Incarnational Attachment: The Transforming Power of Being Emotionally Present in Marriage.
Incarnational Attachment: The Transforming Power of Being Emotionally Present in Marriage.
Categories: RECENT RESEARCH
W. Jesse Gill, Psy.D.
Many theories and ideas about love have been handed down to us through the centuries. In our modern era, one powerful theory has emerged which actually instructs us in tangible ways about what love is between humans. This theory was developed by John Bowlby (1969) and is aptly called Attachment Theory. It tells us the ingredients which are needed to form a loving bond between two persons and what must be done to repair this bond when it has been damaged.
Attachment is the felt experience of love between humans, and it is created through the consistent, nurturing, and close physical presence of a trusted person in our lives. In infancy the attachment bond forms between an infant and a crucial caregiver through repeated reciprocal interactions. This caregiver is usually the infant’s parent. When the caregiver gives touch, close attention, and emotional responses which consistently meet the infant’s needs, a Secure Attachment bond is formed (Ainsworth, 1979). A securely attached child knows that he can turn to his parent whenever he is in need, and the parent will be there for him.
Infants seek closeness with an attachment figure especially in moments of distress, for the purpose of survival. Infants would die without the caring secure presence of their primary caregivers. There is nothing more terrifying to a child than the sense of being separated from her parent. The parent is the literal lifeline for a child. God designed Attachment to link the child and caregiver together in loyalty, tenderness, playfulness, and fierce protection. Through Attachment the child knows that she is safe, held close, and protected through the most vulnerable moments of life.
As adults our attachment to others is no longer part of an immediate survival necessity. Yet we still form attachments to key people in our adult life, including friends, our spouses, and our children. No adult attachment relationship is more significant than the bond we share with our spouses when we choose marriage as part of our life’s course.
A Secure Marriage is one where spouses know that they can turn to one another in moments of need (Gill, 2015). They can be vulnerable at all times, and they don’t have to be defended. Each spouse has the assurance of the abiding emotional and physical presence of the other, which brings such a sense of comfort and strength to the marriage relationship. In a Secure Marriage, I can sense my spouse saying, “It’s going to be okay! I am here with you. You are not alone.”
Conversely, we experience distress in marriage when we feel abandoned or separated from the emotional and physical caring of our spouses. If I cannot reach or access the primary person that I depend on emotionally, then I am going to feel a sense of distress in my marriage (Johnson, 2004). If the emotional disconnect or separation goes on for any length of time, then my marriage actually sustains damage.
God Speaks to Us of His Abiding Presence.
God designed us for attachment from the cradle to the grave. Attachment forms the map for all close human relationships and for our relationship with God. He speaks to us about relationships in terms of Attachment, a language that we can understand.
From the dawn of Creation, God outlines His design and also reassures us of His presence with us. “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Throughout the Old Testament He revealed Himself as constant, faithful, and true. He spoke to Moses at the start of the Exodus for the Hebrew people, “I will be with you; that is who I am” (Exodus 3:12). “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33: 14). Even when we walk through the most difficult and distressing times, He promised to be right with us.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for You are with me.”(Psalm 23:4, NASB).
Deeper into the Old Testament God made an even stronger promise that one day He would draw so close to us that we could physically touch Him. He would come in the flesh as one of us. “A virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel, God with us” (Isaiah 7:14, NASB). In the New Testament this promise was fulfilled through the gift of Jesus, whose life and very presence reassure us that, “Everything is going to be okay. I am here.”
Incarnational Attachment: Receiving the Gift of His Presence
Attachment Theory describes to us the tangible experience of love. Jesus Christ was the tangible expression of God’s love through His presence “with us.” Jesus was and is Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23). He was God incarnate, God coming to us in human flesh. God had promised us throughout the Scriptures that we would not have to go through this life alone. Jesus was the physical fulfillment of all those promises as summed up in the passage, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:4).
Jesus’ life, sacrificial death, and presence convey to us the essence of Secure Attachment. We know that He is always here for us, here to save us, and here at any time when we need Him. God did not wait for us to love Him or to act in love towards Him. He reached for us, ran to us, moved heaven and earth to redeem us, and laid down His life for us before we did anything right or deserving.
“In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins… We love, because He first loved us.” (I John 4:10, 19, NASB)
While God has already taken the first steps towards us, it is up to us to respond to this love so we can find our security with Him. We must step forward, trust His words, and His embrace. We have to reach for Him in order to receive His love and build secure attachment. Love is never known without taking a risk and sharing our lives. We have to be vulnerable and give Him our hearts.
It is through being vulnerable and expressing our dependency on Him that we build security and receive His salvation. Dependency means that I say at the start of my relationship with Christ and on each day following that, “I need a Savior. I need rescuing.” Conversion is that moment when I trust Him with all that I am. It is that very moment when I “set my heart” upon Him (Fowler, 1981; p.11).
What a paradox! I have to be weak in order to be strong. I have to become like a child in order to embrace Divine maturity. I have to be completely vulnerable and reach for Him. This very act of Attachment with my Heavenly Father is what transforms me from the first time I do it, and in each new day that follows. It can seem like foolishness to be so vulnerable, yet from an Attachment standpoint it makes total sense. Vulnerability and receiving the Presence of our trusted Parent are what make us strong and secure.
When we are in need we cling to our attachment figure, especially in moments of distress. This very act of reaching up our hands and saying “Abba, Father” enables us to find Him present and waiting for us. He’s always there. He’s just waiting for us to reach for Him.
Incarnational Attachment: Bestowing the Gift of Presence
In marriage, God calls us to show His perfect love to one another. When you are married He calls you to love your spouse sacrificially, with reckless abandon, as Christ loved His church (Ephesians 5:25). He created marriage to be a symbol of the type of perfect love that He has for us, as His bride, His beloved. Marriage is supposed to mirror the type of love that He has for us, and so to draw us to Him. He literally ordained marriage as a relationship that would help us to understand His great love for us.
Secure Marriage is a relationship that also helps us to experience in tangible ways the love of God. In that way, marriage can be a means of incarnational love. We are the literal hands and feet of Christ to our spouse. We act as His arms and His loving sacrificial embrace. Because He ordained this, He also wants to help us in our marriages to embody and express His love.
That is not just because He wants marriages to succeed. It is because He wants us to actually know and experience more of His love. God is so invested in having our spouses know His love, that He will strengthen us in the toughest moments to be His hands and His arms of embrace stretched out to them. He is with us in the toughest times, even in painful marriage moments, so that we will never have to be alone. We don’t have to fear being abandoned by Him.
“Behold, I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20, NASB).
He is also with you and wants to move through you to show His love to your spouse. You are not just receiving His love for you; you are also receiving His love for your spouse. You have an ally at all times, one who has you covered for the sake of revealing His great love.
Applying the Transforming Power of Presence to Marital Distress.
We were created for connection, first and foremost to be connected to our Heavenly Father. He designed the map for connection in human relationships, and it is called Attachment. When our connection is secure with Him and our spouse we can face almost anything that comes our way.
Relationship distress comes when we feel separated from our connection with another person. Sue Johnson (2004) states that marital distress is the result of being separated from our emotional connection with our spouse. She incorporates the findings from Attachment Theory to help restore the emotional connections between spouses in her extremely successful and well researched Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT).
When you have lost your connection with your spouse, what you need is to be restored in your bond with him or her. EFT is carefully crafted to interrupt the cycles of conflict that separate couples from their relationship connection with one another. It transforms conflicts into opportunities to become vulnerable once again with your spouse. EFT reframes the volatile nature of conflict as stemming from our unmet dependency needs for our spouses.
In other words, the reason that we are fighting is because we can’t reach the very person that we need the most! It hurts tremendously when we cannot reach our spouses, especially in moments of need. So we push at them and protest the loss of connection, or we pull away from them when we feel like failures in our attempts to be good spouses.
“Protesters” is the term I like to use for spouses who feel abandoned in their cycles of conflict and react with intense protest behaviors. “Avoiders” is my term for spouses who withdraw from conflict due to feeling criticized and inadequate. Both spouses have a deep need for the presence and caring of the other. Protesters need to know that they are worthwhile and important to their beloved and that they won’t be left alone. Avoiders need to know that they are embraced and esteemed, even with their flaws and inadequacies.
Rather than shaming folks for their dependency needs, or allowing couples to run from the intense pain that comes in separation moments, EFT draws spouses to be present to one another again. It slows them down to sit with their pain, and to understand that at the core of all the protesting and distancing maneuvers that couples enact there is a very simple message.
“I need you. I want to find you again. I don’t want to go through this alone. I want to know that I am good for you, and that I am worthy of your love.”
It almost sounds like a prayer, doesn’t it? When a couple can slow down and relate these vulnerable messages once again, it changes everything. When the two partners can be present to listen and receive these heartfelt longings, it calms everything down and reassures each one that “it’s okay. I am here for you again. There is no more distance between us.” We are restored.
The Need for Faith Integrated Attachment Therapy.
As Christians who have openly acknowledged our dependency needs upon a Savior, I feel that we are uniquely positioned to engage in the transforming work of couple’s therapy. Our entire faith journey entails a process of maturing enough to embrace God’s presence “with us” on a daily basis. We are renewed and paradoxically strengthened in our relationship with God by vulnerably acknowledging our needs and weaknesses. “When I am weak, then I am strong.”
As Christian therapists we have the ability to both receive and give the transforming power of Attachment to our clients. We are the hands and feet of Christ as we listen, patiently sit with pain, and guide clients to be vulnerable instead of pushing away from their hurts. Although it can be a very scary prospect to reach out once again for the spouse who has somehow come to hurt you or abandon you, we know the truth and saving grace that comes from renewed Attachment.
Couples will be strengthened when they reach for one another and risk it once again in love!
We know this firsthand as Christians who have lived and experienced the gift of embracing Presence, God with us. We live it every day, and we find the sweetness of this trust. It is so sweet to trust in Jesus, just to take Him at His word, and to receive the security that this brings. It is time for Christians to bring forward a more Scripturally Integrated approach that blends our awareness, both Biblical and experiential about what we have felt and received, into the Attachment arena. It is time to offer that to our couples as well.
I have written a book “Face to Face: Seven Keys to a Secure Marriage” which combines the principles of Attachment, truths from Scripture, and the wisdom of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. In this book, I invite Protesters (those who feel abandoned in marriage) and Avoiders (those who often feel criticized and inadequate) to deeply reflect on their attachment needs and the ways that they accidentally sabotage their chances for getting their needs met.
Among many other tools, I encourage Protesters and Avoiders to approach conflict in a completely different manner than they ever have before. I invite Protesters to “honor” their spouses in accordance with Ephesians 5:22, instead of attacking them amidst their fears of abandonment. I exhort Avoiders to lay down their survival based tendencies to run away from their Protesting spouses, instead stepping forward as “Christ loved the church and laid down His life for her” (Ephesians 5:25).
Throughout the book I offer examples, insights, and uniquely tailored prayers for Protesters and Avoiders to help them to be vulnerable with their spouses once again. Because God created us for Attachment, there is hope for people who never had security to still experience the transforming power of this in their lifetime. I encourage spouses to cling to the Perfect Love of Jesus at every step in order to offer more Security then they could ever create in their own strength and might.
Integrating faith and Attachment in couple’s therapy will be a blessing to couples and counselors alike, as we clearly lay out God’s rich design for building and restoring marriage relationships. I believe that it will help couples to more fully experience Incarnational Attachment, giving and receiving the transformational power of being present to one another in marriage.
Ainsworth, M.D.S. (1979). Infant-mother attachment. American Psychologist, 34, 932-937.
Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment and Loss (Vol I). London, Hogarth.
Bretherton, I. (1992) The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth Developmental Psychology, vol. 28, pp. 759-775
Fowler, J. ( 1981). Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. New York, HarperCollins.
Gill, W.J. (2015). Face to Face: Seven Keys to a Secure Marriage. Bloomington, IN, Westbow Press.
Johnson, S.M. (2004). The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy: Creating Connection. New York, Brunner-Routledge.
Jesse Gill, Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist who is passionate about marriage therapy. His book, Face to Face: Seven Keys to a Secure Marriage, integrates the truth of Scripture with the power of Attachment Theory to help heal and strengthen marriages. He is married to April, the love of his life; they work together to build security in their marriage and with their two children. www.facetofacemarriage.com