What’s So Appealing About Nonmonogamy? Depends on Your Attachment Style.

How attachment style predicts relationship preferences

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I’ve been mulling over my thoughts on nonmonogamy. I have conflicting thoughts and feelings about it, but it seems like an almost unavoidable topic.

Why is nonmonogamy so common in the kink community?

Consensual nonmonogamy (CNM) includes polyamory and casual play or swinging, and it seems to be the norm rather than the exception among those I have met both online (on fetlife) and off (at munches).

I feel the need to premise many of my interactions at these events with a disclaimer just to avoid misunderstandings: Hi. Nice to meet you. I’m not poly, but it’s fine if you are! But I’m not… justsoyouknow.

“CNM differs from monogamy in that all partners in the relationship agree that it is acceptable to have more than one concurrent romantic partner.

Approximately 4–5% of individuals identify themselves as part of a CNM relationship [emphasis mine], an arrangement in which all partners involved agree to have extradyadic romantic and/or sexual relationships.” (Moors, Conley, Edelstein, 2015)

That statistic does not include those who report a history of CNM. In another study, about 21% of the participants reported having had a non-monogamous relationship “at some point in their lives.”

Both of these studies refer to the general population. In my experience, the rate of CNM among those in the kink community is MUCH higher!

My theory is that nonmonogamy appeals to those with avoidant attachment styles.

Based on my reading, it looks like I may be partly right.

What are attachment styles?

For those of you who may not be developmental psychology geeks, Bowlby’s attachment theory posits that attachment styles differ along two dimensions: anxiety (insecurity about partner’s availability) and avoidance (discomfort with closeness to a partner). The idea is that whether an adult is secure (low anxiety, low avoidance) or insecure (high anxiety and/or high avoidance) in his or her adult relationships may be a reflection of formative experiences with his or her primary caregivers.

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Individuals with a secure attachment style score low on both dimensions. These people are confident of their partner’s responsiveness and comfortable with the intimacy of an interdependent relationship. Secure attachment is linked with stable relationships, which are characterized by high trust, commitment, satisfaction, and intimacy, as well as low jealousy (Feeney, 2008).

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It turns out, research shows that secure individuals are less likely to be unfaithful and more likely to enjoy sexual activity within a committed [monogamous] relationship than insecure individuals (DeWall et al., 2011).

Secure individuals are just not as likely to be interested in CNM.

What is the appeal of nonmonogamy to anxious and avoidant individuals?

The anxious attachment style is characterized by fixation on the availability of one’s romantic partner and extreme romantic jealousy (Mikulincer, Gillath, & Shaver, 2002). Anxious individuals tend to obsessively worry that their partners will be “poached” (taken) by someone else (Schachner & Shaver, 2002). Anxious individuals tend to rely on sex as a route for obtaining security and love needs, but they tend to default to their partner’s preferences (Birnbaum, 2010).

Given that anxious individuals prioritize others’ sexual and romantic needs above their own, CNM relationships may exacerbate anxious individuals’ concerns about the availability of their partners and heighten their fears of losing their partner.

A study conducted by Moors, Conley, Edelstein, et al. found that those with an anxious attachment style generally did hold negative attitudes toward CNM; however, this was unrelated to willingness to engage in these nonmonogamous relationships.

The researchers hypothesized:

“Perhaps anxiety was not related to willingness to engage in CNM because anxious people envision both the negative and positive implications of CNM relationships. For instance, highly anxious individuals might see CNM as an opportunity to gain affection from multiple partners but also as involving heightened threat of abandonment by those partners” (Moors, Conley, Edelstein, 2015).

The avoidant attachment style  is characterized by attempts to create psychological distance from one’s romantic partner in order to suppress attachment-related distress (Edelstein & Shaver, 2004). Avoidant individuals may prefer CNM relationships because these relationships allow them to dilute the emotional closeness of one partner by investing less in time and intimacy across multiple partners.

The same study conducted by Moors, Conley, Edelstein, et al. revealed that avoidant individuals generally held positive attitudes toward CNM and reported a greater willingness to engage in CNM (including polyamory and swinging).

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What does this mean for me?

I wish I was a securely attached individual. That would be nice.

I’m not.

I’m somewhere in the middle on both dimensions, vacillating between anxious (preoccupied) and avoidant (dismissive). I tend to crave closeness and intimacy and get attached quickly, but I find it difficult to trust others and so I get uncomfortable and try to create distance as a way to minimize my own dependence on the other person.

For these reasons, nonmonogamy (or at least polyamory) scares me.

Interestingly, I find casual play as a couple to be far less intimidating and more appealing. I think it is because there is less of perceived threat from my partner pursuing a sexual relationship with another person, but engaging in casual play or swinging does offer another way to experience sexual intimacy and intensity with my partner.

I hope further research will consider the differences in the type of nonmonogamy because I do think a there’s a significant distinction between pursuing separate sexual relationships (i.e. polyamory) and engaging in casual play or scenes as a couple.