Exploring Attachment Styles in a Polyamorous Context

Reviewing: Polysecure and The Polysecure Workbook by Jessica Fern

Jessica Fern’s Polysecure has been all the rage for the last couple of years in relationship nerd circles. Attachment styles for polyamory? Yes, please! As a solo polyamorist who was doing a lot of personal work around attachment wounds in 2020 when the book came out, I scooped it up right away, but kept not quite finding time to actually read it. It finally floated up to the top of the book stack recently, though, with a little nudging from a dear friend I’d been processing questions with around the nature of attraction and relationship, and when I saw that a companion workbook was coming out this month, I knew I had to try the two together!

The Polysecure Workbook is a full chapter-by-chapter companion to Polysecure, and if you’ve read the book or are interested in digging in for the first time with a desire to explore your own attachment styles and how attachment wounding comes up around your non-monogamous relationship experiences, I’d highly recommend it. To be clear, this is not a standalone title. While Fern suggests that you could work through it alone, she recommends that you read the book for full context, which is how the workbook was designed to be used.

I tried the first few chapters before reading the book, so that I could give you an honest impression of its value as a standalone, and I do think most folks would find it frustrating to work through like this. Fern does provide a summary version of each chapter before the related exercises that’s enough context for about 60% of them, but I found some exercises to be really difficult to complete without knowing anything about related concepts, and the process of doing the workbook like this was also just pretty overwhelming.

When I flipped to the intended order, reading the chapters first and then working through the exercises, the workbook was a great processing tool for applying the material to my own experience. If you’ve read the book in the past, I think the summaries will likely provide enough of a memory jog that you won’t need to re-read, but you may still find yourself needing to reference concepts here and there.

This is definitely a workbook you’ll need to set aside plenty of time to work through, process, and sit with. The exercises are dense and thoughtful, a lot like I might imagine it would be to attend therapy sessions with a practitioner who is really informed in this area—which of course makes sense, given Fern’s background as a therapist! The workbook definitely builds on the prompts and lists already provided in the original book, and there are some repeats, but most of the material is new (you’ll find the most repetition towards the end, where the book itself is largely lists of suggestions for real-life application). Many of the exercises either take concepts explained in the book and invite you to find where your own past and present relationships or personal experience fit, or they take more general prompts from the book and ask you to consider them one relationship at a time.

This, of course, means that it might take you a lot of time to work through if you want to thoughtfully answer every question with every relationship, depending on the size of your polycule! With six current partners and about twenty over a lifetime, assuming that we’re cutting it off at named romantic partnerships, I’m probably going to need a year if I really want to work through everything. But for most folks, you’ll find yourself focusing on a few key relationships in your life where attachment wounding is coming up or might have rooted. In general, the workbook is fairly adaptable—you can choose where you want to dig in and where things are fairly stable.

I found the workbook relatively easy to adapt for different types of relationships, since as Fern points out without spending a lot of time on it in the book, friends can also be attachment figures. As a relationship anarchist I don’t really make strong distinctions between “partner” and “friend.” I especially loved that there was even a brief mention in the workbook that attachment figures could include non-human beings and fictional characters! It still might not work the best for someone who hasn’t had any romantic relationships in their life, but a good majority of the exercises are applicable to those not in any current romantic relationships.

It is worth noting that if you haven’t read the book in full first and choose to go chapter by chapter, you might actually end up doing exercises around what you assume to be attachment figures and then later realize those folks don’t meet Fern’s definition of an attachment figure at all. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but I found myself going “…oh, wait.”

One area where the workbook also really adds on to the experience of reading the book alone is in how it addresses multiple processing styles. While there are plenty of journal prompts / reflection questions to engage thinking and writing modalities, you also get a lot of other styles including checklists to evaluate your experiences, graphs to map your experiences visually, and a couple of visualization / somatic options.

Turning to the original book, what’s interesting is that while I loved a lot about Polysecure, I actually found it to be a better attachment book than a polyamory book. You could even think of the “poly” part of the title as referring to multiple ways of thinking about secure attachment, rather than polyamory.

Fern does an amazing job of clarifying how attachment styles develop and shift, busting a lot of myths and presenting alternate models that affirm real-world experience. Rather than insisting that everyone fall into one of four primary attachment types, based on early childhood, she shows how attachment is actually a spectrum that may look different in different relationships and in different areas of life. This will be helpful to polyamorous people, but really to anyone who’s found the traditional model limiting or struggles to get through the details of research on the subject.

I especially appreciated the emphasis on the nested model of attachment and how it’s not just the primary caregivers involved in forming attachment traumas, as well as how Fern acknowledges the impact of ongoing trauma. As someone whose experience of attachment is “messy,” I’ve often looked to attachment styles to understand my own experience and come up short. Folks who didn’t have a particularly traumatic childhood but still experience bits and pieces of anxious and avoidant attachment styles can often feel confused and left out of the discourse, since the original model frames a mixed fearful-avoidant style as something that comes out of major trauma. Fern offers a mix of different models to address this, including using more of a spectrum to understand attachment and using the nested model to show how not all attachment trauma comes from parenting.

Personally, I remember thinking that my childhood couldn’t fall under anything other than the “secure” definition, because I had loving parents who did a good job especially in my first seven years of life of making sure I felt cared for, with no major traumas in that time. Based on that traditional model, it made no sense that I experienced the challenges I did in adult relationships. I would play with reframing my memory of early experiences to see if I could make it fit, but because I’m not particularly chaotic I couldn’t figure out how to conceptualize the yo-yo of clinging and running away that I’ve seen play out as an adult, or how to work with those patterns. From Fern’s perspective, seeing all the ways attachment can play out really gave me a new way to work through things, and the companion workbook allowed me to detangle a lot of it by considering different contexts and people.

I also love the way Fern acknowledges how injustices at various levels affect attachment. Her array of models allow the reader to consider how things like structural violence, insecure housing, and even climate-based fears of the end of humanity play into our ability to form secure attachments. When she talks about polyamory and its impact on forming secure attachment, this nested approach is also particularly strong, acknowledging how what she calls mononormativity impacts us at many levels. This really helps to explain how even with a loving home environment and overall “good” adult relationships, attachment wounds can still manifest. For example, I was particularly struck by the story of a client experiencing the trauma of a rat-infested home, something I’ve also gone through, and how shame and the need for safe spaces plays into our ability to form relationships.

At the interpersonal level, on the other hand, where Fern really digs into what it means to securely attach as a polyamorous person, I was looking for a little more. Fern does do some great work exposing challenges unique to non-monogamous people, particularly looking at the level of specific relationships. She lists many challenges someone might not consider when new to polyamory, that I’ve seen folks struggle through without much support—for example the way metamour needs can impact your own relationship, or how New Relationship Energy can affect an established partner’s attachment needs. She also identifies a lot of the strengths of polyamory as a style where it’s possible to get needs met from more angles, and makes it clear that while polyamory may expose attachment wounds, it isn’t associated with less secure relationships overall. The distinction between security and structure is such an important conversation!

That said, I was surprised that there wasn’t much consideration in this book of how specific attachment styles interact, or how a polyamorous person might balance needs and find security in a more complex way. There’s a little bit of the latter in the form of a story about how Fern’s two partners separately met her needs for a secure base and a safe haven (two primary relational needs), but I would’ve liked to see this expanded upon, perhaps with examples from different relationship configurations. While the book is a lot more sensitive than many to the different ways people do polyamory, and doesn’t assume that all readers are “opening up” an existing 1-on-1 relationship, there’s still a lot of attention paid to this style.

Solo polyamory, for example, is often mentioned but not expanded upon. I would have loved to have seen some more specifics on how secure attachment with self might ideally weave with other relationships in a solo polyamory model. There also seems to be an assumption that readers have significant monogamous relationship experience, even if they’re not currently going through the process of “opening up.” As someone who actually came to polyamory after a long period of happy singlehood and only had a couple of monogamous relationships, quite young, I had to do more extrapolating to consider my own attachment issues—many of which are not about jealousy, for example, or struggles with access to an existing attachment figure, but more about how to develop interdependent relationships from scratch within a polyamorous context.

Some of the theory here seems to be a little colored by the author’s own experience shifting from monogamy to polyamory. For example, I disagree that polyamory is a “naturally insecure” structure, especially in light of everything Fern says about security earlier in the book—there seems to be an assumption that more people means fewer guarantees as attentions are divided, but given that each individual has limits on their capacity, I’d actually consider traditional monogamy less fundamentally secure as it offers fewer opportunities to develop secure attachment and no back-up plan. While polyamory does certainly present unique challenges, the truism that it’s more challenging than monogamy only makes sense to me if you consider monogamy to be the default.

On a related note, while Fern is clear that all relationships are not attachment based, and also that an attachment-based relationship doesn’t have to be a nesting one, I had a lot of questions about this. Do healthy adults need to have an attachment-based relationship with someone in their lives, or is relationship with self enough? I love that relationship with self is emphasized, with an entire chapter focusing on the S in Fern’s HEARTS model for secure attachment, but I found myself unclear on what the research says or doesn’t say about the need for attachment relationships. Fern talks about the challenge of too many attachment relationships, but not about whether there’s such a thing as too few.

By Fern’s definition, I realized that all but perhaps one of my relationships over the course of twenty years of dating wouldn’t qualify as an attachment relationship at all, and so I was a little confused about how to think about attachment in my context, where I have many “lighter touch” relationships. Is this simply unhealthy? Or is it possible for someone to meet all the needs of an attachment-based relationship from a network, rather than from one person (for example receiving emotional affirmation from person A, regular communication from person B, etc.)? Folks who are operating “beyond the relationship escalator” may struggle here.

Another thing to note is that the book is written from a fairly neurotypical lens, at least in my personal view. It was difficult for me to get a sense of what some of the “requirements” for relating securely look like for folks who may not be able to get a read on their emotions, may not be available for emotional processing, or have sensory challenges. One of the things I’ve struggled with as an autistic person with two autistic nesting partners is to determine what is realistic to expect in terms of needs and capacities in this context—how to evaluate where “reasonable accommodation for a different style of thinking and sensory processing” breaks down into “unhealthy relating.”

Fern’s version of secure attachment requires a lot of explicit communication and agreement among partners to lay out expectations and work together, which may not be accessible for everyone. I’d love to see a neurodivergent expansion on Fern’s HEARTS model from a therapist with more experience in this area, since this may be a particular challenge for folks who are both polyamorous and neurodivergent. I’d also love to hear a neurodivergent therapist’s take on the formation of attachment styles and how the lists at the beginning of the book might be modified for a neurodivergent person to recognize their own styles, since some of the avoidant traits might be confused, for example, with autistic overwhelm.

Finally, I’ll note that Fern’s writing style is generally accessible, breaking down research clearly and interspersing stories from her practice (though I would’ve liked even more of these) with explanations of the research. She uses a lot of bulleted lists to help readers find themselves within a range of presentations, and to give ideas for what secure attachment might look like. I like how this style is a little “choose your own adventure,” and breaks the reading itself up a bit, as well as making the book work as a reference volume. The only thing that I did find a little confusing is Fern’s tendency to cover something in one light, and then to turn back and say “…but this isn’t always true.” If your brain tends to latch onto things like mine, you might end up pausing for some processing and internal argument, only to turn the page and realize Fern’s done that for you already.

Despite my critiques, I’d rate this overall an excellent book for exploring attachment from a polyamorous lens. As with any book covering a topic for the first time, there’s a lot more to explore, and I’d love to see follow-up books from Fern, but this is a great starting point and an important resource. I’d especially recommend it for folks who have been polyamorous for ten years or fewer or are considering it for the first time, and for those who have at least one close romantic relationship that you suspect might qualify as an attachment figure. Others will still learn from and be able to adapt what’s in this book, but may benefit more from the attachment materials than from Fern’s application of the models. As a former relationship educator, though, I’m very aware that most people will fall into the camp that will benefit greatly from the entire book and might not have been exposed to many of these ideas before. Therapists and others doing work around relationship who are not familiar with polyamory should also absolutely give the book a read, as it does a great job of showing how clients may not be served by a traditional take on attachment.

ARC of the Polysecure Workbook provided through Edelweiss. Purchases using the above links support me, as well as local bookstores!

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