Consensual Non-Monogamy and Attachment Styles


Marriage and family therapists (MFTs) have a unique skillset to manage complex relationships between client constellations, a skill which is essential for working with people in consensual non-monogamous relationships (CNMRs). With around 5% of the population in the U.S. being involved in a CNMR (Ka et al., 2022) and sexual minorities being more likely to engage in CNMR than heterosexuals (Moors et al. 2017), it is imperative that MFTs understand how attachment to multiple romantic partners can exist in healthy ways so as to best support this population.

Attachment theory is a particularly useful way to think about romantic relationships between multiple individuals. Polyamory is an excellent “proving ground” for testing the belief that monogamous attachment is the only healthy relationship configuration. Despite the knowledge that having multiple caregivers in childhood can help with secure attachment and having secure attachments with multiple close friends is considered desirable, there is a common belief in Western culture that attachment to more than one romantic partner is both unnatural and unhealthy (Moors et al., 2015, 2019). As systemic experts, MFTs are qualified to offer support and clinical care to individuals in such relationships despite the stigma they face.

People who score low in both anxiety and avoidance are considered to have “secure” attachment styles, which is associated with relationship satisfaction in both monogamous and CNM relationships.

In all types of relationships, attachment styles differ based on dimensions of anxiety and avoidance. Anxious attachment is related to the perceived unavailability of one’s partner, and avoidant attachment is related to discomfort with emotional closeness to one’s partner (Moors et al., 2015, 2017). People who score low in both anxiety and avoidance are considered to have “secure” attachment styles, which is associated with relationship satisfaction in both monogamous and CNM relationships (Moors et al., 2019). This article highlights different types of CNMRs; attachment styles associated with attitudes, willingness, and actual engagement in CNMRs; and practical tips for working with these relationships.

Types of consensual non-monogamous relationships


  • 3+ people in a consensual romantic or emotional relationship
  • Focused more on emotions than a purely sexual connection
  • Can be hierarchical (primary partner followed by secondary/tertiary partners) or non-hierarchical (all partners have equal standing; Flicker et al., 2021)

Open relationships:

  • Relationships with an agreement that either partner may be sexually involved with another person (Matsick et al., 2014)
  • Primary partner is not typically involved in the extradyadic sexual experience


  • Couple members swapping sexual partners with another couple, or having a third person join them sexually
  • Relationship is primarily sexual in nature
  • All partners are typically present and sexual counters often happen in social settings like swinging parties (Matsick et al., 2014)


  • Partner gaining sexual arousal from them or their partner engaging in sexual acts with a third person while the remaining partner watches
  • On-looking partner may or may not participate sexually afterward
  • Men are more likely to fantasize about watching, whereas women are more likely to fantasize about being watched (Lehmiller, 2020)

Hierarchical versus non-hierarchical in polyamorous relationships

In polyamorous relationships, partners can all be equal (non-hierarchical) or there can be a primary relationship followed by secondary or tertiary partners who aren’t central to the “core” relationship (hierarchical). In a study comparing hierarchical and non-hierarchical polyamorous relationships, Flicker et al. (2021) found that individuals in non-hierarchical relationships had the highest attachment security, followed by primary partners in hierarchical relationships, followed by secondary and tertiary partners. However, it is important to note that despite slight differences in attachment, individuals from all polyamorous relationship types still fell within the “secure” attachment range. In hierarchical relationships, primary partners had higher relationship satisfaction than secondary or tertiary partners. Overall, there was no difference in relationship satisfaction between hierarchical and non-hierarchical CNMRs.

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Researchers also found that people in hierarchical relationships had higher attachment avoidance and lower satisfaction than non-hierarchical relationships for relationships lasting less than five years, but those differences became non-significant after five years. Having a greater number of partners was associated with higher attachment avoidance, which supports the theory that avoidant individuals seek to dilute closeness.

This suggests that attachment style is a global style of interacting rather than partner-specific for polyamorous relationships.

Moors and colleagues (2019) examined whether attachment between two primary partners was similar to attachment between primary and secondary partners in hierarchical relationships. After examining over 300 polyamorous individuals, they found that levels of attachment anxiety and avoidance within all tiers of hierarchical relationships were lower than established norms for monogamous couples. Attachment avoidance and anxiety were slightly lower in the primary relationship than within the secondary relationship, however attachment generally fell in the “secure” range for all partners. This suggests that attachment style is a global style of interacting rather than partner-specific for polyamorous relationships. In addition, researchers found that the anxiety and avoidance levels of one partner did not impact their satisfaction with or commitment to their other romantic partners. A noteworthy point for MFTs, Moors and colleagues found that similar to monogamous relationships, lower attachment anxiety and avoidance were associated with higher relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction.

People’s attitudes toward consensual non-monogamous relationships

Many researchers have examined attitudes toward CNMRs based on attachment style, all with similar hypotheses. Historically, individuals higher in avoidant attachment were thought to be interested in CNMRs to spread out psychological closeness across several partners instead of one (Moors et al., 2015, 2017, 2019; Ka et al., 2022). Individuals higher in anxious attachment were believed to have less interest in CNMRs due to potential jealousy as well as anxiety about the availability of a primary partner who might be busy with the other partners (Moors et al., 2015, 2017, 2019; Ka et al., 2022). In a large sample of heterosexual people, Moors et al. (2015) found that high levels of avoidant attachment were associated with more positive attitudes toward CNMRs. In contrast, people with high attachment anxiety had more negative attitudes toward CNMRs. These findings support the overarching hypotheses about attitudes toward CNMRs based on attachment style. In addition, these results were replicated in a non-heterosexual sample (Moors et al., 2017).

Social scientists also found that increased sociosexual behaviors—willingness to have causal sex with multiple partners—predicted more favorable attitudes toward CNMRs (Ka et al., 2022). Moreover, low-to-moderate levels of attachment avoidance showed a stronger association between people’s sociosexual behaviors and positive attitudes toward CNMRs.

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Although CNMRs as a whole are regarded in slightly negative terms by Western society (Matsick et al., 2014), some CNMR types are considered more favorable than others. In a sample of predominantly heterosexual young adults, polyamory was viewed as the most favorable form of CNMR with descriptors such as “moral,” “motivated by a sense of duty,” and “mature.” In contrast, swinging was viewed as the least favorable CNMR with descriptions such as “dirty” and “less responsible.” Open relationships were rated slightly above swinging yet below polyamory, and considered less “able to express emotions” than those engaged in polyamory. Although sharing love with more than one person is still viewed unfavorably, there appears to be a stronger acceptance of CNMRs which prioritize romantic love (i.e., polyamory). This trend in attitudes towards CNMR may be important for therapists to keep in mind when considering the stigma faced by those in such relationships.

MFTs should keep in mind that just like in monogamous relationships, people in CNMRs may struggle to talk about their sexual desires for fear of a negative response, and MFTs can help facilitate such conversations.

Finally, people who think their partner will have a negative attitude toward CNMRs may avoid bringing up their desire for one. In a sample of 580 gay and bisexual men with cuckolding fantasies, Lehmiller et al. (2018) found that 24% had never shared their fantasy with their partner. One of the most common reasons for not sharing was fear of their partner’s negative attitudes toward CNMRs. Interestingly, of the participants who told their partner about the fantasy, 80% reported a positive response. In a separate study by Lehmiller (2020), a third of individuals in monogamous relationships said CNMRs were their favorite fantasy. Yet 40% of those individuals had not shared the fantasy with their partner due to perceived negative partner attitudes and social disapproval. MFTs should keep in mind that just like in monogamous relationships, people in CNMRs may struggle to talk about their sexual desires for fear of a negative response, and MFTs can help facilitate such conversations.

People’s willingness to engage in consensual non-monogamous relationships

Attitudes toward CNMRs do not necessarily align with willingness to engage in CNMRs, and part of the difference is associated with attachment style. Although Ka et al. (2022) found avoidant attachment was associated with positive attitudes toward CNMRs, neither avoidant nor anxious attachment correlated with willingness to engage in those relationships. In contrast, Moors et al. (2015) found that individuals higher in avoidant attachment expressed more willingness to engage in CNMRs than those with lower avoidance.

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Additionally, in an open-ended survey regarding favorite sexual fantasies of monogamous individuals, Lehmiller (2020) found that CNMRs were the top-rated fantasy for 32% of participants, with open relationships being the most popular CNMR. Eighty percent of CNMR-fantasizing individuals reported a willingness to act on that fantasy. High attachment anxiety was associated with polyamory fantasies but not with any other type of CNMR, monogamy, or infidelity fantasies. Meanwhile, higher levels of avoidant attachment were associated with fantasies about infidelity, open relationships, polyamory, and being cuckolded.

People who engage in consensual non-monogamous relationships

In the end, the people who actually engage in CNMRs have generally been found to have a secure attachment style. Although individuals high in avoidant attachment expressed positive views toward and willingness to engage in CNMRs, people with low avoidance and low anxiety were more likely to report actually engaging in a CNMR (Moors et al., 2015; Lehmiller, 2020). Similarly, Ka et al. (2022) found that neither avoidant nor anxious attachment styles were associated with actual engagement in CNMRs. Of Lehmiller et al. (2018)’s sample of 580 gay men, 69% of them reported current engagement in some form of CNMR, and being in a CNMR was the only demographic variable that predicted greater frequency of cuckolding fantasies. For those who engaged in a cuckolding fantasy, 74% stated doing so improved their relationship. Securely attached individuals were the ones most likely to have their relationships improve after engaging in cuckolding. Overall, securely attached individuals are most likely to participate in CNMRs, and their secure attachment is associated with higher relationship and sexual satisfaction just like in securely attached monogamous relationships.

7 practical tips for clinicians working with consensual non-monogamy

Given the ever-increasing frequency of individuals choosing to engage in CNMRs, therapists need to be prepared to work clinically and affirmingly with this population. Consequently, here are some tips for working with individuals in these relationships.  

  1. Use inclusive language; not every relationship has only two people
  2. Ask about “relationships” instead of a singular “partner” or “couple”
  3. Assume diversity about sexuality and gender; polyamorous relationships come in all configurations
  4. Ask about clients’ relationship structure. Number of partners? Hierarchical or non-hierarchical? Living situation?
  5. Use the clients’ language when describing their relationships and partners
  6. Consider including all members of the relationship in therapy
  7. Be aware of your own biases and societal stigma toward non-traditional relationships

Katherine M. Blasko is a Student member of AAMFT and holds a Master’s of Science in Marriage and Family Therapy from East Carolina University as well as Clinical Health Psychology from University of Michigan–Dearborn.

Jakob F. Jensen, PhD, LMFT, is an AAMFT Professional member holding the Clinical Fellow and Approved Supervisor designations, and is an associate professor of Marriage and Medical Family Therapy at East Carolina University.

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.

Ka, W. L., Bottcher, S., & Walker, B. R. (2022). Attitudes toward consensual non-monogamy predicted by sociosexual behavior and avoidant attachment. Current Psychology, 41(7), 4312-4320.

Lehmiller, J. J. (2020). Fantasies about consensual nonmonogamy among persons in monogamous romantic relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 49(8), 2799-2812.

Lehmiller, J. J., Ley, D., & Savage, D. (2018). The psychology of gay men’s cuckolding fantasies. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 47(4), 999-1013.

Matsick, J. L., Conley, T. D., Ziegler, A., Moors, A. C., & Rubin, J. D. (2014). Love and sex: Polyamorous relationships are perceived more favourably than swinging and open relationships. Psychology and Sexuality, 5(4), 339-348.   

Moors, A. C., Conley, T. D., Edelstein, R. S., & Chopik, W. J. (2015). 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.

Moors, A. C., Ryan, W., & Chopik, W. J. (2019). Multiple loves: The effects of attachment with multiple concurrent romantic partners on relational functioning. Personality and Individual Differences, 147, 102-110.

Moors, A. C., Selterman, D. F., & Conley, T. D. (2017). Personality correlates of desire to engage in consensual non-monogamy among lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals. Journal of Bisexuality, 17(4), 418-434.   

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