We’re constantly being bombarded with relationship advice. But it’s usually designed for monogamous couples. Bring up being non-monogamous and all of your advisors run amok.
Even the conversation on attachment theory, a popular resource for understanding the way we communicate and form bonds with people (particularly with parents and partners) has only recently factored in non-monogamous people and polyamorous love.
What is the Attachment Theory?
Attachment theory, which has been credited to the works of psychiatrist John Bowlby and developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth, states that children are born with a need to form close emotional bonds with caregivers. Bowlby explained that this need which manifests as infant behaviours like crying, clinging and screaming, are evolutionary mechanisms to promote the child’s survival by helping nurture attachments with the caregiver. How caregivers respond to these behaviours in early life and how these relationships develop can impact the way the child communicates throughout life by shaping specific attachment styles.
Through various studies that were conducted, four types of attachment styles were identified:
- Secure attachment
- Anxious attachment
- Avoidant attachment
- Disorganised attachment
Works like Polysecure by Jessica Fern have helped expand the conversation on attachment styles to suit more than just mononormative relationship ideals.
Fern describes being polysecure as, “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. “ She sums this up as “being polysecure is having secure attachment with yourself and your multiple partners.”
The conversation on attachment theory is still highly reductive as it fails to account for factors like gender, disability and socioeconomic background. It also tends to ignore the complexity of being human. Furthermore, contrary to previous discourses, psychologists today acknowledge that attachment styles can change over time and one can develop “earned secure” attachment styles.
To understand the place of attachment theory among the non-monogamous community in our society, we spoke to a few people who drew on their lived experiences and ideas of attachment.
Is the attachment theory a perspective that you consciously view yourself or your relationships through?
Coral: I am aware of attachment theory and use it as a rule of thumb to communicate with partners. I don’t adhere to it since it’s easy to fall into using labels instead of creating our own language within the relationship.
Coral is a researcher and cat parent who identifies as gender non conforming, pansexual and demisexual.
Paras: I would not say that I consciously view myself or my relationships through the perspective of attachment theory but I definitely do view it through the related concepts of family therapy where relationships with parents and caregivers impact relationships with people of one’s own generation. Working through my own challenges in therapy has helped me realise that largely feeling like I had to be my own parent in terms of emotional support made me reluctant to open up to anyone emotionally in relationships.
Paras is a mental health professional and founder of The Alternative Story and is closely involved with the polyam community.
Arun: Personally, I go back to reading and understanding my own attachment styles only when I feel something is not working out with a partner. It has helped me identify some patterns and heal from past relationship trauma. Understanding attachment styles has given me the tools and vocabulary that are needed to navigate CNM better, along with relying on intuition from my lived experience.
Arun is disabled, non-binary and Bahujan.
Tanisha: Yes, I am! It’s given me a lot of insight into my patterns and why they exist and has highlighted the gaps between the person that I want to be and the person that I currently am as a result of my early life experiences. Knowing those parts of myself makes it easier to then tell my loved ones who I want to be and where I’m actually at and how they can potentially meet me halfway as I find a way to get where I want to be. It also gives me a better understanding of what safety needs to look like for me.
Tanisha RK is the co-founder of Sangya Project, an online pleasure store and digital initiative to destigmatise sex and sexuality. They are Bahujan, queer, non-binary and polyamorous.
Gitanjali: I am aware of attachment theory now but I wasn’t when I started exploring polyamory. I do not think on these terms often, nor do I feel like I completely fit into any particular type of attachment style.
Gitanjali identifies as ambiguously queer and polyamorous.
Leesha: I am not aware of the attachment theory.
Leesha is the founder of Adah by Leesha, a zero waste handloom brand and believes that there are no rules in love.
Would you say that the understanding and applications of attachment theory in general conversations as well as therapy settings is mononormative? How so?
Paras: Attachment theory in children was developed from a very exclusive dyadic lens. The idea that a child could even be attached to multiple caregivers (not necessarily the mother) was largely absent from the discourse. The same has been extrapolated to adult relationships. ‘Feeling secure’ in lay terms is synonymous with the belief that one’s partner is not attracted to another person while ‘feeling insecure’ means that one is suspicious that one’s partner is ‘unfaithful’. The idea of feeling secure in a relationship and not being monogamous is alien to most people and mental health professionals. Even non-monogamous individuals that I know and mental health professionals who are poly friendly often start with the mindset that relationships start primarily as monogamous and then become non-monogamous. There is also the belief that all non monogamous people have a primary relationship, which while true for some is not true for others.
Coral: Attachment theory seems to set in stone (heredity) aspects of personhood that is in India influenced by socio-economics, class, and caste, along with various sources of generational and/or systemic/institutional trauma. Familial structures and later relationships in India are at multiple points of influence for attachment theory to be used as a reliable model.
As a queer person, how do common cis het relationship standards as well as socio-legal structures like marriage influence your practice of non-monogamy?
Arun: Every socio-legal structure is set up to push queer-disabled people away into the margins, so the invisibilization and lack of support is not a surprise. However, being polyamorous and having queer and affirming partners have helped me explore and find my own queer identity.
Tanisha: Mononormativity and cishet benchmarks for ‘valid relationships’ make it harder for me to find a sense of security while also shaming me for not already having secure attachments. I feel like I’m continuously fed the idea that there is a lifestyle out there that I must aspire to and aim for with every ounce of energy that I’ve got, even if it’s at the detriment of my own wellbeing and even if it means leaving some of my loved ones behind. It’s isolating and frightening and I have no desire to internalise a sense of terror that was never mine to begin with.
Do you believe that secure attachment is possible? And is it a conscious goal for you when you approach your relationships?
Paras: I always say that non-monogamous relationships are based on immense trust in one’s partners to do right by them. Polyamory shows us what secure attachment in the true sense can look like, where concerns like anxiety, abandonment, jealousy, desire for multiple people and dividing time across partners are openly discussed rather than being seen as a threat to ‘secure attachment’. I think secure attachment is not a destination but a state that is maintained by consciously engaging in actions that foster and strengthen trust. It can be achieved in monogamous and non-monogamous relationships of all kinds.
Coral: I think of being secure in a relationship as similar to happiness as a verb rather than it being an outcome. I think finding ways to describe honesty, talking about each other’s body, humour and being able to engage in conversations along with a sense of compression are aspects that I look forward to in a secure non-monogamous relationship.
Gitanjali: I definitely think it is possible to have a secure attachment (or a number of them) and have very secure attachments with two to three people, myself. These relationships have taken time to build and their forms may change.
What does secure attachment in a non-monogamous relationship or being polysecure look like to you?
Arun: I think a lot of past trauma with my disability has made me comfortable with a solo-poly relationship style that prioritises space and time for myself. I have felt very secure with partners who follow similar styles.
Gitanjali: Relationships which can transition from including sex and not, are formed with loving intentions and can hold space space for all partners to be vulnerable enables more secure attachments for me. These relationships have stood the test of time because of the effort and care each of us have put into maintaining it.
Paras: My ability to be vulnerable, my comfort in seeking help or depending on someone are things I definitely see as indicators of my relationships being in a good place or not.
Leesha: For me, security comes from knowing that when I am with a partner, I am there 100% and he is there 100%. We are free to be whoever we want to be and be with whoever we want to be, which makes it easier to communicate with each other.
What are some common challenges that can threaten secure attachment or cause polyinsecurity in a non-monogamous relationship?
Tanisha: Uff, what doesn’t cause polyinsecurity? I think a mononormative and capitalist society makes everything feel like a finite resource, whether it’s emotional or material. Time then becomes a measured resource, money becomes an indicator for love and care and we get caught up in these ideas that the relationship is only healthy when everyone involved is being ‘productive’ towards each other. For example, I’m someone who dissociates a lot and quite heavily. When partners view my attention and active presence as a finite resource and not something that can be as fluid or flexible as I need it to be, my dissociation can and often does leave my partners feeling insecure or unloved. It’s similar to my experiences with partners who have chronic illnesses.
But I do also think that non monogamy changes the way we make our way towards having secure attachments. On the one hand, you’re experiencing insecurities on more than just one front when you’re making yourself open and vulnerable to multiple people. But on the other hand, it feels easier to abandon the expectations that come with the Relationship Escalator mentality within monogamous relationships and that can also give you more time and space to heal your wounds. It can also strengthen the idea that you have a community backing you up, not just one partner who has to be present and available throughout your journey and that just gives everyone so much more air to breathe.
Arun: Sometimes when the relationship is dismantling comfortable brahminical-ableist structures, there will be feelings of insecurity and the people involved may feel and definitions of poly-secure or attachment theory may be inadequate to understand these contexts.
How can one work through the challenges that arise in non-monogamous relationships while experiencing internalised polyphobia?
Paras: Internalized mononormativity and internalized polyphobia is something I have seen every polyamorous person face. At best, one realises that these are inevitable products of living in a world where we are conditioned to be monogamous. In other situations it leads to severe shame, guilt, and self-loathing which may often be reinforced by one’s partners and peers. I often joke when I do sessions on polyamory that it is 90% contract negotiation and 10% actual dating and there is some truth to that for sure.
Arun: I think a lot of the challenges are intertwined with how the social structure in India is set up in brahmanical patriarchy. Sometimes it is difficult to navigate polyamory along with other marginalizations. For example, caste, queerness and disability will also modulate your experience in polyamory relationships. I have questioned my ‘polyness’ in some circumstances where my disability and caste location had made it difficult to confidently communicate boundaries or triggers and it has been a challenge for me to learn the language and vocabulary around polyamory. Even with all the missteps and challenges I personally face in my polyamory journey, I still believe it allows me the best way to express myself and show up in relationships as who I am.
Leesha: I think the most common challenge that comes from being in a largely mononormative society is insecurity, because you are so conditioned to feel that way. But I strongly believe that one person cannot give me everything. If you can have multiple pets, multiple parents and siblings and the tightness and importance of those relationships can be maintained, then why are partners looked at so differently and why are partners only meant to be one? I think the way to work around it is to sit with yourself and understand how different partners fulfil different needs. The same way you also have to accept that your partner is seeking different things from you and seeking different things from different partners. Another thing people say is that it’s really exhausting to have multiple partners, but it’s not because you get your space. If I’m not available for my partner for a week I am free to take my space and my partner is not going to get lonely as a consequence. They also have other partners they can go to. I have not been nudged by any partner for taking my time because they have other people in their support systems they can approach.
How has the freedom/agreement to be sexually active with multiple partners influenced your attachments with them?
Tanisha: It’s uprooted my internal belief of sex as a benchmark for happy relationships. When sex was a benchmark in my mind, I needed it as proof that the relationship was healthy and safe, which also meant that I had to make that kind of time and space with all my partners, and that was… exhausting. Now, I feel like I’m finding comfort in the absence of sex too. There is a comfort in hearing my partner say they’re not feeling up for it, there’s a relief in hearing myself tell a partner that I’m not in the mood because it means I don’t act for them, and that’s allowing me to feel more secure in my body and in my relationships.
Leesha: I think the freedom to be sexually active has helped me build beautiful relationships because there is so much transparency, respect and fun. I don’t have to worry about what my partners are upto or who they are texting because we communicate that with each other. I’m free to tell my partner that I met someone at a party that I’m sexually interested in and they are free to tell me the same. In a non-monogamous relationship, even if one may feel insecure at first when they hear about their partner’s interest in someone else, they feel better with some time because they are happy for their partner and that is what matters most to them. And it’s great when new dates don’t work out and you still have someone you are comfortable with to talk to and come home to. I find it more difficult to be emotionally involved with multiple partners than sexually, but I’m learning.
Are there any specific resources or rituals for care that you tap into when you require support with navigating your non-monogamous identity and relationships? Could you elaborate briefly?
Coral: I mostly sit with “The Logic of Care” by Annmarie Mol and need to start “Complaint!” by Sara Ahmed. These are some science and technology studies and phenomenology resources that I think equip me better in some ways to work with my own mental models for relationships and be critical of other ways of engaging in relationships.
Gitanjali: My favourite way of showing care is through touch – cuddles, massages, holding and being held. Of course, different people have different levels of comfort with this and it is important to have conversations about it. I also enjoy cooking, cleaning and engaging in other domestic tasks for or together with people I love. Another is spending time in the same space with the person. It is hard to say how this particularly relates to a non-monogamous identity as many of these forms of showing care are things I also engage in with friends who are monogamous, though it holds different meaning in those relationships.
Paras: Reading both academic and non-academic literature on polyamory has been something that I think is immensely helpful. Conversations with other polyamorous folks (not necessarily one’s partners) is something that is beneficial as community support. The poly community in Bangalore, where I live, is pretty active and my organisation has engaged with the formal and informal groups here to discuss real life challenges in the Indian context. There is still a very long way to go, but this is a good place to start. I really wish that there are more poly communities across India and it’s safer to talk about being poly openly.