Want A Better Relationship? Learn Your Attachment Style
We want secure, fulfilling relationships, right?
But many certainly don’t turn out the way we want, and we end up heartbroken, ashamed, frustrated, angry, and lonely.
On a brighter note, what if we can come to understand ourselves and our partner better by looking at Attachment Patterns formed in childhood?
What if instead of just pointing fingers, you can begin to see your partner from a different perspective where you’re not going to take things so personally?
And, move your relationship toward a more safe, secure, and loving one?
Research says we absolutely can.
Attachment Styles – Are They Your Ticket To A Better Relationship?
If you haven’t learned about Attachment Styles, it’s definitely something I recommend.
When you learn about your attachment style – and your partner’s – you have a much greater chance at getting through the “tough” stuff that comes your way.
And, enjoy a healthier, more fulfilling relationship.
What Does Attachment Style Mean?
On the psychology end of things, we learn that there are FOUR attachment styles that each of us learn as a baby/child.
We learn to “attach” to our primary caregivers in different ways, depending on various factors.
John Bowlby defines these styles as:
For the sake of brevity, let’s just say that it’s important for you to know that babies and children have the inherent need to develop a secure attachment with at least one caregiver in order to grow up with adequate emotional and social development.
In this article, I’m not going to focus on Bowlby’s Attachment Styles. If you want to learn more about those, see the following posts:
Rather, I’m going to focus more on Stan Tatkin’s work on the topic. His work is superb when it comes to teaching and counseling from a psychobiological approach to couples therapy.
I love that he focuses not just on the psychology of relationships, but BIOLOGY and NEUROSCIENCE, which makes a HUGE DIFFERENCE.
Stan breaks Attachment up into 3 Styles:
These largely correspond with Bowlby’s attachment styles, minus the 4th Style of Fearful-Avoidant/Disorganized, which is actually a mix between the Anxious and Avoidant.
What Attachment Style Do You Identify With?
Maybe you already know what Attachment Style you are according to Bowlby’s 4 Styles.
But let’s see where you land in Stan’s styles.
Now, before I get into characteristics of the Attachment Styles, I want to point out that Stan teaches a lot on how it’s natural to want to attach to someone in whom we can trust and depend on.
We desire to feel safe and secure.
Sounds logical, right?
But not everyone feels that way or is aware of this when they start looking to get into a relationship.
- For some, it’s more about lust and sex.
- For others, it may be more about sharing the load.
- For those that fall into the “Insecure” Attachment Styles, it could mean being with someone to reduce feelings of anxiety.
I can look back to when I was in college and seeking a partner. I didn’t really have much on board relationship-smarts wise. I just did what most people did my age. Find someone you are physically attracted to, get married, and have children.
Looking back, I was ill prepared mentally and emotionally to make such a long-term commitment. (Though I don’t regret it)
♥ Now, let’s get on with Attachment Styles and Relationships!
One thing I notice about many relationships (mine included) is that plenty of partners go into the relationship thinking more about getting their own needs met. This is why we make our “ideal mate” lists, right?
I want someone who is:
Honest, attractive, financially secure, emotionally available, safe, giving, kind, etc
It’s alright to desire a safe, secure partner where neither of you are having to worry about being abandoned or engulfed.
→ You’re a team that navigates and meets life and life’s challenges together.
→ You are each other’s “person”.
Now, let’s look at Stan Tatkin’s Attachment Styles
Keep in mind each style is on a spectrum. You may find yourself in one style, but only to a degree. Or, you may see some of yourself in all the styles.
You may have been one style years ago, but now you’re more on the “secure, anchor” side of the spectrum.
You may spot where your ex’s or current partner lands.
Try not to think of any of this as right or wrong. Regardless of what Attachment Style you (or your partner) are, you can move toward a more Secure style of relating.
1. The Island
I’ll write about the Island first because this is what resonates with me most. It correlates with Bowlby’s “Avoidant” Attachment Style (Fearful-Avoidant and/or Dismissive Avoidant)
- Tend to like alone time.
- Fear that their partner will engulf them and take away their freedom.
- Fear abandonment.
- May not trust easily.
- They are ultra-independent.
- Not that vulnerable.
- They don’t love it when their partner “needs” them.
- Being around others tends to bring on anxiety due to high amounts of “interpersonal stress” they carry inside. Being with others drains them.
- Tough time making and keeping eye contact.
- Not that affectionate.
- Heady, intellectual
- Want intimacy, but fear it.
- Don’t really love to talk about the relationship.
- Value self over the relationship
Childhood Family Dynamics
Islands may have grown up in homes where:
- Primary caregivers weren’t consistent with meeting emotional needs. (a variety of reasons, over-working, mental or emotional health issues, addiction, etc.)
- Primary caregiver(s) placed strong emphasis on the “outer”, as in success, appearance, performance, status, prestige, smarts, perfection, etc.
- Not a lot of quality time spent together as family.
- Things swept under the carpet
- Child alone a lot, fending for self, having to be responsible for self early
- Caregiver looked to child for “worth”, leaving child to feel responsible for their happiness level
- Had to be “the good kid”.
- Parent(s) preoccupied with their own emotional pain.
2. The Wave
The Wave is another Attachment Style Stan Tatkin discusses. If you’re more familiar with Bowlby’s Attachment Styles, this sort of fits in with the Anxious-Preoccupied style.
Some characteristics you may find in the Wave Attachment Style are:
- They fear being abandoned.
- They fear being rejected.
- They fear being “too much” for their partner.
- They enjoy talking.
- They tend to need more validation so they can feel more secure in the relationship
- They have a strong desire for their partner to show up and be present, especially when they are experiencing stress.
- They tend to be afraid to ask for what they want and/or need.
- They don’t love to be alone. Being separated from partner can cause anxiety.
- They tend to enjoy being around others. It gives them energy.
- May trust to easily
- People-pleasing behaviors
Waves may have grown up in homes where:
- There was some sort of abuse going on in the home
- Mental health disorder or addiction in primary caregiver
- Parent was highly anxious and didn’t know how to regulate nervous system
- Overwhelmed parent, who may have taken out frustration on child
- Sometimes parent wanted the child near, other times pushed them away
- Parent repelled by child’s needs
3. The Anchor
The Anchor tends to resemble Bowlby’s Secure Attachment Style. These are the people that had fairly stable childhoods.
They desire a secure relationship and will typically put the relationship first. They view is as teamwork.
They are better at allowing their partner to be themselves and have autonomy. Because they don’t fear abandonment much, it’s easier for them to be alone, be separate from partner, and allow them to just be who they are.
They don’t typically overreact, as they just don’t have the amount of unresolved trauma that the Wave and/or the Island have.
They can typically express their wants and needs in a mature, respectful way.
They are not triggered as much, mainly because their brain/nervous system are not bringing up unhealed trauma memories.
How Attachment Style Affects Relationship
When I started learning what Attachment Style I fell into, I started understanding why I had repeatedly experienced problems in my relationships.
Learning both yours and your partner’s attachment style may just be the key to healing what may need healed in each other – and the relationship.
For example, if you are a Wave and your partner is an Island, you can recognize and accept that you are truly different from each other.
You can stop expecting your partner to be just like you.
~ An Island isn’t going to magically become a Wave.
~ A Wave isn’t magically going to become an Island.
But you can both own your style and make a commitment to working toward becoming more of an Anchor.
And, when you understand what your partner is afraid of, or why they act as they do, you’re less likely to say or do things that trigger them.
Here is a great example:
Betty is a Wave (Anxious Attachment Style), and she’s working on becoming more of an Anchor, but she still has some insecurities that largely come from a childhood where she didn’t receive unconditional love.
She goes to her husband and asks, “Honey, do you love me?”
Joe, who is an Island (Avoidant Attachment Style), get annoyed when she asks that question. He cringes whenever he hears it because he’s heard it so many times over the years. He lashes out, “Of course I love you! I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t! Why do you have to keep asking me that anyway?”
This kind of response hurt’s Betty’s feelings and causes her to feel even more insecure. Her nervous system now detects Joe as a “threat” and puts her in an even greater “survival, hyperactive” mode.
Joe’s nervous system also detects threat at the question. “Do you love me” triggers his insecure attachment style largely based on his upbringing, where he was emotionally neglected and had to “autoregulate” by himself to feel calm or safe.
When Betty “needs” him or “needs deep intimacy”, his nervous system sees that as a threat to his survival, triggering his go-to response, which is autoregulation in solitude.
He may very well be thinking, “I have nothing to give. I’m already drowning over here trying to keep my own nervous system regulated. I’m already in chronic survival mode. And even if I do have something to give, intimacy for me is a threat. It feels painful due to my unique childhood dynamics. I wanted intimacy with my parents, but they weren’t there for me. You want intimacy, and if I give it, I fear you will abandon me too. Best if I just avoid it and keep to myself.”
There’s the “push, pull” dynamic that’s so common in relationships.
Now, let’s say Betty and Joe take the time to get familiar with each other’s attachment style. Betty a “Wave” and Joe an “Island”, they both realize they are working with an INSECURE attachment style.
They just navigate relationships differently based on their past coping, survival skills.
But rather than point fingers and judge the other, they can make a commitment to work toward becoming more of an ANCHOR style for themselves and for each other.
They can approach such “potential triggers” with more compassion.
In this example, Joe could understand that his wife is working with some insecurity at the moment for various reasons. Maybe she lost a big account at work today. Maybe she’s afraid of getting COVID. Maybe she just feels extra nervous inside.
She simply wants reassurance. It helps her feel more secure. She’s not going to “lose it” if she doesn’t get it, but she desires it at that moment.
Really all Betty is looking for is this kind of response:
“Honey, I absolutely adore you. I always have and always will.”
Or he could simply say, “Yes baby, I love you very much.”
And follow up with a loving hug. If Joe can be conscious in the moment of her attachment style and his, then he will know that he can respond from a “secure, anchored” space, rather than unconscious wounds.
This kind of play-out can benefit both of them individually and the relationship as a source of safety and security.
Unfortunately, the first scenario is replayed over and over in many relationships all over the world along with plenty of other triggers.
If you know your partner struggles with insecurity (which is the result of a dysregulated nervous system due to childhood wounds), then you don’t yell, “You’re so needy!” when they seek reassurance.
Rather, you lovingly reassure them because you know one of their core wounds/fears is, “I will be abandoned”.
From my studies of relationships over the years, I’ve found that plenty of times, opposites attract. That’s no big secret, as we hear it all the time.
- Waves attract Islands.
- Islands attract Waves.
Sure, there are other variations, but there is a tendency for a magnetic pull between Islands and Waves.
There are various theories as to why. The most common is that each partner reaches for someone that will help them recreate childhood dynamics.
But regardless of the reasons, it’s all an opportunity for you to help each other heal and enjoy a more Secure relationship with yourself and each other.
Relationships are mirrors or props for each of us.
We have the opportunity to help the other heal their childhood wounds/trauma, but only if we understand ourselves and each other better.
And, commit to doing our own inner healing work.
Understanding Attachment Styles (yours and theirs) can help your relationship THRIVE!
Lastly, I want to reiterate what Tatkin says about Attachment Theory and love.
He says relationships aren’t so much about love as they are about safety and security.
Yes, love is important, but plenty of people breakup or divorce and still love each other. They’re just tired of arguing/being bored/wanting someone else/etc.
Waves do what they do to protect themselves from their core fears.
Islands do the same.
They’re not relating in insecure ways because they are selfish or don’t like each other.
It’s a protective mechanism they learned in childhood (and beyond).
So, our role as partner is to understand what Attachment Style we are.
And, they are.
Then, we don’t have to strongly react to behaviors, but rather, help each other feel more safe and secure.
In that process, we help each other heal!
Making Relationships Work
Making relationships work long-term isn’t a cake walk. It takes time, effort, and a good bit of educating yourself on how to have healthy, secure relationships.
Whether you identify as a Wave, Island, or Anchor, your relationship health may largely depend on what you and your partner value as most important.
- Is security for both partners most important?
- Do you agree on a shared vision?
- Are you both “all in”?
- Willing to “do the work” to work out the kinks?
Can you answer the question, “What is the purpose of this relationship?”
I went into a couple of relationships emotionally immature, with “I love you” being the reason for being there. But love only gets you so far in relationships, as we all know.
So, my advice is to keep educating yourself on your Attachment Style, as well as your partner’s style (or prepare for your future partner.)
If you identify and a Wave or Island, start learning about how to reduce anxiety, as it may very well be that you both have dysregulated nervous systems (insecure attachments).
If you’re insecure at the core, you’ll end up seeing each other as threats down the road. That’s the way the nervous system is setup.
So, keep learning and keep applying what you learn.
What is the shared vision for your relationship?
Are you willing to truly be each other’s biggest fans? Hold the relationship sacred? Be loyal? Honest? Protect each other? Provide some security for each other? Help each other be better people?
Feel free to learn more about Stan Tatkin’s Attachment Styles.
Dominica Applegate is an author, writer, and transpersonal spiritual teacher. Her teachings have helped millions of people experience emotional healing, relationship repair, and spiritual awakening. Earning her BA in Psychology and MA in Counseling, she worked 12 years in the mental health field before diving full-time into writing.
She runs Rediscovering Sacredness, an online portal that offers inspiration, essays, resources, and tools to help heal inner pain and experience more peace and joy.
Her books include Recycle Your Pain: It Has a Purpose, Into The Wild Shadow Work Journal, and a collection of poetry entitled, The Pain, It Shapes Her World.