Unconditional Love and Interdependence
Does attachment theory need God to fully work?
After years of world-, book-, and soul-searching, I think I’ve finally come to the crux of the apparent dichotomy I’ve suspected hidden just behind the facade of seemingly incontrovertible ‘spiritual’ or ‘psychological’ theories: there is a disharmony between the most ancient of spiritual teachings, that of ‘unconditional love,’ and the most modern of psychological frameworks, that of ‘attachment theory.’
Let me explain: ‘Unconditional love’ — for example, the love that ‘God’ has for ‘his/her’ ‘creation, is the central tenet of (actual) Christianity, and, arguably, underlies Buddhism and other religions as well. (I’ll leave discussions of Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, etc. up to people who know more than I do.) Tapping into and feeling this unconditional love, in your own heart, and then expanding your own feeling of and showing this love to wider and wider circles of people, is the essence of Buddhist ‘metta’ meditation, as well as the Christian ‘love thy neighbor’ ethos.
In simpler terms: If you truly felt and believed in God’s, or the universe’s — hell, even anyone’s — unconditional love, wouldn’t you have a wider and wider space opening up inside of your own heart within (and from) which to love others? Would anyone disagree with this?
This is what I mean by a doctrine of ‘unconditional love,’ and why I consider it the cornerstone of some (and perhaps most) spiritual teachings.
On the other hand, fast-forward a couple thousand years to the mid-20th century. A British psychoanalyst, John Bowlby, and an American-Canadian psychologist, Mary Ainsworth, had a brilliant (and, at the time, incredibly controversial) idea as to why some people were so damn stressed out/insecure/etc. all the time: Maybe they never truly believed that their mother loved them.
Of course, we can update this hypothesis in light of modern gender theory, our understanding of genetics/epigenetics, social factors (like poverty, etc.), but, regardless, isn’t it amazing that most of us now take for granted that many of our modern ‘psychological’ problems can be attributed back to (a.k.a. blamed on) our parents doing a poor job of showing us unconditional love? (Note that, before Bowlby and Ainsworth, few modern, ‘post-religious’ psychologists had even considered love, or the lack thereof, to be a causal factor in childhood development problems, chronic depression, mental illness, etc.)
Here’s how the wild idea of attachment theory worked (totally oversimplified): A child’s earliest, pre-verbal belief in whether he/she is unconditionally loved by the people she needs most (her mother and/or father) largely dictates her burgeoning ‘attachment style’: anxious, avoidant, or secure.
Anxious attachment is what it sounds like. Think Woody Allen and you’re all set.
Avoidant attachment is attachment nevertheless. Think James Dean. Too cool for school, but hurting inside.
Secure attachment, too, is what it sounds like — but it gets a little more complicated than that. In secure attachment, you are still attached to the object of your attachment (in this case, say, your mother), but you could be said to have a ‘healthy’ attachment to her.
In other words, in secure attachment, you have moved past dependence (infancy), past co-dependence (if your mother was ‘Mama Rose’), and past faux-independence (your rebellious teenage/young adult years), into what we’d now call the realm of interdependence. You still need your mom, sure — for love, for support, etc. — and she needs you too, but you are not overly reliant on her, nor she on you. You can form relationships with other people — friends, lovers, etc. — without worrying about hurting her, and she is fully supportive of your autonomy. You know in every fiber of your being that she loves you unconditionally and always will, and you feel the same about her, and she knows it. This is the (ideal) embodiment of secure attachment.
You might notice that what I am getting at here is that ‘secure attachment’ frees you up to be interdependent. You are no longer reliant on day-to-day cues or rewards from ‘mommy’ to ‘feed’ your sense of being loved unconditionally. You know you are always loved, and have faith in it, in your bones and in your nervous system, and you can never forget it. This is the same kind of unshakable faith that the devout talk about having in God.
So far so good. The problem, here, only comes in if we allow it. While it’s tempting to say this is the end of our search for syncresis — attachment theory → secure attachment → interdependence, we have still not reconciled interdependence with unconditional love.
Here’s where it gets funky. Interdependence is, by definition, a two-way feedback loop. People are interdependent with each other. With animals. With plants. Etc. What we are not interdependent with is God (according to most people’s conceptions of God). Therefore, even if we have a ‘secure attachment’ to God’s love, we are not interdependent on it but dependent on it. (God doesn’t need our love, but we need his/hers.) This is a subtle distinction — but hold that thought.
It would be amazing to think that most people truly believed that their mother loved them unconditionally — and could, therefore, experience secure attachment based on that belief — but, let’s be honest, how many people hold that truth in their guts and bones? And, for all of us who don’t, and have somehow made it to adulthood without that secure attachment bond/faith with our mothers or fathers — what the hell do we do now?
Even if we don’t want to admit it, is it possible that in order to experience permanently secure attachment — the kind that naturally arises when we have an unshakable faith in truly unconditional love — we might require something transcendent to love us, something beyond the mortal realm, like ‘God’? Here’s what I mean:
A Christian might argue that a definition of ‘God’ is ‘unconditional love.’ But no one would argue that a definition of ‘Mom’ is ‘unconditional love.’ And no one wants to say that ‘Mom’ is ‘God.’ This sounds like semantics, but bear with me.
Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), a highly-successful couples therapy that uses attachment theory in the context of romantic love/marriage relationships, argues that we can apply the same ‘attachment style’ framework to our romantic relationships, and dialectically help each other heal our old insecure attachments via our newfound ‘interdependence.’ But the ‘spiritual’ problem here is that, no matter how much we love and ‘take care of’ each other, we are still tethered to another living, fallible human being, and in this kind of mortal interdependence, can we really ever unshakably believe in his/her or even our own ‘unconditional love’? In an interdependent relationship, by definition, aren’t we still guaranteed to consistently be hurt, and hurt the other? Is this the best we can do, to tether our belief in unconditional love to our lover?
In short: The best modern psychology can come up with to help us experience ‘inner peace’ — via our mortal interdependence and asymptotic attempts at mortal ‘unconditional love’ — is in our relationship with our parent(s) and/or romantic partner(s). But, ironically, since these mortal attachment bonds are meant to be two-way interdependent (and not one-way dependent), they never permit us to fully experience (and thereby, eventually give) the unconditional love we seek.
On the other hand, spiritual paths like (actual) Christianity dare us to first accept and experience the unconditional love that, by definition, is our birthright. This love is freely given, and asks nothing in return from us. This is a one-way, dependent relationship of (genuine) unconditional love (God loving you). All you have to do is allow yourself to open up and believe in/experience it (and then, in response, share it with others).
Attachment theory offers us a theory of two-way, interdependent, mortal, conditional love attempting to become unconditional.
Christianity (as a prime example) offers us a theory of one-way, dependent, transcendent, unconditional love.
I am not saying that these two types of love are incompatible. What I am saying is: Might we have thrown out the baby (God) with the bathwater? Might all those holy teachers have been right all along? Might you need the unconditional love of God in your heart to ever be able to fully open yourself up to even trying to unconditionally love another person?
Modern psychology has distanced itself from religion and spirituality for decades, but this arbitrary distinction is not evidence-based, but based instead on fears of sectarianism and ‘non-generalizability’ of so-called ‘scientific research.’ It’s time to abandon these false walls. Research is showing that faith — whether it’s a ‘placebo’ or not is irrelevant — is one of, if not the most potent healers of the heart. (I’m not talking about curing cancer here.) It’s time to focus on the goal, not the path. If the goal of attachment theory is unconditional love, and the only real way to experience unconditional love is God… then shouldn’t ‘psychologists’ first be teaching the way to God, and then the way to earthly love?
Thanks again to Connor Martin for the conversation(s) that sparked this synthesis.