind.
People struggling with a transition from monogamy to CNM may also find themselves without practical support from their friends, family and community. Sometimes, the people closest to them, even therapists, advise these struggling couples or individuals to go back to being monogamous.
I have heard such couples receive advice that sounds something like, “Well, if you’re struggling more in your relationship or with yourself now that you’re polyamorous, you should just go back to being monogamous and everything will be OK again.”
To me, telling people who are struggling with the transition from monogamy to CNM to go back to monogamy because CNM is just too difficult would be like telling the new parents of an infant who are struggling without sleep or personal time that maybe they should just send the kid back since they didn’t have any of these issues before the child arrived.
This analogy may seem ridiculous because you literally can’t send the kid back, but that can be exactly what it can feel like for people who have made the transition out of monogamy into CNM, especially for people who experience CNM not as a lifestyle choice but as who they fundamentally are.
Culturally, we know better than to tell people to give their kids away when they’re struggling with the realities of parenthood.
We also know not to tell a person who is struggling with the realities of coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender that they should just go back to being straight or go back to being their birth gender since being LGBT in a mostly straight and gender-binarized world is just too hard.
But when it comes to CNM, our well-intentioned friends, family and even helping professionals do not necessarily know better and they can be quick to point the finger at CNM as the problem.
This mindset is often fueled by the fear that if a couple opens up their relationship, it is inevitable that they will then break up or get divorced. Even though many couples stay together after opening up, it is true that many will eventually split up.
But relationships do not end because CNM was the problem or the cause of relationship struggles, but because of the experience of a major relationship paradigm shift that can create so much tumult.
Going from monogamy to CNM means that people are taking on a massive shift in their world view. Almost every aspect of love, romance, sex, partnership and family now has a different set of expectations, practices, codes of conduct and even language compared to the dominant monogamous paradigm of relationships.
Deconstructing monogamy for yourself, with all of its ingrained beliefs and behaviors that you may have been practicing for your entire life, can be extremely difficult.
The science of change has much to tell us about the necessary time and effort it takes to break habits, rewire beliefs and integrate into different paradigms based on new and different realities.
Even when people identify as non monogamous as orientation and the transition might feel like a homecoming, there can still be deep-seated internalized polyphobia to work through.
Furthermore, when couples transition to CNM from a monogamous relationship together, there is the added layer of also deconstructing and reconstructing not just yourself, but your relationship as well. When you’ve shared years or even decades with someone in a monogamous identity together, this can be a particularly arduous transformation process and not every couple survives it.
The paradigm shift can expose all of the underground issues that a relationship already had brewing and that would have eventually ended the relationship anyway. In these cases, the shift to CNM just expedited that process.
Or a relationship might have been perfectly healthy and stable, but the transformational process of entering a new relationship paradigm changes one or both partners to the point that staying together is no longer what they genuinely want.
I also see couples who definitely want to stay together but since they have little to no support in navigating the paradigm shift, they wind up losing each other, drowning in the process.
Over the past few years, there are increasingly more resources available for people transitioning to CNM. These materials have a predominant focus on helping individuals or couples figure out what type of CNM works best for them, how to design relationship agreements, practice safer sex, communicate better and how to manage jealousy.
These are extremely important topics, and in many ways they are foundational to doing CNM well, but I’ve seen people come to my office struggling with agreements that have been broken, communication that isn’t working or jealousy that seems immutable.
Within several sessions we usually find that these are not the main issues but actually symptoms of other, deeper challenges that are arising from the change to CNM. If we are going to point the finger at a cause of distress, it is not non-monogamy itself, but rather the paradigm shift that people try to navigate without a map to guide them through to the other side.
In a talk titled “Couples Transitioning from Monogamy to Polyamory,” I highlight six challenges that I see emerge in the paradigm shift from monogamy to polyamory (they are also applicable to people transitioning from other forms of CNM, such as swinging or open relationships, to polyamory, especially when transitioning into nonhierarchical polyamory or solo polyamory).
These Couples Transitioning Face These Challenges:
- Resistance to the paradigm shift itself. People want to change the structure of their relationship but don’t actually want the relationship itself to change and grow in the ways needed to make the paradigm shift.
- Insufficient skills. The skills and abilities that people used to keep their relationship healthy and happy in monogamy are no longer sufficient in a non-monogamous context, so couples find themselves with only a percentage of the skills they need to be healthy, happy and functional in the paradigm of polyamory.
- Couples never decoupled or went through healthy differentiation before they transitioned. Much of the mono-romantic ideal encourages forms of codependency, which can remain invisible and even functional for a couple until they open up. It is commonly believed and culturally reinforced that your partner completes you, that your identity should be fused with your partner or the relationship and that your partner is the main source of meaning, love and happiness in your life. True intimacy does not come from enmeshment, but from two differ- entiated individuals sharing themselves with each other. Trying to practice non monogamy while still enmeshed with a partner can cause much strife for you and anyone new you are trying to date.
- One partner being more non monogamous in orientation and the other partner identifying as non-monogamous as a lifestyle choice. The difference in pursuing CNM from a lifestyle choice versus an orientation usually influences how each person moves forward with and approaches CNM.
- This difference can cause conflicts, hurt and many misunderstandings. The paradigm shift creates an awakening of the self, where what was previously unexpressed and unrealized is now awakening in someone, potentially turning their entire world and relationships upside down. People may not just be waking up to their non-monogamous desires or orientation, but also aspects of their sexuality, important identities or forms of oppressions that have previously been denied, exiled or completely unacknowledged. An attachment crisis gets catalyzed from the transition into non-monogamy.
- I’ve found that the first four points, once identified, are relatively simple to address and move forward from. The last two points are more complicated and typically need more time and attention to address. The fifth point of how to recover and reinvent yourself when you are going through an awakening of the self—what I also call a crisis of deconstruction—requires more attention than I can allot here, since the focus of this book is the sixth point of how transitioning from monogamy to CNM impacts our attachment.
I’ve observed that the attachment changes in a person’s relationship(s) that occur from becoming non monogamous are at the foundation of struggles with being CNM (as well as any previous insecure attachment traumas that can get brought into their relationships).
Attempting to do CNM with an insecure attachment style or having attachment insecurity arise as a result of becoming non-monogamous can seriously disrupt a per- son’s sense of self, as well as their inner and outer safety in ways that can feel unbearable and be unsustainable.
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