I have a friend who thinks Valentine’s Day is just a Hallmark holiday best ignored. He refuses to acknowledge it by giving flowers to his spouse or taking her to dinner. I always feel sorry for her when February 14th rolls around—she understands his aversion but doesn’t share it. She wouldn’t mind a bouquet of flowers, especially if they’re pink tulips (her favorite). What explains these differences—and do they really matter?
Well, according to clinical psychologist Stan Tatkin, it probably depends on how their brains are wired. Tatkin, author of the new book Wired For Love, argues that our neural wiring determines how we react when we receive signals from others calling for closeness and connection.
Tatkin, who has a private practice and is also an assistant clinical professor at UCLA’s medical school, emphasizes the importance of two factors: the early attachments we form with parents and caregivers, and the relationships we witnessed in our family of origin. These factors shape the neural pathways in our brains that, in turn, affect how we respond to intimacy well into adulthood.
Depending on the kind of attachment they form with their parents, says Tatkin, people develop into one of three types in their romantic relationships as adults: “anchors,” “islands,” or “waves.”
“Anchors” are generally secure, able to commit to others, and adaptable. They form and maintain relationships fairly easily.
“Islands” are independent, self-reliant, and low maintenance, but in relationships they can be withholding and isolating.
“Waves” are generous, focused on caring for others, and happiest when around others, but they can run hot or cold in relationships, seeking constant reassurance from their partners and lashing out when their needs aren’t fully met.
In modern Western culture, we tend to approach our romantic relationships with ideals about how they should be. Unfortunately, those ideals may not match experience and, for better or worse, “nitty-gritty personal history always trumps ideals,” writes Tatkin.
When couples with different types feel threatened in a relationship, they will often revert to more primitive, reactive stances to their partner because they are hard-wired to do so. For example, an “island” will retreat when threatened. A “wave” may attack.
Anchors can help islands or waves feel more secure by understanding their partners’ vulnerabilities and responding appropriately. My husband is an anchor. Not threatened by intimacy, he’s happy to show affection and provide me with a continuous supply of positive regard. He likes to go out for dinner on Valentine’s Day, and will probably give me a love note filled with gushy sentiment. He knows I love that kind of thing.
I, on the other hand, am a wave. Having grown up in an alcoholic home, I’ve always had trouble feeling safe and secure in relationships. Choosing an anchor as a husband has helped me to relax and enjoy the benefits of a loving, connected partnership more. But I still have my moments, especially when I feel threatened. Valentine’s Day is a great time for me to reflect on how fortunate I am to have an anchor in my life.
But what about my friend? Or what about other people who find themselves on opposite ends of the relationship spectrum, where neither is an anchor?
Luckily, writes Tatkin, it’s possible for these couples to thrive, too—if they are willing to provide each other with a sense of safety. They can create what he calls a “couple bubble” in which the needs of the couple are placed above individual needs. Couples that learn about their partners’ vulnerabilities and find ways to reassure them can reduce the times their partners react from a threatened place.
Tatkin provides several examples throughout the book of couples with different attachment styles who have made their relationships work by developing more empathy for one another. He also gives specific exercises to help couples deepen their connection. He believes couples can strengthen their couple bubbles by participating in relationship-building behaviors, like having bedtime rituals and sharing intimate thoughts. These tools can mend a troubled relationship and soothe islands and waves.
Celebrating Valentine’s Day may not be a critical factor for some. As long as my friend and his spouse have a strong couple bubble, he can probably get away with foregoing the traditional holiday bouquet and she’ll understand.
On the other hand, Tatkin suggests that couples would be wise to figure out what makes their partners happy, then just do it. Learning how to please a partner, he writes, goes a long way toward keeping the relationship on solid footing and can prevent fighting, grief, and misery later on.
Sometimes the answer can be as simple as some pink tulips.