From Attachment Theory to Winter Christianity: Part 2, Anxiously Attached to God

Having described relationship with God as an attachment bond in Part 1 we can now turn to the issue of attachment styles.

In her pioneering work with children in the "strange situation"--a research protocol that observes a series of separations and reunions between a child and parent with a stranger present--Mary Ainsworth observed two different attachment anxieties, stranger anxiety and separation anxiety. Noting the levels of anxiety the children displayed Ainsworth classified them by "attachment style."

For example, securely attached children show modest levels of separation and stranger anxiety. Anxiously attached children, by contrast, show excessive levels of stranger and separation anxiety. Finally, avoidantly attached children show little to no attachment anxiety.

The point here is that while we all have attachments these attachments can vary in how much anxiety they display. Each of us has an attachment style which affects how much anxiety we experience in our love relationships--with parents, romantic partners and friends.

Much of this anxiety is rooted in fears about the attachment figure being available to us or abandoning us. When we worry about the availability of the attachment figure we might grow excessively clingy or needy. We might become jealous and never want them to leave our sight. We might grow angry when the attachment figure isn't as responsive or attentive as we'd like.

In adulthood attachments when we see a lot of anxiety like this we'd describe the person as having an anxious, insecure or preoccupied attachment. These are friends or lovers who worry that you'll leave them, demand a lot of your time and attention to feel secure, and who grow anxious, angry and/or jealous when you are with others.

Now if God is also an attachment figure then it stands to reason that we should see anxious and insecure attachments in how people relate to God. For example, people might worry about God rejecting or abandoning them. People might grow anxious if God doesn't seem very responsive to them. Finally, people might even get spiritually jealous if God seems closer to others than with us. For example, why is so-and-so always sharing about her close and intimate experiences with God when I'm feeling nothing? Does God love her more than me? That's spiritual jealousy.

In my early work researching attachment to God one of the first things we set out to do was to assess attachment anxiety in the God relationship so that we could identify people who were anxiously and insecurely attached to God to study how they differed from those who were more securely attached to God, people who felt more assured about God's presence and affection.

For example, in a scale my colleague Angie MacDonald and I created called the Attachment to God Inventory (a widely used instrument that has been translated in to numerous languages) we ask questions to assess various symptoms of attachment anxiety:
Angry protest: Getting angry if the attachment figure is not as responsive as we wish they would be.
Example AGI item: “I often feel angry with God for not responding to me when I want.”

Preoccupation with relationship: Worry, rumination, or obsession with the status of the relationship.
Example AGI item: “I worry a lot about my relationship with God.”

Fear of abandonment: Fear that the attachment figure will leave or reject you.
Example AGI item: “I fear God does not accept me when I do wrong.”

Anxiety over lovability: Concerns that you are either not loved or are unlovable.
Example AGI item: “I crave reassurance from God that God loves me.”

Jealousy: Concerns that the attachment figure prefers others over you.
Example AGI item: “I am jealous at how God seems to care more for others than for me.”
In our research we would administer the AGI to identify people who would rate highly on items like these suggesting that these persons were more insecurely an anxiously attached to God relative to others.

Okay, so in these last two posts I've given you a quick summary of attachment to God research. In the next two posts I'll share why I moved away from the attachment paradigm toward a more existential framework, my journey from attachment theory to Winter Christianity.

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