Consensual Non-Monogamy (CNM)

Fern, Jessica. Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma and Consensual Nonmonogamy. Thorntree Press, 2020.*

Polyamory (also known as consensual non-monogamy (CNM) or ethical nonmonogamy – as opposed to infidelity) is an incredibly debated topic within the mental health field. Many of the attachment theory books assume and focus and prize monogamy. Polyamory books have been published, but attachment theory and polyamory in a book for the general public have not been linked before as far as Fern knows (and as far as researched to write this review). Fern, who is a therapist in her professional life and a polyamorist in her personal life, seeks to make attachment theory relevant and useful for people practicing or who would like to practice polyamory. Phenomenal and superb describe the attachment theory overview and the different dimensions of attachment. Fern works in all four attachment styles with the styles conceptualized as intensity spectrums of avoidance and anxiety rather than four rigid attachment styles. She also covers how the attachment styles develop into adulthood patterns, how rigid and porous boundaries intersect with attachment, and the push-pull between autonomy and connection. So much great starting point attachment content is clearly linked with other concepts like boundaries without drenching readers with a complex information tsunami. She covers attachment theory and how it links up with trauma in part one, nonmonogamy in part two, and the HEARTS framework she has developed for harnessing the power of attachment theory in embarking on a consensually nonmonogamous road. Fern separates the structure of relationships from the quality of relationships. Fern believes that the structure of the relationship itself lulls people into a false sense of security that is not actually true attachment security and peace. Fern acknowledges that transitioning to CNM creates perfect storms for attachment insecurity and is in and of itself insecure by the fact people are not one another’s one-and-onlys. Fern emphatically advocates for non-monogamous people to get clear on having secure attachment conversations inquiring if secure attachment will be an expectation before assuming it will be. This conversation about separating structure from quality is so good for all romantic partners, including monogamous. However, just because structure can mask unhealthy dynamics does not mean the structure itself, monogamy, is inherently isolating, second-tier, or subjugating. Many people feel safe for being “in the box” of monogamy, and that needs to be as acknowledged and validated. Many people are incredibly uninterested in ever trying or wanting CNM. Fern does acknowledge that CNM is inherently insecure by its own structure but it can provide lots of self-growth in a scenario (CNM) where we choose to be involved with others who may completely “shake up” our relationship. She argues in her opinion that with forcing CNM participants to be intentional, communicative, and not taking one another for granted, relationship insecurity can actually be a good thing. However, being intentional, learning relationship skills, and appreciation can be practiced in monogamy and don’t necessarily require any relationship structure (or a romantic relationship period) to implement with others. Fern does incorporate theories and research from therapists about boundaries, attachment, and relationship quality in CNM as it relates to attachment, though up to this point there is not a lot of accumulated research on attachment and CNM together. Side note: Attachment as it relates to others in the family system in CNM (such as children) would also be a valuable line of inquiry. The final note is that anecdotally (it is not clear if the anecdotes are personal or professional or a balance of both) Fern hasn’t seen polyamory actually work with people who have severe levels of attachment insecurity, but she has seen polyamory working when people have had to work through mild to moderate cases. These distinctions between attachment insecurity levels are not defined in the book. It does suggest the idea that CNM is not for everyone. This is an easy-to-read text for people who are interested in how understanding attachment theory would be useful with a polyamorous lifestyle. Readers interested in love for personal interest or wanting to learn a bit more about attachment theory and/or polyamory will get what they came for. As more research happens with attachment theory and CNM specifically, hopefully an updated Polysecure will follow.

* This review and Polysecure’s presence on TCS is to neither condemn nor endorse polyamory. As TCS is The Couple’s Syllabus, my leaning is obvious, and yet many couples may be considering other relationship structures, and they should be able to find this information. My own values are separate from others’ autonomy in their own human journey, and actually one of my enduring values is people having available resources on their own human journey.

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