From the Head to the Heart is a blog series exploring common issues people may encounter that prevent them from experiencing God on a deeper level. We will then dig into strategies for helping make the connection between the head and the heart.
How do you relate to other people? Do you find that you seek to grow close to people and form deep intimate relationships? Are you ambivalent about being close to others, desiring to press into relationships one minute and then pushing people away from the next? Do you struggle with anxiety when it comes to intimate relationships which can lead to a state of regularly questioning the closeness? Our topic today is focused on people’s style of relating - i.e., why do you engage people the way you do?
IN THE BEGINNING
Your style of relating to people is directly connected to your attachment style. What is an attachment? Christian psychologists Tim Clinton and Gary Sibcy state, “attachment is an overarching system that explains the principles, the rules, and the emotions of relationships.” Your attachment style is formulated during infancy with the most significant relationship you have at that time -- your primary caregivers. There are differing attachment styles that are known as either secure or insecure attachments. Dan Allender, a psychologist and author, states that a secure attachment is “based on the primary caregiver’s quality of attunement and delight, containment and honor, and the ability to repair ruptures of care through honest ownership of failure.” Attunement is being in tune with a child’s needs and attending to their needs with delight. Containment is a term used to define creating boundaries for children. In doing so, a caregiver honors the child. Caregivers will fail their children, doing so is a byproduct of living in a fallen world. When a caregiver fails their child, they can maintain a secure attachment through honestly owning up to their failures. Insecure attachments are often described as either avoidant, ambivalent, or disorganized. An avoidant attachment style comes from a failure to be attuned to a child’s needs. As a result, a child becomes emotionally distant and isolated. The process of a child becoming distant and isolated is due to the child turning internally to meet his or her needs. The child's emotional needs are not met by his or her caregiver therefore the child seeks to meet his or her own emotional needs by creating distance from the emotional needs. Emotional needs are not met so numbness to emotions is how the child copes. The ambivalent attachment style “involves a lack of attunement followed by a failure of containment through repeated violations of boundaries.” A caregiver fluctuates between being distant and intrusive with one’s child. Such inconsistent behavior by a caregiver leads a child to become “anxious, needy, and never fully satisfied” because the child cannot predict when he or she will receive loving support. Lastly, a disorganized attachment style “involves repeated failures of attunement and containment due to intense violations of anger, manipulation, abandonment, and violence.” A child often responds by becoming “aggressive, impulsive, manipulative, and difficult to manage.” A disorganized attachment style has remnants of both avoidant and ambivalent.
John Bowlby, an English psychiatrist in the 1900’s observed children that were dropped off at the hospital, and how they responded when their parents left them and then would come back to pick them up (during this time in history children were dropped off at the hospital and left when sick). Bowlby observed differing reactions from children when their parents would come and pick them up from the hospital. Some kids would cry and run toward their parent finding security in being back in their arms. Their anxiety drastically decreased, and they felt safe and secure. Other children would respond with ambivalence, meaning they’d cry and seek their parent but then yell and scream at how much they hated their parent once in their arms. The ambivalent child was confused. On the one hand, the child wanted to feel secure and safe. However, the child saw the parent as not meeting his/her need for feeling safe and secure. The avoidant child would appear calm, cool, and collected when his parent would come pick him up. However, after medically assessing the child findings revealed that there was considerable internal angst. This child suppressed his feelings of not feeling safe, secure, and comfortable. Lastly, the disorganized child was unpredictable when his parent came to pick him up. His response was never the same, and he appeared unstable. A disorganized child may seek comfort from a stranger rather than one’s parent. Further research has revealed that internally the disorganized child was questioning his sense of self-worth toward self and others.
You may be wondering, what on earth does this have to do with God? Attachment has a lot to do with feeling connected to God. As we’ll unpack further, if you grew up with an insecure attachment style of ambivalent, avoidant, or disorganized then it’s likely you’ll struggle to feel a close connection to God. Why? Because if you cannot feel secure, safe, and comfortable around your primary caregivers than how are you going to feel safe, secure, and comfortable with God?
PARENTING THE IMAGE OF GOD THE FATHER
Many parents are completely unaware of how they are to reflect the “fatherly” relationship between a child and God, which is not to say that parents are to be “a god” to their children. Rather, parents are to point their children to a relationship with God and provide them with a relationship, on a smaller scale that is reflective of a relationship with God. God loves his children and desires them to know his love for him. He knows that the role of a parent is so important because they have the privilege and responsibility of reflecting his love to children while raising them to go into the world and reflect his love to others. Parents are to raise God fearing children who can transition to seeing God as their true Father. The first nine chapters of the book of Proverbs is an example of Solomon teaching his son to fear the Lord, meaning to grow in relationship to God. Solomon was seeking to fulfill his God ordained purpose by pointing his child to his true Father. Unfortunately, many parents do not acknowledge their God given role.
Instead, children are raised in homes where secure attachments are not formed. Parents withhold their affections or, choose to pay attention to something or someone else rather than their child. Attachment research shows that secure attachments are formed at birth. Insecure attachments impact children’s ability to formulate safe and loving relationships because at a young age they do not have that modeled for them. They are deprived of a secure and loving environment. How do you think this impacts children as they grow into adults? How do you suspect this affects one’s relationship with God?
Many Christians struggle to connect their heads to their heart as they relate to God because from an early age (although they have no memory of these insecure attachments) they never formed secure attachments. For those who never formed secure attachments, they do not know any better. All they know is a life of questioning the sincerity of other people’s affections toward them. Are you there for me? Can I count on you? Do you care about me? Am I worthy of your love? For these individuals, such questions are not only asked of those around them, but they can also be asked of God. God, are you there for me? God, can I trust you? God, do you care about me? God, am I worthy of your love?
God’s heart breaks for these individuals. He grieves as he watches their parents neglect their God ordained purpose and design as a parent. God desires nothing more than to pour his love upon us and he allows parents to play that role in our lives. God’s heart breaks for the fatherless. All throughout the Scriptures, God is speaking of the responsibility of caring for the fatherless, which allows the orphaned to experience his mighty love through those who care for them. Individuals who have not experienced a secure attachment with their parents are mourned by God just as he mourns for the fatherless. These people are essentially “parentless” due to their parents not raising them the way God instructs parents to raise their children.
SHELTER IN THE STORM
You may be asking yourself, “how do I know if I have a secure or insecure attachment?” In addition to the questions above, ask yourself who, or what, do you turn to when you are afraid, or feeling vulnerable, and exposed? Your style of relating will kick into gear in response to relational movements. Tim Clinton and Gary Sibcy, authors of Attachments: Why You Love, Feel and Act the Way You Do, write, “Attachment theory is not just a theory of relationship, it is also a theory of emotion.” Relational movements are movements toward, against, or away from another person, which are driven by your emotions.
Clinton and Sibcy state,
Persons with avoidant attachment tend to keep people at a distance, avoid true intimacy, and value success and power over relationships. Those with ambivalent attachment become entangled in relationships, with lots of ups and downs and excessive concerns about rejection and abandonment. They have difficulty setting boundaries with others… Likewise, they are often consumed with a whirlwind of emotions… allowing normal, healthy emotions to mutate to more intense, destructive, and self-defeating outbursts… Those with disorganized attachment bounce back and forth among the insecure styles. At times they might be like the avoidant person, keeping people at a distance and overregulating emotions. On other occasions, they might shift into an ambivalent style, becoming more clingy and entangled in relationships and underregulating emotions. Also, those with disorganized attachment might be overwhelmed with feelings from the past. Especially when trauma is part of the past, this person might be consumed with flashbacks and intrusive recollections about past losses and terrifying experiences, and not just remembering those times but reliving them.
David reveals to the readers of the Psalms a relational movement toward God as his shelter, fortress, and rock (Psalm 18, 27, 28, 31, 46, 59, 61, 71, 91). What was he turning to God for? David was turning to God as his place of safety, security, and comfort. He was looking to God when he felt vulnerable, exposed, and afraid. Many Christians will read this and say to themselves, “Okay then, I’ll just look to God more as my place of safety.” Such a thought process will ultimately lead to failure and discouragement because the heart of the matter is not “trying harder.” Rather, the core of the issue is David knew God intimately. David knew God to be faithful, loving, and protective of him, much like a child looks to a parent. During David’s most difficult times his secure attachment with God kicked into gear.
David provides us with a model of a secure attachment with God, however, what does an insecure attachment look like with God? For the avoidant style, you may find yourself reacting in anger toward God. Anger is our self-righteous judgment against God. Clinton and Sibcy state, “God’s purpose is seen as merely making sure nothing goes wrong in their lives. So when things do go wrong in their lives, they blame God.” For the ambivalent style, there will be a constant state of wondering if God loves you. The ambivalent person is always working hard to “earn God’s love” and fears to lose His love. They are not secure in knowing if God loves them which leads to an anxiousness regarding God. The disorganized style may result in seeing God as unpredictable and wrathful. The person with this attachment style may tend to focus on God’s perceived inconsistencies as it relates to His wrath, love, and judgment. In essence, a disorganized style can be seen as a combination of the other two styles. Sadly, trauma and abuse are often associated with a disorganized attachment which can lead to angry and painful views of God.
The question you may be asking yourself is how does a person with an insecure attachment style learn to do as David did with God? The answer differs depending on the attachment style. Regardless of the insecure attachment style, there is a needed level of increased self-awareness. Self-awareness is necessary to know how emotions influence your relational movements. As awareness grows, you can choose to stumble forward toward God acknowledging to him what he already knows about your attachment style and your emotional state. Look to King David and the other psalmists as examples of how to go before God. All throughout the Psalms David and the psalmists are crying out to God. David wrestles with God; he engages God, he fights to move toward God rather than flee toward other sources of comfort, safety, and security. He pleads with God and asks the Lord to reveal Himself as a mighty fortress, rock, and a shelter during the storms of life. God desires to restore you. He seeks to draw you in so that you can experience true secure attachment in Him by experiencing his steadfast love for you. We have to choose to believe in God’s steadfast love for us even when you have had caregivers who did not reflect such love. You were created for more; you were created for a Creator who desperately desires to delight in you. We know this because God did not withhold His love from us, but rather made the ultimate sacrifice for every one of us so that we can know His love without the barrier of our sins.
A few good Christian resources for learning more about attachment are Clinton and Sibcy’s book Attachments: Why You Love, Feel, and Act the Way You Do and Clinton and Straub’s God Attachment: Why You Believe, Act, and Feel the Way You Do About God. For parents who want to better understand why they parent the way they do then Siegel and Hartzell’s book Parenting from the Inside Out is worth reading.
A prayer for you: Holy God, if this blog entry hit a nerve for some of your children reading it then I ask that your Spirit minister to them. Give them the courage to engage their story and grow in understanding that their story is interwoven with the greater redemptive story you are telling throughout history. You are the God of restoration and redemption so fuel their faith to have hope that you are capable of redeeming and restoring them. May your children who resonate with today’s post not ignore the nerve that has been hit but rather, will you please fill them with courage and strength to press forward and press into you. The journey may be bumpy and hard, equip them with your Spirit’s power to have the courage and be brave. For the parents who are reading this, I ask that you stir within their hearts a reminder of the great responsibility you’ve given them in caring for your children you’ve given them to raise. May they seek to honor you and point their children to you as the one true Father who loves them perfectly. In Jesus’ glorious name I ask of these things from you. Amen.
Allender, D. Healing the Wounded Heart online course.
Clinton, T. & Sibcy, G. (2002). Attachments: Why You Love, Feel and Act the Way You Do.
The Holy Bible (ESV)
Dr. Ruel Tyer is the Director of Care and Counseling for OneDay Counseling at Portico church. To learn more about OneDay Counseling visit the website - www.onedaycville.org. Dr. Tyer provides counseling services for individuals, couples, and families. If you are interested in learning more about counseling services please contact Dr. Tyer at email@example.com.