Do you know your attachment style? And do either you or your partner have “islandish” tendencies: needing space, being more independent or even a bit of a loner? “Islands” also tend to focus on their intellect and rational discussions instead of talking comfortably about their feelings or their partner’s.
Stan Tatkin has coined the term “island” for tendencies generally described as an anxious-avoidant attachment. Sticking with the nautical theme, he calls a person with an anxious-ambivalent style a “wave” and a securely attached person an “anchor.” None of the attachment styles are fixed categories. Our attachment styles are the result of our upbringing and survival skills that we all learned. However, if you know your tendencies and your partner’s, you can work on secure attachment skills together.
Islands are lovely people who long for connection as much as anybody else but have certain challenges. I have several “islands” in my family, and it helps to understand what fears and concerns plague “islands,” for example, why they need space and can sometimes be over-identified with independence.
I remember my dad, an island as typical as they come, sitting at his desk, meticulously reading the newspaper with a highlighter. It was a signal when dad was in his study with the door closed. He was “busy,” and we all learned not to disturb him. An island hates to be bothered when they are in the middle of doing something. So when you interrupt their flow of concentration, and they have to come up from an altered state and “turn all engines on” to be present with you, you will most likely be met with irritation. You might have interrupted with good intentions, for example, to check in, bring them some food or just let them know you are thinking of them, but the island is convinced that you want something from them.
In their childhood, they spent a lot of time being by themselves and being self-sufficient. So, an islandish person is accustomed to being alone, and when they concentrate, they go into another state of mind. They need connection like all humans, but being with others creates high interpersonal stress for an island.
I didn’t understand until much later, when I learned about attachment styles why my dad hated accepting favours from others. He didn’t like the feeling that he then owed this person a favour back. Islands tend to feel like “tools.” Others want something from them, and they have to do whatever the other person needs, but they don’t “get anything out of it” because they are convinced that they don’t need others in the same way.
As children, “islands” were rewarded for independence. Attachment to others was less valued than being self-sufficient, “easy,” “not needy,” or “not a bother.” The focus in the family for a child who becomes more of an island is on autonomy and performance, even appearances. The way to get love, appreciation or admiration was by not depending on others but by taking care of yourself. Problem-solving, often hand in hand with perfection, was an island child’s way of being accepted. Being a strong performer and wanting to be perfect can mark a typical island.
In the “island culture,” shame is avoided at all costs. Hence, not being considered competent makes an “island” feel small and insignificant, like a failure or a disappointment. Disappointing others is a concern for an islandish personality, and they try to avoid it at all costs. When they can’t prevent their partner from getting disappointed, they are often utterly frustrated.
An island is oriented towards self-sufficiency because there were not a lot of proximity experiences with their primary caregivers. Instead, they received positive attention for being smart, studious, or talented. An island kid is the child in Kindergarten that walks in without looking back, while their counterpart, the wave, is the child anxiously clinging to their parent.
It is harder for an island to stay in physical contact with their partner as an adult. There often is a physical time limit for how long an island can tolerate physical closeness. During the beginning of a relationship, this time limit is not apparent or non-existent because we are infatuated, and a “cocktail” of neurotransmitters and hormones are coursing through our body, overriding any tendencies. However, once we are in a long-term committed relationship, we become proxies for everybody who came before us, starting with our partner’s primary caregiver(s).
An island fears being dependent on somebody. They have experienced in childhood that it is not safe to rely on others. Caregivers might have been physically present and provided a roof over their heads, and might even have been loving. Still, they also had experiences of being emotionally dismissed and being left alone in some way. Hence they learned to rely on themselves over other people.
Islands become anxious when they perceive anybody interfering with their ability to care for themselves. They tend to go to auto-regulation, or in other words to self-soothing, and hence they spend a lot of time alone and in their heads. They can be secretive as they don’t trust others to be really interested in them and their feelings.
Self-esteem has been central from childhood on. Sometimes island kids were tasked with protecting a parent’s self-esteem, and in the family of origin, embarrassment and shame were to be avoided at all costs. Being vulnerable and “weak” feels hugely uncomfortable for an island. An island fear is to be exposed or shamed. Consequently, they tend to be very careful about how they express themselves. Anything they say and do is carefully vetted and measured. That could show up as hesitancy when they speak about themselves, their partner or their relationship. Their counterpart, the “wave,” loves to talk, is expressive, and wants to be held in their vulnerability. The island, however, is afraid to get into trouble, be criticized or be judged. So islands like to keep things to themselves.
The two-person system of a long-term committed relationship is a tremendous challenge for an island. Feeling an emotion and soothing in physical connection with others is foreign. Islands tend to be more left-brain-focused. Their way of soothing themselves or when they are with others is reasoning something out.
When they need to depend on others, they worry about whether others are competent or sufficient. So they don’t suffer fools gladly and get frustrated by people (co-workers, spouses etc.) not doing things right or well enough.
Islands often don’t trust others easily but prefer to depend on themselves or their animals. If they have pets, they often find them more trustworthy and safe to be around than humans. The physical closeness of a pet allows them to regulate their nervous system, just as secure functioning couples regulate each other through proximity and touch.
An island can have some anti-social traits, preferring to be alone or work alone over being or working with others. Hence they end up doing things at times that are perceived as inconsiderate or show a lack of empathy. Don Draper from the Netflix series “Madman” comes to mind as an extreme case of an islandish personality.
In love relationships, islands worry about losing their autonomy. They hate neediness, and they admire independence. They don’t want to be a bother, nor do they like others being a burden on them. However, when in a love relationship, we voluntarily sign up to be a “burden” to each other. That concept is hard to accept for an islandish personality.
Islands tend to think everybody should “suck it up” and “pick themselves up by their bootstraps” to get on with life. They would prefer if nobody complained or had “complicated” feelings but moved on, so they do not need to look at their past.
Islands can be passive-aggressive because they hate to be in conflict. They might act compliant with their partner to get out of a talk or contentious situation. However, when an island feels cornered, they might attack because they are often disconnected from their anger and have trouble setting healthy boundaries calmly and lovingly. The challenge for an island is to be themselves in an intimate relationship, negotiating their needs, sensitivities and general fairness. Their only defence is to distance or to retreat.
An island focuses outwardly on performance, appearance, and possessions. They fear exposure and vulnerability. They are challenged with a partner who seeks proximity. They don’t want to be encumbered, engulfed or smothered. Unfortunately, their preference for low contact means they cut themselves off from the most efficient way to shut down our stress in the endocrine system through physical touch, like a well-placed hand or a proper long hug.
After being close with the partner, an island can experience relief when their partner leaves. However, they might feel very ashamed about feeling that way and tend to hide this. An island cannot handle demands and expectations well. And that is also expressed by their body shutting down and their libido taking a hit. That response is deeply embedded in their nervous system, not because they are not attracted to their partner but because they fear losing themselves and their autonomy.
An island might have trouble feeling their own body, noticing their feelings and putting their emotions into words. It might also be challenging for an island to read their partner and pick up on their cues. When there is a lack of empathy in childhood, there is a deficit in putting themselves into the other person’s shoes. They might see anger but have a more challenging time with more vulnerable emotions. Islands are organized toward the outside. It is primary for them to do well and appear well; hence, they can have poor insight regarding themselves and their partner.
However, to keep a love relationship strong, regularly connecting, reading each other’s cues, and talking about feelings and needed boundaries are imminent. The good news is that no matter what attachment style we have, we can learn more skills to become more securely attached.
If you have recognized yourself or your partner in this description and want to learn more about creating a secure attachment,
You might also be interested in “Are You a Wave? – Understanding Attachment Styles PART 2.”
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