Whether they know it or not, people come into love relationships with deeply held beliefs. Identifying these preconceptions can help to understand yourself and your partner. Without this frame of understanding, your partner’s standoffishness, for example, might feel hurtful or even rude. Or your own pouty behavior might seem like an absolute mystery to your partner and, at times, even to you. Understanding each of your relationship styles can help you make sense of what is going on.
Differences in relationship styles stem from each person’s history. Of particular significance is each person’s attachment style history. An attachment style, first theorized by British psychologist John Bowlby, refers to the bond we form with our first primary caregiver, usually a parent. Since Bowlby’s work, many psychologists have studied how these patterns of social behavior carry into adulthood. How we were treated as little ones can continue to influence us as big people. The messages we received about love and relationships still play in our hearts and minds.
Psychologist Dr. Stan Tatkin has a unique way of summing up various relationship styles in his book, “Wired For Love.” He labels three relationship styles as Islands, Waves and Anchors. I will describe them here, drawing from Dr. Tatkin’s work. As you read, see if you can identify your own, and maybe even guess your partner’s relationship style.
Islands can sometimes feel inundated with too much closeness and interruptions. They may experience intimacy as pressure as if their partner wants something that they don’t know how to give. Another telltale sign of an Island is they are independent and not accustomed to asking for help; it usually doesn’t even dawn on them to ask for help. When Islands feel stressed, their go-to response is to pull away. To their partner, they may seem disinterested and sometimes even cold. Does this mean that Islands love their partner less than others? Nope. Islands need time apart to restabilize and relax.
Waves fear abandonment and carefully scrutinize how much closeness is occurring in the relationship. Their deepest fear is they will never really be able to depend on their partner. Because of this, they may test their mate by continually asking in various ways, “Are you there for me?” Their ardent wish is that their partner will match their desire for intimacy. They often feel they are endlessly giving and not receiving in return. Waves may sometimes overlook the love given to them because they are preoccupied with what is missing. When Waves feel upset, they typically want to talk before they will settle down.
Anchors feel comfortable being vulnerable in their close relationships. Anchors are also good at calming themselves down even when the partner isn’t particularly responsive. Generally speaking, Anchors can feel relaxed when their partner is away and happy when their partner is close. In other words, they thrive in a relationship with closeness and can operate on their own.
Regardless of what category you are in, it doesn’t have to cause problems. The key is recognizing what is going on. Once you do, you can better comfort yourself as well as your partner.
What’s Your Style?
Which of these categories resonates with you? You can have an interesting discussion with your partner, sharing your impressions. As long as you approach the conversation in a gentle and curious manner, you can learn a lot about each other. Can you each see how your varying relationship styles create conflict and hurt feelings at times?
All too frequently, an Island wants space, and a Wave feels rejected. Couples can learn to avoid personalizing these responses, knowing it is merely the partner’s style.
Couples can make allowances for each other and even have fun navigating their differences. One Wave I know said to her Island-partner, “How about after you retreat to your island for a few hours this morning, I’ll wash all over your shores this afternoon?“
Islands and Waves can each become more Anchor-like with time. But not by criticizing each other’s style. Instead, they can offer understanding, tenderness, and respect for each other’s natural tendency. From this place of awareness and goodwill, Islands and Waves can, together, create a little bit of paradise.
Meg Luce, M.S., is a Marriage and Family Therapist in Grass Valley specializing in helping couples create satisfying relationships. You can find her contact info at https://NevadaCountyTherapist.com.