How does your attachment style affect your dating life? When you know your attachment style, and that of your partner, how can you use that knowledge to make your relationship stronger? How do you know when it’s time to commit? In today’s episode, we’re talking with Stan Tatkin, author of “Wired for Dating” and “Wired for Love” – and one of the world’s leading experts on how to use attachment theory for the betterment of your love life. This is Stan’s second appearance on Relationship Alive, and we use the opportunity to dive even more deeply into his work and how you can put it to use whether you’re single or…er, attached.
Waves, Islands, and Anchors. These terms describe researched relational and attachments styles. They are constructs that help give metaphor and meaning to ways in which an individual relates to others as a result of early childhood experiences. Our early familial patterns change and shape our autonomic nervous systems, and thus, the way that we engage with those around us. When it comes to depending on another we each have different ways we feel in our body, minds, our memory, and in our bones.
Anchors: Those who are anchors experienced secure attachments. They were raised in a reliable environment where relationships came first, where their needs were attended to, and there was no sense of either being left or being taken over. This infant develops with the intrinsic and extrinsic knowing that it is free and able to grow and learn independence without consequence.
Island and Waves: Unlike anchors, islands and waves were raised in an environment where relationship did not come first, and from a very young age they had to adapt themselves to their environment in order to get their needs met. Both islands and waves want relationship, although they both struggle with trust. Waves tend to hold a core belief that they are going to be abandoned, and so they are less independent and often cling to others. Islands, however, hold the core belief that if they depend on another their independence will be taken away, and they will feel robbed and trapped, thus causing them to be ultra distant and quick to quit.
Patterns not labels. These terms are not meant to pigeon-hole, but rather help describe the psychobiological response to insecure childhood experiences. These patterned responses are also not static- we can adapt, change, and heal. And although relationships are the places in which insecurely attached individuals may struggle the most, relationships also offer incredibly healing potential! Each partner must be willing to get to know their own wiring, and then get curious and learn to understand their partner’s wiring. From an understanding of your own and your partner’s psychobiological needs, you begin to move away from distressing conflict, towards collaboration, compassion, and ultimately, to building a securely attached relationship.
Attachment is fluid- we are hurt by people and healed by people. The only way out of insecurity is through a relationship! You have to do it with another person!
Fully resource each other! Creating a secure relationship takes a commitment to being in the foxhole together. Create a culture together in which you watch out for each other- where you are working collaboratively and mutually. Make your own 10 commandments, and include expectations such as:
We pay attention to each other
We are present with each other as much as we can be
We never throw each other under the bus
We do not keep secrets or hide
We never threaten the relationship or each other
Safety in a relationship is a cultivated state- requiring constant input and attention. That said, the energy you each invest in limiting the stress load and the threats, will create the space and stability needed for resilience, flourishing, and healthy development!
Navigating insecurity while dating: As you enter the dating scene, it is incredibly valuable to learn about your own neurobiological wiring. What was your infancy and early childhood experience? How did your primary caregivers show (or not show) love? How were your needs met or not met? And how have you showed up in relationships so far? Are you trusting? Fear independence? Fear abandonment? On top of an awareness of how your own experience has shaped your reactions to relationship, it is helpful to also examine how cultural, familial, or personal ideals of relationship are impacting you. What expired values and expectations of relationship are you still holding on to that are no longer serving you? All of this questioning helps build a foundation for successful dating that allows you to be your authentic self and find a person who matches not your fears, but your desires. So many people do not do this inner searching, and end up simply heading out on a hunt for the ‘perfect person’, rather than for someone who matches their own sense of what a relationship is, and the shared we-ness of it all.
Don’t just trust your own perceptions! No matter how self-aware and how many hours you have spent exploring your inner landscape, none of us are immune to the love drugs so prevalent in the beginning of courtship. Due to the neurochemicals associated with the honeymoon phase we are blinded. We are silly in love. We are superstars not truly yet showing or seeing flaws. Take care of yourself during this phase by getting your date checked out by family and friends! Share them with your social network/loved ones and have your people sniff them, and the two of you, out. Ask for feedback- how did we seem together? Was I myself? Do they seem genuine? Etc. Not that you have to take their word for reality- but it is helpful in this infatuation phase, to gather as much information as possible.
Audition them! It takes about a year for pair bonding to develop and to really start to get to know someone and shed perceptions. Allow this first year dating to be an audition. Less with the intention to test, but with the openness to stay in curiosity. So many people want to rush right away to comfort, and thus they jump to creating a false sense of permanence, when really getting to know someone is inherently risky and requires the courage to tolerate the fact that it may end.
When does dating end, and a sustained relationship begin? There is no guidebook, unfortunately. Each couple must decide when they deem themselves ready for exclusivity and further commitment. Hopefully as the first year develops, you and your partner have created a culture together in which you have learned how to pay attention to the mechanics of your relating, and reflect on this together. You have created language together and the safety needed for clear dialogue and checking in on your own personal growth, as well as how the relationship is going. If the couple has dedicated the time and energy needed to develop masterful communication skills, then they will more often than not have a mutual knowing, by the end of the first year, whether they are set up for longevity, or if the relationship needs either more work, or is simply not a fit.
Being in relationship means conflict. Be careful not to assume that just because there is conflict in your relationship or with your date that your compatibility is doomed. Conflict is an inherent part of authentic relating- and it is best to welcome it in the relationship, and create space and home for it. The opposite- the hiding, ignoring, intense minimization, and avoidance of conflict creates much more dangerous dynamics in the long run. The question then, is not if there is conflict present, but how do you, together, manage distress? How quickly can the two of you metabolize a disjoining experience without pointing fingers or making each other the problem? How well you cultivate repairing states directly impacts your ability to weather the inevitable storms. Ask yourselves- Are we good at attenuating and foreshortening negative feelings? Are we good at amplifying positive feelings and love? Can we generate excitement together? Do we know how to create quiet love together? These questions help examine whether you are creating a psychobiologically safe and secure environment in which conflict can arise without creating a rupture of attachment.
Kicking the can down the road. Many individuals, especially those who have insecure attachment styles, will engage in a kicking the can down the road mentality in which they ignore moments of disharmony and move on without repair. This may look like an argument in which a deal breaker issue arises, and one or the other person looks over the precipice, sees the end of the relationship, and turns back to their partner with a demand or an offer of even bigger commitment. And it makes sense! Breaking up is really hard to do and creates incredibly stress on the nervous system, and most people will sacrifice and compromise along the way to avoid pain. And yet, we know deep down that kicking the can down the road, and remaining in a relationship that is not right or working for you, wreaks havoc on your nervous system as it is constantly in a low to high grade stress state.
Dating waves or islands: While anchors are by nature the most secure dating partners, don’t limit yourself to finding an anchor as most of the population are insecure in one way or another, and it is by no means a requirement for a successful relationship. Furthermore, we attract to people we can understand and relate to, and so it is unlikely that you will find an anchor, if you yourself are not one. Be patient with yourselves and with others, and focus on staying alert and curious about the different tendencies of waves and islands and how this shows up in dating. You may notice that insecure attachment shows up as a lack of collaboration. Is this person speaking in a way that engages me? Do they make it easy for me to connect with them? Relate to them? Is their face flat or are they overly expressive and emotional? And the same goes with yourself- how are you showing up?
How can I take care of myself and take care of YOU at the same time? The key is to identify your own tendencies, and to take responsibility in communicating this to others. For example, if you are an island, share with your date/partner that you are likely to be a little more reserved and quiet and that you do not want them to misunderstand that as a reflection of your lack of interest. Let your partner know that you get nervous and fearful when there is a sense that your independence is being threatened. Make it personal so they don’t have to! If you are a wave, give fair warning that you love interacting with people, and that you are prone to emotionality and that if it gets too much they can let you know. Let them know too, that you fear abandonment and that you need a certain level of awareness and care around this. If you know yourself, you are able not only to take care of yourself, but you can take care of your partner simultaneously. Own how you are likely to deal with conflict too. Share with each other how you historically deal with distress, and use each other to catch old patterns, and build new ones.
Become an expert on each other. Pay attention to who your partner is, and what their needs are, and get very very good at differentiating this from who you need them to be or idealize them to be. Observe, notice, question, allow, consider, and check in on how your partner functions and why. Really we are talking about how to tolerate another, different person. Are they a cat, and you are expecting or desiring a dog? If so, how can you catch yourself so that you are not constantly disappointed, or blaming them for their lack of dog-ness, and instead appreciate their cat-ness. Respecting differences is not a passive process- honor and allow differences in your actions and become an active caretaker of your partner’s idiosyncrasies.
Allow your nervous systems to play with each other! Building a secure relationship is not just about how you manage distress and differences, but how well you amplify the positive. Learn to amplify good things. Thanks to mirror neurons, you can co-regulate and co-create nervous system states together! You can co-create exciting love (that dopamine rich infatuation state) by using eye gazing, touch, and novelty. And then, to create the serotonin rich quiet love state, try allowing sweet silences, and parallel relaxation. Relationships need quiet love in order to have time for rest, for processing, for distress relief, and for re-finding equilibrium and stability. These times are necessary so that our autonomic nervous systems can wire around safety.
Moments of connection create integrated systems. Our nervous systems are built in relationship, and require frequent safe connection with others to regulate. Bring this science into your partnership. When injuries and hurt are not repaired and resolved quickly, we become wired in a way that makes us hyper-reactive and likely to see our partners as threats. Furthermore, the human brain is 1) constantly scanning for danger, and 2) frequently making things up to fill in gaps. On top of this human communication is pretty flawed, even on a good day. All of this means that without awareness, we can become stuck in limiting patterns of relating that rely on assumptions, and escalate quickly into a fight or flight reactivity- something not conducive to stable love.
Counteract the tendency to automate by checking in! How you perceive your partner, how they look, feel, taste, sound, seem, is hugely altered by the state you are in. When you are in an elevated and mobilized state you are likely to see them as threatening. You may, in those moments, not be able to discern between the reality of your partner and your subjective experience. Come face to face, get eye to eye, check and recheck, slow it down, and pay attention to each other. Gentle eye contact and close yet calm proximity are physiological conditions that help create a sense of safety. You also want to check in eye to eye because this allows you to track the microchanges in your partner’s body language so that you are responding to what is happening in real time. Then, ask, ask, and ask again! Are you upset right now? Your face just went cold/flat, what just happened? Are you okay? Am I doing that thing again? Are you feeling attacked?
Bring mindfulness into your love life. Instead of tracking your internal experience as you would in meditation, track the external experience. Learn to study your partner and your relationship with attentiveness, and non-judgment. If you do not attend to what you see, you lose, your partner loses, and the couple loses. Pay attention. Be present. Go step by step and moment to moment. And allow for whatever arises. This is how we learn to take care of ourselves and our partner simultaneously.
Check out Stan’s website for more information on his work and for couple’s retreats
Want to know more about trainings for therapists? Check out The Pact Institute
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