First a note on semantics. The "Island" under consideration is a romantic partner who has what would, in research, be called an "avoidant" attachment style. Attachment research goes back many years (to the 1940's) and involves classifying people into different categories based on how the relate to their primary caregiver in early childhood. For more information on attachment see my earlier blog on the subject.
As some of you know when I work with couples I use the PACT model of therapy (the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy). The PACT model has re-labelled the attachment styles as follows: Islands (avoidant), Waves (resistant) and Anchors (secures). It would be too complicated to explain the model here but see earlier posts of mine on the classification system and how our attachment styles impact our romantic relationships. Dr. Stan Tatkin's audio program, "Your Brain on Love", provides a wonderful explanation of the theory and how to apply it to your relationship.
OK, now on to those islands. For those of you who love someone who is often island-ish it can be confusing to understand them if you are not one yourself. Now of course to be fair, island-ish people don't understand wave-ish people either.
However, human behavior is often predictable if you know what to look for. So if you know that your partner is "island-ish" then you can predict what is going to bug them and what will really make them purr. I am summarizing here points made by Dr. Stan Tatkin in his wonderful audio program Your Brain on Love. If you haven't listened to it I strongly suggest you give it a try! While I have provided a link via Amazon you can also buy it on iTunes, Audible and soundstrue.com.
Now before proceeding I need to make something REALLY clear. What I am about to say may make you think "sheesh, why would I want to commit to an island if it will turn out this way?". So PLEASE understand something-- everyone, regardless of their style (Island or Wave) will get harder to handle after commitment. Dr. Tatkin refers to this as the "marriage monster". It's the unstoppable dynamic that gets activated when we pledge ourself to someone for all eternity. This just naturally turns up the heat and starts to show the cracks in our structure. So if you are wave-ish please realize that commitment also makes you more wave-ish and therefore harder to handle. It's not that island-ish people are worse than you. There is enough bad behavior to go around ;-)
OK so as long as you proceed without judgement, here are a few things that are predictable about people who are island-ish (or avoidantly attached):
Once committed, island-ish folks tend to distance more. Remember that in courtship our brains are on all kinds of love chemicals that make us act like the most perfect version of ourselves. Those things that later will drive us crazy, like how our partner snorts when they laugh, which seemed so cute when we are dating but is now repulsive. Island-ish folks can tolerate a lot more closeness during courtship thanks to the cocktail of neurotransmitters and hormones we are on (for more on this see the Ted Talk by Helen Fisher). However once those hormones and neurotransmitters settle down as a real relationship develops, Islands start to have more trouble with the stress of being close. Islands find close relationships more stressful than waves or anchors so they are more prone to this problem.
Once committed island-ish folks tend to be more secretive. They may feel the need to 'protect' themselves as we become more important to them. Closeness can provoke a sense of danger to an island so they will "beef-up" on their boundaries as the relationship progresses. Remember that this is NOT specific to you (they would do it with any partner) and also they are NOT conscious of it or doing it "on purpose". Reassure them that you accept all of them and that they don't need to keep secrets from you for fear that you will judge them. This should help them feel more comfortable with the closeness and intimacy.
Once committed they are likely to be more protective of their alone-time. Try to let them know that you respect their need to be alone some of the time and that you are committed to letting them have some of that. Don't let them be alone all of the time (which they may think would be good for them). In fact, if left alone too long they tend to neglect themselves! So they truly do "need" us, but they also need to feel separate and autonomous.
Once committed their preference for "auto-regulation" can become more pronounced. Everyone needs some autoregulation skills but don't let your island-ish person over-rely on that strategy. Help them use you for safety and security when they are under stress. They may protest against this at first, saying that they want to "be alone". But remember if under stress an island would to better to seek solace in their partner, they just don't do that instinctively.
Once committed they may start reacting poorly to being approached. This is especially likely if you come unannounced or they do not know you are approaching until you are there. They tend to feel that their independence is being threatened when their partner walks up to them. They tend to expect that you need something from them and this makes them uneasy. Reassure them that you don't "need" anything from them but you just want to be around them because you love them. Let them know you are not using them for anything but rather that you chose them because you love and appreciate them. And try not to call them, especially by name, from another room, that tends to set off their alarm systems and they will likely react with anger or irritation. Instead go to them if you need them.
Once committed island-ish people's fear of engulfment from childhood tends to return. This makes them behave in all of the ways mentioned above. Reassure them that you want them to have their independence and that you also know that even though they want their alone time you also know that they love you. Island-ish folks tend to be afraid that if they ask for what they need for in terms of alone time their partner is going to feel hurt. Let them know this is not the case.
Once committed island-ish folks can be peckish about feeling they are being used, as noted above, so make sure to tell your island-ish partner that you love them just for who they are.
Once committed island-ish partners can experience a lessening of their libido/sex drive. A once pretty sexually active partner can seem to lose interest sexually. Be careful not to take this personally. They would be this way with anyone and it has to do with them coming from families where there was not a lot of physical closeness. Now that you have become "deep family" to them they start to unconsciously revert back to the patterns of their childhood attachments, which probably did not include a lot of close physical contact. Of course you can continue to ask for physical contact but be patient with them and try to find ways of approaching that don't provoke a defensive response in your island-ish partner. Also be careful not to trigger a shame response when discussing this with your island-ish partner as they tend to feel ashamed and embarrassed about letting their partner down in this way.
Once committed your island-ish partner may start to doubt that you will really be there for them if they need you (even if you have already proven that you will be there!). This comes from their history of having to take care of themselves emotionally a lot of the time. So now that they have taken you in to their inner level they will expect you to neglect them somehow. Make sure to let them know that you intend to continue to take care of them and don't let them push you away in this area because they "know" you won't measure up.
Remember that all of the above is NOT personal, NOT conscious and NOT immediately under their control. Like any human being island-ish partners can learn about themselves and can learn new behaviors. But this often takes time and some professional coaching.
And one final tip on not triggering your island-ish partner--
Try not to ask them why they did something. Most people probably don't know exactly why they do what they do in a given day because most of our brain processes are automatic. If we had to consciously think of everything we do we couldn't walk and breath at the same time, let alone explain ourselves from moment to moment. And since island-ish folks are not prone to thinking about themselves they feel caught off-guard and put on the spot if you ask them to analyze their own behavior. It's more useful to give them feedback on how their behavior is impacting you (what you like and what you don't like about their behavior) rather than try to have them explain themselves.
I hope these tips have been helpful. Look for my upcoming blog on "The Care and Feeding of Your Wave". Remember, about half of us have "insecure" attachment styles (meaning we are not "anchors" or "secures"). So if you find yourself relating to the Island or Wave types don't feel bad. There are plenty of folks in your company. And if your partner is willing to learn your style they can take great care of you (and vice-versa!).
Krista Jordan, Ph.D., ABPP
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