What attachment theory can tell us about polyamory

Let’s talk psychology.

In my last post, I attempted to dismantle a common claim against polyamory. But, as I was alerted by an astute reader, my response was largely subjective. Why not throw in this psychology article? he asked. I agree. Let’s get out of the armchair and into the lab.

The authors of this article noticed that even though monogamy is not the norm for human relationships around the globe, people just assume it’s the ideal. So we have plenty of research on attachment styles in dyadic (couple) relationships, but none on anything else. This leads to a void in the literature. The authors wanted to fill that void by answering a simple question: how do polyamorous people score on measures of attachment avoidance and attachment anxiety?

First, let’s talk about what these terms mean. Attachment anxiety is when you’re obsessed with “the availability of [your] romantic partner” and feel extreme jealousy when you think that “availability” might be in jeopardy. Attachment avoidance is when you try not to get close to your romantic partner in order to avoid pain.

One common hypothesis among monogamists is that polyamorists are simply rationalizing an avoidant attachment style. But let’s see what study has to say about that.

The study had two parts.

Study 1, which involved 1,281 heterosexual, monogamous respondents, showed that those who approved of polyamory

  • Were more likely to have an avoidant attachment style
  • Were less likely to have an anxious attachment style

Study 2 (which involved 1,308 participants: 73% female, 85% currently in a monogamous relationship, and 15% currently in a swinging or polyamorous relationship) showed that, aside from reporting being “happy, satisfied, and in love,” people in polyamorous relationships tended to have

  • lower levels of avoidance
  • higher levels of trust
  • lower levels of jealousy

So, yes, people who approved of polyamory had higher levels of avoidance. This says something about the polyamorous philosophy; it appeals to people who tend to avoid intimacy. However, people who were actually in polyamorous arrangements had lower levels of avoidance.

So, it seems like the monogamist hypothesis is onto something, but still mostly wrong.

People in polyamorous relationships usually do have secure attachment styles.

The authors conclude that their findings “provide important new evidence that people can exhibit aspects of security (i.e., low levels of avoidance) without sexual exclusivity.”

Therefore, to the monogamist who tells the polyamorist that she is “just using polyamory as a way to justify her avoiding intimacy,” we can confidently say that there is at least one study that showed that polyamorous people were less likely to have an avoidant attachment style.

We can also say that polyamorous people tend to have, as I speculated in my last post, higher levels of trust.

In other words: “Nope. Science.”

(This post originally appeared on PolyThink, a blog exploring the intersection of polyamory and philosophy.)