Feeling Safe in Your Relationship
Monogamy- really? With all the freedom and hot tub parties and popularity of hookup sites like Tinder, why do most people come crawling back to Monogamy, even here in the world capitol of Open relationships?
Whether it’s Polyamory, where several people all agree to be in a committed, sexual relationship or open marriage where you both agree it’s ok to have sex with other people, those kinds of agreements can work for a small percentage of people and that’s fine, but for most of us, it works against our needs for safety and security in our primary relationships. That exclusive bond starts coming unglued when others are involved, and we start to feel threatened or jealous. About 30% of us do cheat, but 3/4 of those couples eventually find a way to stay together.
That’s why cheating- whether sexual or emotional- can be so devastating. The primary goal of a committed relationship is to keep each other safe from the outside world. We are in each other’s care, and if we can’t count on our partner to be there when we need them, we are shaken to the core.
Similar feelings come up when we fight- don’t they get how we feel about something? We no longer feel safe or understood when our primary partner is angry at us.
When we fall in love, it’s less about them then it is how they make us feel about ourselves. They find us smart, charming, beautiful – we like that – and we find them creative, talented, kind. Our dopamine and serotonin levels start surging, just like they do with drugs or alcohol, and we don’t want to lose the high.
So now is when it starts to get interesting, because we may or may not be able to stay securely connected to that other person. It depends on each of our attachment styles and how they get along with each other. What do I mean by that?
The way we connect and feel safe in a relationship is rooted in early childhood and depending on what happened to us with our primary caregivers, we all pretty much fit one of 3 different attachment styles. We can call these the Anchor, the Island and the Wave.
About half of us are Anchors. Anchors had pretty secure childhoods- at least one parent put the child’s needs before their own, spent a good deal of focused time with them, could soothe them when they were upset, and were respectful and loving in their own relationships. Independence was encouraged. So was cooperation within the family. Anchor adults get along with all kinds of people, they’re affectionate and comfortable in their own skin. They shift easily between being alone and interacting with others. Generally happy and secure, Anchors can fully commit and share.
The other half of us are split pretty evenly between Islands and Waves. Islands- had parents who stressed performance, intelligence, talents or appearance and they discouraged any dependency. The message was basically buck up and you can do it, and don’t complain.
At least one parent was probably kind of emotionally distant and they might have used money instead of attention or affection. The Island’s parents tend to put their own needs first, and really don’t want to hear about negative feelings. The result- Islands become independent and self reliant, and need a lot of space.
Island’s usually take good care of themselves and avoid any appearance of being needy, though underneath they really are since they were emotionally pretty shortchanged. Islands may withdraw or isolate since they never really learned how to handle stressful feelings, and they require patience and a long leash. Islands may distance themselves so they don’t feel trapped or controlled. This group is more likely to cheat or agree to being in an open relationship to put some distance between them and their partner.
The third type is the Wave- they’re ambivalent about closeness, so you will feel a lot of push-pull with a wave. Their parents were inconsistent- sometimes loving and present, other times emotionally unavailable. The Wave’s primary concern is abandonment, so waves can be clingy and then push you away if you aren’t responsive enough. This can make you feel punished or like you’re not good enough.
Many waves had a parent who became dependent on the child for emotional support instead of the other way around. Waves are generous and giving and they focus a lot on taking care of others, and they’re happiest being social. But they can be quick to anger and cause a lot of drama, so you have to be able to let them know you can tolerate their feelings but still set appropriate boundaries.
If you know someone who constantly needs to be rescued, that’s a Wave. They need lots of affection and reassurance that you are always there for them.
Islands and Waves can have a tough time in a relationship with each other, since a Wave’s need for togetherness can butt up against an Island’s need for alone time.
The key to a successful loving relationship is to pay attention to your partners needs and put those first. Try to be in tune and empathetic, so you can be a healing force, not just reactive if the two of you do have a fight. Being consciously connected to your partner during sex also helps keep you in that yummy Couple Bubble. You need to be in each other’s care, together in the foxhole, protecting each other from the outside world. It’s the key to lasting love.
Note: Dr. Stan Tatkin coined the words Anchor, Island and Wave to describe the primary attachment styles, and this blog is largely based on his wonderful work. He is co-founder of the PACT Institute with his wife Tracey and has written several books on this subject.