[Update: This blog was created for a class. In that class, we had a final project which was to revise and expand upon one of the blog posts. This is the one that I chose.]
My mom tells this story from when I was a little boy, less than two years old. We were walking in the mall when she noticed me walking away. She began to wonder: How far would I walk before I realized she wasn’t there? So she followed me, merely observing. Apparently, I walked halfway across the mall before stopping and looking around.
“Mommy?” I asked. I wasn’t afraid, merely curious. Only then did she come up to me.
Why was I so free to walk away from mommy and not look for her, and for such a far distance? According to John Bowlby‘s Attachment Theory, this freedom was at least in part because I had a very secure attachment to my mother.
Specifically, this behavior of mine shows a concept called `Secure Base`: I was secure with mommy. She was always there in case something went wrong, so I felt confident to explore my surroundings. Furthermore, she was my `Safe Haven`: if something did go wrong, I could always run to mommy for comfort and safety.
While Attachment Theory was initially applied to children, the theory has also been adapted for adult relationships. It is commonly applied to romantic partners, where both people fulfill the Secure Base and Safe Haven roles for one another. Interestingly, this attachment relationship is also applicable to God.
Why is this the case? And does a person’s attachment relationship with their parents help predict their attachment relationship with God? These are questions raised in a 2013 study from the Journal of Psychology and Theology.
In this study, researchers surveyed recent college graduates from two Christian colleges, asking them to give three adjectives to describe God and then tell of an experience that related to each word. These stories were then analyzed for specific themes, including Safe Haven and Secure Base. For example, a phrase such as “When things get rough, I run to Jesus for peace and strength to keep going” reveals God as Safe Haven, while a phrase such as “Knowing that Jesus is always guiding me helps me to make difficult decisions” reveals God as Secure Base. These phrases were used to assess their attachment relationship with God, specifically Jesus. Participants also answered a questionnaire that assessed their attachment relationship with their parents.
What the study revealed is that a person’s attachment relationship with their parents does NOT predict how secure their attachment relationship with God will be. People articulating reciprocal experiences of a secure, intimate attachment with God could have had either a highly secure or a highly insecure attachment relationship with their parents. More specifically, this means a couple things:
1. A secure relationship with God cannot be explained as transference of a person’s relationship with their parents onto the divine.
If transference was the case, then we would expect to see people with insecure parental attachment relationships developing an insecure attachment relationship with God. However, we do NOT see insecurity with parents leading to insecurity with God. As such, the very fact that a person with an insecure parental attachment can have a secure divine attachment refutes the claim that transference explains what we see.
2. A secure relationship with God cannot be explained as compensation for an insecure relationship with our parents.
But wait … isn’t finding security in God when there’s no security with one’s parents the definition of compensating? Not exactly. You see, this second point is much like the first point, only inverted.
If compensation was the explanation for a person’s secure relationship with God, then we would expect people with secure parental attachment relationship to have no need for a secure attachment relationship with God. However, we see security with God rising even out of security with parents. As such, the very fact that a person with a secure parental attachment can have a secure divine attachment refutes the claim that compensation explains what we see.
So once again, I reiterate the finding of this study: a person’s attachment relationship with their parents is not related to how secure their attachment relationship with God will be.
That being said, `God as Secure Base` was most commonly articulated by those with insecure relationships with their parents. This implies that a relationship with God may provide healing: an opportunity to alter our view of the world (as initially defined by insecure relationships) to a view defined by a secure relationship.
A person without a Safe Haven has nowhere to run to in difficult times, and those without a Secure Base would find it very difficult to explore and take risks. If I did not have my mother when I was a child, would I have so freely wondered off to explore? And if I did not have God now, would I have been free enough to risk coming to college …?
I had my mommy as a child, but I grew distant from her as I neared adulthood. I was a fearful person, bound by insecurity, and initially dropped out of college due to the struggles I faced. I no longer had a Safe Haven to which I could run, nor a Secure Base from which I could explore. I escaped into the fantasy worlds of books, TV and games. I tried to find a new Safe Haven and Secure Base in every sexual relationship I pursued. When all this finally crumbled beneath me, I asked Jesus if He really was God.
In January of 2012, Jesus became my Safe Haven and my Secure Base.
He is the reason I’m graduating college, having overcome the same struggles which led me to drop out in 2010. He is the reason I can still speak, even when I know I will likely be misunderstood and rejected. The man who has the confidence and courage to write this post did not exist four years ago. Because of a reciprocal, intimate, secure attachment to Jesus, the man who now exists is free indeed.
Kimball, C. M., Boyatzis, C. J., Cook, K. V., Leonard, K. C., & Flanagan, K. S. (2013). Attachment to God: A qualitative exploration of emerging adults’ spiritual relationship with God. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 41(3), 175-188.
Photo credited to ThoughtsFromThePanda.
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