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Diving Deeper into Life & Love

  • Writer's pictureSteven Spotts, PsyD

Secure Attachments, One of 16 Essential Ingredients in Healthy Relationships

Updated: Apr 21, 2018

This is part 4 of 16 characteristics that help us define “mental health.” Psychologist, Dr. Nancy Williams, shared this list at a recent conference and prompted me to think about how our expressions or limitations of these traits impact the development our intimate relationships.

Our human need for secure attachments has been studied and articulated by many, but none more so than John Bowlby, a British psychologist and the father of modern attachment theory.

He drew many of his ideas from evolutionary biology, ethology, developmental psychology and cognitive science. Like many scientists and observers of truth, he may be right, but possibly for the wrong reasons. Whether by survival instinct or by creative design it seems undeniable that the individual human condition is inexorably tied to others, for good or for naught.

The Torah's explanation for that particular design shows up in the creation account when God declares, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). Of course, this is normally understood as a declaration of man’s need for woman, but I think it primarily points to the broader truth of our fundamental relational nature. Adam, a Hebrew word meaning "humanity" is provided Eve, a Hebrew word meaning "life." Design dictates that a human's life is somehow dependent upon the secure attachment of another. It may or may not involve a spouse. Further, the creation story reveals that even God exists in the form of a loving relationship as Father, Son, and Spirit. If the Creator is relational in His nature and we are created in His likeness, it stands to reason that we also are relational in a our nature.

It is no accident that human infants, when left alone, are developmentally unable to care for themselves and will die. We are literally made for relationship. Without it, we die.

Rhawn Joseph, Ph.D. at writes the following about both the physical and emotional cost to children deprived of secure relational attachments.

“For example, in several well known studies of children raised in foundling homes during the early 1900's when the need for contact was not well recognized and children were left to lie alone in their cribs (except during feeding or when being changed), the majority died. Morbidity rates for children less than 1 year of age was over 70%. Of 10,272 children admitted to the Dublin Foundling home during a single 25 year period, only 45 survived.
Of those who survived an infancy spent in institutions where mothering and contact comfort were minimized, signs of low intelligence, depression, extreme passivity, apathy, as well as severe attentional deficits were often characteristic . Such individuals had difficulty forming attachment or maintaining social interactions later in life and were forever abnormal and dysfunctional.”

It’s not hard to imagine how early or subsequent deprivations of this type might then affect our capacity to form intimate connections in adulthood, particularly those necessary for a successful marriage, family, community. or society.

The reasons I have been drawn to the practice of psychotherapy—and work at helping others in the way that I do—is at least twofold. One, I believe that change is possible; and two, I believe that a secure relational attachment is fundamental to seeing change occur.

Along these lines, David Wallin (2007), in a chapter entitled Attachment and Change writes:

“If our early involvements have been problematic, then subsequent relationships can offer second chances, perhaps affording us the potential to love, feel and reflect with the freedom that flows from secure attachment.”

Psychotherapy is a relationship that is co-created by therapist and client for the purpose of change. This is no less true of a healthy marriage which must be co-created as well. Gary Thomas, in his book, Sacred Marriage, asks the question,

“What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?”

Holiness carries the meaning of being set apart as unique, powerful, and life giving. But is also about being "righteous," that is, relating rightly to another. This involves treating others with the exact same respect, care, and consideration that you require. Could it be that the holy and transcendent qualities of marriage (i.e. those that are powerful and life giving) only occur as individuals learn to relate rightly with one another in the crucible of that relationship.

In our intimate relationships—ones in which we deeply know and are known by another—it is only through our loyal and committed love of one another that our blemishes, failures, and anxieties can be safely held.

Another way to think about this would be to consider how it is that your personal fulfillment will be dependent upon your ability to get along properly (rightly) with another who also seeks his or her personal fulfillment. Unless we are able to sort this out, there will be no holy, powerful, life giving transcendence.

If you are married, could it be that whether or not you had secure attachments as a child, it is the security of your attachment to your spouse, and (by extension) your spouse’s attachment to you, that dictates whether healthy growth or refinement is possible for both of you?

When my youngest daughter asked me how to know if she and her now husband were ready for marriage, my spontaneous response was,

“When you know that you have an undeniable commitment to making your relationship work, no matter what, then you are ready.”

It’s that kind of commitment that creates a secure attachment for marriage. It means that

you and your spouse are free to risk, free to be vulnerable, free to be your true selves, and thus, free to grow. Never underestimate the power of a committed and loyal love in your marriage to help each other experience meaningful change. There is no greater fear of human experience that that of being fundamentally alone. Thus, it is our experience of a loyal love that makes us unafraid to face the inevitable challenges, vicissitudes and suffering of our common human existence.

What about you? Have you benefited from secure attachments? If not, how do you think it has impacted you? If yes, how has it contributed to your growth and emotional health?

Next, we are going to look at the 5th item in this series on mental health— Agency. Check back soon.

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