Science finds that one key to satisfaction in a relationship is feeling understood and supported. But in these uncertain times, when many of us are facing a lot of individual stress and anxiety, being able to create and nourish a bond with our partner is a challenge.

Couple having a serious conversation, with a body of water in the background

In Secure Love: Create a Relationship That Lasts a Lifetime, Menanno, a marriage and family therapist specializing in emotionally focused therapy, uses attachment theory to provide a framework for healing. This theory rests on the idea that we need to feel seen, valued, respected, and emotionally validated in our closest romantic relationships. When we are blocked, we experience insecure attachment.

There are degrees of insecure attachment, of course, and different types.

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Anxious attachment is the tendency to move toward our partner in an attempt to close the emotional distance, whereas those with avoidant attachment tend to pull away or shut down in order to protect the relationship from conflict. There’s the same core anxiety underneath, but it’s a different way of expressing it. But “both strategies ultimately fail,” Menanno says, leaving us with “a relationship with varying degrees of fighting and emotional disconnection.” (Disorganized attachment is a severe form of insecure attachment, with unpredictable coping mechanisms, often tied to trauma.)

In her book, Menanno offers insight not only into our different attachment styles, but how these tendencies interact in our romantic relationships. She presents a practical guide for couples who are struggling, and scripts to help make difficult conversations easier, to move toward secure attachment.

I talked with Menanno, the Montana-based therapist (also behind @TheSecureRelationship on Instagram, with over 1 million followers) about the fears underneath insecure attachments, how couples with different attachment styles can understand each other, and why women tend to be anxiously attached. Here is our conversation, edited for clarity.

Hope Reese: We have individual attachment styles, but with our partners, there’s a combined attachment style. What is insecure attachment in terms of the overall relationship?

Headshot of Julie Menanno Julie Menanno

Julie Menanno: If the [anxiously attached] partner is overwhelmed with unmet needs and anxieties—experiencing intense urges to reach out and get their needs met to relieve some of this relationship fear and anxiety—the other person won’t be comfortable, because it’s not healthy communication. If they can’t navigate their partner’s behavior in a healthy way—either showing up to help them with those feelings, responding authentically, or setting boundaries, which we would consider secure attachment—the next best thing is pulling away. Because they’re uncomfortable with too much coming at them.

In contrast, if the avoidant partner handles relationship anxiety and fears of enmeshment, or fears of weakness, by avoiding—they’re sending the message to their anxious partner: I’m not here for you. I’m not here to meet your needs. I’m not here to keep you feeling safe.

If the anxious partner can’t manage that in a healthy way—from leaving the relationship because their emotional needs aren’t met, or communicating in a healthy way to create safety in the relationship, to draw the person closer—they handle it the way they know. More anxiety, more pulling for closeness, more going toward, more desperation, more protest, more blame. That’s how they’re going to show up with problems of anything from how to load the dishwasher to how to find emotional closeness with each other.

Often, avoidant partners are invested in the relationship early on, pursuing the anxious partner. Avoidant partners thrive on the feeling of being seen as a success, being seen in a good light, being appreciated.

Early on, they’re not hiding as much. So the anxious partner feels seen, heard, they’re getting enough of those needs met that some of their relationship fears aren’t showing up. Things are great—but when they start to have conflict, it sends messages to the anxious partner: “Your needs don’t matter. I don’t really want to resolve anything. You’re too much.” Now the anxious partner gets more anxious. They behave in an anxious way that sends the avoidant partner messages: “No matter what you say, you’re failing, you’re getting it wrong.” And then the avoidant partner starts to hide more.

The more the anxious partner behaves anxiously, the more they’re reinforcing the avoidant partner’s avoidance. The more the avoidant partner behaves avoidantly, the more they’re reinforcing the anxious partner’s anxiousness.

HR: How do they move away from that?
JM: Insecure attachment and attachment style is 100% relational. It’s created in relationships. The good news is that it’s not deterministic. You can heal in relationships what is broken in relationships.

First is damage control. Getting out of doing these habitual things that are damaging the relationship. When we get them out of that place, sometimes there’s a void. They’re not fighting as much, especially highly escalated couples. But they’re also not really feeling close.

A lot of relationship advice ends there. Let’s just get the fighting stabilized. So a lot of relationship advice doesn’t ultimately work, because we’re not filling that empty cup back up with all the goodness.

In the second stage, I get the avoidant partner engaged. Avoidant partners [typically] play defense. They’re not fighting to get their needs met; they’re often fighting to keep the anxious partner from getting mad or keeping them happy, appeasing or just retreating from the situation, period, because it’s too overwhelming.

I need them to participate in conversations, feel and access their feelings, find these disavowed, insecure parts within them to put into words, to make sense of why they act this way in these negative cycles. Sometimes that looks like setting boundaries.

Now I need to soften the anxious partner to where they’re able to stop protesting, blaming, stop these anxiously motivated moves that are pushing their partner away.

It’s about working with them as individuals to get them to find more parts of themselves, find vulnerability, communicate from that place when things get stuck to show up in a more emotionally safe and engaged way. When partners aren’t used to going there and talking to each other and sharing these vulnerable parts, it’s powerful.

HR: Are there ways other than talking to express emotional needs?

JM: There are different ways that, especially, avoidant partners tend to get their emotional needs met—through physical touch and affection. Sex for an avoidant partner can help them feel valued, can help them get their emotional needs filled up, in a way that doesn’t involve words.

HR: Do we exhibit different attachment styles with different partners? If I’m anxiously attached in one relationship, could I also be avoidantly attached in another?

JM: Absolutely. We’re all reacting to the environment that we’re in. So if someone is in a relationship with someone with an avoidant attachment and that person doesn’t have this strong sense of inner security to respond to that avoidance in the healthiest way possible, then, yeah—everybody is going to feel anxious in a relationship with an avoidant. The difference in how you respond to that anxiety is your attachment style.

But that doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Most people retain a consistent attachment style starting in childhood, and they keep replicating that in their relationships, and then those relationships reinforce it.

HR: The anxious/avoidant matchup is common. These roles are also gendered; 75% of those with anxious attachment are women, and 25% are men (and vice versa for avoidant attachment). So what else is going on here?

JM: Women are more likely to seek connection, temperamentally, and men are less likely to do so. Not that they don’t want to seek connection, but it comes out in this less hot, anxious way.

Let’s talk about the socialization piece. Girls are treated differently. There’s more tolerance for their need for connection. Boys are rewarded for being stoic and not showing tears. They’re put in positions like in sports where they’re rewarded for pushing their emotions away. They get subtle or overt messages that showing or talking about emotions is weakness. That is going to set them up for more of an avoidant attachment. “Let’s just get rid of all those needs and stuff them so far away so they don’t get in my way in life.”

Girls might get more emotional attention than males—or males are less likely to ask for emotional connection, and they don’t get it because they’re not asking for it.

HR: For a couple with mixed attachment styles, how can you bridge the gap?

Book cover of Secure Love: Create a Relationship That Lasts a Lifetime (Simon & Schuster, 2024, 336 pages)

JM: This taps into something important: We don’t want to accommodate insecure attachment. We’re not here to accommodate the avoidant who has difficulty talking, and we’re not here to accommodate your anxious partners. We’re trying to create a situation where they both can speak from a place that is not fear-based.

For an anxious partner, typically a lot of their talking is not feeling. They’re talking from a place of anxiety. If they’re talking from this place of fear, which is: “I’m trying to work through my feelings with all this talking. I’m trying to get you to hear me. I’m trying to get you to see what you’re doing wrong,” we want the anxious partner to talk less. We want them figuring out more, tapping into their feelings in a deeper way. We want to eliminate the anxiety talking and maximize the emotional vulnerability talking.

The avoidant partner deals with anxiety in the opposite way—“I don’t want to say anything. I can’t access my feelings. So I don’t know what to say.” Or “I’m afraid because of this dynamic that we’ve gotten stuck in that anything I say is going to make things worse. I don’t know how to give them what they’re needing.” So their way of managing that is to move away. I need to get them talking more, accessing what they’re feeling. Get them to a place where they’re not hiding, and they’re able to show up more authentically. Then the conversations become more balanced.

HR: Take a couple in distress—when do you advise couples therapy versus individual therapy?

JM: The biggest pitfall in couples therapy, and one of the reasons there is a high rate of unsuccessful couples therapy, is because the therapy is actually keeping the couples in a negative cycle. If you don’t have a therapist who can keep couples out of the negative cycle, they’re only reinforcing the problem, and they’re going to leave with the problem still lingering. So I work with one partner at a time, consistently. At the beginning, I’m facilitating every single word that they say to each other because I cannot let them go into a negative cycle.

It is a bit scripted, but it’s not made up. The clients and I created it together. We discovered inner vulnerability or whatever it is. We linked it to their behavior in the negative cycle. I give them the words to pass it over to their partner in a way that sets it up for being successful. Those words start to become their own, and they start staying out of negative cycles on their own.

You don’t want to throw couples into deep work if they’re in the negative cycle, but that’s what happens with a lot of inexperienced couples therapists.

If there’s any sort of active affair, [couples therapy] is not safe—because now we have competing attachments. If there’s active substance abuse to the degree that someone isn’t able to participate in the therapy because their real self is covered by the substance use, that doesn’t work.

If there’s a difference in agenda, if they’re both really not on board for coming together and making the relationship work, if one’s really checked out . . . you can still work with that, with someone who doesn’t necessarily want the closeness. You can get them to the place where they see the value in that, and they do start to want it.

The biggest problem is when one or both partners are too emotionally dysregulated to participate. With this individual who’s very dysregulated, who can’t rely on their partner to co-regulate them because the relationship is too strained, who can’t rely on themselves to self-regulate—we need to co-regulate.

In therapy, I get them into a safe, green-light place in their brain, so they can participate. My goal is to put that co-regulation between the two of them. If I can’t do that, they can’t do the therapy.

HR: What about looking at where these relationship issues come from in the first place?

JM: There is the bottom of the barrel: unexpressed grief and unexamined fear. People have had all these experiences growing up where they felt alone with their feelings, alone in their darkest places. That is a horrible place to be. Not only being alone, but being shamed for being there, being rejected for being there, not being seen, not being comforted in that place.

Think of the kid who gets bullied at school, and then comes home and is bullied by the parent, and then sits in their room alone. Every time that happens, grief builds. Then we develop fears over going to those places.

The fear turns into relationship anxiety. We’re doing all these things to avoid the darkest, deepest place. The answer is not to get rid of those dark, deepest places. The true healing, the cure for insecure attachment, is comfort. Having someone with you when you go down into the saddest, darkest place.

To say: “I hear you. I’m here. I’m not going to try to change your sadness. I get it. I see you.”

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