Attachment to God, Part 3: Attachment Styles and God

From our last post it appears that relationship with God may be fruitfully explored using attachment theory. However, to do so, we need to explore the literature on what are known as attachment styles.

The attachment bond does not simply vary in intensity, going from a strong attachment to a weak attachment. Rather, one of the discoveries of attachment theory is that attachment is a multidimensional construct, a mix of features which combine to create a unique attachment experience, the attachment style.

Attachment styles were initially investigated in the laboratory of Mary Ainsworth. By observing children in the Strange Situation (a laboratory protocol that scripted separation and reunion events between a child and caregiver mixed in with the presence of a stranger) Ainsworth was able to observe the intensity of the two attachment anxieties, stranger anxiety and separation anxiety. What Ainsworth noted was that children displayed different levels of attachment anxiety. Some children showed excessive anxiety (both stranger and separation) and were labeled Anxiously attached. Some children showed almost a complete absence of anxiety (and this is not a good thing, a child who doesn't care if they are separated from parents or who doesn't display some wariness with strangers is worrisome) were labeled Avoidantly attached. Finally, children who showed appropriate but not excessive levels of anxiety were labeled Securely attached. Later on, a fourth style was added, Disorganized attachment, for children who displayed inconsistent manifestations of anxiety making them difficult to classify. What we take away from all this is that although we have our attachments--parents, lovers, friends, God--we don't experience these attachments in the same way. Some of us are needy, dependent, jealous, fearful, and anxious. Others of us are dismissive of relationships, self-reliant, disinterested in intimacy, and hesitant to make commitments.

Is there any way to make these sense of these differences? Early on in the attachment literature an attempt was made to appeal to "internal working models" to explain the different attachment styles.
These models were cognitive and emotional representations of Self and Other. First, you could have either a Positive or Negative view of your Self. Second, you could have a Positive or Negative view of your Attachment Figure. The mix of these models was believed to create the four attachment styles observed both in childhood and adulthood. This can be seen in the figure here. (Note that there is some terminology change from Ainsworth's early terms. The Key is: Anxious = Preoccupied, Avoidant = Dismissive, Secure remains Secure, Disorganized = Fearful. The former terms tend to be used by childhood researchers and the latter terms by adulthood researchers. I know, it's confusing. I even had to clarify this for a reviewer of a recent article of mine. Ph.D.s even have trouble keeping the labels straight.)

If you think through the attachment styles and their associated working models the mapping makes good sense:

You're Securely attached if you have a healthy view of both yourself and your attachment figure.

You're Preoccupied in your attachment if you think you are a piece of trash while your attachment figure is wonderful and amazing (e.g., "I don't deserve her. She's too good for me.").

You're Dismissive in your attachment if you think you are wonderful and amazing while your attachment figure is a piece of trash (e.g., "I can do better than this. She's not good enough for me.")

You're Fearful in your attachment if you think everyone is trashy. You are unworthy of love and people are untrustworthy. Thus, all relationships are filled with anxiety and negativity.

Later on in the attachment literature the "internal working model" scheme gradually gave way to a model that focused more upon the emotional experience of the attachment than upon the cognitive representations of Self or Other.

What are the main emotional experiences involved in attachment styles? Two dimensions appear to capture these experiences. The first dimension is Anxiety about Abandonment: The anxiety that you will be abandoned, left, or discarded by the Attachment Figure. The other dimension is Avoidance of Intimacy: The need to avoid relational commitment, dependency, or intimacy. People can be either High or Low on these two dimensions creating the familiar four-fold attachment typology. The figure here shows this new scheme.

What does any of this have to do with God?

Well, if relationship with God can be understood as an attachment bond then attachment styles should tend to manifest themselves in the God-relationship. That is, people should manifest an attachment style with God. What would these look like? Well, following the schemes above, the expectation would be that people would tend to have one of four main experiences of God:

The Secure Attachments:
These believers would have a healthy view of themselves. They would also have a healthy view of God. That is, they would have little fear or concern that God would abandon them. God is experienced as trustworthy and dependable. A keeper of His promises. Thus, intimacy with God is sought and longed for.

The Preoccupied Attachments:
These believers have a positive view of God but a negative view of Self. Thus, they feel "not good enough." That is, they will feel guilty, shamed, and "bad." This "badness" leads to worries that God will reject or abandon them due to their sinfulness. They crave intimacy with God but this intimacy is tinged with a need to "perform" for God to secure His favor and continued presence.

The Dismissive Attachments:
These believers have a positive view of themselves and a negative view of God. Thus, these believers will be more self-reliant and less willing to rely or depend upon God as God is deemed to be "unpredictable," "unreliable," or "untrustworthy."

The Fearful Attachments:
These believers have a negative view of themselves and God. That is, they are chronically caught in an approach-avoidance conflict with God. They fear abandonment by God but reject intimacy with God at the same time. Either way--pulling away or drawing close--they are afraid.

Clearly, attachment theory cannot explain ALL of the God experience. But look at the list above. Have you seen these types in your church? Is not this theory capturing a part of the God-experience? If so, might not pastors, ministers, and church leaders need to be aware of the relational dynamics at play in their churches?

This is what I think attachment theory is teaching us: Loving God is complicated. In ways we might might not have fully realized. And I think church leaders need to be aware of these complications. There is no "generic" relationship with God. And, thus, no one way to get people to be "closer" to God. In my view this has been a chronic mistake in our churches, the assumption that people simply vary in on how "close" they are to God. That is, some are "close" to God while others are "far" from God. That is too simplistic. Some people have issues with God that affect how closely they will approach Him. Others have issues with their own intrinsic lovability. Despite assurances to the contrary, these believer suspect that God doesn't love them. Still others are simply confused by the whole God-relationship. Some are worried. Some are apathetic.

In short, it's complicated. Like love, God is a roller-coaster ride.

Which means you need to know where people are coming from before you try to help them.

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8 thoughts on “Attachment to God, Part 3: Attachment Styles and God”

  1. "These believers would have a healthy view of themselves. They would also have a healthy view of God."

    Psychology question: what does "healthy" mean? Does healthy always equal positive?

  2. Healthy wouldn't mean an unmitigated positive view. Healthy would mean for the Attachment Figure that they are perceived as generally valuable, loving, helpful, consistent, promise-keeping, and predictable. For the Self it would mean at least seeing yourself as a person of worth, on par with other people. No worse, but no better.

    Again, however, more recent models of attachment are deemphasizing the "internal model" formulation for just the fuzziness you picked up on. The better model is the one focusing on Anxiety about Abandonment and Avoidance of Intimacy. These dimensions move us away from issues of "self-esteem."

  3. Thanks for the clarification. =)

    It makes me wonder about people like Elie Wiesel and other holocaust survivors, or other sufferers whose theodicy takes the form of protest against God. After evaluating their attachment to God, can we only say, "their relationship with God needs to be more positive, more healthy?" Or is there something better or more helpful to say?

  4. Matthew,
    That is a great point. We are getting ahead of the series here a little bit, but the end of the story is that I've grown disappointed with the attachment to God approach/literature/research. Why? For just the reasons you cite: It seems experientially thin. It can capture the Highs of relating to God but it does not get after the Lows. Further, it pathologizes the Lows. So, in the final post of this series, after I finish walking through the attachment literature, I'm going to express this disappointment and provide an alterative model for future investigations of the God-relationship.

  5. Hi Richard,

    I do not know If am the right audience for this article, but I liked it and it did help me in analysing myself. Please allow me to introduce myself, I am 32 yrs old male from India.
    I consider myself to be the "The Preoccupied Attachments:" type. In my life few days back I did a big sin. It was totally against moral grounds, it was a betrayal. I wanted something and I prayed to GOD a lot for that, but when I got that thing, I changed, I panicked, thought it was not what i wanted and refused it. In the whole process I gave lot of pain and hurt to some one. She is one whom I love. I still love her and want her back. I feel ashamed of what i did and its not that as a feeling of guilt I want her back, I really love her. Ours was a 4 yrs of relationship and most of it long distance.
    Now when I face the GOD, I feel bad, I do not know what to say, or what to pray. I feel insecure too as where else I can go to do my penance.


  6. My work is in attachment disorders with children and you sir, are on the right track! The healing takes place over time and only occurs through revision of these internal working models. Safe/Secure attachment with caregivers yields a sense that the "universe is friendly".

  7. We have to write a paper for Psychology 150 at Liberty University. The information in this post was very helpful. Thank you!

  8. Brilliant summary of attachment and understand the way people connect with internal and external 'objects'

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