How do you attach to others? Discover attachment styles and why they matter.
Some couples are attached like Velcro, with partners being inseparable. Other couples are content sharing space without need of interaction. And many couples fall somewhere between. Have you ever thought about how you and your partner connect and how your connection affects your relationship?
Secure and Insecure Attachment Styles
The term “attachment style” refers to the various ways we tend to relate to each other as human beings. It has implications for how we come together, how we argue, and how we prioritize relationships in our lives. At birth, attachment to a significant caregiver is critical to an infant’s survival. Babies need to be fed, sheltered, and protected from harm. Besides meeting physical needs, caregivers need to provide for a child’s emotional needs, such as being picked up and held when distressed. Often the primary caregiver is the mother, but relationships to father, siblings, friends, teachers, coaches, and religious figures also impact how we develop our attachment style.
Secure attachment develops when a child feels confident that their caregiver will attend to their needs in a timely fashion. As secure children grow, they trust in their relationships with loved ones.
Insecure attachment is rooted in a child’s uncertainty about whether their caregiver will attend to them in a timely fashion or at all. Sadly, insecurely attached children have learned that they aren’t their parent’s primary concern. These children grow into adults who often fear abandonment or being overwhelmed by their partner’s neediness. In relationships, insecures focus on themselves instead of their partners.
Attachment shifts as we mature, and adults with an insecure attachment style can become more secure within a trusting, loving relationship.
Types of Attachment Styles
In his book Wired for Love, Dr. Stan Tatkin describes three different styles of attachment:
The Anchor style is the most secure—they enjoy having contact with their partner, they bring a sense of calm, confidence, and openness to the relationship, they are resilient and go with the flow, and they get along with a wide range of personalities. They can access their emotions while not letting their emotions get out of control. They are eager to collaborate and easy to be around. Anchors are not perfect, though. They have problems and weaknesses, just like everyone else.
Those in the Island category are from an insecure attachment style. As children, they were often left to attend to themselves and they learned to do this quite well. They tend to be resourceful and are less likely to signal to their partner when they do struggle.
Islands often withdraw and self-soothe when upset. They are content with spending time alone. In fact, most Islands find it challenging to shift from engaging with themselves to engaging with their partner. Conflict is avoided and painful emotions are best forgotten. Because their caregivers did not really see them and did not consistently express interest in them, Islands tend to keep important matters to themselves. They are secret keepers, and fear that if someone truly takes the time to get to know them, they will be rejected.
Waves move in and pull back in their relationships. They need someone to depend on for contact, reassurance, and soothing when times get tough. The Wave child was parented inconsistently, and often their parents were unavailable. Wave parents alternate between being close with their children and then pushing them away if they act too needy.
Often the Wave feels overwhelmed by life responsibilities because they were encouraged to stay small and become dependent on their parents. An adult with a Wave attachment style often feels that they are too much or too difficult in the relationship. After conveying this belief, they expect their partner will be disappointed in them or worse, reject them.
How Anchors, Islands, and Waves Perform in Relationships
Anchor partners bring collaboration to their relationship—they value mutuality and respect. When decisions are made or problems solved, the Anchor wants equal input from their partner. If their partner is wavering or hesitant, the Anchor does not move forward with their own desires. In fact, Anchors prioritize the relationship over their individual wants.
They are more pro-relationship than pro-self. The idea of creating a shared vision for the relationship and establishing ways of interacting based on fairness are esteemed by Anchor partners.
Islands partners tend to not express much, although they may carry underlying feelings of resentment or anger, which can be hard to read. They are used to being left alone and tend to avoid contact with their partner. Extended hugs or kisses may feel smothering. When their partner approaches them, Islands may look startled or worried, as they are concerned that their partner will want something from them without reciprocating. Islands are often logical and think in a linear fashion. They are steady and even-tempered. They are staunchly pro-self, and have to be, as they assume others will not seek them out or act on their behalf.
Unlike Islands, Waves seek closeness and long periods of contact with their partners. They are skeptical and lack confidence in their relationships, as they experienced a come here/go away message during childhood. When distressed, Waves will turn to their partner and ask their partner to help calm them down. They are expressive and think in a more emotion-based manner. They are often warm, affectionate, and exciting. Like Islands, Waves prioritize self over relationship.
Attachment Style Is Fluid
Keep in mind that attachment style is a concept, and there are individual differences within each style. Think of attachment styles as being on a scale with varying degrees of intensity. With this in mind, you may describe yourself as being raised in a family with a somewhat Island-ish attachment style or a somewhat Wave-ish attachment style.
The real benefit of using this approach is to understand what your attachment background brings to the relationship. For example, if you have been raised with a mostly Wave-ish style, be aware of the positive and negative impacts this style may have on your current relationship. Couples who know their styles and who are willing to change behaviors that stress their relationship are more content.
Regardless of attachment history, partners can learn to create a more secure, Anchor-ish relationship. We all deserve partners who are trustworthy and fair, who prioritize the relationship, and who provide a shoulder to lean on in troublesome times.
Read more about secure attachment styles for couples.