The way we love has both changed and stayed the same throughout human history. It has changed in regards to how we understand and accept love, as same-sex marriages and partnerships have come a long way. Yet, it has stayed the same in the sense that we love who we love, without much choice in the matter.
What if we love multiple people? What happens then? As a society, we’re not quite clear on the specifics of this possibility. However, ethical non-monogamy (ENM) is growing, as approximately 20% of people have been a part of an ENM relationship in some way at some point in their lives .
New forms of relationships can lead us to think of our attachment styles. As an insecure attacher, how would I deal with an ENM relationship? Would I handle the emotional stress of managing multiple relationships at once? Would I feel jealous?
In this article, we’ll go into these questions and more, outlining the attachment styles in ethical non-monogamous relationships.
Despite sounding like a mouthful, ethical non-monogamy is pretty self-explanatory: it involves having romantic relationships with multiple people, as opposed to just one in monogamy, with the consent of all people involved.
Configurations of ENM differ – from the most common polyamorous relationship, where multiple people have romantic emotionally invested relationships with one another, to a closed V where two people are together and one of them has a relationship with someone else outside of this relationship, and even a monogamish structure with occasional additions to the relationship. It’s a wide spectrum, where relationships are specifically tailored to the people in them.
Although research has yet to focus on the topic of attachment styles in ENM relationships, we’ve compiled a few articles that can help us better understand how ENM could work for each attachment style.
A misconception of ethical non-monogamy is that people in ENM relationships are insecure attachers. However, research has shown that people in ENM relationships are no more likely than their monogamous counterparts to have insecure attachment styles .
In fact, this misconception is quite paradoxical, because ENM relationships might not be easy for most insecure attachers. In ENM, people share partners with others, bringing about different threats for different attachment combinations. For example, an anxious attacher may feel triggered when an avoidant attacher acts more detached than usual .
Being in multiple relationships at the same time also raises the frequency with which partners talk about difficult feelings, boundaries, and expectations. This can be positive because each attachment style is more likely to face their issues and communicate their way out of their insecurities .
You may be wondering how each attachment style would play out in an ENM relationship. Below, we’ll go through the three insecure attachment styles in ethical non-monogamous relationships.
At a first glance, anxious attachers would be the ones least likely to enter an ENM relationship. Although some studies  have shown a negative relationship between anxious attachers in ENM relationships and relationship quality, other studies don’t confirm these results . This means that since there is conflicting evidence, we can’t say for certain whether anxious attachers should (or should not) be in ENM relationships .
What we do know from research, is that anxious attachers have less positive views on ENM than avoidant attachers . Moreover, they are also more likely to be dissatisfied with an ENM relationship compared to secure or avoidant attachers . A less positive opinion of ENM and a likelihood to be dissatisfied with an ENM relationship can come from an anxious attacher’s insecurity towards sharing their partner with others, especially concerning feelings of jealousy.
So, why would an anxious attacher ever be in an ENM relationship?
Anxious attachers may agree to ENM because they want to please their partner, constantly seek their approval and affection, and possibly because they might want more attention from having multiple partners . On the one hand, what anxious attachers fear most is abandonment, and if they feel that opening a relationship can keep their partner from leaving, they might just agree to it.
However, this would likely be a red flag in this relationship, since at least one of the partners would not be comfortable with the relationship structure. On the other hand, an anxious attacher might benefit from an ENM relationship because they will have multiple partners to attend to their emotional needs.
Finally, anxious attachers are hyper-aware of their feelings and those of their partners, meaning they are more likely to want to communicate about difficult emotions . In ENM, communication is essential, so, with work on their attachment triggers, anxious attachers might just have what it takes to be in a healthy ENM relationship.
If you want to dig deeper in this topic, read our guide “Anxious attachment style in relationships“.
There is a preconceived notion that avoidant attachers are more easily drawn to non-monogamy because having several low-commitment partners would keep the perfect emotional distance. However, there is no consistent evidence that the avoidant attachment style is more common (compared to the other attachment styles) among people in ENM relationships .
What we can frequently find in research, is that avoidant attachers have a more positive opinion of ENM . Again, this is most likely because avoidant attachers prefer to keep their emotions private and may prefer to invest less in a relationship – but, this time, in multiple partners . However, not all ENM relationships involve less commitment – some actually involve multiple serious commitments, as in the case with polyamory.
Still, are avoidant attachers really the best fit for ENM?
People with avoidant attachment in relationships have a harder time depending on others and allowing others to see their vulnerability. This might not be helpful when establishing connections with multiple people . Polyamory, in particular, can be difficult for avoidant attachers because these relationships require a high degree of emotional intimacy and vulnerability – two common triggers for avoidant attachers .
So, as much as in a monogamous relationship, avoidant attachers have their strengths and shortcomings. Similarly to an anxious attacher, with some work and effort to understand themselves and their attachment triggers better, an avoidant attacher could have a healthy ENM relationship.
Unfortunately, there is not enough research done specifically on disorganized attachment and ethical non-monogamy. However, we can make inferences from ENM studies that included participants high on attachment avoidance and anxiety.
For example, one study  has looked at the difference between hierarchical and non-hierarchical ENM relationships. A hierarchical ENM relationship is one with a primary partner(s) and secondary/tertiary relationships (this is explained in the ENM Relationship Guide). A non-hierarchical ENM relationship is one such as a throuple, where each partner is involved with the others to the same degree. For example, three people can be life partners, share a home, and maybe start a family together.
This study shows that people in a hierarchical non-monogamous relationship experience less attachment avoidance and anxiety in the relationship with their primary partner(s) compared to their secondary partner(s). This is likely the result of insecure attachers’ need for a secure base to go back to when their attachment triggers are brought to the fore.
A disorganized attacher in a relationship, who fears abandonment as well as intimacy, would likely need this type of configuration so they can feel that at least their main partner(s) will always be there when needed.
That same study showed that people in non-hierarchical ENM relationships are less likely to have higher levels of attachment avoidance and/or anxiety . Since non-hierarchical ENM structures require sharing all levels of physical and emotional intimacy, this can be difficult for insecure attachers.
For disorganized attachers, this sharing can be particularly difficult to deal with, since they need their own sweet spot between closeness and space – this is so they feel supported but not overwhelmed by their multiple partners.
From a positive perspective, ENM could potentially be an interesting solution for disorganized attachers. This is because they can have different partners to fulfill their emotional needs uniquely .
Moreover, we can have different attachment styles with different partners , so we can potentially work towards healthier attachment with each partner.
For example, a disorganized attacher could have one partner that helps them feel more comfortable with intimacy and closeness, and another partner who helps them see what a healthy distance can really look like in a relationship.
Of all of the studies that exist, one of the main findings is that people in ENM relationships reap similar benefits to secure attachers in secure relationships [8, 9, 10]. A greater percentage of polyamorous people are secure than those in monogamous relationships . Since secure attachers deal with their vulnerability more easily than insecure attachers, they experience greater ease and comfort with intimacy with others.
As we’ve stated in our article on ENM myths, research shows that people in ENM relationships experience greater trust, intimacy, friendship, and honesty, as well as fewer issues with jealousy with their partners than those in monogamous relationships . And you guessed it, these are all characteristics of a secure relationship.
ENM relationships can be an interesting way of working towards secure attachment. In fact, engaging and building upon multiple romantic relationships can help decrease feelings of anxiety and insecurity . This is because of the higher frequency with which partners have to discuss intense emotions – in turn, this open communication is a step closer to developing secure attachment .
As ENM is a growing topic, research on its relationship to attachment still needs to evolve with it. What we know for now is that ENM is based on values that resemble those of secure relationships, such as open communication, honesty, and greater ease of intimacy.
We know that attachment dimensions can change; they are not necessarily static and can depend on the relationships we are in . So, much like in a monogamous relationship, partners who complement each other’s attachment styles have the power to develop characteristics of secure attachment .
Ultimately, as long as a relationship is secure – not necessarily that both partners are secure attachers – and extra partners are a joyful addition, partaking in ENM can actually bring greater satisfaction to a relationship .
With an effort on open, honest, and kind communication, any attachment style can work towards a secure relationship, be it monogamous or not.
Check out our Attachment Style Workbooks if you want to dive a little deeper into the Attachment Styles and their compatibility with one another!
Curious to learn more about ethical non-monogamy? Take a look at the rest of our articles in this series:
Moors, A. C., Conley, T. D., Edelstein, R. S., Chopik, W. J. (2015). Attached to monogamy? Avoidance predicts willingness to engage (bot not actual engagement) in consensual non- monogamy. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32(2), 222–240.
Hamilton, L.D., De Santis, C., Thompson, A.E. (2021). Introduction to the Special Section on Consensual Non-Monogamy. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 50, 1217-1223.
Katz, M., Katz, E. (2021). Reconceptualizing Attachment Theory Through the Lens of Polyamory. Sexuality & Culture, 26, 792-809.
Thombre, M.E. (2020). “Effects of Choice Orientation and Consensual Non-Monogamy on Relationship Quality”. Doctoral dissertation, University of North Dakota.
Cohen, M.T., Wilson, K. (2017). Development of the Consensual Non-Monogamy Attitude Scale (CNAS). Sexuality & Culture, 21, 1-14.
Flicker, S. M., Sancier-Barbosa, F., Moors, A. C., & Browne, L. (2021). A closer look at relationship structures: relationship satisfaction and attachment among people who practice hierarchical and non-hierarchical Polyamory. Archives of sexual behavior, 50(4), 1401-1417.
Balzarini, R.N., Muise, A. (2020). Beyond the Dyad: a Review of the Novel Insights Gained From Studying Consensual Non-monogamy. Current Sexual Health Reports, 12, 398-404.
Moors, A.C., Conley, T.D., Edelstein, R.S., Chopik, W.J. (2014). Attached to monogamy? Avoidance predicts willingness to engage (but not actual engagement) in consensual non-monogamy. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32(2), 222-240.
Smith, J.A. (2021). What Polyamory Can Teach Us About Secure Attachment. Greater Good Magazine.
Perel, E. (2007). Mating in captivity: Unlocking erotic intelligence (p. 272). New York, NY: Harper.
Brunning, L. (2016). The Distinctiveness of Polyamory. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 35(3), 513-531.