Heartbreak

Are You An Anchor, Island, Or A Wave? Knowing The Answer May Save You Years Of Heartbreak

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Blonde woman smiling in front of boats

One sure way to safeguard yourself against unnecessary heartbreak, especially in romantic relationships, is to know and become an expert on your "attachment style" — and your partner’s as well.

Your attachment style is established in childhood and largely influenced by your caregivers’ sensitivity and response to your needs. It is a blueprint (or memory system) carried into adulthood informing emotional reflexes in how we connect and expect others to connect to us. 

It is flexible, not fixed, and with this knowledge and through corrective experiences in a healthy relationship, an attachment style can shift, heal, and become more secure. 

Dr. Stan Tatkin is the founder of PACT (Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy) and is known for streamlining attachment styles into three relatable categories: anchors, islands and waves. He teaches couples how these three attachment styles affect their relationships, and how to use that knowledge to avoid misappraisals and heartbreak.

As a starting point, identifying if you are an anchor, island or wave is the first step toward a secure relationship.

Traits and vulnerabilities of the three attachment styles: Anchor, Island and Wave

1. Anchors

Anchors are generally secure, naturally collaborative, able to commit to others, and interpersonally adaptable. Well-adjusted and emotionally available, they form and maintain relationships fairly easily. 

Just like a true anchor, they secure and ground a ship to endure the expected ups and downs during a voyage at sea or in a safe harbor.

While generally more secure, threats to the safety and security of the relationship have their limits.

RELATED: How To Immediately Tell If You Have A Secure Or Insecure Attachment Style

How to love an anchor

  • Show a desire to learn and grow emotionally and understand your attachment style. 
  • Place an emphasis on mutuality, sensitivity, and fairness.

2. Islands

Islands are often overly independent, self-reliant, and appear low maintenance. In relationships, they can be withholding and isolating and retreat under threat. 

The image of an island symbolizes isolation as a refuge and place distanced from interacting with civilization.

Islands often feel intruded upon, trapped or out of control. They might fear too much intimacy or be worried about taking the blame for circumstances outside their control.

RELATED: 5 Signs You Have An Avoidant Attachment Style In Relationships

How to love an island

  • Give them space (but not too much).
  • Approach them quietly and ease into closeness.
  • Be direct and clear with requests and expectations, and offer choices.
  • Don’t intrude upon their space or hold them too long physically or with intense conversation — ‘catch and release’ is the best with an island.
  • Place a special emphasis on mutuality.

3. Waves

Waves tend to be highly expressive, focused on caring for others, and happiest when around others, but they can run hot and cold in relationships, seeking constant reassurance from their partners and lashing out when their needs aren’t fully met. 

In nature, waves are dynamic, constantly coming toward the shore, and lapping the coastline in a full spectrum of ease, intensity, and surprise.

Waves fear abandonment or separation from their partner. They are not comfortable being alone for too long, nor do they want to feel like a burden to someone.

RELATED: People With These 14 Personality Traits Are Most Likely To Have A Secure Attachment Style

How to love a wave

  • Check on them and move toward them before they ask.
  • Reassure them of your commitment and invite them to stay close physically and emotionally.
  • Express acceptance for them exactly as they are
  • Secure your connection by making contact throughout the day.
  • Keep to agreements and give a sensitive warning if plans change.
  • Place a special emphasis on fairness.

Attachment styles and relationship security

When you know your attachment style and core vulnerabilities, especially as they show up in the relationship, you set yourself up to create more secure relationships.

You will be able to ask for your needs more clearly, respond rather than react, and have more compassion for how you respond when feeling threatened. 

For example, "Alex" was raised by a single mother who worked long hours to pay the bills. She was so tired she rarely looked him in the eye and was emotionally unavailable.

Alex adapted by isolating a lot and developed more of an island or avoidant attachment style.

Alex spent years in an "on again off again" relationship with "Grace," who grew tired of his refusal to talk things through.

Once Alex understood some of the reasons he chronically avoided conflict, he learned ways to make counterintuitive moves to respond in a healthier way.

He started to help Grace help him by keeping to one topic at a time, keeping the conflict short, and tracking when he was getting overwhelmed so he could calmly explain he needed to take a short break.

RELATED: 4 Things Couples In The Healthiest, Most Secure Relationships Do Differently

Knowledge in action

"Vanessa" used her understanding of her attachment style to become more mindful, practice self-soothing techniques, and take accountability for her part during a conflict which ended fights faster.

“I was relieved to know I was a wave and to understand what that meant,” said Vanessa, who realized she was causing a lot of harm to her relationship by clinging and then lashing out at her partner for not calling her more.

“When I was a kid, my parents were addicts and unpredictable," she said. "I wanted to be close to them, but never knew when it was safe. They left me alone in my room a lot when they were partying. I wanted them to check on me, but when they did, I was relieved but also mad they took so long.”

Knowledge of these styles offers insight, clarifies areas to grow and heal, and improves the quality of close relationships. 

RELATED: The 3 Ways To Love Someone So Well That They Feel Secure In Your Relationship

What about your partner's attachment style?

To level all of this up even more become an expert on your partner’s attachment style too. A long-lasting secure relationship is rooted in a desire to help each other survive, thrive, and flourish. 

It feels good to know how to be a skillful partner, and knowing what makes them feel safe, loved, and vibrant is the key. 

In line with the main treatment goals of PACT, couples are encouraged to know themselves and their partner through the lens of attachment. 

In doing so, you can shift them into better states of mind and moods; lower their stress level; and decrease their sense of threat, anxiety, and depression.

If you both take on the job of helping one another by being an expert on their attachment style, it is a near guarantee you will reduce the amount of time you feel heartbroken.

You'll not only increase the good times but you’ll get there faster. 

And yes, this extends to how you interact with, predict, manage, and care for family and friends, too.

RELATED: 3 Healthy Habits That Can Heal An Anxious Attachment Style

Eva Van Prooyen is a licensed marriage and family therapist who provides psychotherapy for couples, adults, adolescents and groups. She specializes in couples therapy as well as treatment for co-dependency, addiction, anxiety, depression, and more.

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