We love the picture of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus absorbed in a flood of divine love. Here in the Holy Family God is showing us an example of the secure attachment that we all need.
Jesus Christ lived a perfect life of love for God and people, died on the cross for us, and rose from the dead. The Lord God Almighty forgives our sins, delights in us, is full of compassion and kindness toward us, is always for us, and will never leave or forsake us! We read of God’s love in the Bible and to know it’s truth personally we need to experience a sufficient measure of it in human relationships, especially as it relates to our need for secure attachment.
Infants and children who receive adequate physical care, but no emotional love and care will die — literally. This is rare, of course. But it’s not uncommon for children to grow up with insufficient personal attention and to suffer for lack of emotional nurture, perhaps for their whole lives. Being bonded with a loving person is a need like food and water. Often those of us who have been emotionally malnourished as children minimize or deny this. We say, “I had a better childhood than a lot of people. My parents loved me.”
The scary thing is that it is very common for good and loving parents who do the best they can to unwittingly foster emotional insecurity in their children. The point here is not to give parents a hard time! As adults, we’re responsible for our own lives and our character, not our parents, so it’s up to us to learn to appreciate the good we received from them, to forgive them for ways they didn’t love us well, and then to develop new empathy-based relationships that help us to heal from whatever was hurtful. The most important area for our personal and spiritual growth is in our relational capacity for attaching or bonding with caring people.
A Little Child, a Loud Train, and a Comforting Mom
Imagine this scene and consider how you relate… Tommy, a two-year old boy is playing in a sandbox at a park with his mom sitting about ten feet away on a bench. Now and again he looks back to see if his mother is still watching him: Are you still with me Mom? Is it okay for me to do this?
She smiles, Yes, Honey, I’m right here — you’re safe. And I love the castle you’re making! (It’s really a lumpy hill, but she sees a castle!) So he continues playing. Even without touching or using any words they’re staying connected emotionally.
If Tommy’s mother were to frown or look fearful then he’d hesitate. He’s looking to her caring presence to reassure himself; his connection to her is what makes him feel secure and gives him confidence.
Suddenly a train roars and rumbles down the tracks adjacent to the park! The loud horn and shaking ground frighten Tommy! Instantly, he rushes over to his mother and she scoops him up into her lap and holds him close. She helps him cover his ears to quiet down the loud noise.
When the train is gone he looks up at his mom and she smiles down at him and verbalizes his feelings, “That sure was loud and scary, wasn’t it Tommy?” Then she kisses him softly on the cheek as they continue to snuggle. After a few moments he wiggles down and goes back to exploring and playing in his sandbox world nearby.
Imagine yourself as a little child scared by a loud train… How would your mother have responded? Your father or other primary caregiver? Put yourself in that story as the parent. How do you respond to your child’s (or an adult’s) feelings of fear, hurt, or neediness? How do you respond to your own emotional needs? How do you experience God in times of personal difficulty or suffering? (The answers to all these questions are probably linked.)
We All Need a Safe Haven and a Secure Base
Developmental psychologists in the tradition of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth say that Tommy’s mother is providing him with a “secure attachment.” His antennae that keeps checking in to see if she’s still watching and available to him is called “social referencing.” This bond of nurturing care and compassion is the foundation of loving relationships, healthy personality, and fruitful work all our lives long. To the extent that we experience having our feelings empathized with and we are reliably loved we will naturally be able to offer this same secure attachment to our own children and others.
In his relationship with his mom Tommy has a “safe haven” of comfort whenever he’s distressed — going to her for affection, warmth, or empathy helps him to “re-fuel” emotionally. Before entering kindergarden he’ll experience thousands of emotional upsets, most of them little ones like needing a diaper change, waking up alone in the night, having his older brother knock down his blocks, or having a playmate who calls him a bad name. Of course, some upsets are much bigger, like Dad being out of town for a whole week, family members shouting in anger at each other, or Grandma dying.
In any of these situations when Tommy is reassured and calmed down by connecting with his mother (or other consistent primary caregiver) then he can use her as a “secure base” to step out confidently to explore his world and play by himself. He’s able to do things independently and without fear, even after emotional upsets because he’s learning to internalize his mother’s care and strength, making it his own. He’s developing the capacity to “self-soothe” when upset and face challenges with courage.
Four Foundational Styles of Attaching in Relationship
The scene with the loud train is like the famous “Infant Strange Situation” research study in which a little child (about eighteen months of age) is in a room with his or her mother and some toys to play with and there is also a stranger seated in the corner observing. Abruptly, the mother exits the room without saying anything, leaving her child alone with the stranger before finally returning a few minutes later. Each of the mother and toddler pairs responds differently to this upsetting event depending upon their attachment patterns for dealing with emotional needs and upsets.
There are four distinct and stable approaches to emotions and relationships that have been identified by Bowlby, Ainsworth, and other developmental psychologists: Secure, Insecure-Avoidant, Insecure-Ambivalent, and Insecure-Disorganized. As you read about these four attachment patterns consider which one you most relate to. Which pattern best describes what you remember, imagine, or know about your childhood? Which one fits how you deal with stress and emotions today? (You may sense that you’re a mixture of two patterns or that you mostly relate to one of the insecure-attachment styles but are moving toward greater security.)
Little Maria is upset when her mother suddenly leaves her alone with the stranger and as soon as she returns she makes a beeline to her. She confidently lifts up her arms to her mother who is happy to hold her close and she is quickly comforted and relaxed in the secure-base of her mother’s arms. Then after re-fueling emotionally she returns to playing with her toys, sometimes involving her mother in her play and other times happy to play independently. In either case, her mother is interested and responsive to her. Maria has learned from experience that her mother is emotionally available, compassionate, and dependable so she is able to internalize her mother’s care and remain secure.
Like Tommy, if at two years old Maria is playing in the sandbox near her mother and a loud train scares her she’ll fly into her mother’s lap and find a safe haven of empathy that calms her fear and puts her at ease. Internalizing her mother’s personal warmth and care re-fuels her and so she returns to playing in the sandbox. Now and again she looks back to see if her mother is still watching and usually she is. Maria can be happy playing independently but probably she likes to involve her Mom, “Look Mommy! Come see.” Or, “Mommy, let’s play dollies.” And so they play together for awhile.
Tommy’s and Maria’s mothers (or other primary caregiver) are not perfect — they are “good enough.” They are mature enough to be emotionally present for their children with consistent affection, warmth, and empathy. This helps them develop what’s called an “internal working model” of being securely attached. Increasingly, as they age they feel well-cared for, safe, and strengthened to face challenges and conflicts with confidence and are better able to bounce back from setbacks. In adulthood they’re likely to have a high EQ (Emotional Quotient): they are aware of their emotions and able to regulate them (e.g., under stress they self-soothe and don’t lose their temper), motivated to do their best, and ready to offer empathy to others. They have a strong foundation, even within their neural circuitry, for loving and healthy relationships in adulthood.
Being securely attached supports the development of faith in God. What a gift it is when a child experiences God’s love through a parent, grandparent, or other caregiver! What a great blessing it is when a parent’s personal expressions of divine compassion reach into the depths of their child’s heart and soul to their places of emotional need. The same is true for adults who experience a reparative, empathy-based relationship with a psychotherapist, pastor, mentor, spouse, or soul friend. God’s plan is that in the Body of Christ we all would develop safe relationships with capable and compassionate people who show us through attentive listening that it’s really true: “If God is for you no one can be against you! Nothing, absolutely nothing, will ever separate you from God’s love.” (Rom. 8:31, 39, paraphrase).
When Ronny’s mother leaves him with a stranger at eighteen months his reaction is quite different than Maria’s or Tommy’s. He doesn’t seem to care and when she eventually returns he treats her like a lamppost! He turns his back toward her and keeps playing with the toys, acting like she’d never left and he wasn’t the least bit upset by being alone with a stranger. He appears to be an emotionally stable and confident little boy, but when toddlers like him in this situation are hooked up to devices that measure their physiological indicators of emotion they are consistently shown to be highly distressed.
If two-year old Ronny and his mother we’re in the park situation his mother is likely to be preoccupied, perhaps talking on her cell phone. Previously, he’s learned not to try to involve her because he doesn’t want to be disappointed. So he becomes engrossed in his sand play and doesn’t look to emotionally connect with his mother. When the loud train races by he might just keep playing. Or maybe he’d be startled and stops to look at it with his heart racing inside. He probably won’t rush into his mother’s lap, but if he does he’s not able to receive comfort because she’s still preoccupied on the phone or she doesn’t snuggle him warmly and offer empathy. Or it may be that she is overly sensitive to him being upset, so much so that it distresses her, and he doesn’t like this so he goes back to the sandbox, unsettled emotionally, but hiding his feelings. He goes back to absorbing himself in his world of imagination.
Ronny’s mother loves her son dearly and does a great job of caring for all of his physical needs, involving him in activities, and taking cute pictures of him that she proudly shares with her friends, but often she does not tune into his emotions. She’s not a “bad mom” — she just doesn’t know how to provide empathy at this personal level, probably because she hasn’t received it herself or maybe because she’s been through some devastating things in her life and she shut down emotionally to cope. In any case, probably beginning as an infant, Ronny has learned not to cry out for attention. Eventually, he learns to habitually deny or dismiss any insecure feelings, sadness, or anxiety because his mother and any other primary caregivers have not been responsive to his emotional needs. He’ll “grow up” fast by learning not to have feelings like fear, sadness, loneliness, or neediness.
In adulthood people like Ronny with an insecure-avoidant pattern of attaching have an attitude of “I don’t need anybody — I can do it myself.” They’ve learned not to trust others emotionally and decided that they don’t need that level of care anyway. They think they can take care of themselves, which to them means staying busy, being strong, and not having needs or being vulnerable. They may be quite successful in academics or work, but they will usually avoid intimacy in relationships and will be uncomfortable if others express lots of emotion. They prefer to stay in their heads or be busy all the time. They may be heroes, pleasers, or fixers for other people who are struggling, as this is a primary way they connect in relationship while staying away from their own emotional needs. They’re also prone to workaholism and addiction. These substitute attachments don’t offer them any real comfort; on the inside they feel empty.
Spiritually, Avoiders may be excellent students and teachers of the Bible or active in Christian service and helping others, but they have trouble forming deep, personal relationships with anyone, including God.
Little Stephen (eighteen months old), cries when his mother leaves him with a stranger and then he rushes to her for comfort when she returns. When his mom picks him up he is not consoled, but remains fussy and fidgety, so much so that he might start kicking or squirming, and yet he does not want to go back to playing with his toys. His mother becomes upset that she can’t comfort her son and sets him down, but then he becomes even more upset. Mother and son are both distressed and don’t know what to do.
Imagine Stephen at age two playing in the sandbox with his mom nearby. In between phone calls he’s able to get her attention and they interact about his sand play. When the train comes blasting it’s horn and shaking the ground Stephen is frightened and rushes over to her for comfort. He stands beside her at the bench and lifting up his arms he cries, “Hold me, Mommy!” She leans over and hugs him perfunctorily while still talking on the phone, but he wants her to pick him up and so he cries louder, “Hold me, Mommy!” At this she gets frustrated and scolds him, “Don’t be upset, you’re fine. It’s nothing to be scared about — it was just a train.”
But little Stephen is scared and now he feels bad too, like he shouldn’t be emotional and so he goes back to the sandbox with his shoulders slumped, still crying. After fifteen minutes of imaginative exploring in the sandbox, he’s resumed playing happily. Then his mom finishes her phone call and suddenly she swoops down and picks him up to take him to the car, “It’s time to go!” she says. “We have to go shopping now.” Now that she wants to connect with him she talks sweetly to him and holds him affectionately.
Stephen’s mother is a good person and she loves her little boy. In addition to caring for his practical needs she shows him affection and warmth. But often she gets impatient and frustrated with his emotions, especially his crying, and she doesn’t realize how rejected he feels and how damaging this is to his fragile, developing soul. Stephen experiences his mother as capable of caring for him, but he finds her unpredictable and so he becomes insecurely attached to her and ambivalent in his desires: sometimes he seeks to connect with her and other times he shrinks back in fear and shame.
As adults people in Stephen’s position of insecure-ambivalent attachment tell themselves, “I’m too emotional and needy — I’m afraid I’ll be rejected if I ask for comfort.” They feel burdened and overwhelmed by their own emotions and assume they’d “bother” other people by asking for their care, but they hate being alone so eventually their emotions will pour out. They tend to vacillate between idealizing and devaluing others, also themselves (between poles of “all good” and “all bad”). They may be pleasers who try to do all they can to make others like them or be happy. Often they are extremely sensitive to what others feel, but may lack the inner strength to be emotionally present for others with true empathy. When other people share their hurt, fear, or anger they’re likely to have their own emotional reaction that overwhelms them.
They may have positive beliefs about God but probably experience him as unreliable, sometimes caring and other times rejecting, sometimes giving them freedom and other times being intrusive or controlling.
In the “Infant Strange Situation” when eighteen month old Lisa is left by her mother she might react in a detached way like Ronny or become emotionally upset like Stephen, but when her mother returns her reaction is odd. She begins toddling over to her mom as if she wants to be held but then she stops in her tracks with a look of fright and falls to the ground and never goes to her mother for comfort. Another time in that situation she might actually seek connection with the stranger seated in the room!
Let’s imagine Lisa six months later playing in a park sandbox with her mom sitting on a bench nearby. They are close in proximity, but not emotionally connected. Maybe she’s depressed and looking away with a lost expression. Or maybe she’s been drinking and starts laughing at the train or at Lisa for getting so startled. Lisa reacts strangely to the loud train: she picks up a toy and walks over toward her mother to hand it to her, but she looks away from her while doing so.
Children like Lisa tend to have a chaotic home life with at least one parent who is abusive, addicted to drugs, or mentally ill. Or they may have lost a parent because of death or divorce. Maybe upon reflection later in life they’d say they had unloving parents, but probably their parents experienced similar or worse conditions growing up. For these children their insecure and disordered home life is internalized to become their disorganized attachment; they carry their unresolved trauma and loss into adulthood. Even with good intentions they are likely recycle their experience, pulling others into their whirlwind of abrupt changes, erratic emotional outbursts, or impulsive/destructive behaviors.
The Disorganized pattern of attachment is less common and more severe than the Avoidant and Ambivalent ones. Adults in this insecure attachment style feel empty and depressed. They suffer from rapidly shifting emotions in a dark and chaotic world. To cope they detach (dissociate) and isolate, learning to live without receiving the care and comfort that all people naturally need. They may engage in risky or thrill seeking behavior to feel alive or they may thrive in the stimulation of responding to emergency situations. They may act in odd or inappropriate ways.
They are likely to suffer from a view that God is unhappy with them, if not outright angry and punitive.
Christ-in-Community: Becoming Securely Attached
To become more securely attached and more capable of giving and receiving empathy and comfort we need to understand the insecure attachment pattern we struggle with. Then we need to work on resisting this defensive pattern and instead seek care for our emotional needs from someone who is safe and strong. At the same time we can look to become more emotionally available to others by listening with patience and reflecting their feelings.
Above all we need to appreciate that “God is love” — He is a perfect community, Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Jesus’ oneness with the Father and the Spirit shows us the perfect secure attachment that we all long for. In the Gospels we see that God’s love for us is perfectly incarnated in Jesus and in our daily lives in the Body of Christ it needs to be imperfectly incarnated for us and through us to others.
When we experience empathy and encouragement from loving people (“Christ’s ambassadors” Paul calls them in 2 Cor. 5:20) then the spiritual reality of God’s gentle and powerful love is more readily accessible for us: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in times of trouble… The Lord Almighty is our refuge, the God of Jacob is our fortress.” (Psalm 46:1, 7, and 11)
The reverse is also true: as we press in closer to Jesus and come to know God as he does, as Abba, then his love supports and strengthens us in all of our relationships and in all that we do. “We love because God first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
Psychotherapy, soul friendship, Scripture meditation, and healing prayer ministry are some of the ways that we can heal insecure patterns and become more securely attached in the way that we relate to God and others. (The Tag “Secure Attachment” features additional articles and helpful examples.)
(The first part of the story of the little boy and the loud train and many of the insights in this article are adapted from Attachments: Why You Love, Feel, and Act the Way You Do by Tim Clinton and Gary Sibcy.)