Ah, love. That wonderful, yet indescribable state of bliss. The time where you see your partner as everything good in the world. No wonder we call it falling in love. When we’re in this state of happiness, understanding our attachment style is the last thing on our minds.
Interestingly, it’s not really your partner who you are in love with (or not entirely). It’s actually the way that he or she makes you feel about yourself, and there is science to prove this. During this “honeymoon period,” your brain lights up like a Christmas tree, the same way that it would if ingested drugs or a whole chocolate Santa. You actually feel high when you are around your partner, causing you to enjoy that warm, tingly feeling. To learn more about this, watch my YouTube video on the stages of love.
Then, since all good things must come to an end, the high wears off, and you are left with, (gasp), a real person! Flaws and all. It’s at this time that the real work of partnership begins.
When it comes to making a relationship last past the honeymoon period, understanding your attachment style and that of your partner is key.
The Science Behind Attachment Style
Psychologists, including yours truly, believe that the way you were raised plays a big role in your ability to effectively maintain a long term committed relationship.
Back in the late 60’s and early 70’s researchers John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth developed what we call Attachment Theory, which describes different styles of attachment (or ways of relating to others) based on how we were cared for as children.
They described 4 distinct styles based on what they found in their research. Those styles are now commonly known as Secure, Anxious, Avoidant and Fearful-Avoidant. More recently, Dr. Stan Tatkin, founder of the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy (PACT) came up with three relatable ways to describe these attachment styles (excluding fearful-avoidant).
According to Dr. Tatkin, people fall into one of three categories when it comes to their attachment style: The Anchor, The Island, and The Wave.
What Is My Attachment Style?
About half of all people are Anchors. This is Dr. Tatkin’s version of secure attachment. Anchors were raised with at least one parent who put their child’s needs before their own. Anchors were appropriately soothed and comforted as children and saw their parent(s) as a safe haven to go to when feeling sad, scared or upset in any way.
They were also encouraged to be independent and explore their surroundings while still learning how to cooperate with others. Anchors had caretakers who fostered independence and provided emotional and physical safety while doing so.
As such, Anchors grow up to be well-adjusted, emotionally-available adults who can get along with most others and feel comfortable in their own skin. They can tolerate closeness and space in relationships without feeling threatened or overwhelmed. Anchors have an easy time transitioning from alone time to “we” time, and they are able to commit and experience emotional and physical intimacy in relationships.
About 25% of the population are Islands. This is Dr. Tatkin’s version of avoidant attachment. Islands had parents who stressed performance, intelligence, talents or appearance and they discouraged any dependency from the child. At least one parent was probably emotionally distant and they may have used money, gifts, and providing physical things to show their children love versus showing it by connecting emotionally.
One parent may also have been emotionally overbearing and placed a lot of their needs on the Island, leading to the Island feeling overwhelmed whenever there was a connection and feeling the need to escape. The Island did not feel safe to express vulnerable emotions to their parents either because they were discouraged to do so (through punishment, being shamed or humiliated, or a lack of empathy and comfort from the parent) or because they were put in the role of emotional caretaker to their parent.
Because the Island’s parents were unable to provide emotional safety and comfort, the Island learned to rely only on themself for comfort and soothing and they developed an unconscious belief that connection and relationships are not safe. Rather than being a source of comfort, relationships are often a source of pain and stress for the Island.
This all leads to the Island needing a great deal of space in relationships, especially when stressed or overwhelmed. Space is both a protective mechanism to avoid getting deeply hurt and disappointed as well as what the Island needs to self regulate and deal with stress. Without that space, Islands may feel trapped and controlled by their partners or overwhelmed by their needs and unable to deal with stress in their lives.
On the other hand, Waves had parents who were emotionally inconsistent. This is Dr. Tatkin’s version of anxious attachment. Children of addicts and mentally ill parents are often Waves because of the unpredictability that comes along with addiction and mental illness. One night, the parent might be a safe haven of comfort and emotional availability and the next night, he or she might be in a drunk or narcissistic rage. Children of divorce or children who were physically abandoned by one or both parents may also turn out to be Waves.
Since Waves’ parents were here one minute and gone the next (emotionally and sometimes physically too), Waves grew to fear abandonment above all else. Waves also make up about 25% of the population.
When Waves are in relationships, they often focus on the connection and worry about the stability of the relationship. They may come off as needy or require constant validation that their partner isn’t planning on leaving them high and dry, especially after a fight. They tend to over accommodate and may not always speak up about concerns in relationships to keep their partner from abandoning them. When they feel the connection is threatened, they may engage in protest behaviors that mimic the behavior of an Island such as giving their partner the silent treatment or picking fights. However, the intention behind the behavior is (a misguided) attempt to test their partner’s commitment rather than to create space. Waves may also display co-dependent behaviors or lack healthy boundary setting behavior.
Attachment Style in Relationships
From these descriptions, you can probably see the difficulty that might arise if a Wave and an Island get together. Ironically, the two attachment styles seem to be drawn to each other more often than not and frequently have a very hard time making it work despite the magnetic attraction they feel to one another.
While the Island will need space to feel safe, the Wave will need togetherness. While the Island needs to be alone to recover from stress, the Wave needs to be in connection with others to self regulate. Both parties can end up feeling hurt and misunderstood, leading to frequent conflict.
However, if both partners clearly understand each other’s attachment style, good communication can be a lifeboat to bring Islands and Waves together. One of the most important keys to making a relationship between an Island and a Wave work is for both partners to recognize the cycle they are in and not take it personally or make the existence of it mean they should break up.
To do this, the Island needs to learn how to recognize when they are feeling overwhelmed, explain this to the Wave in a loving way, and ask for space rather than unconsciously doing something to create it such as starting a fight, cheating, going incommunicado or ending the relationship. When asking for space, it’s important to reassure your Wave that your need for space is not about not wanting them or the relationship anymore. Make it clear that your asking for what you need is actually an effort to preserve the relationship.
And it’s up to the Wave to believe the Island, not take their need for space personally, not catastrophize or engage in protest behaviors, and give them the space they need. This will require focusing on yourself, reaching out to friends or family for connection, or engaging in self-soothing so as not to overwhelm your Island when they can least handle it.
Of course, all of this is easier said than done but that is the key to having a successful relationship between an Island and a Wave.
Attachment Style Quiz
Do you know whether you are an Anchor, an Island, or a Wave? How about your partner? If you’re unsure, using an attachment style quiz can help you learn more about the way you function in relationships. I’d also highly recommend reading Wired For Love by Stan Tatkin or Attached by Amir Levine to learn more about attachment and what it means for you.
If these differences are leading to problems in your relationship, contact me and we will figure it out together.