In his book, Wired For Love, Stan Tatkin suggests that people have one of three primary styles for attachment, which he calls waves, anchors and islands. To be able to better both your own attachment style and needs and the style and needs of your partner, it is worth understanding the characteristics and differences between them.
Tatkin lists strengths of people who relate in each style:
"Anchors are secure as individuals, willing to commit and fully share with another, generally happy people and adapt easily to the needs of the moment." This style reflects a person who is secure in themselves and therefore secure in attachment.
"Waves are generous and giving, focused on care of others, happiest when around other people and able to see both sides of an issue."
"Islands are independent and self-reliant, take good care of themselves, productive and creative, especially when given space and low maintenance."
Two anchors operate like a team, and believe "two can be better than one," and "we can do it together." But anchors don't always pair with other anchors. If they pair with a wave or an island, they can be pulled off their centers and become more secure in their attachment. Or on the upside, an anchor can pull a wave or an island into a more secure attachment pattern, and their partner may become more like an anchor as a result.
Anchors likely experienced security from their early caregivers. Tatkin suggests that an anchor "learned from early caregivers who placed a high value on relationship and interaction. Their parents were attuned, responsive, and sensitive to their signals of distress, bids for comfort and efforts to communicate." In adult relationships, anchors are "unafraid to fully share one another's minds without concern about negative consequences." Anchors both "respect one another's feelings and treat one another as the first source to share good news and bad."
Islands, on the other hand, need much more personal space and are less comfortable with the close attachment style of the anchor. The island might say, "I want you in the house, just not in my room...unless I ask you." Islands are very sensitive to what they perceive as intrusions from a partner. While an island's parent may have been loving in some ways, likely they were not touchy-feely or the kind of parent that responded quickly or at all when their child was sad or scared or needing comfort at night. The island, therefore, learned to be self-reliant and believe, "I can do it myself." An island may not expect frequent interactions with a partner, including sexual intimacy. Tatkin says "islands tend to experience more interpersonal stress than waves and anchors due to their higher sense of threat in the presence of their significant others and social situations in general." When an island's partner is away on business, they are more likely to feel the relief of the lack of interpersonal stress, rather than the loss of the partner's company.
Waves comes from families where they did not experience a sense of steadiness or security. In a partnership, a wave may be ambivalent about getting close. One part of him/her wants connection. The other part might be afraid of connecting. As a result, after a separation, a wave might envision connecting with their partner, but upon reunion, find angry feelings surfacing that prevent the easy connection. At some level, dating back to childhood, the wave feels that opening to intimacy might yield rejection, that the people closest to him/her won't get or be able to meet his/her deeper needs. The wave might feel, "I often feel as though I'm giving and giving, and not getting anything back."
Understanding your attachment style and your partner's attachment style is important in understanding triggers and conflicts that arise, and learning how to respond to them. During times of distress, even if an anchor gets triggered, they likely possess the inner resources to ground themselves and contextualize what is going on. Islands and waves have a harder time doing so. In times of distress, physical contact and non-verbal communication is often what is needed most to bridge a divide. An island relies too much on talking and may not be able to connect readily on a non-verbal level. An island is less prone to seek or even care about reassurances of love and security when stressed. A wave, on the other hand, may appear more "needy" and "insist too much of verbal assurances of love and security." The wave can appear "overly expressive, dramatic, emotional and tangential.
During a conflict, an island will focus on the future and avoid the present and the past. S/he will be at war, driven by a threatened left brain retaliating "by communicating attack or retreat." A wave, on the other hand, will focus on the past and avoid the present and the future. "'I can't move forward until we resolve what's happened,' is a common wave statement." Anchors are most able to stay in the present and work through the conflict in the present.
To help a wave in a time of conflict or emotional distress, touching them and providing a calm presence can ease the stress. To help an island in a time of relationship stress, speaking to them calmly in a reassuring rational way may break through their discomfort.
Tatkin believes it is very important to get to know your own style and the style of your partner, so you can understand the dynamics that come into play when conflicts arise, and how to most productively and respectfully deal with them.