Attachment, Differentiation and Love

In a section titled “Our Need for Relational Wholeness,” Stephen Seamands writes about the journey toward wholeness. He asks, “How do relational problems manifest?” and then quotes Stephen Stratton in his article, “Trinity, Attachment and Love” (Catalyst 29, April, 2003). Stratton relates some things that are helpfully connected:

“contemporary Trinitarian theology’s understanding of personhood with attachment theory; the psychological and neurobiological study of human relating. Similar to the Trinitarian concept of being-in-relationship, attachment theory considers the dynamic balance of selves-in-relationship, without overemphasizing self or relations. Like the persons of the Trinity, human selves in proper relationships, rooted in love and characterized by dynamic interdependence, are never separate from one another nor subsumed by one another.

“However, because we typically operate out of fear and self-protection rather than love, attachment theory sees us falling into two unhealthy relational styles. The first finds its security in an overemphasis on relationships. Those who use this strategy [even unaware] often cling to sources of security and demand responsiveness, especially in times of distress. The second finds its security in separation from others. Those who adhere to this strategy are often counter-relational and may over invest themselves in what must be done around them, particularly in difficult times. Instead of living in a place of secure attachment, our self-protective efforts rooted in fear drive us toward preoccupation with attachment or avoidance of attachment. In Miroslav Volf’s words, we tend toward either unhealthy “embrace” or unhealthy “exclusion.” Seamands, 41.

Family Systems and Church Systems

modelWhen I was training as a family counselor we talked about the dynamics of family systems. We learned that some families are centripetal: they tend to continually pull their members back toward a center. These families demand loyalty – even at the price of truth. Other families are centrifugal: they tend to continually push their members away from the center. (David Olson’s circumplex model – diagram left- offers a similar taxonomy).

Healthy families tend to hold these dynamics in tension. Because when the pull toward the center is too strong, then when children grow in independence they are accused of disloyalty. It becomes very hard to mature and to leave home. (There is a great volume on church as family systems titled How Your Church Family Works. It’s pretty easy to identify these extremes in unhealthy churches).

Families that demand high loyalty and fear movement outward (centripetal) tend to see the world in black and white terms. We are good. The world is bad. This makes it easier to keep kids close to home (or to retain adherents), because we are where the truth is.. we are the only really safe place around. Especially in apocalyptic times, the stakes are high. God is doing a wonderful new thing.. and you have to stay with us to be part of it. (And by the way this makes it much easier for us to generate loyalty so we can pay our staff and our mortgage.)

Any movement which sees all the danger outside itself partakes of the unhealthy dynamics of scapegoating. So long as we focus on the problems outside our own group, we can gloss over our own problems. This distorted lens makes it possible to generate exceptional commitment (think “Jim Jones”). But it also generates the prejudice that says “all Muslims are violent” or “all Christians want to rape and destroy creation.” The world simply does not exist in such black and white terms.

Worse, when our gaze is focused outward we stop doing the internal work necessary for our own growth. A certain amount of navel gazing is healthy for a system. Often the most trustworthy people are the ones who are always questioning their own motives; yet too much reflection is paralysing.

Diversity and disagreement are not valued in centripetal systems. In order to leave home in a centripetal family it requires an explosion. Unhealthy families are always having explosions; it’s the only way they can separate, or individuate and grow. (Thus the sad little pun, ‘Let’s make like a church and split.’)

Churches are a type of family system. When they view the world in black and white terms, inevitably the world is bad and the church is good. Therefore if you don”t see the issue exactly as we see it, since we are good.. you must be bad. Often this comes with a “Gnosticism light,” where nature is fallen but the inner world of spirit is perfect.

It’s tough to value diversity in a dualistic system. This means that people are run through a mold where they are squeezed to fit a certain shape. And inevitably, when people are tired of running the race, always buying the party line, and they want to leave, they are seen as disloyal. Unhealthy churches have cycles of huge conflict, with huge cycles in membership numbers from boom to bust.

Nouwen’s mentor, Jean Vanier, used a beautiful analogy in speaking of transformation and our deep need to be loved, yet within structures that provide safety: a balanced family system. Nouwen writes,

“When Jean Vanier speaks about that intimate place, he often stretches out his arm and cups his hand as if it holds a small, wounded bird. He asks, ‘What will happen if I open my hand fully? We answer, ‘The bird will try to flutter its wings, and it will fall and die.’ Then he asks again, ‘What will happen if I close my hand?’ We say, ‘The bird will be crushed and die.’ Then he smiles and says, ‘An intimate place is like my cupped hand, neither totally open nor totally closed. It is the space where growth can take place.’ (Lifesigns, 22)