If you’ve ever fallen for each other, then you know it feels pretty wacko at first. You can’t sleep, you barely eat, as well as your beloved is all you think about. The body and brain are flooded with a cocktail of chemicals, including dopamine, noradrenaline, testosterone, oxytocin, and vasopressin.

As it takes place, other traits of the first blush — obsessiveness, compulsivity, anxiety, and panic — are shared by many people mental disorders. There’s a reason we call it “lovesick.”

Yet humans keep falling in love anyway. How peculiar. And how romantic.

While falling in love is enticing enough to make us take leave in our senses, staying in love is when we enjoy the real rewards: mutual trust, regular affection, consistent support. For most of us, what really counts is what happens after the infatuation phase, whenever we demonstrate our ability to be there for each other, no matter what. And even if that capacity doesn’t come naturally, we can learn and nurture it.

I am a couples’ therapist by training, and I have developed and use a psychobiological approach in my clinical practice. For Twenty five years, I’ve observed how much something called “attachment style” influences our capability to participate in a loving relationship. This is because our early experiences with attachment create an instructional blueprint that remains stored in our bodies; that blueprint determines our basic relational wiring and feeling of safety.

In a nutshell, these incidents program some people to be fundamentally secure within our primary relationships, while others people become insecure. And insecurity can make us distant, or ambivalent about relating.

But this is often changed. Partners can make love and steer clear of war when the security-seeking parts of the brain are put at ease. I explore this concept at length in my book Wired for Love. This can be a summary of a few of the ideas found there.

Three Styles of Relating

The success of long-term relationships depends in part on partners acting as each other’s “whisperers,” within the animal sense. This means respecting each other’s vulnerabilities and knowing, without necessarily being told, exactly what the other person needs when he or she's upset. Each partner communicates their needs and desires without resorting to threats, guilt, force, or manipulation.

This isn’t to say we should remain at the mercy of every other’s runaway moods and feelings. Rather, as competent “managers” in our partners, we can become expert at moving, shifting, motivating, influencing, soothing, and inspiring one another.

For some of us, this partner-whispering comes more naturally than for others.

In my work with couples, I refer to the three main styles of relating as “anchors,” “islands,” and “waves.” Each style has its own strengths and weaknesses, though anchors generally have the easiest time in relationships.

Most of us exhibit more than one style over a lifetime, though we probably select from the one we developed in childhood unless we’ve made a conscious effort to change. These are the three styles in detail:

Anchors are notoriously easygoing, and mostly unencumbered by fears of abandonment or loss of autonomy. They are collaborative and cooperative by nature, and they’re comfortable with emotional and physical intimacy. They can maintain that closeness for extended periods without anxiety.

They usually developed these traits simply because they had a secure relationship with a primary caregiver, and they’re in a position to bring that acquired sense of security into their adult relationships. I call relationships between two anchors “secure functioning,” because both partners relate in mutually beneficial ways.

Islands, in comparison with anchors, have a hard time staying connected to their long-term romantic partners. In therapeutic language, we call this the “avoidant” type.

On the bright side, islands in many cases are independent, highly creative, and accomplished adults. However they frequently feel trapped in primary romantic relationships — especially when the going gets tough. They prize solitude and fear being subsumed by another person’s wishes and requires.

Islands are threatened by conflict and drama; they’re more likely to withdraw, keep secrets, and fear being exposed by partners who encroach on their privacy. As a result, their companions often feel neglected, unimportant, and burdensome.

Though islands can feel antisocial or selfish, they are usually reacting to early experiences once they felt neglected by their caregivers. Experience taught these to self-soothe rather than risk depending on anyone else for support.

Islands often want close relationships but are afraid of the responsibilities of another person; they fear being needed although not really wanted. Their defensiveness is largely unconscious, driven through the conditioning of their nervous systems and brains.

Waves, on the other hand, deeply desire connection with someone. They’re usually generous people, and their passionate intensity can make them fun to be with. Yet most waves believe that true intimacy is not really possible, and they live in fear of abandonment, withdrawal, rejection, and punishment. While islands possess a fear of dependency, the primary issue for waves — sometimes called “angry resistant” individuals — is dashed hope.

The partners of waves often seem like their relationships are roller-coaster rides. Waves have a tendency to cling to their companions while also behaving in ways that can be hostile and distancing. Separations and reunions may trigger pushing their partners away, even as they want connection. This originates from fearing deeply what they most want: a truly intimate relationship.

As children, waves often experienced role reversal with at least one parent, who was likely to have been depressed, anxious, dependent, overwhelmed, or angry. They were charged with caring for that adult’s emotional well-being, which meant their own needs for connection went unmet. So, as adults, when they reach out for connection, they expect to be disappointed. Their reflexive negativism is really a defense against that disappointment. I refer to this as an “allergy to hope.”

Style Update

We can all create a more “anchored” way of relating, although it involves a shift in thinking for waves and islands, who have a tendency to put their own needs first — from insecurity. Anchored relating requires mutuality, or putting your lover and the relationship first. Secure-functioning couples create a social contract, implicitly or explicitly, that ensures fairness, equality, and sensitivity to each other’s needs.

Let’s take a look at one hypothetical couple. Jerome and Chris are in their early 30s with two young children. Both parents work, although Jerome is not as likely to fulfill his share from the household responsibilities. His tendency to consider his own needs first is sign of an island. He’s frequently secretive about his needs and plans, while Chris’s reactions to their impasses are often fast and furious. This is typical of waves, who want connection yet expect disappointment.

Here’s an average encounter: Chris tells Jerome after breakfast that he’ll need to pick up the kids that afternoon due to an unexpected meeting at work. Jerome refuses, speaking evasively about other plans, and lastly admits — under pressure — that he has plans to golf with friends. Chris explodes and complains loudly of feeling neglected and disrespected, while Jerome snaps back leaving the house, retreating — island-style — from any further drama.

This situation may appear hope­less, and it may not be realistic to consider the relationship can be healed instantly, but there's a path to success for this couple.

For starters, they could look for a more relaxed time to talk, using the goal of establishing some shared principles for his or her relationship — such as “we’re in this together” and “everybody’s time is valuable.” These principles can guide them toward more supportive ways to interact the next time they have conflicting needs.

The point would be to learn to be there for every other instead of putting their individual needs into competition. Even when Jerome continues to have an island-like love of independence, and Chris remains passionate and intense, their interactions can move toward an anchor style. It might go like this:

  • Chris could let Jerome know about the change in the day’s plans inside a more soothing way that acknowledges each of their needs, such as: “Honey, I simply got a text from my boss asking me to be on a call this afternoon. I’m afraid which means I can’t pick up the kids like we planned.”
  • Jerome could reveal that he is able to read his partner and become there for Chris by saying, “You must really be annoyed!”
  • Chris could encourage mutuality by acknowledging that the change is a disruption on their behalf both.
  • Jerome could be honest and direct about his needs, noting his preexisting golf plans.
  • Chris could show a wish to be there for Jerome — maybe by offering to ask to be released from the meeting.
  • Jerome could explicitly invoke the shared principles of the relationship and offer to do his part by canceling his golf plans.
  • He may also vocalize his love for Chris, understanding that doing so is foundational to their ability to take care of each other.

It’s never past too far for a couple to become secure-functioning. If you’re not there yet, don’t despair. Sit down together in a relaxed environment and discuss your relationship without falling into shame or blame. What does it look and feel like? Give me an idea it to look and seem like? How do you define success for the two of you?

A shared sense of purpose provides you with something to rely on when difficulties arise; it will help you stay connected when you’re tempted to push each other away. Becoming each other’s anchor may be worth the effort. It will make life’s stormy seas much easier to navigate.

3 Questions for Any Couple

As you discuss your relationship, with the goal of becoming more secure-functioning, ask each other three questions:

  • What is our purpose as a couple?
  • What principles of partnership will we both believe in?
  • What do we do for each other that no one else could do?

Mutual purpose. It may be helpful to establish the purpose and vision for your union. Discuss the goals you agree with and those you don't (for example, whether to have kids, where you wish to live). Look for commonalities as well as deal breakers. What will you both do in order to sustain your mutual purpose?

Shared principles of partnership. When selecting your own principles, both of you must buy in and commit to follow-through, regardless of circumstances or feelings inside a given moment. In other words, your agreed-upon principles must serve both an individual and a mutual good. For example, my spouse and I have a shared principle that if either of us is in distress, another will drop everything and help. We all know how to pick each other up when we're down and the way to settle the other when unsettled, so we've decided to do this without question.

Exclusive benefits. The third question sounds probably the most complex, but it's probably the easiest to answer. What do you do for each other that nobody else can do? There are as many answers for this question as there are couples on the planet. So have fun with it.