Research on attachment theory in adult relationships has shown a sense of secure connection between romantic partners is key in positive loving relationships and a huge source of strength for individuals in those partnerships.
But often when we talk about open relationships, the assumption is secure connections are impossible. We assume intimate exclusivity and and security are synonymous.
But this just isn't true.
Attachment theory got it's start looking at parent/child attachment in young children. Basically, it showed the more consistent and reliable a caregiver, the more secure the attachment for a child and this resulted in many positive outcomes for the youth.
As we become adults we look for the same kind of reliable stable bond in intimate partnerships. And those of us raised without secure bonds often replicate attachment patterns form our youth.
When I was practicing therapy, I was told by many colleagues I couldn't "do" attachment work because I specialized in non-monogamy. But I counter that all of my work is attachment work.
There isn't research saying a child can't have a secure bond with a parent if there are more children in the household. And I would say the same about intimate adult partners.
Security and exclusivity are not the same. And masking exclusivity as security sets us up for failure.
But I always want to know more so I turned to one of the leaders in studying adult relationships and healthy connections, Dr Sue Johnson. Johnson founded a highly respected model of couples therapy called Emotion Focused Therapy centers on emotional connectedness, and distress repair from a positive framework. It's very effective and has been used all over the world to help couples through difficult times.
I have yet to find direct comments from Dr Johnson on open relationships as they relate to her work and as I continue to comb through her writing I keep finding useful information for the clients I serve. Here are some of the research findings on secure attachments from her book Hold Me Tight:
- When we feel generally secure (comfortable with closeness and confident depending on our loved ones) we are better at seeking support and giving it to those close to us.
- When we feel safely linked to our partners we more easily roll with the hurts they inevitable inflict and we're less likely to be hostile or aggressive when we're mad.
- When we feel safely connected to others we understand ourselves and like ourselves more.
- The more we reach out to partners the more independent and confident we feel as problem solvers.
In order to build this kind of connection Johnson outlines three areas to focus on:
A secure bond is where someone is predictably accessible to us (emotionally, physically, sexually, and affectionately). It's knowing we can call for their attention and trust them to turn towards us with presence and attention, most of the time.
I think of responsiveness as demonstrating empathy. Our partner may not fix or resolve the problem we're facing, but when we call to them they will respond with warmth and genuinely connect with what we're going through. Having a responsive partner means I don't have to face hardship alone.
Engagement means giving our full presence to a partner. Usually, this is where we feel we matter and are a priority to a partner.
So of course non-monogamous couples can still exhibit accessibility, responsiveness, and engagement. The question becomes how we keep these three critical elements of a secure bond nourished while we're also building bonds with others. Most of the conflicts I help couples through come up when any of these aren't tended to.
If you're considering an open relationship check in with your partner about how you can keep these three elements in balance as you begin seeing others. Notice which behaviors help you feel more connected in these ways, and start a conversation about how you'll check in if they go out of focus.
If you'd like help with that conversation, give me a call. I'd love to help you nourish your connection.
Hi! I'm glad you're reading. Let me know if I can help you:
- reconnect with passion & desire in long-term partnerships
- rebuild trust after infidelity or dishonesty
- move beyond jealousy, fear, and insecurity
- manage intense emotions that arise in conflicts
- resolve sexual dysfunction & disconnection
- change communication & codependent patterns
- open your relationship & practice polyamory with integrity
I lead couples retreats, host workshops, and see private clients online (and in Portland, OR).
Call me for a free consultation to rethink the way you do relationships.
Gina Senarighi, MS, MA, CPC is a communication consultant, sexuality counselor and certified relationship coach specializing in polyamory, open relationships, jealousy, and infidelity.