Navigating Dating Apps and Modern Dating Part 2: Attachment Styles & Ways They Impact Dating Satisfaction

In Part 1 of this series, I discussed some common experiences related to frustrations with modern dating, and specifically, dating apps. I shared some tips to navigating modern dating including how to:

  • Get clear about your intentions
  • Determine your needs
  • Practice mindfulness

In this article, I will be discussing potential roadblocks that might contribute to lack of satisfaction in romantic or dating relationships, patterns of dismissing potential suitable matches, or difficulty with maintaining the type of long-term relationship you are seeking.

With the use of dating apps, it is easier than ever to feel confused about the intentions of others, avoid communication, avoid asserting our wants and needs, and ghost someone. The concept of attachment styles may be something you’ve heard on TikTok or Instagram, or in a Psychology 101 class, but what does that really mean in the modern world?

Our attachment style is shaped by the ways in which our needs were or were not attuned and responded to as children, throughout our life, and in exploration of romantic relationships.

Anxious, Avoidant, and Secure are terms that are used to describe different kinds of attachment styles. Stan Tatkin, the author of the book Wired for Dating, describes these attachment styles with the following names to define the experience of each style of attachment, naming them “Wave” for Anxious, “Island” for Avoidant, and “Anchor” for Secure. Understanding your attachment style can assist you in learning ways that you can cope with dating and relationships as well as help you understand your needs in a relationship more clearly (Tatkin, 2016).

The Wave

People with an anxious attachment style have a highly sensitive “attachment system” which gives them a unique sense for monitoring safety and availability of the person they are in relationship with (Levine and Heller, 2019.) A hint of something being wrong or going wrong will activate the attachment system in a “wave,” making it challenging to feel calm unless their partner is able to provide a sense of security or reassurance of the partnership (Tatkin, 2016). “Waves” tend to worry about lack of compatibility with other people or being alone, and as a result may end up staying in a relationship that does not adequately meet their needs or wants. If you frequently end up dating people that do not meet your needs, not only can it contribute to feeling alone, stuck, and hopeless when it comes to dating, it can also reinforce negative thoughts and feelings about yourself in the long term, such as not feeling deserving of a fulfilling relationship. This pattern continues to activate the attachment system and can make it hard to distinguish between anxiety and attraction over time. This can lead to forms of coping that can unintentionally push away and overwhelm an “island” partner, creating even more anxiety for the “wave” partner (Levine and Heller, 2019).

The Island

People with an avoidant attachment style may see themselves as a “lone wolf” and highly value self sufficiency (Levine and Heller, 2019.) “Islands” tend to deeply want connection though often feel as though something is missing with the person they are dating (Tatkin, 2016). “Islands” tend to believe there is someone better out there for them, where things just feel easier or where conflict would not occur. They may also feel inadequate in meeting their partner’s need for closeness and intimacy, seeing their partner as “too needy,” causing withdrawal from their partner. “Islands” may also experience true intimacy with others as feeling trapped or a loss of freedom. “Islands” can be very great at making connections, though they may maintain a mental distance and a way out if things go bad. This distancing can often be sensed by an individual who is a “wave,” which can create a cycle with those in a relationship that feels like both are not getting their needs or wants for space or closeness met (Levine and Heller, 2019). You can logically know that no one is perfect, and at the same time it can be easy for your brain to focus on the negatives in someone to protect you from getting hurt.

The Anchor

People with a secure attachment style can more easily feel attuned to and honor the needs of their partner while maintaining that honor for their own wants and needs. This does not mean that those with a secure attachment style are perfect or will be the right partner fit for everyone. However, “anchors” tend to worry less about loss of the relationship and feel less need to do all they can to keep it even if it is at the expense of their wellbeing (Tatkin, 2016). Rather, they tend to be more comfortable with true intimacy than “waves” and “islands.” “Anchors” generally do not engage in playing games when it comes to dating. They expect that their partner will honor their needs and therefore, it can feel more natural for them to honor and respect the needs of their partner without feeling as though they are neglecting their own sense of self (Levine and Heller, 2019).

Understanding patterns you may be more prone to engaging in and that can impact dating and romantic relationship satisfaction can be incredibly valuable.

A common theme in dating is that “waves” and “islands” both attract one another, in part because they can interpret attachment activation (or nervous system activation) as excitement. This does not mean that relationships cannot work between a “wave” and an “island”; it just means there are patterns that can be helpful to attune to so that both partners can feel valued within the relationship.

The good news is that our attachment styles are like plastic: stable with the ability to change and shift.

Attachment styles are stable from the time we are young, though they can gradually move towards security through experiences such as having safe relationships that calm the nervous system (including friendships or connection with your pet), engagement in self development, and therapeutic relationships and processing. If you have felt safety, predictability, and security within the relationship with your therapist, this is one form of strengthening the security and calmness of your attachment system (Levine and Heller, 2019).

What can you do about it when dating?

Opposite to Emotion Action is a skill from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). The concept of opposite action is to act opposite to how our emotion wants us to act. For example, anxiety might make us either avoid communication with someone to not rock the boat or call them multiple times in a row in an attempt to connect. It is important to understand where to use this skill and where not to. Tuning into your body’s experience of emotions regularly can be a helpful way to learn when we need to listen to the message of an emotion and when it is not as useful. Here are a few examples of how opposite to emotion action skill can be used in dating:

  1. Max has been dating Joni for 1 month. He feels like things have been going well until he texts her asking how her day has been going. She does not answer him for 2 hours.  Max begins to get anxious, believing, “She never liked me that much anyway. I shouldn’t have even tried. She’s never going to talk to me again.” Eventually he hears from her and feels a rush of relief. However, Max counts the time since she texted him and decides to wait that same 2 hours to respond back to her. This is referred to as a “protest behavior,” which can show up when someone identifies as more of a “wave” (Levine and Heller, 2019). Protest behaviors are ways that “waves” might test their partner, seeking reassurance that their partner is still interested in them and is not going to leave them. Instead, Max could decide to use the opposite action skill by doing the opposite of what his activated attachment system is internally yelling at him. Rather, he can respond to Joni when he is truly available upon reading her text, and depending on how the relationship goes, communicate to her his needs for responsiveness. Playing games is not something Max truly wants in a long-term relationship with a potential partner. He can avoid beginning the relationship in that way by noticing when his “wave”-like habits are starting to take over and choose to act as he would if he were an “anchor.”
  2. Lena has felt extremely excited about Jason since they began seeing one another, though Jason recently has started communicating with her more and she feels as though he has started letting his walls down, asking her to spend more time together. Lena notices herself thinking about Jason’s flaws, like how annoying it is when he chews his cereal, and wanting to evade Jason’s requests to spend more time together. Up until this point, Lena has felt really positive about Jason. This is referred to as a “deactivating strategy” which can show up when someone identifies as more of an “island.” Deactivating strategies are ways that “islands” sometimes mentally distance themselves by focusing on negatives of their partner in order to protect themselves from harm and maintain their sense of freedom (Levine and Heller, 2019). Instead, Lena could implement the opposite action skill and communicate her feelings (as uncomfortable as that can be sometimes!) to Jason by explaining to him that she needs some time to herself to engage in self care but that she is excited to see him for their usual Tuesday date night. This may allow him to have clarity about her needs and boundaries, while also giving him reassurance of the relationship and her interest in him. This technique can also allow Lena time to reflect on her “island”-like habits and be curious with herself about the reasons she may want to distance herself from Jason even though big red flags do not exist with him.

Reflect on examples of secure relationships. This practice can assist you in recognizing body sensations that signal security vs. body sensations that signal that your attachment system is activated, which can be mistaken for love or excitement. In the book, I Want This to Work by Elizabeth Earnshaw, she describes, “The three R’s of a healthy relationship are: Respect, Responsiveness, and Reliability” (Earnshaw, 2021). Can you think of a relationship you have been in or that you have observed in someone else’s life that embodied these three R’s? If not, can you imagine what that would look like if it existed? If you cannot think of either one and it is applicable, try to apply these prompts in relation to your pet or characters in a book or movie (Levine and Heller, 2019). In reflecting on this real or imagined relationship, consider the following:

  • How does your body feel when you reflect on this healthy relationship?
  • How do you emotionally feel?
  • How do you think or feel about yourself?
  • What tells you that you can trust the other person and the relationship you have with them?

Learn to validate and express your true feelings and needs. Try to let go of attempts to change the other person, accept people for who they are in the present, and be honest with yourself when a relationship is incapable of meeting your genuine needs.

  • If you are going on dates and you know you genuinely want a long-term committed relationship, it is not likely to serve you to pretend that you are okay with a casual relationship in order to maintain connection with someone who wants distance, no matter how great the “spark” might be! A spark may also be an activated attachment system or tension, which can be helpful to assess that initial feeling with curiosity (Ury, 2021). Communicating your hopes for a relationship from the start can assist you in having a better idea of whether or not that person is also seeking the type of closeness and intimacy that you are.
  • DEAR MAN is a communication skill from DBT for asking for what you want or need, which stands for Describe the situation, Express your feelings, Assert your wants or needs, Reinforce the person, be Mindful, Appear confident, and Negotiate (if applicable.)
  • An example in dating could sound something like this: D: “We have been seeing each other for a couple of months now.” E: “I’ve been having a lot of fun with you and really like you.” A: “I’m at a point where I would like to be in a committed relationship with you.” R: “I think it would be helpful to both of us to be on the same page. If we are not on the same page, I cannot continue a casual relationship.”
  • Another example of getting off the app and on a real life date could sound something like this: D: “We’ve been talking for a few weeks now.” E: “I feel ready to get off this app.” A: “Do you feel up for meeting up in real life?” R: “We can get a better sense of how things feel.” N: “I know of a cool coffee shop in my neighborhood that I like to go to sometimes to read but I’m open to finding a place in between both of us.”

Whether you are a “wave,” who needs quality closeness or an “island,” who needs quality time alone, both are valid. It is important to give your partner (even early on in dating before things are official) an opportunity to respect that need you have by communicating clearly with them and gaining information based on how they respond to your want for closeness or to your time boundaries. The “Three R’s” of a healthy relationship include the sentiments: “I offer myself respect, responsiveness, and reliability” and “I offer my partner respect, responsiveness, and reliability” (Earnshaw, 2021).

To learn more about your attachment style as it relates to dating and romantic relationships, below are helpful books, some of which are referenced throughout this article. A psychotherapist can also be a supportive guide for you to explore and better understand your attachment patterns, increase your sense of security in self and relationships, and identify ways to cope with an activated attachment system.

  • Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller
  • Healing Your Attachment Wounds: How to Create Deep and Lasting Intimate Relationships by Diane Poole Heller
  • How to Not Die Alone: The Surprising Science That Will Help You Find Love by Logan Ury
  • I Want This to Work: An Inclusive Guide to Navigating the Most Difficult Relationship Issues We Face in the Modern Age by Elizabeth Earnshaw
  • Wired for Dating: How Understanding Neurobiology and Attachment Style Can Help You Find Your Ideal Mate by Stan Tatkin


Earnshaw, Elizabeth. I Want This to Work: An Inclusive Guide to Navigating the Most Difficult Relationship Issues We Face in the Modern Age. Sounds True. (2021.)

Levine, Amir. Heller, Rachel. Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love. Bluebird. (2019.)

Meyer, Dixie. Neuroplasticity as an Explanation for the Attachment Process in the
Therapeutic Relationship. American Counseling Association. (2011.)

Tatkin, Stan. Wired for Dating: How Understanding Neurobiology and Attachment Style Can Help You Find Your Ideal Mate. New Harbinger Publications. (2016.)

Tatkin, Stan. Wired for Love: Are You an Anchor, an Island, or a Wave? Experience Life by Lifetime. (2019.)

Ury, Logan. How to Not Die Alone: The Surprising Science That Will Help You Find Love. Simon & Schuster. (2021.)