Attachment and Intimacy

Posted on October 31, 2013


To provide some context, this post is adapted from a recent talk I gave to a group of leaders of Christian sexual addiction recovery support groups.  My portion (the more academic section) was followed by my colleagues, Andrew Last speaking on “Creating a Culture of Connection” in the support group and Treina Nash speaking on “The Correction is Connection.”

Attachment theory looks at the way human beings connect with the important people in their lives.  From cradle to grave we need to have someone in our lives to whom we matter and who will be there for us for comfort and support during times of stress.  Being securely attached to another human being is what enables us to handle what life throws at us.

Childhood experiences have a profound effect on how we attach as adults.  How our caregivers responded to our needs, particularly in times of stress, impacts how we see ourselves and others in relationship.  As children, Mom and/or Dad were our attachment figures.  Our primary caregivers were the secure base from which we explored our world.  The safer those relationships were, the bolder we could be in exploring our world.  As long as I have a safe haven to return to where I will be loved, valued, and comforted, where I matter and my feelings matter, I can dare to be bold.

If parents were not responsive to the child’s feelings, if parents were not an emotionally safe haven for the child, this will impact how the child sees relationships and how he or she attaches in close relationships.  When we look at attachment we look at 2 continua, anxiety and avoidance.  Anxiety is about how much angst one feels in close relationships.  Avoidance is how comfortable one is with being close.  When one is not comfortable with closeness the tendency is to avoid real intimacy.  Though human beings do not fit neatly into categories, by looking at whether one is low or high in anxiety and/or avoidance, we can observe four attachment styles.

Secure attachment.  When Mom and Dad were generally responsive to our needs and emotions, we learn that we are worthy of love and that other people are capable of loving us.  The result is that we tend to be low on anxiety (i.e. I am not afraid of losing the one I love) and low on avoidance (i.e. I don’t avoid close relationship.  I don’t hide who I really am.  I am willing to engage emotionally.).  This is the essence of secure attachment.  I am willing to ask for and to give emotional support.  I am comfortable with close relationships.

Anxious attachment.  What if the message we took away from our childhood experiences was that I am not worthy of love, support, and comfort?  If Mom and Dad’s response to our distress was dismissive, we might have internalized the idea that I am not lovable.  If you really knew me, you would reject me.  When we enter into adult relationships, we might be higher in anxiety.  We have anxious attachment.  Our radar is finely tuned to any message from our partner that looks like rejection or abandonment.  When we see it, the anxiety kicks up and we go to great lengths to protest our partner’s disengagement.  When couples get into a pursue/withdraw negative cycle, this is generally the attachment style of the pursuer.  A sense of disconnection from the attachment figure (i.e. your partner) can feel overwhelming.

Avoidance attachment.  What if the message we took from childhood was that I am lovable, but other people are not safe?  I am worthy of love, but other people cannot be counted upon to be an emotional safe haven.  We may learn to avoid close relationships, avoid intimacy.  “Other people are not safe, but I don’t need emotional closeness anyway.”  Particularly for men, we have been taught through the socialization process to not appear as weak.  Big boys don’t cry.  Often at the start of couple’s therapy, men can identify two emotions: 1) I feel good, I am happy; 2) I feel bad, I am angry.  Recognizing the fear, hurt, loneliness, and sadness has been trained out of us.  We go through life sucking it up and pushing it down.  This works pretty well in corporate environments, but it is really problematic in marriage.

Fearful attachment.  What if our underlying belief is both that we are not worthy of love and that other people are not safe?  Now we are high on both anxiety and avoidance.  We long for closeness, but it is scary so we avoid.  We experience a push/pull of “come close; go away.”  I can be afraid to get close to my partner and at the same time be afraid of losing my partner.

What does this look like for children?  In 1970 Mary Ainsworth conducted an experiment she called “The Strange Situation.”  The set up was like this.  Toddler and mom are sitting in the experiment room and toddler is playing with the toys.  The experimenter comes in and talks to mom.  Then mom quietly leaves the room.  After a couple of minutes, mom comes back.  The point is to observe the response of the toddler to the presence of the stranger (the experimenter), the reaction when mom leaves and the reunion behavior when she comes back.  Ainsworth identified three attachment styles.  Seventy percent of the toddlers exhibited secure attachment.  What does this look like? Separation anxiety – distress when mom leaves (the child cries).  Stranger anxiety – avoids the stranger when mom isn’t there, but friendly when mom is present.  Reunion behavior – positive and happy when mom returns.  The child is able to receive comfort from mom.  Mom is essentially a safe base to explore the environment.  Fifteen percent of children exhibit ambivalent attachment.  Separation anxiety – intense distress when mom leaves.  Stranger anxiety – Child avoids stranger and shows fear of stranger.  Reunion behavior – Child approaches mother but resists contact, may even push her away.  The child with this type of attachment cries more and explores less than the other types.  The remaining 15% exhibited avoidant attachment.  Separation anxiety?  What separation anxiety?  The child shows no signs of distress when mom leaves.  Stranger anxiety – child plays normally when stranger is present.  Reunion behavior – little interest when mom returns.  Mother and stranger can comfort infant equally well.

What does this have to do with addiction?  What is sexual addiction?  Among other descriptors, we can say that sexual addiction is an intimacy disorder; it is a failure to bond.  The true intimacy of secure attachment has been replaced with sexual acting out.  Instead of turning to a partner for comfort and support, the addict turns to sexual acting out to numb the bad feelings.

In Patrick Carnes’ study of sex addicts and their families of origin, he looked at their families of origin along two dimensions.  The first dimension was the level of closeness.  The second was the level of flexibility in the family.  He observed that 87% of addicts came from disengaged families where there was little closeness; 77% came from rigid families with authoritarian leadership and strict discipline.  If you grew up in that environment, what did you learn about close relationships?  You learned not to trust people.  You learned you had to be perfect or the hammer would come down.  You learned not to show weakness.  But you still know about your own weaknesses and failing so you feel shame.

Dr. Brene Brown has done much research on shame and vulnerability.  She has a number of books published and you can also find some videos on youtube which I would highly recommend.  From her TED talk on vulnerability she shared that shame is really a fear of disconnection.  We all live at times with the feeling, “I am not good enough.”  In her research what she found was that those who were really able to embrace joy and intimacy were those who had a sense of their own worthiness.  These are people who believe they are worthy of love and belonging.  These individuals had 1) the courage to be imperfect, 2) compassion, they were kind to themselves and others, and 3) connection, resulting from authenticity.

Addicts have tended to avoid true intimacy and authenticity.  This is one of the reasons why group is so important.  Group is about intimacy.  Group should be a safe place to be real.

In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul talks for a number of verses about love.  When we get down to verse 12, Paul writes, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”  Looking at this verse, in heaven we know the ultimate experience of love.  And how does Paul describe this experience?  As knowing fully and being fully known.  This is a description of true intimacy.  This is really scary if down deep I believe that either 1) I am not lovable of 2) Other people are not safe.  To gain that prize of true intimacy we need to risk vulnerability.

In 1 John 4:18, John wrote, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.”  We know from experience that the imperfect love we human beings have with each other is scary.  We have to risk vulnerability.  Also, we will not find perfect love in our human relationships.  Perfect love is found in Christ.  Because of our identity in Christ, we do not need to be afraid.  The more we can be authentic in our human relationships, the closer we can come to experiencing that love without fear in our relationships.

In Ephesians 5, Paul is giving instructions for Christian households.  As you read it, Paul goes back and forth between talking about husbands and wives and talking about Christ and the church it is hard to tell when he has transitioned between one and the other.  But this is the kind of intimacy for which we strive.  To be authentic in our relationships to the point at which we can experience true intimacy that reflects the intimacy between Christ and the church.

Segue to Andrew to talk about applying this to your leadership in groups.