How do you reach for closeness and connect with others during pain? Can you create safety for others and yourself during conflict when problems arise? Are you able to truly connect with others, or do you skim the surface? If you are married, are you able to be intimate at both the emotional and sexual level?
All of these abilities are linked to your attachment style. In our first part https://www.worshipfacility.com/2022/07/14/how-to-build-relationships-within-your-church/ of this 4-part series, we introduced the idea that emotionally healthy church leaders can create a climate where their church members can be safe in times of trouble and have the confidence to grow. We need to build church families where it is safe to be vulnerable.
In this second blog of the series we will offer a deeper understanding of our attachment styles.
Attachment is the bonding process that God ordained for us to connect with others, from the time that we are infants and throughout our lives.1 It begins with our very first cry and the way that someone picked us up to hold us.
If someone took the time to hold us, show us affection, and carefully track with our emotional signals then we will have a much more connected approach towards relationships. These kind of bonding experiences make a lasting imprint on the mind, showing that we can count on others to comfort us and be available in times of need. As a result we reach out to others, especially in times of need. Finding the support we need in moments of distress instills a settled confidence that whatever happens, “We are not alone.” This is called Secure Attachment. 2
Our entire nervous system gets calibrated and wired up during infancy. If we receive physical affection, the tender gaze of our parents, and consistent emotional responses, then our nervous system is bolstered to be less reactive during the struggles of life.
Conversely, children who had inconsistent emotional responses or who were really left to their own devices will not have that settled confidence. Children who experienced physical or emotional abandonment will struggle to trust in the promise of closeness and safety in relationships. We would describe their relational styles as insecurely attached, and these effects linger throughout the lifespan.
Wiring in the Attachment Map.
We don’t remember the thousands of interactions that went into shaping the bond we had with our parent. Yet these interactions helped to produce our attachment style. They took place before we had complex language to even begin to describe what was happening to us.
Life experiences activate the brain at the structural and chemical level. The brain responds to these attachment experiences with excitement, confusion, peace, or anxiety. Early attachment experiences actually help to determine which parts of our brains get utilized and strengthened, and which parts will be underdeveloped.
Have you heard the phrase “use it or lose it”? This literally takes place in the child’s brain in the first three years of life. Portions of the brain that are not activated or utilized are actually pruned so that the active areas of the brain will receive the most resources. The result of this process is that only the most useful brain structures and communication pathways will endure. The remaining structures of the brain, once formed and locked in place, will determine a person’s potential to analyze and respond to relationship situations in the future.
An infant’s early life attachment experiences will also influence which brain chemicals get released in the context of human interactions and in what quantities. The chemical regulation system of the brain, which forms during the child’s early months and years, will also influence the way the child responds to attachment situations. If a child learned that attachment relationships are secure, then the prospect of being close to others will bring her joy. Also, her brain will release mellowing brain agents, specific neurotransmitters, into her brain when she draws close to others in times of need.
Another child, who was abandoned or abused by a parent, will have a brain flooded with fear and hypervigilance brain chemicals during times when he tries to get close to others. As a result, it may be very physically overwhelming for this child to get close to others. His brain is literally trying to signal him to be vigilant for the prospect of danger right in the moment when he tries to draw close to someone else. It is a similar pattern for emotional neglect, for these children have become so accustomed to self-reliance that it becomes very stressful to consider the option of depending on others once again.
Physically and emotionally you can’t help but have certain responses in attachment situations, because many of your brain’s structures and chemical response systems were actually put together in the context of your earliest attachment experiences. Your love style for relationships was created at the very time that your brain was developing.
You can’t help the way you think and feel about close relationships!
I do not want to sound fatalistic or to convey a sense of doom over the life of one who has experienced trauma or confusion during the early experiences of attachment. Modern research shows that God made our brains in wonderful and resilient ways. Our brains can recover from trauma, rebuild new brain tissue, and compensate for areas of damage and underdevelopment.
We may also have new experiences in later childhood or even as adults that help to reprogram our brain and teach us healthier ways to connect. This includes new experiences of receiving the perfect love of our Heavenly Father right here on earth.
Even if my father and mother abandon me,
the Lord will hold me close…
I am confident I will see the Lord’s goodness
while I am here in the land of the living.
(Psalm 27:10, 13; NLT).
We can appreciate that our attachment style becomes firmly engrained in our minds and bodies. Research shows that our attachment styles remain with us from infancy, through later years of childhood, and into adulthood. Ultimately, our earliest attachment experiences create a map in our hearts and minds which describes our most central views about ourselves and love. Our attachment style determines how we answer two basic questions:3
- Am I worthy of love?
- Are others capable of loving me?
How do you answer those two questions? Are you confident in both, or is there one area where you are less certain? Let’s take it a step deeper.
Attachment is the tangible experience of love; it’s how you know and experience love even without words. We can readily see that attachment determines our ability to give and receive love. Understanding your approach towards intimate relationships can shed light on areas where you are excelling or areas where you need to grow.
The Love Quiz
The following questionnaire provides statements describing three possible attachment styles, and it is drawn from research and applied work on Attachment Security. 4,5 Please take a moment to honestly rate yourself.
- Secure – I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t often worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.
- Ambivalent Protesters – I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t want to stay with me. I want to get extremely close to another person, and this desire sometimes scares people away.
- Detached Avoiders – I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, love partners want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.
Do you lean toward the Ambivalent Protester side of interactions in your close relationships? Do you find yourself too often in the Detached Avoider side of things? Can you see how the fear of abandonment or experiences of neglect might impact your love style?
It’s really important to have a grasp on what your attachment style is, for this characteristic way of relating will show up both in your home and church environments. Particularly in moments of stress or duress, your attachment style will shine through.
You will have a straight path towards asking for needs and launching out to explore growth if you are Securely Attached. However, if you are insecure in your attachment then you will be struggling with excessive self-reliance (Avoiders) which is not what Christ has called us into. Alternatively, you may fear abandonment and struggle with feeling unlovable (Protesters) in an emotional state which misses out on God’s assurance of His presence and your worth and value.
“ When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you…
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned…
Since you are precious and honored in my sight,
and because I love you…” (Isaiah 43:2,4; NIV).
We are deeply loved, and God is with us in every storm. This is the message of presence and love that we must embrace for our own Secure Attachment in life and with our Heavenly Father. Bolstered in this, we are able to share this same kind of reassuring and confident love with our church communities.
Tune into our upcoming third blog in this 4-part series where we will explore ways to grow more secure in your attachment style. In the meantime, you may learn more about secure attachment at facetofaceliving.com.
- Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss (Vol I). London: Hogarth.
- Ainsworth, M.D., Blehar, M.C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: Assessed in the Strange Situation and at home. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Clinton, T. & Straub, J. (2010). God attachment: Why you believe, act, and feel the way you do about God. New York: Howard Books, Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
- Hazan, C. and Shaver, P. (1987). “Romantic Love Conceptualized as an Attachment Process”; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511-524.
- Gill, J. (2015). Face to face: Seven keys to a secure marriage. Bloomington, IN: Westbow Press, a Division of Thomas Nelson and Zondervan.