February 26, 2021

Polysecure? Jessica Fern's groundbreaking book on attachment and polyamory

Psychotherapy has a depressingly low cure rate. That's slowly improving, but it seems to stay about 100 years behind physical-body medicine in terms of curing and preventing the disorders it confronts, as opposed to just helping patients cope. Its many different methods don't seem to matter much; studies keep finding that effectiveness mostly depends on the therapist's bond with the patient. Kind of at the level of your great-great-grandparents' family medical doctor with his comforting black bag in 1921.

Therapies based on attachment theory, however, have earned a better reputation. Research evidence supports their usefulness and the underlying rationale, and the relationship-therapy world has taken this on board.

Attachment theory is based on findings that a young child's relationship with their earliest primary caregiver, especially during times of stress, seems to shape how they will relate to other people for life. These early experiences are said to result in four basic attachment styles, called secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure-anxious, and insecure-disorganized. Emotionally-Focused Therapy (EFT) for troubled couples is rooted in this.

My introduction to this came from presentations given at polyamory conventions by Jessica Fern, a poly psychotherapist from Boulder, Colorado. She has broken new ground by extending attachment theory into practices for people in polyamory and other forms of consensual non-monogamy. Poly life can certainly test people's skills at managing complex intimate relationships jumbled up with issues of one's own psyche, at advanced levels.

And now Fern is out with her awaited book.

Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma, and Consensual Nonmonogamy (Thorntree Press, 2020) is smart, readable, path-setting, and deeply caring. And practical. She presents abundant material that will inform poly-friendly therapists everywhere, and she offers six particular strategies that will help polyfolks and their beloveds to become more "polysecure" in their relationships.

She writes:

"I've combed through the literature on the conditions needed to create secure attachment in adult romantic relationships and considered what I've experienced and witnessed in the polyamory partnerships that I've counseled." The six practices she has come up with get the acronym "HEARTS, which I use to encapsulate the different ingredients, skills, capacities and ways of being required for secure functioning in multiple attachment-based partnerships."


Lindsay Hayes, a grad student working on an MA in counseling psychology with plans to open a therapy practice for polyfolks, interviewed Fern about the book. I said I'd be grateful if she would guest-post her interview here, and she said yes! So here you go.


An Interview with Jessica Fern, Author of PolySecure

By Lindsay Hayes

In 2014, Jessica Fern found that her therapy practice was getting an abundance of clients wanting to know more about polyamory. After one particular week in which three separate sets of clients brought up polyamory in their sessions, she knew she needed to learn more. While she had been aware of the practice, Fern knew she needed to do more in-depth reading. She read books such as Sex at Dawn to further enhance her effectiveness as a therapist. To her surprise, she found that what she was learning had as much personal relevance as it did professionally. 

Jessica Fern
In her book Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma, and Consensual Nonmonogamy, Jessica Fern provides a new model for those in, or considering being in, polyamorous relationships. The book takes a well-known psychotherapy methodology, Attachment Theory, and applies it to polyamory. A goal of the book is to help those in relationships foster what's called secure attachment. The underlying, and most important, goal is to help people form a secure attachment with themselves and their own emotional wellbeing. “Knowing how to stand securely on your own two feet and how to be your own safe fundamental,” Fern writes. 

These ideas, based on her work as a therapist, were further developed as she began to speak at polyamory conferences. “I gave a talk at Southwest Love Fest in 2019 titled Cultivating Secure Attachment in Polyamorous Relationships. We had to move rooms at the last minute because there were so many people wanting to hear the talk. Here I am, looking out at a room of 200 people who are like ‘Help us! This poly stuff is hard,’ ” she told me, recalling the experience. “I wrote this for them.”

It's her first book. When I asked about the process of writing it, she said “Writing the book energized me.” In the past she’d found writing projects tiresome. With this book she was determined to enjoy the process. Even getting stuck was sometimes rewarding. “There was this one moment in the book where I was super stuck. I didn’t know how to make one section of the book transition into the rest. I was stuck. And then I heard this inner voice that asked me to ‘just read it in the future.’ So I meditated and tried to read it. The next morning as I was drifting in and out of sleep, I saw that page that I needed. That moment was really fun.”

Fern tells me she also wrote it with fellow therapists in mind. Her clients and other people tell her stories of therapists ill-equipped to deal with or even hostile to polyamory. As a trained therapist, she is keenly aware of how underserved this population is. Research on polyamory is lacking compared with monogamy, and psychological and therapeutic education is similarly lacking -- though that should be changing rapidly with the American Psychological Association's new Committee on Consensual Non-monogamy. One of the committee's missions is to "promote the development and delivery of affirmative psychological services to CNM-identified individuals.

Fern thinks the shortage of knowledgeable therapists is one reason for the enthusiastic reaction her book has elicited. “ ‘I wish this book had been around years ago’ is something I’ve heard quite a few times, she says. So I think the book did what I was hoping for -- it filled a gap in poly literature.”  

Before wrapping up our conversation, I asked what it was like to do a book tour during a pandemic. “This might sound bad, but it made it easier!” Rather than worrying about time off work for travel, figuring out childcare arrangements, and other logistics, she enjoyed being able to do virtual interviews and talks. “It’s actually great. Except when people want signed copies,” she laughed.

Lindsay Hayes is a student, adjunct instructor, writer, consultant, and bunny mom extraordinaire. She holds an MA in communication and is currently working on her MA in counseling psychology. She looks forward to opening her private therapy practice to help poly folks iron out life’s inevitable wrinkles. Her master’s thesis is a year-long narrative inquiry of polyamorous individuals.


UPDATE: A positive review of the book by the editor of Greater Good magazine, Jeremy Adam Smith: What Polyamory Can Teach Us About Secure Attachment (March 26, 2021). "A new book provides lessons for everyone about cultivating strong emotional attachments with romantic partners."

In many ways, monogamy tries to externally create the conditions for secure attachment even when the individuals involved do not internally have secure attachment styles: legal marriage, home ownership, sexual exclusivity, and children stitch people together to a degree that is difficult to unravel. As Fern warns, however, this structure provides only the illusion of emotional security....

Greater Good is a publication of Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center. "The Greater Good Science Center studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society." 

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