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Why Attachment Theory?

Attachment theory, broadly speaking, is looking at human success as determined by connection and emotional bond-building. The original theory is based on infant connection to caretakers (and principally mothers) and focuses on how secure attachment to our caretaking parents and guardians as very small children changes our behavior as older children and adults. It’s been studied since the 1960s, when experimentation to see how different interactions affected small children began, and since the 1970s, a large body of work has collected about how these childhood interactions affect our relationships as adults, especially our romantic relationships. Modern studies are starting to include the reality that people have more than two parents and attachment figures who aren’t parents in childhood (grandparents, teachers, coaches, godparents) who affect our sense of how relationships are meant to work.

In its most basic sense, attachment types can get broken down to secure, and insecure attachment. Secure attachment is the preference - it’s the “I can express my wants and needs when there’s a problem, and so can my partner, and we both resolve it,” instead of insecure attachment styles, where depending on the kind of insecure attachment, you spiral in a given direction when there’s an issue. Avoidant insecure people are afraid all relationships will subsume them and try to emotionally “get into the other room” when there’s a problem - they get hyper-independent in response to issues; anxious-preoccupied insecurely attached people do the opposite, seek connection in immediate ways to prove the relationship isn’t collapsing because there’s a problem; and the last group, fearful or disorganized (depending on whose literature you’re using) insecurely attached people flip back and forth between both those reactions - they’re got one foot on the gas and one foot on the break of each of their connections.

All attachment theory recognizes that it’s possible to change style either through trauma (and getting more insecure) or security in relationship(s) (and therefore earning security), but most monogamously based advice for how to do this is based in “and don’t date avoidantly attached people ever and be relatively codependent with your securely attached partner forever and ever amen.” This obviously is not advice a polyamorous person can really draw from, as it’s pretty incompatible with our lives; and honestly, it ends up being advice that lots of monogamous people don’t end up finding satisfactory, because it assumes that first, just the structure of “we spend all our time together and we have external relationship escalator markers of The Relationship” makes a relationship strong and second, that avoidantly attached people are to be pathologized, which is unfair, because it’s a huge chunk of the population at any time.

To address this gap in actionable advice, Jessica Fern, author of PolySecure, came up with an acronym of techniques that you need to apply to yourself as a secure base to support your non-monogamous relationships, and to each of your attachment-based relationships. [Not all relationships are attachment based - the comet you see every three years? Probably not attachment based. But any close bond that you and that person mutually emotionally support one another through thick and thin- regardless of the label - is probably an attachment relationship. Mine include a good friend I talk with daily, for sure. Being on the same page with a new partner about whether a partnership is meant to be attachment based can save a lot of heartache - some people will perceive that as being about the “seriousness” of the relationship.] This method, HEARTS (the S is Self), is a roadmap for double-checking that you’re applying some energy toward the relational security of each of your relationships.

  • H is for here, just for being present with your partner(s), in whatever way feels meaningful for you.

  • E is expressed delight, that really just being over the top clear on how great it is to be with one another (that one gets lost in longer-term relationships a lot, and turning it back on even for a few minutes can be so appreciated!). Not “I’m happy you did this thing for me,” but “I’m so glad you’re here and I get to be with you.”

  • A is for attunement - the how are you, where are you, what is going on, that is really important in check ins with partners, but also that many of us lose in our busy modern day with ourselves and that becomes really important in managing our boundaries between multiple partners.

  • R is routines and rituals - which isn’t to say you need to block off everything for a particular relationship, but it means that things like a standing date or a particular tv show you watch together can be comforting and that if there’s been a break in attachment (or a wobble in that relationship’s attachment), in particular, it can help hold things together while you repair that together.

  • T is turning towards after conflict - because conflicts are inevitable, but working together to repair them and figuring out how to put them right jointly strengthens your attachment instead of weakening it.

  • S is applying all of the above to yourself to have a strong base to work from in interacting with your partners and figuring out which of these areas need conscious effort vs. which ones you already do pretty well on. (Most of us are doing pretty well on some of them much of the time, and it’s just turning up the remaining ones a little sometimes to keep everything strong.)

I found this framework really compelling because you’ll notice it says nothing in particular about structure and you can always add that - because it can add rituals and routines for you - but it’s not the bulk of the advice. Structure without relational security isn’t helpful - look at the divorce rate for that. Relational security without structure can be essentially secure, despite cultural assumptions otherwise. (Who else has been asked “When are you getting married?” every time you’re out with a partner of more than a couple years even if the question doesn’t make sense?)

This theory is way more complicated than I can explain in a few hundred words here. I have an interview with Jessica Fern coming up on the podcast that tries a little more, and her book Polysecure is a great look at specifically how this theory applies to polyamorous relationships. For a good overview of the theory as applied to romantic relationships, but that’s more monogamy-centric so you’ve got to cherry-pick as a polyamorous person, Stan Tatkin’s Wired for Love is what I’d recommend.

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