How Attachment Styles Affect Our Intimate Relationships

Written by: the Editors of goop


Updated on: November 14, 2022

How Attachment Styles Affect Our Intimate Relationships

“Our brain is important for us to exist, but it constantly causes problems with communication,” says couples therapist Stan Tatkin, the author of We Do. “Understanding that should allow people to cut each other more of a break, not assign blame so quickly, and not be so hard on ourselves and the other person.”

Tatkin’s approach to sustaining a long-term relationship is both compassionate and practical, rooted in the neuro- and psychobiological factors that influence human behavior. In short: He says our brain misinterprets too much; that’s just how we’re wired to survive. And in order to better understand our partners, he suggests looking at their childhood attachment patterns that can help us see things from their perspective. But he’s quick to add: Don’t take these attachment types too personally; they’re meant to be ideas and not people. He says anybody, with any attachment style, can have a secure relationship.

What Tatkin hopes couples realize is this: How fulfilling your relationship is depends on how you and your partner adapt and move together to become a team. And once you’re both committed to making the relationship secure, Tatkin says, “you free up your resources to be successful in your careers, in life, and everywhere else. That’s how you really soar. All you need is someone who’s game.”

A Q&A with Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT

What is attachment theory?

In the 1950s, a psychoanalyst named John Bowlby started studying orphans in England. Bowlby had experienced a loss himself. The woman who was his mother figure abandoned him without explanation early in his life. He started studying orphans, and then later, his colleagues in the United States started studying monkeys.

It turned out that humans and all primates are driven by a need to attach, to feel tethered to at least one other person. That is a necessary condition for our being able to survive this life. The degree to which we have healthy attachments is the degree to which we’re able to operate in life with maximum resiliency and minimal use of resources that cause wear and tear on the body and the brain.

So we really need people. We need, in particular, people whom we can depend on and trust with our lives, and we need this to be reciprocal. It’s having somebody that we feel securely attached to, meaning we’re not anxious about the relationship, or about them abandoning us, or about them engulfing us. They’re there. That is one condition that seems to lead to longevity and health and well-being. The absence of that leads to the opposite, and this has been well studied.

What are the different attachment styles?

The Island
People in this camp, the distancing camp, fear having their autonomy taken from them. They fear having their sense of freedom and mobility taken from them. This comes from an experience of feeling used or exploited in childhood. In families where there’s a strong emphasis on the self, importance is placed on performance, appearance, regard, money, power, beauty, intelligence. Those are the goods that are often valued in a distancing family.

The focus is on the self, often on perfection. In these families, there tends to not be a lot of affection, not a lot of proximity-seeking or contact maintenance. Proximity-seeking is my looking for you, wanting to connect to you. Contact maintenance is the capacity to stay physically connected to you over time without having to break away. Islands tend to lack both of these conditions from their childhood. They don’t seek proximity in a relationship. They don’t like to maintain physical contact or eye contact or talk about the relationship. They tend to want to be alone a lot. They feel a lot of interpersonal stress because they have to perform. They often feel used because they feel that people demand things from them, and it’s never really reciprocal. So there’s resentment about being needed or approached. Often, there are concerns or problems with feeling disappointed in people and things. They’re constantly finding fault with their partner. There’s sometimes a problem in seeing their partner as an extension of themselves, rather than as a separate person.

The Wave
Waves are afraid of abandonment, withdrawal, and punishment. They’re inherently ambivalent, especially at the point of getting what they want. Before that, they’re not ambivalent, but as soon as the partner is there or as soon as the partner is loving and present, there’s a tendency for waves to push away because they’re anticipating the other shoe dropping.

My fear as a wave is that you’ll eventually reject me, dump me, and stop loving me. You’ll find that I’m too much because I feel that way and I believe that I am. If I’m too needy, you’ll punish me. So I tend to do all of those things to you as a way to protect myself. I push you away. I reject you. I abandon you. I say mean things to you. If I feel that you’ve done something to hurt me, I’ll punish you. I’ll make you feel how I feel.

For the wave, when they’re left, they lose energy. They get depressed, anxious, and angry sometimes if their partner leaves them. They don’t mean to do this, but they’re more sensitive to separation than reunion because they’re more aware of being abandoned.

The Anchor
An anchor is somebody who puts the relationship first, is by nature collaborative and cooperative, and likes to work together as a team. In other words, they’re a two-person system. I recognize you as a different person from me. I do not mind that you’re different. I’m not disappointed by you because I know that I’m disappointing at times. I am not affected as much by the things you do because I’m not as threatened by your abandoning me or by your taking over. Those things don’t really bother me so much, so I don’t overreact. I’m nicer, as an anchor, because I’m not as afraid. I’m not insecure, so I don’t have any reason to be aggressive. But I do expect things.

Anchors are better at relationships because they’re not burdened by memories of trauma in the same way. The things you do don’t trigger me because I’m not insecure. If I were insecure in the relationship, then those things would start to really trigger me because they become a threat to my existence.

How do these attachment styles manifest in childhood?

Typically, if you grew up in an island family, you feel that you are loved if you are a certain way. Islands are burdened by their childhood roles and fear that in order to be in a relationship, they have to perform a certain function, which also makes them feel resentment.

Islands were used to a parent being around all the time. They’ll often say, “Mother was there, but she didn’t really interact or care too much to interact.” The child was left to take care of and manage themselves without another person. That became consolidated, so the island’s world is one of blissful ignorance. They’re at an earlier stage of development, where they’re more concerned about the self and the self-integrity of independence and autonomy. They’re not as aware of abandonment, even though they have the same issues as waves do.

A wave parent has a hard time self-regulating and regulating through frustration. They often feel overwhelmed, then they take it out on the child. The child begins to get confused between “come here” and “go away.” All children, at a certain age, practice punishing. It’s an important stage in childhood to practice “I hate you, Mommy” or just to close the door on her. But the wave parent will punish in return because they don’t like the rejection. That consolidates or trains the punishing. A wave parent needs their child to be dependent and close to them, but then they get frustrated because the child is too needy or interrupting them. This makes the wave child insecure, and they’re stalled by this constant concern of having someone withdraw from them.

These two insecure attachment styles, whether they’re on the clinging side (the wave) or the distancing side (the island), don’t trust a dependent relationship. They are inherently self-centered and put the self ahead of relationship. That’s because of their fears, not because of their selfishness. At the bottom of both islands and waves is a fear of feeling left and a fear of abandonment, so they both behave as one-person systems.

Why is it helpful to understand our attachment styles in the context of intimate relationships?

Because if I can’t understand you, what scares you, and what makes you do the things that you do, then I will behave in ways that make you worse. I will amplify those behaviors and tendencies, and then I’ll reconsolidate your fears. Your behavior will cause me to act unwittingly in a way that reinjures you. I don’t mean to do that, but that’s the system.

Instead of being with you in a way that is relaxed, trusting, collaborative, and cooperative, I start doing weird things to protect myself because of my anxiety and because I’m anticipating something. That causes you to behave a certain way because you don’t know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I’m doing it to protect myself, but it’s actually causing you to behave in ways that make me feel and see that I was right and that I have to be careful. This is just the human condition.

If I understand you, then I don’t make you feel bad or ashamed. I don’t make you worse. I don’t blame you. I don’t punish you. I know how to help. I know how to approach you and deal with you in a way that doesn’t activate the traumatic memories or the fears—most of the time, not all, but most of the time. That begins to settle you down. And if I understand myself, it helps, too. Let’s say I was an island and do island things: Then I can also override and either not do these things because I understand how I act and the effect it has, or I can apologize and repair it if I did do something. Taking responsibility goes a long way.

Can a difference in attachment styles be a deal breaker in a relationship?

I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Problems with attachment account for only a relatively middle percentage of problems that people encounter. If you really break it down, the way the brain is organized and the way it functions cause problems in love relationships, period.

Attachment theory is not about love. People get this confused and take it personally. They think it’s about love because things that people do on the attachment level subjectively feel either loving or unloving. But it’s really about safety and security. It’s not a personality; these are parts of human behavior. We’re talking about safety, the idea of feeling safe and secure in a dependency relationship. So if I am somebody who adapted in early childhood to distance and to not getting really close and to avoidance, you may feel that I’m being unloving. But that’s not how I see it. I see it as a way to keep myself safe and secure. I’m just doing what I know, and what I know is what I’ve experienced. I’m protecting myself from bad things happening, things that happened when I was little.

So it’s not about pathology or personality. It’s really about adaptation. We’re adapting to the environment we’re born into. These adaptations mostly follow a predictable path, unless there’s more than just insecure attachment or secure attachment, like unresolved trauma. Otherwise, it’s just the way people are acting and reacting to each other.

Then what primarily causes issues within committed relationships?

Something that makes relationships inherently unstable is the way we humans tend to be: self-centered, selfish, aggressive, warlike, xenophobic. We’re really good at surviving, staying alive as a species, but we’re not so good at maintaining long-term relationships. Our survival instincts are more toward war, aggression, and self-protection, and that’s not really conducive to long-term relationships.

That’s because of the way our brains operate. We have brains that are always inventing things that aren’t there. We’re always aware of what’s missing and what we don’t have: “I would be happy, but I’m missing this.”

We’re always comparing and contrasting, so we have problems. One of the problems is that we don’t understand other people’s minds, and we act and react recklessly, and we think we know that what we’re saying is accurate and true. We think we know what we’re hearing, that we understand. We think our memory is good, and we think our perceptions are on target. None of that is true. This is part of the human condition. I’m going to misunderstand you more than I think I will. I’m going to misinterpret your actions more than is good because I’m using shortcuts in memory to anticipate you and to interpret you, and I’m not spending a lot of time paying attention. Everything we do is automatic and reflexive and built on a system of recognition, not thinking.

So I’m making all these errors with you, in memory and perception and communication. That’s the big problem. If we don’t know that’s happening, and we’re not good at fixing things or repairing injuries, we accrue threat. We start to feel abused, misunderstood, treated unfairly, insensitively, and so on. That becomes an ever-accruing memory system, which then adds to our mistakes. Going forward, we keep making these errors. That’s really the crux of it.

That said, anchors, or securely attached people, tend to value relationships above everything. Whenever we have a misunderstanding, it’ll be so painful for us that we will be forced to make amends and to fix it because we can’t tolerate the idea that there’s a breach in our relationship. That’s the good stuff that holds it together. I care more about the relationship than myself. I care more about the relationship than my pride. I don’t want to lose the relationship. That becomes the overarching value. That’s one of the things that keep people together: They really care about the relationship. That brings them back to the table, instead of being warlike and standing their ground.

So what does it take to make a relationship work?

Here’s what holds us in: It’s not about islands, anchors, or waves. It’s about whether you and I agree on what’s most important. And are we willing to stick to that and adhere to the guardrails that we’ve set up so that we don’t violate each other, so we don’t do things based on our tendency to be self-centered and moody and fickle and all the things that are part of being human?

The one thing that holds us together isn’t love. What holds us together are agreements, a shared mythology, a shared vision, and a shared principal of how we’re going to do these things, so who we are doesn’t hurt the other person. Whether you’re an anchor, an island, or a wave, it doesn’t really matter. You’re a person and you’re difficult. What matters is that you and I agree on things that protect us from each other. We agree because it’s in our own best interest. That’s how we rein each other in from doing whatever we want.

If people aren’t clear about what the relationship should be, then it’s going to be chaos. If your partner is behaving like an island and in a way that is not collaborative, is not mutual, doesn’t keep you in mind, and is not reciprocal, then you have to have a talk. You have to ask, “What are we doing here, and what’s the purpose of this relationship? Why are we doing this, for what reason? Who or what do we serve?” That’s a real mature question to ask. The immature reason is because I love you or because we’re hot together or because we have the same interests.

How can people in committed relationships find commonality if they differ in attachment styles?

The big kahuna is: How good are we at managing the stress? If we’re really bad at managing the stress, that’s probably going to kill the relationship. If you and I can’t handle conflict quickly and efficiently, then we’re going to start to accrue threat. If I don’t care about the relationship and I don’t care about secure functioning principals of collaboration, cooperation, fairness, justice, sensitivity and I don’t believe in that when I’m under stress, then I’m not the partner you need.

The only thing that really counts in the long run is that we are going to do what we say we’re going to do. We have our vision. Our purpose is to support each other, to make each other better, to protect each other from the dangerous environment, to be each other’s biggest fans, to have each other’s backs. That doesn’t mean that we don’t mess up. It just means that when we do mess up, we make it right. We don’t argue. It’s about survival. It’s about trusting each other when we feel least like behaving well. People do not generally behave well unless they feel like it. That’s the problem.

Rules and principals, like the Ten Commandments or the Constitution, acknowledge this. Buying into the principals means that I’m going to do these things, even when I don’t like it, even when it’s inconvenient, even when I don’t feel like it. That is the most important. It is the only thing that keeps us from being animals and from being the Wild West.

What advice do you have for people who are looking for a long-term partner?

It’s establishing to yourself: “This is the relationship I need, and the person I’m looking for also believes it’s the relationship they need.” And then you say, “This is going to be what we do for each other.” Then you look for people who are game. If they’re not game, that’s fine, but they’re not contenders. This is an easier thing to say than it is to do because there’s the attachment thing, there’s the falling-in-love thing. There’s the blind, being-on-drugs thing.

That’s why you have your friends. You announce to your friends, “This is what I’m looking for. This is what I believe in. When I find somebody, and I bring them around, just know that I’m probably crazy, but I want you to let me know whether you see these things that I’ve said are important. If you don’t, warn me because I’m basically on drugs.” Because people have different definitions of love and relationships. Most people, young and old, consider romantic love as the golden ticket that will give you the keys to your budding relationship. It may get you in the door, but it won’t keep you there. That’s not the kind of love that is going to hold you. The kind of love that holds you is the kind that’s earned through dedication and loyalty, not the kind that’s just there that you feel, because that’s going to wax and wane.

The kind that’s earned is the daily show from both partners that nobody gets in our way. That is earned, and that’s a really hard love to replace. Respect, trust, honor, integrity sustain it. You need to find somebody who’s willing to operate in that way with you. That’s when you grow. As you’re holding each other to these standards, you’re making each other better people.

Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, is a clinician and teacher who developed the Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy (PACT). He has a clinical practice in Calabasas, California, where he has worked for the last twenty years with with couples and individuals who wish to be in relationships. He and his wife, Tracey Boldemann-Tatkin, PhD, developed the PACT Institute to train other psychotherapists to use this method in their clinical practices. Tatkin is the author of several books, including We Do and Your Brain on Love.