From Attachment Theory to Winter Christianity: Part 3, Is Relational Distress Pathological?

In the early days of my research when I was working with an attachment framework I would use the language of attachment theory to describe the relational distress one could experience with God. As I described in the last post, I would describe relational distress as being symptomatic of an anxious or insecure attachment with God.

But I started becoming increasingly uncomfortable with this way of thinking about things. When you describe relational distress as being "anxious" or "insecure" you're pathologizing the distress. But a lot of the distress I was seeing in people's relationship with God--and my own distress in particular--didn't seem pathological. It seemed, rather, very natural and normal. 

In 2006 I published a study where I factor analyzed two instruments that had been used to assess attachment to God, our Attachment to God Inventory and the Spiritual Assessment Inventory developed by Todd Hall. A factor analysis is a technique that groups similar things together, apples grouped with apples and oranges grouped with oranges. In this analysis I was trying to see which of the AGI and SAI items would group together.

Not surprisingly I found that most of the relational distress items on the AGI and SAI grouped together. Again, most of these items are considered to be assessing anxious or insecure attachment with God. But as I looked over these items I began to wonder, "Are these items assessing something pathological or something quite normal in our relationship with God?"

Consider the themes that emerged from my analysis of the AGI and SAI items:
Concerns over God’s reliability/trustworthiness 
I often feel angry with God for not responding to me when I want. (AGI item)

Concerns over God’s care/affection/love 
Sometimes I feel that God loves others more than me. (AGI item)

Experience of distance from God
God seems far away from me. (SAI item)

Negative emotions directed at God 
I struggle with anger toward God. (SAI item)

Theodicy concerns 
I sometimes think, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to me?” (SAI item) 
When I looked over these items I asked myself, "Are these really symptoms of an insecure or anxious attachment to God?" Because that's how the attachment paradigm approaches relational distress. In the attachment to God paradigm distress is pathologized.

But these items didn't seem pathological to me. They looked like something Job was experiencing. And the writers of the lament psalms.

Think about it. If Job, in the middle of his ashes, were to have completed the AGI and the SAI how would he have scored on the measures?

Concerns over God's trustworthiness? Check.

Concerns over God's care? Check.

Experience of distance from God? Check.

Negative emotions directed at God? Check.

Theodicy concerns? Check.

Job would have scored high on all these items. But I don't think it makes sense to think of Job as being "anxiously attached."

In short, the reason I shifted away from the attachment framework is because its framework for relational distress unwittingly pathologized lament by describing it as anxious, insecure or preoccupied attachment.

And so that's why I started looking for another paradigm.

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