Secure Love: Create a Relationship That Lasts a Lifetime

Secure Love: Create a Relationship That Lasts a Lifetime

by Julie Menanno
Secure Love: Create a Relationship That Lasts a Lifetime

Secure Love: Create a Relationship That Lasts a Lifetime

by Julie Menanno


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Create a lasting and loving attachment with the help of the expert couple’s therapist behind the popular Instagram account @TheSecureRelationship.

What does a healthy relationship look like?

A good question, in theory, but expert couple’s therapist Julie Menanno wants you to consider: what does a securely attached relationship feel like?

The answer to this question is the ultimate goal in Secure Love, a groundbreaking guide to understanding secure attachment in adult relationships. While attachment theory has grown in popularity to explain the relationship between children and their caregivers, it’s also the closest science has come to making sense of our adult romantic connections.

Julie Menanno is the couple’s therapist behind the popular Instagram account @TheSecureRelationship, whose valuable relationship advice from her expertise gained her over a million fans. In Secure Love, Menanno tackles:
- Why you and your partner have the same fight over and over (hint: it’s called a negative cycle, and underlying every fight, argument, silent treatment, or passive-aggressive comment is an unmet attachment need).
- The four attachment types, with exercises designed to help you understand you and your partner’s attachment style.
- How to improve communication, including staying connected during conflict by prioritizing vulnerability rather than protecting yourself.
- “Instead of that, say this” suggested scripts of how to approach difficult situations in your relationship.
- Why insecure attachment negatively impacts a couple’s sex life and how to restore that sexual connection.

Secure Love is a crash course in understanding how you show up in a relationship and how to get out of negative cycles. Menanno teaches you how to establish a secure attachment with your partner to create the bond you’ve been longing for.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781668012864
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 01/30/2024
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 16,364
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Julie Menanno (MA, LMFT, LCPC) is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples. She also provides insight and advice for couples at @TheSecureRelationship on Instagram, with over one million followers. She founded and runs the Bozeman Therapy & Counseling clinic, and The Secure Relationship Coaching. She lives in Bozeman, Montana, with her husband and six children.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: The Problem Beneath the Problem

“The problem is not the problem.”

Hi, I’m glad you’re home,” Jen says to her husband, Andrew, as he walks in the door and puts his keys on the table to greet her. “But you put your keys on the table again. I’ve asked you a hundred times to put them on the hook. That’s why we call it the ‘key hook.’”

“Really?” Andrew responds. “I just walked in the door. I almost always put them on the hook. You really need to bring this up the second I get home?”

“Almost always? Hardly. More like ‘never,’” Jen says. “It might be a small thing to you but to me it’s a big deal. I’m the only one who picks things up around here.”

You may have heard the phrase “The problem is not the problem” before, especially if you’ve been in therapy. When partners are fighting—whether they’re arguing over money, parenting, where to live, in-laws, sex, or taking out the trash—the conflict is almost never about the issue at hand. Don’t get me wrong, issues at hand are important. The trash does need to be taken out, bills do need to get paid, kids do need to be parented, and overall fairness does matter. The bigger problem, however, is what’s blocking all of the issues at hand from being worked through in a way that doesn’t harm the relationship bond. Only when the bigger problem is addressed can the issues at hand be worked through. The bigger problem, the problem underneath the problem, is almost always one of communication, which we see here in a typical argument between this couple, Andrew and Jen.

But it often doesn’t stop here:

“Give me a break, Jen,” Andrew sighs. “It doesn’t matter how much I do, you’ll find something to complain about. What about last weekend when I cleaned out the garage? And now I’m in trouble over a key hook?”

“Why do you have to turn everything back on me?” Jen asks, getting more agitated. “Why can’t you just own the fact that you don’t care about the keys? Or about what I want?”

“Because you’re being irrational!” Andrew blurts out.

Jen is infuriated. “Why can’t you be more like my sister’s husband? He actually supports her!” At this point, Andrew, sensing the escalation, switches gears. “Fine, here, I’ll put the keys on the hook. Now can we just move on?”

Jen isn’t buying it. She tells Andrew he’s patronizing her.

“I give up,” Andrew says. “There’s no making you happy when you’re in one of these moods.” Andrew leaves the room, leaving Jen fuming on her own.

I’m guessing you can relate to some version of this conflict, even if the arguments in your relationship are about something entirely different. Andrew and Jen’s conversation started out about the keys but in a matter of minutes spiraled into a heart-wrenching battle of emotional weapons and protections, including blame, shame, defensiveness, criticism, and deflection. The episode ended in a silence more deafening than the actual fight. Andrew and Jen may not even remember what started the fight in the first place. What they do remember is how they felt: angry, disconnected, lonely, unappreciated, unseen.

Throughout the evening Andrew and Jen remain disconnected. The next day, when they’ve each cooled off enough that the immediate tension has lessened, they miss each other and try to move forward. They go through the motions, and although the keys are in the right place, cracks of resentment have appeared in the couple’s otherwise solid bond. Still, they don’t want to revisit the conversation for fear of another blowup. The fight is over, but the conflict is not resolved.

This episode, or some variation of it, is surprisingly common among couples. Yet, when you’re in it, it’s easy to feel like you’re the only one—that your relationship is doomed; that something must be wrong with you. I’m here to tell you, that’s not the case. I see clients in situations like these all the time. You are not alone.

Maybe this type of interaction describes your past instead of your present... you used to fight, but you got tired and gave up. Instead of arguing, you and your partner just coexist in the same space. You live in a chronic state of emotional disconnect, punctuated by periods of higher tension. It might seem different than Jen and Andrew on the surface—instead of yelling about the misplaced keys, you are silently resigned to putting them back yourself—but couples in this “coexisting” state are also lost in their conflict. The difference is that instead of addressing their problems with escalation, they disengage. The results, however, are the same: real issues don’t get resolved, resentment builds, and connection suffers.

These two situations—constant escalating conflict or persistent disengagement—are what usually drive couples to seek out my help. By the time they’re sitting on the couch across from me, the relationship has gotten so bad that they assume they’re just incompatible.

The good news is that most of the time, incompatibility isn’t the issue at all. Instead, it’s about using communication to create attachment-friendly environments and secure attachments. What Andrew and Jen need, what so many couples need, is a way to better reach each other.
Real Problem
Millions of couples are stuck in cycles like Jen and Andrew’s. You don’t have to share their circumstances—a traditional American heterosexual relationship—to relate to their predicament. Maybe you’re in a heterosexual relationship, but you live in India, or Germany, or Argentina, and your relationship has a different cultural flavor than most of the examples in this book. Maybe you’re an LGBTQ+ couple. Or maybe there’s no way to define you other than as two humans in a relationship who love each other and want to make it work. Every example you will read in this book is specific but is also universal. We all have our own problems and our own circumstances, but no matter if you’re gay or straight, in a first marriage, third marriage, or you’ve never been married, these dynamics will affect you. The truth is, your exact circumstances matter far less than your emotional state.

Couples like Jen and Andrew might fight about parenting, bicker about finances, or disengage completely because they feel so far apart. Some couples read books, learn to use “I-statements,” and set better boundaries in an effort to address the problem. Those strategies occasionally work as temporary Band-Aids, but the truth is, we can’t permanently fix the surface arguments until we get to the root issue. And that issue, almost always, is attachment insecurity.

Attachment, at its most basic, is the quality of our bond with the core figures in our lives, and it comes alive during each and every interaction. People who are attached, or attachment bonded, depend on each other for emotional support. In practical terms, this means, for example, that they know they’re seen and understood, they know they’re appreciated and valued, they know they can access support when they need it. The most powerful attachment bonds exist between either parents and young children or romantic partners, because these are the people we depend on most in a lifetime. In romantic relationships, where attachment bonds are reciprocal (versus parent-child relationships, where the parent is responsible for the child but not the other way around), the bond is strongest when each party’s attachment needs are being met. We’ll do a more thorough exploration into attachment needs in the next chapter, but globally speaking, this means partners can reach and respond to each other’s emotional bids for comfort and connection, and can navigate and resolve conflict with emotional safety. They can give and receive love, and when things get hard, they fight fair. All of this leaves them feeling confident in their connection, and secure in their attachment.

Romantic attachment does not exist in a vacuum, because both you and your partner came to your relationship with baggage from your childhood and impactful adult (or teen) romantic relationships. Nobody escapes it; it’s just a matter of degree. Not all the baggage is inherently negative; it just is what it is—baggage. We enter relationships with varying levels of trust of others and of ourselves, met or unmet attachment needs from childhood, communication patterns, self-beliefs, ways of managing our emotions, and learned behaviors. We also attract, more or less, our same level of growth, even when it shows up very differently. Attachment insecurity is on a spectrum and, while there are always exceptions, the degree to which someone has an insecure attachment is likely the degree to which their partner will also have an insecure attachment. But feeling secure in your attachment isn’t only about your current relationship—your past will always affect your present.

When arguments escalate in the way that Jen and Andrew’s did, what couples are really battling is an insecure attachment. They are expressing how much they need each other and how devastating it is to be lost, disconnected, and alone. They use surface content—keys, bills, parenting, and so on—as code to talk about the fears and unmet needs that they can’t effectively express. Then, to shield against the pain of not getting what they need, partners put up “protective stances”—loud protests, walking away, shutting down—to stave off vulnerability and pain at all costs. But here’s the problem: by protecting themselves from pain, they’re also blocking connection.

With all that in mind, consider Jen and Andrew’s fight in a new way.

Andrew comes home excited to spend the evening with Jen. When Jen scolds him about the keys, he feels deflated, as if he got it wrong again. As a child, Andrew could never “get it right” for his mom, so Jen is hitting a wound. Andrew’s body gets tense. His subconscious monologue says, “Maybe if I can convince Jen I’m not the bad guy, I won’t have to stand here feeling like she sees me as a failure yet again, which isn’t fair considering how hard I work to get it right for her.” And so, he defends himself.

But Jen is also excited to see Andrew. She came home early from work to pick up the house so they could relax together. Being organized is part of her self-care. Jen knows Andrew doesn’t share her same standards, but it’s important for her to feel supported in small ways. She’s not asking for much, she tells herself. When she sees the keys hit the table, her own childhood wound—feeling unseen, unsupported, not responded to—flares. She says to herself, “I’ve tried so hard to get him to hear me. He knows how important this is to me, so he must just not care.” Jen feels desperate to get Andrew to see what’s really happening so that he’ll reassure her.

Jen and Andrew go back and forth, trying to reach each other. Jen needs to know she’s cared for and to have her feelings validated. Andrew needs to know that not only does she see him as worthy, but that she trusts his love and care for her are real. Yet no matter how hard they try, they can’t reach each other. They are stuck in their protective stances, battling for something that feels like life or death in the moment: attachment security. They are looking for a seemingly simple message: “I’m loved, I’m understood, I’ll be responded to when I reach for you, I’m getting it right.” Instead they push each other away and reinforce each other’s attachment fears.

Eventually Jen and Andrew make up, or at least move on, but the damage to their attachment bond is done and they don’t know how to repair it. The same conflict will resurface in the same pattern, indefinitely, until they learn how to stay connected during conflict.

I want you to imagine you’re having a conversation with a partner—current, former, or even future. You’re talking about a stressful situation at work. After explaining the problem, your partner tells you you’re seeing it all wrong—that you should just be grateful to have a job in the first place. You try to protest, but they accuse you of being oversensitive to feedback.

How do you feel? Unseen? Frustrated? Confused? Maybe all of the above.

Now what do you notice happening inside of you? Most people feel a tightening, maybe in their chest or throat. Some report feeling still or caught off guard. This is the felt experience of an attachment rupture. When enough of these ruptures happen in a relationship, when they create a climate of overall unsupportiveness, when they don’t get repaired along the way, they reinforce an already insecure attachment.

Some of you reading this book are struggling with more serious issues than where to put the keys: infidelity, chronic physical or mental illness, blended-family issues, military deployment, addictions, extended family concerns, just to name a few. I can’t change that reality for you, but what I can do—and what I hope we’ll do here together—is help you find a way to buffer your relationship from the negative impact of these external stressors. Why is secure attachment especially important when life is throwing curveballs? Because the connection and support that partners derive from a securely attached relationship helps them feel more confident, competent, and resilient. If you want to heal from past wounds and transgressions, I’d like to help you understand what that process looks like. The events themselves might continue to be difficult, but the relationship doesn’t have to be. In fact, your relationship can be a source of strength and support as you weather the challenges of life. You and your partner can learn to face the world as a team.

I’m not saying that all couples should stay together at all costs. I don’t believe that. Some challenges are too much to overcome. And sometimes, the problem actually is the problem. Partners can have disagreements that are true deal-breakers; disagreements where there is no room for compromise. They love each other, but one wants children, the other doesn’t; one wants to live in the city, the other wants to stay off the grid; one can’t get over a past affair, the other says it’s time to move on. Sometimes there is real incompatibility, or the wounds are too great for trust to ever rebuild. We’ll talk later about what to do in these instances, but for now I just want to validate that some couples do face insurmountable challenges.

When all outside circumstances are equal, however, some couples will make it while others may not. So what are the surviving and thriving couples doing differently? Multiple factors are at play, but what’s certain is that these couples know how to avoid negative communication cycles like the one that plagued Andrew and Jen. That alone dramatically increases their odds. Because no single event takes down a relationship. Negative communication cycles, on the other hand, absolutely do.

Let’s revisit that same exercise, the one where you tell your partner about a stressful work problem. Imagine now that as you talk, you can tell your partner is really hearing you. As you speak they reassure you that your feelings are valid and reasonable.

How do you feel? Probably cared for and understood; seen and valued.

What do you notice in your body? When I’m doing speaking engagements and I ask audience members to do this exercise, I get a lot of similar answers: a warm feeling, an ease of tension, a lightening of the shoulders. Sit with your body for a minute. Imagine your partner’s loving face as you talk. Notice what happens inside you. This is the felt experience of a secure attachment.

Relationship satisfaction is intrinsically linked to secure attachment. Partners who are securely attached are reliable sources of intimacy, support, and comfort. During conflict, securely attached partners are less negative and reactive. They are able to hold positive images of each other even in the face of distress, and show more warmth and affection than insecure couples. Even their facial expressions are less hostile, and they have more confidence they’ll get through the conflict without harming their bond. While all couples experience conflict, securely attached couples do so less often because they’re less likely to experience missteps as rejections. This is partially due to each partner’s high self-esteem as an individual.

In a secure relationship, each partner shows up as their best self, not as a way to get something in return, but out of love and the desire to connect. They share a rich variety of thoughts and emotions with each other and respond to each other with care and sensitivity. They work to meet the other’s needs for sexual connection and physical affection, even when those needs aren’t the same as their own. Each partner is willing to make appropriate sacrifices for the greater good of the relationship. They support each other’s needs for autonomy and the exploration of separate interests. Each partner takes responsibility for their part in maintaining connection and being easy to love. They work to understand each other and validate each other’s feelings. They have each other’s backs and approach life as a team. They have fun together. Securely attached couples make hard decisions together in a way that might lead to disappointment, but not to resentment. They are each other’s primary support system, but each partner also has support systems outside the relationship.

Couples with secure attachments aren’t perfect, because no couple is perfect. What I’ve found in my work is that couples who have a secure attachment, even the ones who don’t seem to have a lot in common, are able to draw on the health of their relationship to find ways to meet each other when they don’t see eye to eye. Couples with a secure attachment bond generally maintain a felt experience of connection and comfort in their relationship. They’re not always thinking about their partner (though when they do, the thoughts are predominantly positive—a natural result of met attachment needs) and they don’t spend all their time actively working on and talking about the relationship, either. Rather, they know how to just be with each other. They recognize that perfect doesn’t exist and so they aspire to something realistic—which is its own version of perfect.

Some of you are in relationships where you feel close and connected most of the time, but when you bump up against hard topics there are explosive fights. Some of you are in relationships with a constant underscore of tension, punctuated by moments of intensity. Some of you don’t fight often, but you feel more disconnected than you’d like. And still others of you have your own versions of dysfunction. Regardless of the circumstances, the solution is the same: begin communicating with each other, verbally and nonverbally, in the ways we’ll cover in this book. By putting the tools into practice, you can learn to find the connection and harmony you’ve been looking for and begin to solve your “issues at hand” with greater ease. This is the path toward creating secure attachment.

To do this, we must minimize what’s not working in your relationship and build up what will. In the chapters to come, we’ll examine how each partner’s attachment style is showing up in your relationship. We’ll consider the attachment bonds from your childhood, which helped protect you at the time, but now need to be rewired. We’ll replace old, ineffective behaviors with new productive ones, and all the while build up emotional closeness. We’ll learn to communicate from a place of vulnerability, which is the crux of this work. If the word vulnerability makes you cringe, know that it doesn’t mean opening up in a way that feels inauthentic. Vulnerable communication is simply the opposite of protective communication; you share what you can when you can. You take the risks needed to show up in your relationship in a new way, with less criticism or less defensiveness, even when it initially feels really uncomfortable to do so. Vulnerability heals.

Real relationship change takes place in two ways. The first is a top-down approach, where we change behavior in order to improve the climate of the relationship. This is the focus of many common forms of couples therapy. Couples are instructed to say and do things in new ways, and by making these changes, they create safety and shift the underlying health of the relationship. The other approach is bottom-up, in which we work directly on attachment gunk underlying the behaviors, in hopes that by healing what’s underneath, the behavior will shift on its own.

Which is better? Neither. We need both.

Imagine you’re in an argument with your partner. In an effort to prevent further damage, you disengage and walk away, feeling defeated and unheard. This feels horrible. Nothing about it is fulfilling. But it’s effective in the moment to protect the relationship from damage inflicted through criticism, yelling, name-calling, uncontrolled expressions of emotion, shaming, and angry rants. Yes, you may have prevented something really ugly, but at what cost? The cost is resolution and connection. If you stop there, your relationship will suffer. Your partner feels unheard, ignored, and abandoned. So if you both engage only in a top-down approach, without diving into the underlying conflicts, healing probably won’t happen. But there is a middle ground between fighting and disengagement, and secure attachment lies in this middle ground. When you complement the behavioral work with deeper work intended to help you both understand why you go into protective stances and empathize with those stances, you can approach the argument and one another with more openness. We can start healing the underlying causes that spurred the argument in the first place. In other words, changing behavior is more about damage control than it is about creating fulfilling relationships, but damage control helps create space to do the deeper work.

I will walk you through both approaches, giving specific advice on what not to do in your relationship and what to do instead. For the work to be thorough, and the change to be lasting, we do the deeper work, too: reframing ourselves, our partners, and our relationships through an attachment lens. The behavioral work prevents damage; the attachment work builds bonds, and bonds build resilience.

Before we can start, we need to “buy the reframe,” as we say in emotion-focused therapy. Change can’t happen until you reframe your relationship: your partner is not the enemy. Instead, your negative communication cycle is the enemy. Destructive words and behaviors are the enemy. For relationship change to happen, we need to move away from the idea that partners are enemies who must protect themselves from each other. Once you accept this reframe, you can start to see how even the relationship behaviors that look the most vicious on the outside are in fact cries for security and closeness. When we view our conflict through an attachment lens, understanding that ultimately all humans want to bond and feel safe in their relationships, then the magic can begin.

One final note: though interpersonal relationships obviously involve more than one participant, I can’t understate the importance of focusing on your own self-growth when it comes to relationship improvement. All of our beliefs about what we can expect from other people are based on past experiences, and these experiences can cause us to react to our partners not as who they really are in the present moment, but as who we assume them to be according to our attachment understandings and personal history. This doesn’t always serve your relationship well, so it stands to reason that addressing these self-patterns is a crucial part of relationship healing. But remember, it’s not all-or-nothing: you brought your strengths to the relationship, too. One of those strengths is that you’re willing to read this book, which means you have grit and a desire to grow. Use your strengths to your advantage and work on the rest.

I offer you now the same note that I always end a couple’s first therapy session with: “As we proceed, keep in mind that I’m not going to try to convince you to stay in your relationship. That’s not my job. My job is to look underneath the surface, diagnose the attachment issues at play, and help couples communicate about their disagreements in a way that is mutually respectful and emotionally safe. When the communication is cleaned up, then and only then can we know what else might be getting in the way.”

Once you learn to communicate with your partner in a healthy way, you can observe and experience your relationship from a place of clarity. When communication is improved and attachment bonds are solidified, partners are far more likely to be able to work through their differences.

I’ll end this chapter with a question most of you are asking: How long does it take? The answer to this question depends on the couple. Not only does each couple start this work at a different place, but so does each partner. All relationships can grow. What it takes is access to helpful information, commitment to working on it, and practice. So when you think about how long it will take to see results, which is a legitimate question to ask, think about the following factors: one, if your relationship feels good 10 percent of the time, and that number goes up to 20 percent, that is growth. What I’ve found is that if you keep doing what you’re doing, some growth will usually lead to more growth. Two, growth is never linear; instead, growth happens as a positive trend with peaks and valleys—two steps forward, one step back. Three, each partner will likely grow at different rates. And lastly, when you’re putting the right elements into the relationship, especially at the beginning, you might not see results even when the results are there. Think of it like planting seeds. On top of this, sometimes things get worse before they get better because change, even positive change, can make people nervous when it’s unfamiliar. Try not to let this demoralize you and maintain your confidence that what you’re doing is healthy, even if it’s not readily apparent. You’re committing to positive change for yourself and your relationship.

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