Attachment Theory and Your Relationship With God

Attachment is part of what it means to be a human, created by God.

Mockingbird / 10.26.16

Another sampler from the Mental Health Issue! Here’s a doozie from psychologist Bonnie Poon Zahl about the meaning of ‘attachment theory’ and its implications for the ways we talk about our faith. Of course, this is only to whet your appetite…


I am a psychologist of religion. This means that I use tools from psychological science to study, empirically, the manifold expressions of religion and spirituality in human lives. I am most interested in how people understand and relate to God, and in my research I adopt the methodological naturalism that is expected in my discipline; I try to understand people’s religious and spiritual experiences by framing them in terms of natural psychological processes—the thoughts, emotions, and behaviours that together form the warp and weft of human life.

This sometimes makes Christians uncomfortable. They seem to think that I want to explain away the experiences at the core of their most cherished beliefs or strongest convictions. I find, to the contrary, that the research is not only interesting, but of real value to Christians. In what follows, I will show how this is the case—how psychology can powerfully inform both faith and practical ministry—by looking at one of the most important and well-respected psychological theories about human relationships: attachment theory.

At the popular level, attachment theory is much talked about, but also often misunderstood. If you have heard of it, it is probably through some well-meaning discussion of popular approaches to parenting children, where ‘attachment parenting’ is basically the opposite of ‘tough love’ styles like the ‘cry-it-out’ method of helping babies learn to sleep. Despite what proponents of ‘attachment parenting’ may tell you, however, attachment is not really about the benefits of breastfeeding or co-sleeping or baby-wearing for healthy child development. Rather, attachment theory explains how people learn to experience and respond to separation and distress in the context of core, close relationships from very early on in their lives. Interestingly, the effect of attachment on human relationships also seems to include our relationships with God.


Attachment theory was originally formulated by British psychologist John Bowlby. He wanted to understand why babies and small children respond to separation from their parents (or primary caregivers) with such apparent distress, and how such experiences of separation shape emotional and behavioural adjustment. Bowlby believed that when babies experience things that are threatening to their survival—like hunger or sickness or loud noises or distance from their parents—they reach, call out, and cry, all of which are ways to signal their needs and to restore closeness and proximity to their parents. When parents (on whom babies are quite literally completely dependent) respond sensitively and appropriately, the baby’s distress is reduced and its level of felt security is restored. But when parents do not respond, the baby continues to experience separation anxiety and distress; according to Bowlby, repeated and prolonged experiences of this kind seem to be associated with poorer emotional and behavioural adjustment.

Inspired by Bowlby’s theory, Mary Ainsworth set out to empirically study infant-parent separation with a technique she developed called the ‘Strange Situation Paradigm,’ in which infants are periodically separated from and reunited with one parent. Many hours of observations led Ainsworth to conclude that there are systematic differences in how children (in non-clinical populations) behave in these episodes of separation and reunion with their parents, and these differences or ‘styles’ can be broadly categorised into three groups: secure, anxious-avoidant, and anxious-ambivalent.

Some children (about 60 percent of them) seemed upset when their parents left, but quickly re-engaged when their parents returned; children showing this pattern were called secure. Some children (about 20 percent of them), whom Ainsworth classified as anxious-avoidant, seemed not to care about being separated from, or being reunited with, their parents; some of them even seemed to actively avoid their parents altogether, preferring instead to play alone. (Later physiological studies showed that these children are not in fact any less distressed by the separation; they just cope with this internal distress by masking it.) Other children (roughly 20 percent) were classified as anxious-ambivalent; they clung to their parents, and were extremely upset when their parents left. Even when their parents came back, they were difficult to soothe, and seemed to be angry at their parents for leaving.


Bowlby had envisioned that attachment influences relationships “from the cradle to the grave.”[1] What he meant by this is that the relational patterns developed in early childhood continue to influence other close relationships across our lifespan. This evocative thesis invited other psychologists to consider whether attachment dynamics in the same relationship changes over time, and whether attachment patterns may be observed in other close relationships, like romantic relationships and very close friendships. While there are some important distinctions between the nature of these different relationship domains, data does seem to indicate that there is a moderate degree of stability over time. Anxious-ambivalent attachment in childhood seems to correlate with more anxious attachment in romantic relationships, expressed as anxiety about the relationship partner’s proximity and the possibility of abandonment, and preoccupation with their relationship partner’s affection. On the other hand, anxious-avoidant attachment in childhood seems to correlate with avoidance of intimacy and closeness with relationship partners.

Some studies have shown that when people were asked to recall a time when their relationship partner did something that was hurtful, people who were securely attached tended to invoke more relationship-enhancing explanations, fewer relationship-threatening explanations, and they were less likely to explain their partner’s wrongdoing as reflecting something intrinsically problematic about the relationship. In contrast, people who were anxiously-attached invoked more pessimistic explanations about the relationship and the relationship partner, and more blame. Attachment style also seems to affect how a person interprets relationship scenarios that are ambiguous: people who are less securely attached are more likely to interpret ambiguous hypothetical events as reflecting hostile intentions from their partners. What all of this means is that our attachment styles can influence how we experience, remember and interpret important relational events in our lives, and we often do so in a manner that is consistent with the attachment style that we have developed during our childhood.

Overall, attachment relationships are hotbeds for some of the most powerful human emotions. As Bowlby puts it, “Many of the most intense emotions arise during the formation, the maintenance, the disruption, and the renewal of attachment relationships.” Separation seems to elicit feelings of loss, sadness, and grief, and sometimes of anger, while reunion seems to elicit joy and closeness for some, but more mixed emotions for others. These very early childhood attachment experiences, and the repeated experiences of separation and reunion, play hugely important roles in the development of our sense of who we are in relation to the people who most matter to us.

At this point, you may be wondering: does attachment theory mean that the quality of our closest relationships is determined wholly by our interactions with our parents (or that we have the power to completely mess up our children’s close relationships)? The science suggests that the answer is no: there are in fact other basic factors that have been formed even preceding attachment to parents, like our temperaments, that affect us in our close relationships. That said, our attachment relationships do form the context in which our earliest and most basic emotional and relational vocabularies are tuned.


But what does all this have to do with religion? For one thing, as both a Christian and a psychologist, I am struck by the profound parallels between the subject matter of attachment theory—the sequence of separation, distress, and reunion that all human beings repeatedly experience—and the Christian narrative of alienation from God because of sin, the suffering that alienation causes, and the reunion with God through his grace. Perhaps more to the point, it seems to me that attachment theory provides one lens through which we can understand how people relate to God when things go wrong in their lives. This is because, to a significant degree, our relationship to God works a lot like other close relationships in our lives, and is thus likely to be affected by the attachment patterns we developed in childhood.

Christians sometimes say that their faith is ‘a relationship, not a religion.’ There is much evidence, both anecdotal and quantitative, to suggest that a given Christian’s ‘relationship with God’ can be made sense of in attachment terms. When things go terribly wrong in our lives—when our attachment systems are activated by experiences like the loss of jobs or homes, the deaths of loved ones, serious health problems, failed relationships, or existential crises about our own identities—many Christians turn to God to restore a lost sense of felt security. The Psalmist describes God as “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps 46:1), and St. Paul writes of how “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rm 8:38).


But like with the children in Ainsworth’s studies who were temporarily separated from their parents, when some Christians perceive God to be distant, unresponsive, or absent, this experience can tend to generate very strong negative feelings. Anger at God is not an uncommon response to unanswered prayer: prolonged anger at God is experienced when people need or expect God to help them in their distress, but do not feel that God is responding in the manner in which they hoped he would. Research shows that anger at God is very often accompanied by feelings of doubt about one’s relationship with God, negative interpretations of why prayers are unanswered, and even more fundamental questions about God’s goodness. Consider the example of Mother Teresa, who revealed in her personal letters the immense feelings of grief and isolation accompanying her experience of God’s silence, which lasted for more than fifty years until her death:

In the darkness… Lord, my God, who am I that you should forsake me? The child of your love—and now become as the most hated one. The one—you have thrown away as unwanted—unloved. I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer… When I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. Love—the word—it brings nothing. I am told God lives in me—and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.

Research confirms the tendency to see God as an attachment figure and the tendency to think about one’s relational dynamics with God along the same two dimensions of human attachment: anxiety about abandonment and avoidance of intimacy. For example, some Christians, more than others, seem to be especially preoccupied with whether or not God loves them, more likely to feel angry or upset if they can’t see or sense God working in their lives, and more likely to worry about maintaining their relationship with God. These tendencies reflect a relationship with God that is characteristic of anxious attachment.

Other Christians, despite identifying as people who have relationships with God, seem to have difficulty (or seem to resist) experiencing warmth, intimacy, or closeness in this relationship. They prefer not to depend too much on God, they don’t feel a particularly deep need to be close to God even when they feel distressed, and they do not feel comfortable with emotional displays of affection. These patterns are characteristic of avoidant attachment.

Then there are those who are neither anxious nor avoidant in their relationship with God. These people, instead, seem to remain steadily connected to God through both ups and downs in their lives, and their relationship with God seems stable and integrated. These are patterns characteristic of secure attachment.

One useful way of identifying where our attachment patterns might be having a particularly strong effect on our relationship with God is to examine what we feel that God is like. Unlike purely Biblical knowledge or knowledge about God based solely on doctrine, this knowledge is deep and emotional and rooted in relational experiences with God. In my research I distinguish between these two forms of knowledge: doctrinal knowledge, on the one hand, and experiential knowledge, on the other. In spite of broad agreement among Christians on doctrinal knowledge—that God is loving, all-powerful, forgiving, and so on—Christians seem to differ from one another in the sorts of experiential knowledge that they have, and their experiential knowledge of God seems to be associated with their attachment to parents. This means that our experiential knowledge of God goes deep—the way that we experience God and what we find him to be like hangs in part on a scaffolding of relational knowledge that was given to us. What this also means is that when we discover a conflict between our doctrinal knowledge and our experiential knowledge, there is a good chance that attachment patterns are at work.

I find that knowing this helps me to have compassion (for myself and for others) when experiential knowledge resists doctrinal knowledge. When someone has a hard time believing that God really loves them, or that God will take care of them when they are in trouble, or when someone feels that God judges them for that one unforgivable thing that they did for which they are truly sorry—in these moments, our experiential knowledge stands involuntarily before our theology. Feelings of separation from God, whether or not they were “caused” by human sin or by circumstance, provide the arena in which people have to navigate potentially huge differences between their ‘head’ knowledge and their ‘heart’ knowledge. It is a space where people’s lay theodicies (their theories about God’s involvement in their suffering, and what that means about God’s nature) are made most salient.

I believe these very real, significant, and often painful experiences form a hugely important space where people’s doctrinal and experiential knowledge of God undergo change, as a result of some serious negotiations between them. For some people, these negotiations deepen and broaden their knowledge of God. God becomes bigger—perhaps more mysterious, less predictable—but ultimately no less loving. But for others, the negotiations may fail. They may find that one kind of knowledge cannot accommodate the other kind; in some cases, such crises of faith devolve into unbelief. Some people may recover, but others may not.

There is a simple but important observation that follows from this: because attachment theory is very important in shaping who we are and how we relate to other people, and because it is so strongly empirically supported, it is therefore something that people in pastoral roles would do well to integrate. If nothing else, simply realizing that a given parishioner’s unresolved anger at God over a tragedy is not just a failure of theology, but is shaped by experiences, can help birth a profound compassion for them. Too often, in situations of pastoral difficulty, Christians lead with the doctrinal and the conceptual. “If you just understood God’s grace better you would be fine!” or “Jeremiah 29! God has a plan for you!” Often, theology is not really what the problem is about, at least not exclusively. Attentiveness to psychological dimensions of religious behaviour and religious coping—attentiveness to things like attachment patterns—can be a real asset in these cases.


But some Christians may still be uncomfortable with all of this talk of attachment—surely God is bigger than my temperaments and my experiences as a small child? Well, yes. And no. I believe that God treats us as the human beings we are, and that includes all the biological, psychological, and cultural factors that make up who we are. This means that human psychology and human spirituality are intimately related—indeed, so much so that it is impossible to fully distinguish one from the other, in the end. Our human attachment relationships provide a framework for us to describe and understand why we, as different individuals, might relate to God in the unique and different ways that we do. Our spiritual lives are beautifully woven through the most threatening and terrifying experiences we’ve known—aloneness and helplessness—in the period of our lives when we are, quite literally, completely dependent. Just as some of us are born with a tendency towards depression or addiction, so some of us, thanks to attachment patterns, tend to relate to God in anxious ways, others with patterns of avoidance, and others in secure ways. Still, God meets us as we are.

In the end this sort of insight from psychology should not be seen as threatening to the language of faith. Phenomena like attachment are part of what it means to be a human being, created by God with a body and a mind and a personal history, and they also punctuate what it means that Jesus took on human flesh. The pattern works both ways. On the spiritual side, the Bible presents God to us as a perfect Father and caregiver, and as human beings the way we know what those words mean cannot really be fully extricated from our own patterns of attachment. And on the human side, the Incarnation shows us that God himself took on, fully, the very same kind of body and, along with it, the same kind of mind and the same kind of relationships with family and friends that give rise to human attachment patterns. There is something awesome and wonderful in how God entered the world as a baby, a baby who no doubt formed attachment relationships with his parents, and grew to have strong friendships with his disciples; and there is something terribly human in the fact that, on that Cross, he was abandoned by his closest friends and completely separated from his own Father. It means that Jesus Christ knows—not by doctrine, but by experience—the joy, love, fear, pain, anger, and sorrow that accompany our attachment relationships. It means that when we feel abandoned by God, God himself understands.

[1] Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds, 1979.