Do you know your attachment style? And do either you or your partner have “wave-like” tendencies:
Stan Tatkin has coined the term “wave” for tendencies generally described as an anxious ambivalent attachment style. Accordingly, he calls a person with an anxious-avoidant style an “island” and a securely attached person an “anchor.”
Attachment styles result from an adaptation to the environment and unconscious strategies to navigate relationships. Just as islands are lovely people, waves are as well. I equally enjoy working with both. Both just have two different sets of challenges.
Unlike the islands, waves got more face-to-face time in their early years, hugging, holding, and rocking. While islands tend to be more left-brain focused, waves lean more towards the right hemisphere in how they see the world. They are more focused on meaning and emotion. They are generally more connected to their body and tend to seek out social-emotional interactions.
While the island fears loss of self and loss of their independence, the wave develops a fear of losing the relationship. Their fear is of being rejected, left or abandoned. They worry that they are too much or too needy. That often comes from a parenting style where the parent is preoccupied, for example, depressed or alcoholic or recovering from their own trauma. The parent might be angry at their lot in life, perhaps overwhelmed with life, and their responsibilities, or feeling unsupported. And waves themselves often develop a preoccupation with fairness and judgment.
Unlike the island, the wave child knows what it is like to be paid attention to, cuddled and loved. The islands seem well adapted because they do not know what they are missing. Waves, on the other hand, have been given closeness, and then it was taken away because the caregiver was preoccupied with their own challenges. That causes anxiety and clinging behaviour from the child. The parent loves the child’s attention but at the same time can feel overwhelmed or bothered and appear rejecting. As the child clings more and gets more whinny or fuzzy, separation becomes difficult. One can observe wave children resisting and being resentful or angry when reunited with their caregiver.
Fast forward into adult life, a wave usually still has issues with separations and reunions. Separations are painful, and while separated or upon reunion, the wave is tempted to push their partner away. The wave tends to worry that they are a burden to their partner and will be left. As a result, they instead reject the other person first, assuming that being rejected is inevitable.
Waves can have a problem with pro-activity, assertion and claiming what is theirs. Because the wave is trained not to “grab” things for themselves, they lack a healthy self-entitlement and, hence, tend to be “people in waiting,” for example, waiting for the other to show them that they are wanted or loved. They hate waiting, and when their partner eventually shows that love, they react ambivalent or doubtful out of fear that they cannot rely on anybody.
While the island can be a bit “addicted to alone time,” the wave, according to Tatkin, is “allergic to hope.” By that, he means that doubt and negativity creep in as soon as a wave starts to feel hopeful about the relationship. They feel less anxious when they are in control of their losses, so rather than being rejected, the wave might cause the loss and push the partner away before the partner can abandon them.
The island often had to manage the self-esteem of one of their parents in a family where embarrassment had to be avoided. On the other hand, the wave was tasked to stay close to one of their parents. Instead of the parent encouraging them to go out into the world to explore and go after their own success, that caregiver was overprotective and did not feel pleased about the child growing up. The wave child has to give up their autonomy for the connection with the parent and often ends up being the parent’s “therapist.” Just as the island tends to have a grandiose view of their own independence, waves often feel that they are good about being in relationships because they have been doing this since they were young.
Just as the island is not that good at independence because they struggle to ask for help and be interdependent, the wave is not that good at relationships because they are over-focused on external regulation. They reach out to others for soothing instead of also being able to self-soothe. Both autoregulation and external regulation of the nervous system are beneficial—the island over-depends on regulating themselves, and the wave over-depends on regulating in connection with others. The wave is so attuned to what is going on with their partner that they want to take care of them and make them feel better. In return, they expect full attention to them when they are feeling anxious or in need of connection.
A wave-like behaviour is not to be confused with co-dependent behaviour. The focus of a wave is on the other person. They continue to give and end up angry for the care not being returned. Waves have learned to “live on crumbs,” which breeds resentment. Disappointment is programmed into this dynamic because no partner can intuit what the other one needs. Speaking up for their feelings and wants is required in every relationship. What makes a wave hard to be with is this expectation that their partner should know them well enough to know their deep wishes and needs. Often a wave expects to be disappointed and can be angry in advance because they expect their loved one will somehow disappoint them.
Waves tend to be the one who threatens the relationship, which is very stressful for their partner. They do this because, subconsciously, they want to prevent being the one who is left. They have grown up experiencing that somebody is not reliable. They are extremely sensitive to withdrawal, even the slightest bit of their partner turning away or in another direction. Being ignored by a partner who is physically present but is not attentive is worse for a wave than the partner not being there. Being present but unavailable can remind them of childhood when mom or dad was present but busy.
Waves are very demonstrative and very wordy or chatty. Talking makes them feel good. It’s a way to get attention, reassurance and connection. Talking allows them to ignore their right brain activity, which tends to be dominant for a wave. It helps them to manage their feelings and memories.
A wave is a partner who, at 10 o’clock at night, suggests talking about the relationship or any other complex topic. Night time is a significant separation and is strongly felt by waves. So they try to stay engaged and connected through talking. But, of course, to their island partner, talking about something that could lead to a conflict at 10 p.m. is like “putting needles into their eyes,” to quote Tatkin. But the wave is just trying to engage physically and verbally.
They also tend to be emotionally over-expressive or hyperbolic. That can be sweet but challenging if the other person does not get a word in the edgeways. It is also easy for the partner to write the expressiveness off as exaggeration or untrue, but that is just how waves express themselves.
The island with their logical, analytical left brain focus and the wave with their emotionally right brain focus complement each other perfectly. So they need to learn to appreciate the differences and see the advantages of being a “whole brain” team together.
Waves can be challenged by ambivalence and emphasize remaining dependent and loyal with a high sensitivity to withdrawal, rejection or abandonment. Under-entitlement and poor self-regulation have them turn towards others to be calmed down and regulated. A wave will call a friend or family member over self-soothing. The island’s tendency is to auto-regulate. A wave and an island together in a relationship clash because they have a hard time understanding their stress responses. The island’s need to calm down on their own makes the wave feel pushed away, dismissed, unimportant and rejected. Sometimes it’s as simple as the island closing a door to be alone that throws the wave into an abyss of feeling not wanted.
An island and a wave living together and being in a love relationship are not without challenges. Stan Tatkin compares it to cats and dogs living together. The island is more like a cat, independent and in need for space, and the wave is more like a dog, attached and seeking proximity.
If an island and a wave couple don’t understand themselves and how their partner responds under stress, they will experience that they trigger each other into their corresponding fears. Ultimately those clashes can become a memory burned into their nervous systems and translates to not feeling safe with each other anymore. The result can be to avoid each other.
The island has a defence against going backwards, thinking or talking about the past. Islands generally want to move forward. The wave is the opposite. They are often preoccupied with the past and tend to claim they are angry due to injustices in their life. They often feel they have done everything they could, have been the perfect partner, son/daughter or parent, and have to live for crumbs. For a wave, it is generally harder to let go of the past and expect the best for the future.
Waves can appear like they are the problem in the relationship, but they are not. Their partner is usually doing something that inflates their greatest fears. A wave coupled with an anchor, a securely attached partner, shows up much calmer and more predictable than a wave that has an island as a partner who regularly needs to retreat. The wave might appear as the one with a long list of problems. Their challenge is managing their complaints and focusing on the positive. However, partnered with a conflict-avoidant island, the complaint list has usually been growing for a while. The wave has to learn not to be “all over the place” and do what is called “kitchen sinking”, which means bringing up several past issues and dumping them all into the “sink” right now. That makes working through things unnecessarily overwhelming for both partners.
The island seems to be more composed and together while the wave over-expresses. This is because the island doesn’t show their “cards” and under-expresses. The wave shows their cards to everybody without being asked. For both partners, it is necessary to take a step closer to each other. The wave needs to allow their island partner to speak and needs to listen better. When the island expresses their vulnerable feelings, they speak the wave language, and connection happens. The island also needs to understand the power of co-regulating with the wave, while the wave needs self-soothing skills in addition to their tendency to soothe with others.
A wave might dislike to make promises and tell their partner something like “I am committed and won’t leave you” because that would be an act of claiming their happiness, and waves have ambivalent feelings about what they can have. Asking for what they want or claiming something might lead to disappointment. Instead, the wave sends mixed signals of doubt and tends to make more conditional statements.
The island’s challenge in the relationship is to be transparent and set boundaries for themselves. For the wave, the task is to be present in the relationship, be proactive and stand up for what they want.
Waves are generally susceptible to what the other person is feeling. Empathy is a great skill, but the downside is that they “catch” what the other person feels. If their partner is depressed or sad, they feel depressed or sad and often can’t shake that feeling. Under stress, the wave’s ability to pick up on their partner decreases. Their fear of abandonment affects the interpretation of the other person’s feelings. That’s when the wave jumps ahead to anticipating abandonment or rejection and can co-create what they most fear. The wave needs to remember that the island needs predictability just as much as the wave and both partners must be clear that they have both feet in.
Also, check out “Are You an Island? Understanding Attachment Styles PART 1”
If you have recognized yourself or your partner in this description and you want to learn more about attachment styles,
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