​Understanding Attachment Style in Partnership

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Written by Anna Cordova, MA, LPC 
Somatic Psychotherapist at NC Center for Resiliency, PLLC
 
Much is said in popular psychology about the importance of “attachment” styles. You may have heard of them before in the context of mother- child or parent- child relationships. They are used to described essentially how secure (or not) a person’s relationship is and was with their caregivers.
 
So what does this have to do with relationship? In a nutshell, the safety and security (or lack thereof) we experience as a child informs what we bring to mature adult relationships. If we felt emotionally safe and secure as kids, and knew that our needs would be met, we are more likely to bring emotional security to our adult relationships as well. On the flip side, if we were expected to meet our caregivers’ needs, to grow up quickly, or to manage the emotional world of our caregivers, we may develop a different style of relating, often described as “insecure.”
 
The terms typically used to describe attachment relationships are: securely attached, insecurely avoidant and insecurely ambivalent (among other similar terms). Truthfully, most of us are a mixture of all of these attachment styles, and although it is great to be “securely attached”— none of these styles is better or worse than another. Just different!
 
Stan Tatkin, couple therapist and founder of Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy® (PACT), uses lighter terms that take some of the pathology out of attachment styles. The terms he substitutes are: anchor, island and wave. Here’s a brief summary of the different attachment styles as described by Stan:
 
People who are islands tend to:

  • like to be alone, enjoy their own space
  • have been raised to be self-sufficient and tend to avoid people
  • learn early on not to depend on people
  • often feel crowded in intimate relationships
  • like to be in a world of their own
  • self-soothe and self-stimulate
  • do not turn to others for soothing or stimulation
  • find it hard to shift from being alone to interacting
  • under express their thoughts and feelings
  • process a lot internally

 
People who are waves tend to:
 

  • feel a great deal with their emotions
  • have strong attachments in childhood, but they were inconsistent
  • have helped soothe a parent or both parents who were overwhelmed
  • have felt rejected or turned away by one or both parents
  • focus on external regulation- asking others to help them soothe them
  • find it hard to shift from interacting to being alone
  • over -express and like to talk about all the details
  • stay in close physical contact to others
  • often think they are “too much” and nobody can tolerate them

 
People who are anchors tend to:
 

  • come from a family where there was an emphasis on relationship
  • have experienced justice, fairness and sensitivity in their family
  • love to collaborate and work with others
  • read faces, voices and deal with difficult people well

 
Reading those characteristics, there is likely one style that you identify with most, and you likely see your partner in one of them. Understanding attachment style, both your own and your partner’s, can help you each learn how to be a “competent manager” of one another. For example, if I know my partner is an island, I’ll find it easier to understand if he needs to process more internally, or needs more space in the relationship. If I know my partner is a wave, I will be aware that they need help from the outside (i.e. soothing and reassurance from me!) to regulate themselves. If partners can truly be experts on each other, how they are wired, and have each others’ backs, then varying attachment styles need not be a problem. The goal is not to change your partner, but rather to accept that each person enters into relationship with their own unique history, style of relating and ways of understanding the world.
 
Additionally, the longer we are in a relationship where we are not forced to change, but accepted for who we are (warts and all!) we can begin to develop security in relationship. Spend enough time in a secure relationship, and you can become an anchor. That relationship need not be with your partner, it could be with a therapist, or a close friend.
 
Be an expert on your partner. Discover who you are, and be unapologetically you. Don’t try to change your partner. Do try and change your attitude and behaviors towards your partner. This creates security in the relationship, which can help islands and waves begin to develop anchor characteristics too.
 
At the NC Center for Resiliency, one of our primary goals is to help couples create a mutual sense of security in their relationships. We believe this can be done by helping partners learn to deeply know and understand each other, accept all aspects of one another, and over time, develop the capacity to be secure functioning, both in relationship, and in the world. 


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