The story of the wave, the island and the anchor...
Updated: May 14, 2020
You may or may not have heard psychologists talk about attachment styles. It is a very well researched lens through which we can understand ourselves. Attachment styles can have a significant impact on your relationship with your romantic partner and yourself. So, what are they exactly? Well let’s first take a look at when and how they are formed.
If we think about survival, and an infant needing their caregiver to be close by so they will be safe, fed and survive, they display certain behaviours to keep their caregivers engaged with them. When the caregiver is attentive, the infant feels secure and confident. But when the caregiver is not vigilant and responsive the infant can become distressed and anxious. As a result of some of these interactions certain patterns of behaviour and response develops.
Now you are probably thinking: how does something that is formed from how our parents interact with us effect our romantic and sexual relationships? Well, as the renowned psychotherapist Esther Perel says “tell me how you were loved and I will tell you how you make love”. As a child did we learn to experience pleasure or not? To trust others or not? To receive or be denied? Were our parents monitoring our needs or were we expected to meet theirs? Did we turn to them for protection? Were we held? Soothed? Rocked? The answer to these questions and many more like these gives us insight into what we expect from our romantic partners. Eventually attachment needs change from being met by an individual’s parents to being met by their intimate partner. As a result, we can see that caregivers can affect our choice of romantic and sexual partner now and into the future. It is important to note that none of this is to blame our caregivers, most of them do their best, but they do what they have capacity to do and it is impossible to meet all a child's needs.
There are 3 basic attachment styles that clinician Stan Tatkin so nicely summarises with the images of a wave, an anchor and an island.
Island: The avoidant attachment
Islands can find staying connected to their romantic partners difficult at times. Their strengths are independence, creativity and being accomplished in many aspects of their lives. However, romantic relationships can create feelings of being trapped for islands. This is particularly evident when the relationship is experiencing a tough time. During conflict islands tend to withdraw and keep secrets. This often results in their partners feeling unimportant, burdensome and neglected.
An island will use sex to maximise control and distance a relationship. They also often see sex and love as two different things. Research has shown that islands experience fewer positive emotions during sex, lower levels of sexual arousal and sexual satisfaction.
Waves- The anxious attachment
Waves deeply desire connection with a partner. Typically, their passionate intensity makes them fun to be around and they are usually generous people. Interestingly waves often feel like it is not really possible to experience true intimacy as they live in fear of abandonment, withdrawal, rejection and punishment. Waves can use sex to avoid abandonment and can have unhealthy behaviours such as trying to stay close by even having unsatisfactory sex. If you are the partner of a wave you might feel like your relationship is a bit of a rollercoaster. The fear of wanting a true intimate relationship often triggers waves to push their partners away even when they want connection.
Anchors- The secure attachment
Anchors are known for being easygoing, and aren’t bothered by fears of abandonment or loss of autonomy. They can maintain closeness for extended periods of time without anxiety and by nature they are usually collaborative and cooperative. Anchors are comfortable with expressing love to their partners and this expression of love is seen as a primary goal behind sex for securely attached people. For anchors, sexuality plays an integral role in the makeup of a healthy relationship.
Now to the best part. How can you use this information to grow and better both your current and future relationships? By understanding your and your partner’s attachment style you can learn to understand the motivation behind certain behaviours and make agreements that will ensure the comfortable level of closeness for both of you. The main goal to understanding your attachment style is to help you to deal with your natural state and improve your relationships; it is not about pathology or a diagnosis. It can be used as a tool to understand how you and your partner move towards and away from others which can ultimately help you improve your relationship. Each style comes with its own strengths and weaknesses, though anchors generally have the easiest time in a relationship and waves and islands tend to put their own needs first out of insecurity.
How to become more anchored with your partner...
Fight friendly- A simple way to execute this step is to face your partner directly and make good eye contact and say something reparative or friendly during a fight, for example “you are very important to me darling...” It also involves the two of you working to repair fights quickly to reduce the creation of bad memories that get stored in long term memory. Unless we make a conscientious effort to change our style, we tend to fall back in to the one we developed in our childhood.
CARRP- John Gottman uses this an acronym to remind us how important it is to be Consistent, Available, Responsive, Reliable and Predictable. You don’t need to buy your partner a big gift or jewellery to ensure that they feel secure and anchored but it is in fact about the small, seemingly insignificant daily interactions that make the difference.
Attachment Alarm- Identify your Attachment Alarm by asking yourself how you are triggered? Think about your primary caregiver and their availability and attentiveness. Then think about what happens in your relationship that gets you upset. Is it when your partner is silent? Or if they talk over you? Or they pursue you when you want some distance? Knowing this about yourself and your partner is so important so you both know what each needs to be picked up when down and how to settle the unsettled. Security is built when you feel understood about these things and then your partner acts on their part in helping you feel secure in the relationship.
Talk about the relationship- Changing your attachment style is possible but it takes effort. If you want to begin this journey it is very important to be aware of your attachment style and the choices you are making in a partner. It’s never too late for a couple to become secure and functioning. Do not despair if you are not there yet. Without falling in to shame or blame sit down together in a relaxed environment and discuss your relationship. Take turns in asking each other about what your relationship looks and feels like? What do you want it to look and feel like? How do you define success for the two of you?
Sometimes it is good to get a little bit of help with these things so if you want to learn what yours or your partners attachment styles are and how you can utilise them to build a stronger relationship you can book an appointment with one of the team from Better Together Relationships.