“He never talks.”

“She never shuts up.”

“I feel alone in my marriage.”

“I need more space. You’re smothering me.”

Welcome to the land of Islands and Waves, a concept I recently learned about from a marriage counselor friend of mine, based on the work of Stan Tatkin, PhD, MFT, in his book Wired for Love. It really struck home for me as I quickly realized that I tend toward “wavish” behaviors and my “strong silent type” husband is more of an “island.” Our differences sometimes lead to unnecessary tensions. Given the frequency with which I have heard similar comments like the ones above from others, I am not alone in living in a “tropical mixed marriage.”

Details please? Okay…here’s the overview. Keep in mind that neither of these concepts are simple enough to fit into 1,000 words.

Dr. Tatkin, a couples therapist by training, came to realize that much of the success or failure in a relationship is based on the spouses’ individual attachment styles—the self-protective neurological and psychological wiring that occurs as a child adapts to his/her childhood environment. The attachment styles theory was developed by psychiatrist John Bowlby and developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth, PhD, in the 1960s and 1970s. According to Dr. Tatkin, depending on the parenting styles experienced by a young child, he evolves to either be more self-reliant (an Island) or feedback-reliant (a Wave). And yes, there is a middle ground±those who can display both Wave and Island tendances but generally are more stable and secure in the world. Tatkin calls them “Anchors,” but I’m not going to talk about them today.

While Islands and Waves behave very differently, their patterns are each developed as defense mechanisms against home environments that seem unfair or unjust to the young child, making him feel emotionally “unsafe” for one reason or another. Note: These are simplistic labels based on a very complex array of behaviors and events. Few people are the extremes of anything, be it as parents or as children. But seeing elements of you or your partner in these descriptions is super powerful when it comes to understanding and improving your relationship. Specifically…

Islands are generally raised by parents who have high standards for performance and public appearances for themselves and for their children. They are proud people who want to be well-viewed by their communities in all areas including intelligence, financial success, appearance and more. All this focus on outward images comes at a price—Island parents also can be extremely private, making them seem withholding, withdrawn and critical of others. Just as Island parents expect a lot of themselves, they also expect a lot of their children. They generally are less affectionate and emotionally expressive than other types of parents and discourage dependency and neediness in their children. Since self-esteem is so important and failure is generally labelled an embarrassment to the parents or the family, young Islands often internalize a feeling of shame and fear of inadequacy .

Parents of Islands train their children to play quietly by themselves, not to cry and not to be fussy. They should be seen and not heard so their parents will think they are “good.”

As a result of these parental “lessons,” Island children become very independent and self-contained, assuming that the outside world doesn’t want to hear from them and that if they do contribute, they will face criticism.  Hence the label, Island.

Strong and self-reliant seems like a good thing, right? Well yes…but in a relationship, Islands tend to isolate themselves physically and they tend to emotionally handle things on their own, which can become damaging when you’re part of a team.

Waves, as the name implies, constantly need connection and reassurance. Whereas Islands go to their emotional island to self-soothe during times of stress, Waves move toward their friends, family and partners to calm their neurological systems. Why is that? Because one or both parents of Waves are inconsistent in their own behavior and their expectations for their children’s behavior, sometimes wanting them close and other times being frustrated by their kids’ neediness and pushing them away. The result: Children who never quite know where they stand—will they be welcomed or rejected? In this uncertain environment, Waves live in a world of confusion, fearful of abandonment, rejection and punishment.

Renowned psychologist B.F. Skinner, PhD, talked about the power of intermittent reinforcement to strengthen a behavior. A behavior will become most intense when you know that you will be rewarded for that behavior, but you don’t know when the reward will come. So, too, with Waves—they grow up never knowing when their parents will welcome them or when they will be rejected…but they keep trying…a lot.

Waves self-soothe through reaching out, looking to connect with friends and partners physically and/or verbally, generally using talk to calm themselves down.

Put two Islands together, and it’s almost like toddlers in parallel play, being together yet apart. Put two Waves together, and it’s a push-me-pull-you dance of outreach and protraction. Put an Island and a Wave together, and it can be kryptonite—Waves wanting to touch and talk, constantly in search of reassurance, and Islands just wanting to do it themselves. Each of these behaviors are exactly what the other partner does not want. Ironically, both Waves and Islands suffer different versions of the same problem—they both feel unsafe in the world.

So can these two worlds mesh?

Yes…once you realize what’s going on within yourself and your partner. Based on Takin’s book, I have taken the liberty of developing these steps, which are simple but not easy.

  1. Acknowledge your own behaviors. Given the insecurities of both Islands and Waves, it is vital to become aware of your tendencies and not make yourself wrong for the way you’ve evolved. It’s just your style. Islands need space…Waves need reassurance. Accept it. Own it. And understand how that wiring exists in your life. Self-awareness is always the first step to change.

  2. Commit with your partner to the relationship. Both Waves and Islands are survivalistic—they are primarily focused on satisfying their own needs. They put their emotional oxygen masks on themselves first. By reassuring each other that you are committed to your partner and the relationship, your partner can relax and know that he is safe, no longer living in the uncertain paradigms of his past, and can find the courage to either step out of his shell or back off the need for external reassurance.

  3. Understand your partner’s needs and don’t take them personally. A Wave needs to believe strongly that her Island partner is not rejecting her when she needs space. And an Island needs to know that his Wave partner’s “excessive” communication is not an attack or an encroachment—it is her way of reaching out.
  4. Shift for the sake of your partner. Don’t change who you are—but understand who your partner is, and out of love and commitment, make a few shifts. Islands can communicate more openly, sharing more of what’s happening in their lives and speaking up when they feel overwhelmed and just need some space to reset. Waves can be more aware of their partners’ need for space, asking if it’s a good time to talk and being aware when their partners have reached their limit, but understanding that a limit does not mean rejection… it’s simply that they have had enough for the moment.

Waves and Islands are eternally linked in nature…sure, they sometimes crash, but there is also beauty in it.

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