By: Cheryl Knight, MTh

Mary Ainsworth studied attachment styles and discovered these attachment styles were cognitive and emotional representations of Self and Other.

What that means is 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.

The Key is:

  • Anxious = Preoccupied
  • Avoidant = Dismissive
  • Secure remains Secure
  • Disorganized = Fearful

You are 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.

What are the main emotional experiences involved in attachment styles?

  • 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.

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. Given the above information, 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.

  • 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.

  • They feel “not good enough.”
  • They 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.

  • 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.

  • They are chronically caught in an approach-avoidance conflict with God. Pulling close or drawing away –they are afraid.
  • They fear abandonment by God but reject intimacy with God at the same time.

Clearly, attachment theory cannot explain ALL of the God experience. But look at the list above. Have you seen these types in your church? Isn’t this theory capturing a part of the God-experience?

What attachment theory is teaching us: Loving God is complicated. In ways we might not have fully realized. There is no “generic” relationship with God. We have to take into our understanding the perceptions of God that we received from our parents, friends, spouse, pastors that have influenced us in our relationship to God.

Because of all the influences we have been exposed to we have to truly consider what WE feel towards God and what our attachment style is with Him. There are no generic answers on how to be “closer” to God.

Some people have issues with God that impacts how closely they will approach Him. Others have issues with their own intrinsic lovability. Despite assurances to the contrary, these believers are afraid 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. 

But before we try to help others we have to examine our own God attachment.

Ainsworth, M.D.S. (1985). Attachment across the lifespan. Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 61, 792-812.

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Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss: Vol. 2. Separation:Anxiety and Anger. New York: Basic Books

Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and loss: Vol. 3. Loss. New York: Basic Books York: Basic Books.

Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(3), 511-524.

Kirkpatrick, L. A., & Shaver, P. R. (1990). Attachment theory and religion: Childhood attachments, religious beliefs, and conversion. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 29 (3), 315-334.

Kirkpatrick, L. A., & Shaver, P. R. (1992). An attachment-theoretical approach to romantic love and religious belief. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18 (3), 266-275.

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