Authentic New Testament Solutions

Attachment: The Key to Love

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.



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