The Love Series #2
One of the most disheartening experiences of being a local church pastor is observing people who can’t seem to connect with others. As they desperately try to be liked, accepted, and loved, their lack of relational intuition leads to misunderstanding and disappointment. Some mistakenly declare their closeness to others who obviously don’t share their affection. The ones I know are typically sincere Christians who have learned about the importance of supportive relationships, but they don’t relate to others the way other people do. They try, but they just don’t integrate. Often they think they do, but after a while, conflicts begin, and when they leave, feeling rejected, few even notice or care. Actually, it’s worse than that. Healthy people with healthy relational skills are relieved.
This inability to connect with others is often the result of an an attachment difficulty, and many people struggle with this.
Typically, when a new member in a church who unknowingly suffers with a difficulty attaching starts attending, I can spot it. They try to get involved, but soon the developing new relationships appear strained. As time passes, they start to talk about the people in the church with whom they’ve had conflicts, or about those they think have misrepresented them, or challenged them. Sadly, I discover that their family members, if they have them, have seen it before and know that it’s only a matter of time before social difficulties will make church attendance awkward. They also know that their attachment-challenged family member often chooses which church they will attend and they also know, deep inside that something is not right. No doubt before long, they will be motivated to switch churches again. Family members may eventually get tired of this process and find their security elsewhere. This always breaks my heart for the well-intentioned person with the difficulty, as well as for their family.
These attachment difficulties may show up in any of our relationships. As children, we all develop attachment styles, and the most recent research has identified the three dominant attachment styles: secure, anxious, and avoidant.
Social psychologists say forty years ago, about 55 percent of the population had a secure attachment style, largely because most families stayed together, extended families lived nearby, and children grew up in secure, wholesome environments. Now, with new social trends in our country, research reports that up to 60 percent of our population suffers from some measure of an attachment challenge, and that number is steadily increasing.
This fact obviously contributes to the development of our entertainment, consumer-oriented churches, transitional Christians who don’t stay in a local church for any length of time, and professing Christians who prefer self-oriented Christianity instead of giving, serving, sacrificial, family-oriented Christianity. People with attachment challenges are self-protective and they have a difficult time connecting in a life-giving way for the long-term.
I embrace the Scriptures that exhort us to love one another and to grow in love. I believe love can be very emotional, but more importantly I believe that love is choosing to live for the good of another. As I’ve observed people struggling to connect to others in a life-giving, empowering way for everyone involved, I’ve increasingly had to encourage people to learn to stay steady whether they are comfortable or uncomfortable with others. I encourage them to learn healthy relationships, to be healers and restorers, rather than accusers and judges. Under the banner of “staying steady,” I’ve seen many who have struggled to develop healthy relationships learn to grow in love and life-giving relationships. It takes time, and it is very difficult for some. But if they try, they can make it. If they don’t, they typically repeat their pattern.
The best, most succinct explanation of attachment styles I know is described by Dr. Sue Johnson in her book, Love Sense. Below is a quote from her book describing the three styles—secure, anxious, and avoidant—so you can identify yourself and perhaps be more understanding of others.
Dr. Johnson says:
Secure, the optimal style, develops naturally when we grow up knowing that we can count on our main caregiver to be accessible and responsive to us. We learn to reach for closeness when we need it, trusting that we will be offered comfort and caring much of the time. This loving contact is a touchstone, helping us to calm ourselves and find our emotional balance. We feel comfortable with closeness and needing others and aren’t consumed by worry that we will be betrayed or abandoned. Our behavior says, in essence, ‘I know I need you and you need me. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s great. So let’s reach out to each other and get close.’
Some of us, however, had early caregivers who were unpredictably or inconsistently responsive, neglectful, or even abusive. As a result, we tend to develop one of two so-called insecure strategies – anxious or avoidant – that automatically turn on when we (or our partners) need connection. If we have an anxious style, our emotions are ramped up; we are inclined to worry that we will be abandoned, and so we habitually seek closeness and ask for proof that we are loved. It’s as if we are saying, “Are you there? Are you? Show me. I can’t be sure. Show me again.’
If we have an avoidant style, on the other hand, we tend to ramp down our emotions so as to protect ourselves from being vulnerable to, or dependent on, others. We shut down our attachment longings and try to evade real connection. We are apt to see other people as a source of danger, not safety or comfort. Our attitude seems to be ‘I don’t need you to be there for me. I’m fine whatever you do.’
. . . Secure people see themselves as generally competent and worthy of love, and they see others as trustworthy and reliable. They tend to view their relationships as workable and are open to learning about love and loving. In contrast, anxious people tend to idealize others but have strong doubts as to their own value and their basic acceptability as partners. As a result, they obsessively seek approval and the reassurance that they are indeed loveable and not about to be rejected. Avoidant folks, meanwhile, view themselves as worthy of love – at least that is their conscious stance. Any self-doubt tends to be suppressed. They have a negative view of others as inherently unreliable and untrustworthy. Even in their stories and dreams, anxious people portray themselves as apprehensive and unloved, while avoidants see themselves as distant and unfeeling. (From pages 43 and 45 of Love Sense by Dr. Sue Johnson, bold emphasis mine.)
Here is the good news: The Gospel and the body of Christ can help all of us grow out of our attachment difficulties and find health and strength by growing increasingly secure in our relationship with God and others. But the problem is the dysfunctional person often leaves too soon, thinking they’re self-protecting, and rather than being healed, they simply remain in the types of superficial relationships where they don’t feel threatened. It’s very sad because these people miss the healing strength and security that long-term, healthy love relationships provide. I’ve watched it for over 40 years, with increasing frequency. But Christ and staying in a good life-giving Church provides dynamic and effective solutions. The secret is staying steady and being open to the healing power of love. People who have insecure attachment styles can become secure over time. In future blogs, I’ll give you the information needed to help you live in the love God has for you, and to help you grow in loving relationships with others as well.
This and other blogs by Pastor Ted Haggard are available at the above referenced website as a ministry of St. James Church. If you would like to strengthen the ministry of St. James Church and Pastor Ted Haggard by giving, please use the “give” tab at http://www.saintjameschurch.com.
9 replies on “Attachment: The Key to Love”
Well put. Thanks, Ted.
Once again I have greatly appreciated your article Ted. There is a very important message here for the Church. And it is vital that church leadership, indeed membership as a whole, embraces the love that is despertately needed by people who are living this experience, that can sometimes be a living hell.
Secures – Anchors – can feel but not deal. Avoidants – Islands – can deal but not feel. Anxious attachment types – Waves – can feel but not deal.
In the ups and downs of baby- and toddler-hood, caregivers of Anchors respond consistently, lovingly, and appropriately. Caregivers of waves respond randomly – nothing a good temper tantrum can’t fix, the Wave soon learns. (A pattern that continues into adulthood.)
Throwing a fit will not work to trigger the caregivers of Islands. These parents are checked out completely. Or harsh & brutal. Nobody attends to the emotional needs of the soon-to-be Island. No matter what.
And before conscious memory, a 2-year-old decides he or she really doesn’t need anyone, just like the song: “I am a rock, I am an Island … and a rock feels no pain.” They decide: I’m OK, and you – ALL OF YOU – are not. This is a decision for a lifetime 75% of the time.
The number of young people who are Islands (Avoidants) has nearly doubled in the last 40 years. Why? Look to the caregivers: Addicted, exhausted, single, providing childcare by electronic screen, unable to afford good child care. Today, extended families are replaced by nuclear families; nuclear families often going nuclear in anger and despair.
The social implications are profound. Before WWII, the best-selling book on parenting in Germany advised mothers to totally ignore their children’s emotional needs. A generation of Islands resulted – a generation dealing but not feeling – with very little pity, compassion, or human decency. A generation who could ignore the stench of the concentration camps. A generation who could kill, steal, and destroy efficiently – without pangs of conscience.
Think Romanian orphans. Islands are often narcissists who marry for better, but not worse. They see intimacy for pleasure, lacking bond or connection. Relationships are utilitarian. God is excluded. Empathy is lacking.
The psychology of Avoidants goes a long way in explaining the end times behavior of 2 Timothy 3:2 – “People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy.”
To reverse this, it starts by seeing young children the way Jesus did: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 18:10. We the church must be salt and light for this.
Practically speaking: (1) We need extended family, church, trusted friends and relatives involved in the life of our young. (2) Our early childcare choices are crucial to our child’s future. (3) We need to understand attachment styles in making marriage choices. (4) If we are one of the insecure types, we need to do the hard work of becoming secure, which is possible.
So very true Pastor Ted: Staying steady – in love, with parents, with the church, with our friends and relatives – is essential. We stay steady with our spouse. Our spouses must be able to count on us, no matter what. Criticism is deadly, the threat of divorce is death. Jesus’ way of steady, selfless love brings life.
Indeed, life to the full.
Thank you Dan!
TYPO – secures can feel and deal, equally well.
hi ted, hope all is well with you and Gale and the rest of your family
it’s interesting to me that you written this, i have kinda of experience the same kind of thing, a few years back i went to a couple of churches in my area (never been to either of them before) and i kinda of got a feeling of (why are you here),i m sure some of that is because i,m a shy type of guy who talks more when you get to know me. but i was still somewhat put off by it(i shouldn’t be, we are all humans ) any way since i do not have any kind social life at all i m going to try it again, i have picked out 2 churches that have bible study during the week so i m going to attend both.(i work 7 days a week so cant go to a regular Sunday service. this time i m going to keep going
Good idea Terry. Go to a men’s Bible study and commit to go for two years. You’ll find it healing as long as the church is a life-giving church. Go for it. You can do it.
Ted – as always, you are spot on. In reading this, I realized that I am an avoidant, I really don’t want to be one but am afraid that I’ve conditioned myself to be this way. Attending my local church and men’s group has helped, but am still afraid of making a deep connection. Really not sure why, but you give me the courage to change.
Thanks for taking the time to write these blogs – you do make a difference. Hope all is well with you and family
Thank you so much Ward. All is well here, and this series is extremely practical for all of us. Thank you for writing back. Once you know this and want to address it, you can. Did you read the first in this series? It will be motivational for you.