Attachment and Faith Style: How Parenting Affects Your Experience of God

Yesterday, I linked a study reporting that 40% of US children suffer from insecure attachment.  To the degree that anyone thinks about attachment at all, most people tend to think of it in terms of its psychological and relational ramifications.  What fewer people realize is that, because attachment style predicts people’s attitudes toward all their relationships, it also impacts our experience of God.  Let’s take a look at four of the most common attachment styles and how each influences our faith walk.

Secure attachment  (Confident in Relationship Stability)

The securely attached child knows that when he cries out, his needs tend to be addressed promptly, consistently, generously and cheerfully.    He feels a sense of personal power, because he feels that he can do things to get his needs met.  He feels a sense of trust and confidence in others because the most important people in his life respond generously and predictably when he calls out.  The security he experiences in his interactions with his parents become his internal working model for all relationships, including his relationship with God.

Securely attached people tend to agree with the following statements: “It is relatively easy for me to become emotionally close to others. I am comfortable depending on others and having others depend on me. I don’t worry about being alone or having others not accept me.” This style of attachment usually results from a history of warm and responsive interactions with relationship partners. Securely attached people tend to have positive views of themselves and their partners. They also tend to have positive views of their relationships. Often they report greater satisfaction and adjustment in their relationships than people with other attachment styles. Securely attached people feel comfortable both with intimacy and with independence. Many seek to balance intimacy and independence in their relationship.

–Spirituality and Secure Attachment.  The person with a secure attachment style is confident in God’s love and providence.  He may struggle with normal doubts and questions but he approaches these with confidence, assuming that answers to his questions are available even if those answers escape him at this time.  The securely attached person is comfortable expressing his feelings–positive and negative–to God (including anger).  He is also comfortable sharing his weaknesses and struggles openly in prayer without fear that God will disapprove of him or abandon him.  He is confident that God wants to play a helpful, nurturing, positive role in his life.

Anxious–Preoccupied Attachment  (Latches on quick and doesn’t let go but tends to be always worry about abandonment).

The person with Anxious/Pre-occupied attachment got his needs met as a child, but he had to work harder to make it happen.  He had to cry a little harder and a little longer to get mom and dad’s attention.  As a child, he often felt he had to convince his parents that his needs and concerns were legitimate.  Needs were met often enough, but not always.  As a result, this person tends to have questions about the stability and security of his relationships.  He may tend to  let people in too quickly, sharing too much too soon and then worrying that the person may have somehow put the relationship at risk.

People who have a more Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment Style tend to agree with the following statements: “I want to be completely emotionally intimate with others, but I often find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I am uncomfortable being without close relationships, but I sometimes worry that others don’t value me as much as I value them.” People with this style of attachment seek high levels of intimacy, approval, and responsiveness from their partners. They sometimes value intimacy to such an extent that they become overly dependent on their partners. Compared to securely attached people, people who are anxious or preoccupied with attachment tend to have less positive views about themselves. They often doubt their worth as a partner and blame themselves for their partners’ lack of responsiveness. People who are anxious or preoccupied with attachment may exhibit high levels of emotional expressiveness, worry, and impulsiveness in their relationships.

–Spirituality & Anxious/Preoccupied  Attachment.  The person with an anxious-pre-occupied attachment style may love God deeply but he often struggles to trust in God’s love and providence.  He may have  concerns that God will always “be there” for him.  He may know intellectually that God will never abandon him but he may have a hard time always feeling or believing it.   Struggles with normal doubts or questions about faith may be attended by guilt or fear that he is betraying God or letting him down.  The anxious-preoccupied attached person may be uncomfortable expressing his negative feelings and faults to God (especially anger at God, which seems particularly scary).  He may tend to be somewhat scrupulous and experience some worry that God  will disapprove of him or abandon him if he doesn’t toe the line.  He may know that God wants to play a helpful, nurturing, positive role in his life, but he may have a harder time always feeling or believing that.  He may have a sense that unless he hounds God with his needs that God will forget about him, but if he hounds God too much God will tire of him.


Fearful–Avoidant Attachment (- i.e.,  “I want you around but I’m afraid of letting you too close so I’m not going to let you know how much I care”)

The person with a Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Style had his basic needs met but had very little control over when and how.  As a child, he may have been attended to on a strict schedule that had little to do with his actual needs and cries and, instead,  everything to do with arbitrary rules that made sense to the parents but none to him. He learns that needs may be met, but whether they are or not has little connection to his efforts to get them met.  When the needs are finally responded to, it is often a bit of a surprise, and he is left feeling, “Why now?”  He learns that relationships are mysterious things that follow rules he can’t possibly begin to understand so why bother trying.  As he gets older, he tends to be suspicious of the motivations of others.  He wants people around but tends to be fairly guarded, sending a “come close but not too close” message to others.

People with Fearful-Avoidant attachment  tend to agree with the following statements: “I am somewhat uncomfortable getting close to others. I want emotionally close relationships, but I find it difficult to trust others completely, or to depend on them. I sometimes worry that I will be hurt if I allow myself to become too close to others.” People with this attachment style have mixed feelings about close relationships. On the one hand, they desire to have emotionally close relationships. On the other hand, they tend to feel uncomfortable with emotional closeness. These mixed feelings are combined with, sometimes unconscious, negative views about themselves and their partners. They commonly view themselves as unworthy of responsiveness from their partners, and they don’t trust the intentions of their partners. Similar to the dismissive–avoidant attachment style, people with a fearful–avoidant attachment style seek less intimacy from partners and frequently suppress and deny their feelings. Instead, they are much less comfortable initially expressing affection.  They also tend to attribute negative motivations to other people’s behavior and tend to be more defensive.  Where the Anxious-Preoccupied person blames himself for relationship problems, the Fearful-Avoidant person tends to think that any struggles in the relationship are the other’s fault.  They are very good at blame shifting and denying that they have any responsibility for improving things.

–Spirituality & Fearful Avoidant Attachment.  This person tends to often feel that he is going through the motions in his relationship with God.  He may struggle to trust God on a personal level.  If he is religious, religious involvement tends to be pro-forma and habitual even if he  professes real and serious devotion.  The relational dimension of faith is often lost on this person. If interpersonal relationships are mysterious, a relationship with a transcendent being one can’t see is infinitely more complicated and so he may tend not to think about it much.  At best, faith is often something that is important  to study or practice more than feel or experience.  Where the Anxious-Preoccupied person tends to blame himself if God feels distant, the Fearlful-Avoidant person may tend to feel resentful and angry toward God for withdrawing or abandoning him in difficult times and treat God as if God has a lot to answer for with regard to the problems this person has in his life.

Dismissive–Avoidant Attachment  (Avoidant Personality–i.e., “I’m a lone wolf. I can take or leave relationships. I can take care of myself.”)

People with this attachment style were largely left to fend for themselves.  Feeding and nurturing occurred when the parent felt it was necessary but these tasks were performed in a functional rather than relational way.  Parents of such children are not affectionate or affirming.  They don’t encourage much talk about feelings or an emotional life in general.

People with a dismissive style  attachment tend to agree with these statements: “I am comfortable without close emotional relationships.”, “It is very important to me to feel independent and self-sufficient”, and “I prefer not to depend on others or have others depend on me.” People with this attachment style desire a high level of independence. The desire for independence often appears as an attempt to avoid attachment altogether. They view themselves as self-sufficient and invulnerable to feelings associated with being closely attached to others. They often deny needing close relationships. Some may even view close relationships as relatively unimportant. Not surprisingly, they seek less intimacy with relationship partners, whom they often view less positively than they view themselves.   Adults with this attachment style tend to define “intimacy” or “relationship” in purely sexual terms if at all.   Investigators commonly note the defensive character of this attachment style. People with a dismissive–avoidant attachment style tend to suppress and hide their feelings, and they tend to deal with rejectionby distancing themselves from the sources of rejection (i.e., their relationship partners)

–Spirituality & Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment.  The person with a Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment style believes he needs God like he needs everyone else…that is to say, little, if at all.  This is a person who believes that he is completely self-sufficient.  The problem is, he is unaware of the impoverishment of his alleged self-sufficiency.  He trades accomplishment for intimacy and achievement for attachment and he burns himself out trying to fill the relational and spiritual void in his soul with the acquisition of things and approval.  But once he gets these things, they become worthless and he is after the next goal.  If he has a faith life at all, it tends to be because his church membership conveys some social or professional advantage.  If he believes in God, then his vision of God is one of a distant God who is only useful to the degree that he conveys certain benefits or privileges.

The Upshot

Parents rarely appreciate the power their interactions with their children  have over their children’s view of relationships and spirituality, but these simple exchanges between parents and children set the stage for both relationship and spirituality in tremendously powerful ways that have been demonstrated by hundreds of studies over decades and decades.  Responding to our children’s needs–especially in infancy, but also throughout childhood–in a manner that is prompt, consistent, generous and cheerful is the best tool we parents have to raise well-adjusted, healthy, loving, moral kids who are capable of deep and meaningful relationships with others and God.  Rather than spoiling our children, responding to their needs in manner that is prompt, consistent, generous and cheerful allows our children to grow up expecting their relationships with others and God as well to be rewarding, enriching experiences where they can experience all the virtues that make life a gift; love, intimacy, hope, joy, and all the rest.  If parents would like to learn more about raising well-attached children, check out Parenting with Grace:  The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids or to learn more about healing your own attachment wounds, contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute to learn more about how our telephone counseling practice can help you get everything God wants you to experience in your relationships with him and the other important people he has placed in your life!

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