Attachment to God, Part 2: God and the Attachment Bond

Attachment theory is, currently, the best psychological tool we have for investigating love. Can this theory be applied to the God-relationship?

To answer this question we need to look more closely at the attachment bond itself. Mary Ainsworth, a pioneer in the study of childhood attachments, delineated four features of any bond we wish to call an "attachment." These criteria are:

1. Proximity Maintenance:
We wish to be near or close to our attachment figures.

2. Separation Anxiety: When separated from an attachment figure we experience distress.

3. Secure Base of Exploration: The attachment figure functions as "home," our emotional "base camp."

4. Haven of Safety: When hurt or fearful or distressed we go to the attachment figure for protection, healing, and/or comfort.

To help build up our intuitions, let's reflect on how these criteria play out in childhood and adulthood.

Proximity Maintenance:
Children desire, from birth, to be near their parents. And this feature continues into adulthood. We desire to be near attachment figures (parents, lovers, friends). I ask my students this quetion: If you were free, right now, to go to anyone in the world where would you go? The answer is to either their parents, a boyfriend/girlfriend, or a cherished friend. Ask a solider deployed in Iraq this question. The answer tends to tell us, pretty clearly, who we love.

Separation Anxiety:
Children show distress when separated from parents. They can begin to panic if they make the attribution that they are "lost." Adults show less separation anxiety, but distress is manifested. I'm uneasy when I say good-bye to my wife on a trip. I don't feel comfortable when I'm away from my children. I still miss my childhood home where my parents live. Watch lovers do their leave-taking and you get the point.

Secure Base of Exploration:
Watch a child explore a new playground. Imagine there was wet paint on her feet the entire time. Let's examine the geometry of those footprints when the child has left. What will we see? We'll notice a kind of "exploratory center of gravity." A place where the child returns to time after time or the subtle "center" of the exploratory donut. That is where the parent has been sitting. In adulthood, our "exploration" is less physical and more emotional. We feel it as "confidence" which translates into expansion into the adulthood world of challenges and opportunities.

Haven of Safety:
When hurt, anxious, or distressed children turn to their parents. As adults, we also turn to attachment figures, those we love, when in need of care or emotional support. These are the ones we seek out for "help."

Okay, we have a sense now of what an attachment bond looks like. The question is, does relationship with God look anything like this? Can attachment theory be applied to the God-relationship?

Well, first we have to note that God would need to be experienced by the believer as a "Person." If God is experienced or known as impersonal then attachment theory would fail to describe the believer's experience. Consequently, for religions without a notion of a personal God (e.g., Buddhism) or for those holding to more abstract notions of God (e.g., Spinoza, Einstein), attachment theory will be of limited value in describing their experience.

However, in both the bible and the general Chrisitan experience, God is experienced in personal terms. We speak of being "in relationship" with God. For these believers, attachment theory may indeed be an effective tool to map the terrian of the God-experience. The first researcher and theorist to deeply apply Ainsworth’s attachment criteria to the God relationship was Lee Kirkpatrick. Let’s informally walk through Kirkpatrick’s analysis:

Proximity Maintenance:
Although God in not located in time or space, believers do express their relationship with God in spacial language. We can be "close" to God. Or feel "distant" from God. And, given this language, believers express the desire to be "close," "near," or "intimate" with God. Images of this intimacy often are understood as being "held" or "embraced" or "touched" by God. In short, the first attachment criterion seems to apply to relationship with God.

Separation Anxiety:
Jesus cries out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" And this sentiment tends to capture the distress experienced by the believer when she feels "separated" from God. Generally, this distress is expressed in the language of lament, which captures the emotional devastation associated with being "abandoned" or "orphaned" by God. So, our second criteria also applies.

Secure Base of Exploration:
Again, our criteria seems to apply here as well. God is often experienced as "home," our True Home. Further, God is experienced as a source of strength and confidence which energizes the believer. "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

Haven of Safety:
Our final criterion also applies. When in distress or in need of comfort believers "turn to God" and seek out God's presence. And this presence, when experienced, is generally found to be healing and a source of peace and security. "Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."

In summation, Kirkpatrick's work strongly suggests that relationship with God is experienced as an attachment bond. In fact, the convergence is remarkable. The criteria are a great fit. But this is perhaps not overly surprising given that "love" and the "attachment" bond is the only way we humans understand love. Attachment is the language of love and it is the only language we speak.

What this implies, as God is experienced as an attachment figure, is that all that we have learned about attachments, theory and data from over 50 years of research, can be fruitfully applied to understand our experience and relationship with God. Over the last 10 years, attachment to God researchers have taken up this work. I've been a part of this work. What have we learned? Well, more to come.

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2 thoughts on “Attachment to God, Part 2: God and the Attachment Bond”

  1. My first thought as I read this and the previous post on attachment was, "This works for defining/exploring our love for God, but not for His love for us."

    But then as I looked at the list of four features, the first two jumped out at me as clearly descriptive of God's love for us. Especially in the Old Testament prophets, we hear God's longing to be near his people and his distress when they (we) walk away from Him.

    I think when people can see this side of God's love, it is easier to want to attach to Him than if they see only His powerful side.

    And when you think about it, anything we know about love, if it is real love, comes from God. And the stuff that we call love and isn't (codependency, overprotectiveness, e.g.) is some form of distortion of the image of God.

  2. i have a question
    what happens that someone is attached to something else? is it our inner needness cause that or its our external relationship with sth?
    thank you very much

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