The Science of Relationships: Attachment Theory

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Mimi was a good dog. She was also my first dog. So when we had to put her down just a week before Christmas, it put a major damper on our holidays. For the first time in 15 years, we had Christmas without Mimi.

It was doubly hard because Max, our 16-year-old cat, had died a few months earlier. Max and Mimi were usually side-by-side near my desk for nearly every draft of this newsletter. Writing these is a bit lonelier now. I was pretty attached to my fuzzy buddies.

Holidays can be hard for anyone suffering loss, whether it’s a relative, a friend, or a family pet. We always wish we’d had a little more time together. Scientists have looked into our attachments, the topic of this week’s newsletter, and the ways we cope with loss.

Attachment Theory

Developed in the 1960s, attachment theory is a basic psychological theory regarding human relationships. It usually focuses on infants and children and their attachments to at least one primary caregiver—and how those attachments affect development. Good attachments, unsurprisingly, seem to be a key indicator of healthy human development.

Such attachments provide the security needed to develop socially and emotionally. They help us learn to regulate our emotions, allow us to investigate the world, and to take on risks. Without such attachments, we strive to find secure relationships elsewhere—and thus other areas of development suffer.

Humans don’t mature as quickly as most animals, so security is crucial to our development. In our culture, security is usually provided by a parent or grandparent. In other cultures, where whole villages literally raise the children, attachment theory gets stretched. But even then, children who feel secure benefit from healthy development.

While attachment seems most important in early development, it’s also vital in adult relationships—marriage, friendship, or between parents and adult children. Healthy attachment in these situations is a balance between intimacy and independence. Codependency or too much freedom often yield unhealthy adult relationships. That’s pretty intuitive, but science backs it up.

How do these attachments affect our relationship with God? Scholars have determined that our history of human attachments—good ones and bad ones—can impact our relationship with God. The quality of our attachment with a parent, for example, will likely impact our relationship with God. This is one of the risks in referring to God as mother or father.

Another aspect is our direct attachment to God. Can God serve as that primary caregiver, providing us the security to develop physically, emotionally, and/or spiritually? This work is more speculative, but it is also perhaps the most interesting use of attachment theory in ministry. Studies of this sort can complement biblical teaching about trusting God as the ultimate source for help and security (see passages likes Matthew 6:25ff, Psalm 23, and Hebrews 13:5-6).

  • Christianity Today asks, “Has Attachment Theory Made Us Anxious Parents?”
  • CT also explores the topic of how childhood wounds can affect marriage.
  • A Christian psychologist in the UK considers religion and attachment.
  • And this study shows that a secure connection with God is good for you.
  • We took another look at attachment and relationships when the the pandemic prevented us from gathering together.

Renewing Our Minds

Now, back to Max and Mimi. While my connection to our pets was strong, it was nothing compared to my attachments with my parents, my wife, or my kids. So while my grief is real—more than I had expected—it can’t compare to losing a person with whom you have an intense attachment. Grief in those instances is at a completely different level . . . and well look closer at that next week when we explore what psychologists call “religious coping.”

God created us as social beings, dependent on others, and our early attachments play a great role in our ability to form healthy relationships. How do we help people build them? How do we ensure all God’s children have at least one secure attachment? Attachment theory is one resource for your ministry as you build community.

As we strive to be the body of Christ, I hope it can help you serve people who have formed both good and bad attachments with parents, children, spouses, friends, God . . . and yes, even our fuzzy buddies.




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