Attachment to God, Part 5: Correspondence or Compensation?

The biggest question in the attachment to God literature, again one first articulated by Lee Kirkpatrick, involves the Correspondence versus Compensation hypothesis. These are hypotheses aimed at predicting how attachment to God should interface with or relate to human attachments.

The Compensation hypothesis goes as far back as Freud. This hypothesis predicts that relationship with God compensates for deficient caregiving bonds. Specifically, as Freud posited, the idea is that if your home life was not filled with love, warmth, or responsiveness a relational ache and void would result in the child and, later, the grown adult. Later still, this person encounters God, a substitute attachment figure, who is experienced as the Perfect Parent who soothes the ache and fills the void. Here God compensates for something missing in world of human love.

The Correspondence hypothesis states that attachment styles will tend to remain stable across all attachment domains: Parental-Romanic-Peer-God. That is, if you are Securely attached in one domain this should predict Secure attachments across the other domains. Attachments styles correspond.

Empirically, what would be the "fingerprint" of either the Correspondence or Compensation dynamic at work? Well, in the literature there is some confusion on this. Attachments can manifest in both behaviors and internal working models (e.g., view of Self and view of Other) and these don't always line up in very clean ways. So researchers need to be careful in how they frame the problem. (I owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Todd Hall, the editor of the Journal of Psychology and Theology were Beck & McDonald was published, for conversations that greatly clarified my thinking on this issue.)

In two studies I've been involved in (Beck & McDonald, 2004; McDonald, Beck, Allison, & Norsworthy, 2005) we have used the Attachment to God Inventory and compared it with both parental attachments and romantic attachments. Recently, Angie McDonald has also compared the AGI to peer attachment measures. The verdict from these studies? Support, albeit weak, for the Correspondence hypothesis. That is, for example, if someone has a Preoccupied attachment style in one domain they will tend to manifest this style in other domains as well.

This finding seems reasonable and the the "internal working model" framework helps explicate the dynamic. To just give one example, let's say a person has a "negative view of self." Generally, this view comes from early childhood, so it is no surprise to see this dynamic in the parental attachment. But, as the child grows, this view of self is also carried into the romantic sphere. Thus, anxieties about self-worth begin to manifest in this domain as well. And, even if God is seen as loving, we can see how, if the view of self is poor, spiritual anxieties can emerge as well. In short, we see the attachment dynamic creeping into every domain of relationship. Correspondence.

So the evidence seems to favor the Correspondence position. Or does it? Early work in this literature done by Lee Kirkpatrick and others has tended to favor the Compensation position. Kirkpatrick's research, however, was looking at a different variable: Conversion. Specifically, what Kirkpatrick found was evidence that Preoccupied or Fearful (often lumped together as the "Anxious" attachments) humans attachments tended to predict conversion to religion. This dynamic suggests a compensatory dynamic at work. The ache in the heart (those anxious attachments) is causing a person to fill the void by finding religion, a relationship with God.

But we found in our studies evidence that suggests that these relationships with God tend to look like the human attachments, a correspondence. So which is it? Correspondence or Compensation?

Well, here's my best take on the literature. The answer is that BOTH Compensation and Correspondence are at work. How might this be? This is what I think is going on:

The call of religion, with it's vision of a loving God, would have extraordinary appeal to someone who has never been loved before. Those early, warm rushes of emotional experience in worship or prayer would create a powerful pull. Thus, as Kirkpatrick's work suggests, these people may have higher conversion rates than others.

However, once the God-relationship is initiated the warm glow of early conversion begins to wear off. And as this happens the pre-existing internal working models may begin to manifest themselves. The new convert might start looking around and see Christians that seem "better" than they are. These Christians are more knowledgeable about the Bible, more giving, more kind, pray more powerful prayers, appear to be blessed more by God. All these observations start to activate those anxieties about abandonment, about being "good enough." And thus, over time, the compensatory dynamic that produced the conversion gives way to the correspondence of the attachment style. Compensation and correspondence are both at work.

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2 thoughts on “Attachment to God, Part 5: Correspondence or Compensation?”

  1. Richard,

    It would seem that the nature of one's view of God would come into play here. I'm reminded of an Asian American poet I saw on TV a number of year's ago who discussed with an interviewer growing up with an authoritarian Father who was a minister. The poet said one day he realized that when he prayed to God, he was praying to his Dad. This is an example of the fact that we have subconscious views of God about which we are unnaware. I read somewhere that most people stick with the conception of God that they learned by the time they were 8 years old. Most atheists are rebelling, in my opinion, against a particular conception of God and are uninformed and unawared about alternatives to that particular God. So, when we talk about God we may not all be talking about the same thing. I suppose different attachment styles would be relevant for the differing types of God.

  2. Steve,
    I think you are exactly right. I think the problem really compounds, as you point out, for persons who experience childhood abuse or trauma in "Christian" homes.

    I think a large part of our spiritual journey is about reconciling ourselves to the churches and God of our youth. And I think this can cut lots of ways. For example, students of mine who have had great homes and churches just don't "get" why others can be so mad at God. The view is Pollyannaish.

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