Nonmonogamy and Attachment
I’m so happy to be back with you after a beautiful trip to California! This blog topic was requested and I’m really excited to share some information with you about this topic. I want to be clear that this blog post is an exploration of this topic rather than a defining or concrete explanation. I am personally in a monogamous relationship and use my experience working with couples, individuals, and attachment theory as well as my research and learning to develop a deeper understanding of the intersection between nonmonogamous relationships and attachment. I have also connected with a friend who is nonmonogamous and has been generous in sharing some of her personal experiences with us so we can all learn more about attachment and nonmonogamy. Of course, she does not speak for all poly people or poly relationships; her experience is her own. I am so grateful for her willingness to share with us. And of course, this is a HUGE topic—one that I could talk about for a very long time, so we are just skimming the surface here.
Relationship structures continue to evolve. As people become more conscious and aware of how they show up in relationships and the work good relationships require, I see folks becoming more creative in the ways they get their needs met and how they meet their partners needs. The concept of nonmonogamy is not new by any means, but the words “open relationship” and “polyamory” are making their way into mainstream conversations about love, attachment, and partnership more and more often.
Let’s first get clear on a definition of nonmonogamy. I say “a definition” because there are so many ways that folks do nonmonogamy. The definition I’m working with comes from author and educator Tristan Taormino who wrote Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships (which I VERY highly recommend to provide a thorough exploration of all different aspects of nonmonogamy—including the various ways folks structure partnerships).
The author explores the concept of open, honest nonmonogamy in contrast to cheating, sneaking around, and hiding the fact that throughout our lives, we will be attracted to people other than our partner. I talk about this idea regularly in couples sessions because I believe we are doing ourselves a disservice if we believe that because we have committed to someone, we won’t ever have feelings or attraction to anyone else. The problem is that when we deny this idea, we are effectively blocking communication with our partner and potentially creating a situation where we (or our partners) feel they need to keep a secret—and that’s when we might start running into problems in our relationships. We are also denying a part of ourselves—the desire part (I recognize there will be folks who have never been attracted to anyone other than their partner--that person is not me, and it's not most of the people I've worked with or talked to). She notes that in a 2007 poll, 22% of respondents reported that they have cheated on their current partner. When I read that statistic, I felt alarmed. I don’t have to tell you that cheating is not a building block for secure relationships and can infuse a partnership with significant doubt, fear, and insecurity.
She says, “people who practice nonmonogamy begin from the same premise: one partner cannot meet all their needs and they may want to have sex or a relationship with someone other than their current partner. But instead of hiding it, they bring this fact out in the open. They don’t stifle their behavior based on how they’re supposed to act. They open lines of communication. They talk honestly about what they want, face their fears and the fears of others, and figure out a way to pursue their desire without deception. They don’t limit themselves to sharing affection, flirting, sex, connection, romance, and love with just one person. They believe strongly that you can have all these things with multiple people and do it in an ethical, responsible way.”
I also want to be clear about nonmonogamy as it relates to attachment: being attached to someone doesn’t mean you are attached to that person exclusively. Some of the books and resources available about attachment don’t take into account the fact that many folks have multiple attachment relationships, romantic or otherwise.
People choose to engage in nonmonogamy for many reasons. Sexuality shifts over time, or maybe we change our minds about what it is we are looking for in relationships or want to welcome more of something in that wasn't there before. My friend shared her experience of choosing to shift the structure of her relationship with her long-time partner:
My husband and I met when I was in my early 20s. He was my only sexual partner. I asked for the open marriage last fall, after 17 years together. There were a number of factors that led me to it. I had lost a significant amount of weight--enough that I felt (and still feel) like a different person. My personal interests changed. I made some significant career changes after more than a decade at the same place. Some aspects of my personality even changed. I haven't gotten a consistent result on a Myers Briggs for at least a year now. And our sex life had been on the decline for at least a decade. It was a bit of a perfect storm. The classic mid-life transition, which I hear happens in the late 30s for women.
I realized that as I was exploring my new self, that I hadn't been in touch with my sexuality for a long time, and I wanted to get reacquainted with it by exploring new partners. I hadn't done a lot of dating, and I guess I wanted to "test drive" the new me. My husband is also an introvert and has a hard time expressing his emotions, whereas I'm a social extrovert who expresses feelings easily. I wanted to experience what it might be like to be with partners who were more like me. And I was craving an emotional connection that was hard for my husband and me to have, mostly because his personality doesn't lend itself to emotional connection.
When I read my friend’s account of her experience, I love how clear she felt about her own needs and intentions for exploring nonmonogamy. She and her partner had a solid relationship and had been together a long time, but she was needing something that her partner couldn’t provide: experiences with other people. The solid foundation of their relationship, their open communication, and the high level of awareness my friend has around her own needs created a situation where she and her partner could have these discussions (which I’m sure were difficult at times). She also mentioned she and her partner attended couples therapy to explore their relationship and the next right steps for them moving forward.
If your relationship is feeling rocky, I encourage you to get really clear about what needs shoring up before you delve into conversations about nonmonogamy. Are you interested in shifting your relationship structure because your current partnership is feeling unstable or close to ending? If so, opening up will likely illuminate the challenges you are already experiencing. Major transitions in life and relationships tend to do this. But if you are feeling stable, your partnership is strong and consistent, and you are emotionally available to do the work of communicating and engaging honestly with your current partner and future partner(s), moving toward non-monogomy might be a next right step. My friend talks some about her experience with her primary partner as she began to explore nonmonogamy:
Having a stable partner at home made it all the better because I was free to “fall” with the comfort of knowing I still have the mostly non-triggering stability of my rock at home. He has been a safe home base from which to explore new people. At one point I was seeing two partners regularly, in addition to my primary, and I felt like I was firing on all cylinders. These two new partners were high communicators, so I was spending a lot of time juggling my time with them. I’d wake up in the morning and send my “good morning” texts, make sure to check on them throughout the day, block off time to spend with them, and do my best to make each one feel cared for.
Speaking of communication, I believe nonmonogamy requires excellent communication skills and clear agreements between partners around expectations, emotional triggers, and boundaries. Anything else has the potential to create hurt feelings, frustration, and potential attachment injuries. If you have difficulty expressing your needs, setting appropriate boundaries, or you tend to sacrifice your own needs or desires to obtain connection, I encourage you to work on these aspects of yourself in order to reduce feelings of resentment and increase the likelihood that you will get your needs met in nonmonogamous relationships (if this sounds like you, the Healing Anxious Attachment Online Course could be a good fit for you).
If you tend to be on the anxious side in partnerships, it’s possible you could experience significant emotional triggers in a more open partnership. Trust issues specifically may be amplified. On the other hand, having more than one partner to meet your needs may feel comforting and safer than just one partner. Opening up will certainly allow you to come face to face with feelings of insecurity or fear that might be hiding under the surface and ideally support you in working through them with people who care about you have your best interests at heart. My friend shares more of her experience around this:
I felt like my anxious adaptation made me well-suited for tending to and caring for multiple partners. I love to show love to the people I care about, in little ways. Suddenly I had new partners who had never tried my brownies, and were deeply grateful when I baked for them!
Some version of nonmonogamy may also feel comfortable for folks who have more of the avoidant adaptation. Having the opportunity to connect with people in different ways may provide the closeness people with this adaptation are truly looking for, without feeling overwhelming or like “too much.”
I recognize I probably sound like a broken record at this point because I say this so often, but regardless of the type of relationship you have, you still have to do your own work. And in nonmonogamous relationships, the work required increases because relationships bring out both the loveliest and most difficult aspects of ourselves. The same way that ending a relationship does not release you from your own personal self-work, creating new relationships doesn’t allow you a clean slate. Your growth edges go with you. I believe it’s extremely important to assess where you are in your own healing journey, determine your own needs, and get clear about what feels right for you.
Another thing to consider is how much emotional bandwidth you have to devote to additional relationships or people in your life. Tristan Taormino explores this in her book, and when we talk about attachment, I think it’s important to remember that our early attachment feelings (not to mention romantic and sexual) in new relationships are particularly strong. My friend reflected on this concept, too:
As an anxiously attached person, it’s been fun to date and become attached to other partners. Poly people use the term “new relationship energy” or NRE, which is frankly a term I think we should all use. It’s that heady time in the beginning of a relationship when you don’t want to do anything but make goo-goo eyes at your new partner and doodle their name on your notebook. As someone who hadn’t felt NRE in about 17 years, it was a thrill to experience it again.
My understanding of nonmonogamy is that you are committed to your primary relationship(s) and work together so that the needs of everyone in the relationship are met. As with any secure attachment, the relationship itself is part of the equation—not just you and your partner(s). How can you support the relationship and each other? Nonmonogamous relationships done well require the ability to place your relationship first and the awareness to recognize what behaviors, actions, and connections are in alignment with that priority.
So at the end of the day, is nonmonogamy harmful or “bad” with regards to attachment? Definitely not, though I know there are rumors out there that say something different. In fact, I believe that navigating some of these emotionally complex topics with your partner can deepen your sense of connection with each other. Does that mean nonmonogamy is for everyone? Nope! You always get to decide what works best for you, wherever you find yourself in life. Nonmonogamy should always be consensual. But exploring these ideas with your partner, having conversations about your relationship, your needs, your desires, and your growth—those dialogues alone can positively impact your relationship and increase your sense of security with one another. Conversations around desire, needs, and boundaries are conversations we should ALL be having.
P.S. If you are interested in doing some self-exploration, the 28 Commitment to Healthier Relationships is just the place to do it! Getting clear on your own work, needs, boundaries, and desires is an important step in showing up fully in your important relationships.