How Do We Learn to Love?

Catholic Psychologist Andrew Sodergren Reflects on Attachment

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WASHINGTON, D.C., MARCH 21, 2012 ( Children who find a secure safe haven in their parents are well on their way to becoming secure, mentally healthy adults with the skills needed to form their own strong relationships, says Dr. Andrew J. Sodergren, a psychologist who seeks to integrate psychological sciences with a Catholic understanding of the human person.

Though a healthy parent-child relationship is key for the future, as many as 40% of adults are grappling with a history of insecure relationships with parents.

ZENIT spoke with Sodergren about the psychology of “attachment” and what to do when an attachment has been lacking. 

ZENIT: Attachment is a popular term in parenting publications, but what exactly does it mean?

Sodergren: “Attachment” refers to a specific kind of emotional bond that we form towards another person who acts as a “secure base” and a “safe haven.”  John Bowlby, the father of modern attachment theory, wrote about attachment as a basic, relational instinct.  Unlike many of his contemporaries, Bowlby argued that human beings have a basic instinct toward relatedness.  In other words, we are relational beings and are impelled at an instinctive level to form persistent relationships with those who care for us when we are young. 

Sometimes the term “attachment” is used to imply that the parent has an attachment to the child.  Bowlby was adamant that the child forms an attachment to the parent, not the other way around.  Just as the child is equipped to form an attachment to his caregivers, adults are equipped with a caregiving instinct to respond to the child and nurture him.  This is why we all cringe when we hear a baby cry.  However, in a healthy parent-child relationship, the parent does not form an attachment to the child, which would entail the parent gratifying his or her needs through the child. This role reversal negatively affects the child’s development.  When it comes to relating to children, adults are the caregivers, and children are the ones who form attachments to us.  We adults should be meeting our needs for security and support through our adult relationships and our relationship with God.

Another important point is that we never outgrow attachment.  Bowlby was fond of saying that it remains an important part of our life from the “cradle to the grave.” When we become adolescents and young adults, we begin to form reciprocal attachments.  These are relationships in which both parties may at various times serve as an attachment figure for the other.  This reciprocal caregiving and care-receiving takes place in close friendships and in romantic relationships and continues throughout our adult life.  Furthermore, as we progress in the spiritual life, God becomes more and more our central attachment figure, and needs that may have been previously directed to others may be directed to Him.  However, we never completely outgrow our need for other human beings. 

ZENIT: What kind of attachment is best or most healthy?

Sodergren: Research has shown that having a “secure” attachment aids psychological development in many ways.  Children with a history of secure attachment to their parents tend to show better interpersonal skills, have better self-images, are better at managing their emotional lives, have better language development, and so forth.  Attachment security in adulthood is related to better marital functioning and higher quality parenting.  Throughout life, secure attachment strongly promotes mental health.

A secure attachment means that we are confident that some preferred person will be there to help us if we need it, support our attempts to grow and explore the world, and celebrate our achievements with us.  This secure relationship is most easily established when the caregiver is highly attuned to the other person’s emotional state, perspective, needs, and intentions.  The more consistently we receive highly attuned, responsive care, the more secure we become.  This security helps us feel free to be ourselves.  When a child is secure,he is more likely to explore the environment and try new things.  Adults too are more likely to take on challenges when we feel confident that one or more preferred persons will be there for us if trouble arises. 

ZENIT: How do we promote the kind of secure attachment you speak about?

Sodergren: Parents who are highly attuned and responsive to their children’s signals tend to promote secure attachment.  This requires being both physically and emotionally present to them.  It is easier for us to do this if we also feel secure.  Adults who have come to terms with their past relationships and who currently feel secure in their marital relationships tend to provide more responsive care to their children.  So, to promote secure attachment in others, we ourselves must first be secure. 

ZENIT: What if we didn’t have a secure attachment to our parents?  How does someone overcome that?

Sodergren: There are several types of insecure attachment that sometimes appear.  One type is called “avoidant” and involves a tendency to inhibit the impulse to go to an attachment figure for help when distressed.  In this pattern, the individual learns that it is better to keep one’s distress to oneself and pretend everything is OK.  Another is called “ambivalent” and involves a tendency to seek an attachment figure when distressed but resist being soothed.  In this pattern, there is a strong need for comfort or support but it is often mixed with frustration or anger about the inadequacy of the support being given.  Lastly, there is a type of attachment called “disorganized” which occurs when the attachment figure is a source of fear and confusion.  In this pattern, there is no safe haven to turn to. 

Unfortunately these insecure patterns combine to form about 40% of the general population according to scientific research.  That means that many of us grew up without the benefit of a secure attachment.  However, that does not mean that we or our children are doomed.  It does mean that we have a responsibility to strive to overcome our past and become more secure.  Many secure adults had far from perfect childhoods, but they have been able to “make sense” out of what happened and can now tell a coherent story about their experiences.Remembering the past and putting the memories and feelings into words is healing.We need to understand the past, how it affected us back then, how it affects our relationships now, and we need support to break the patterns of the past and learn new ways of relating to others, to God, and to ourselves.  This can be done through prayer, journaling, talking with a confidante, and especially through good psychotherapy.  This sounds hard – and often it is – but with God all things are possible. 

When we are at peace with our past, secure in our marriages and friendships, and growing in a stable relationship with God, we will be very well equipped to be a safe haven and a secure base to others around us.  

ZENIT: How do a person’s attachment experiences impact their moral and spiritual life?

Sodergren: Research has shown that attachment security influences our moral development and our relationship with God in a number of ways.  For example, children with secure attachments to their parents are more empathic and compassionate to others, resist temptation more successfully, are more compliant, internalize their parents’ standards and values more readily, and are less likely to act out aggressively.  In adults, attachment security has been found to increase one’s capacity for forgiveness, empathy, compassion, and altruism.  It also helps us restrain our violent tendencies and seems to offer a protection from addiction. 

Attachment security also has a strong influence on our sexual behavior and attitudes.  People who are more secure are more likely to see sexual
ity as an expression of love in long-term relationships, whereas those who are more insecure tend toward either casual, impersonal sex or using sex to prevent rejection or abandonment.  Thus, attachment insecurity has been linked with greater promiscuity and with a higher likelihood of either engaging in or being a victim of sexual coercion.

Our experiences with attachment figures affect our mental picture or template for future relationships.  This mental image governs our expectations and behavior.  Research has shown that this is true of our relationship with God too.  People with greater attachment security are more likely to see God as loving and relate to him in a stable and loving manner.  Attachment insecurity seems linked to a more unstable, emotionally-based religiosity and more doubts about God’s love.  Thus, when we feel secure in our earthly attachments, we are more able to form a secure attachment to God, the supreme attachment figure.

ZENIT: How can the Church promote more attachment security in its members (i.e., laity, clergy, and religious)?

Sodergren: The Church can aid the attachment security of its members by promoting the formation of stable, responsive relationships.  This should occur first in the hierarchy, with the bishop acting as a haven of safety and secure base for the priests, deacons, and ministers of the diocese.  By having their needs responded to promptly and compassionately, clergy members will feel more secure and will be better empowered to be good fathers to their parishioners.  The same goes for religious superiors. 

Parishes, schools, and other organizations should be structured to operate like a good family in which the leaders are compassionate and responsive to the needs of all whom they serve and the members each feel uniquely valued and accepted.  The parish itself needs to be a welcoming place where members feel accepted on a personal level. 

Marriage preparation is an important opportunity for the Church to encourage people to make sense of their past experiences with attachment figures and take steps to become more secure before beginning a new family.  Support groups for parents or married couples in which the kind of responsive attunement discussed above is modeled and encouraged can be another useful way that the Church can help its members grow more secure. 

Lastly, by broadly teaching experiential forms of prayer in which the person encounters God through the use all of their faculties including imagination and emotion, the Church can help people form more secure relationships with Him. 

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Dr. Andrew J. Sodergren, Psy.D., recently opened a psychology practice with Ruah Woods (, a Theology of the Body ministry in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he focuses on integrating the best of contemporary psychological science with a Catholic view of the human person.  He is a graduate of the Institute for the Psychological Sciences (IPS) and  the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, DC, where he currently serves as an Adjunct Professor.  Dr. Sodergren will offer an IPS Online Seminar entitled “Learning How to Love: Attachment, Morality and Psychotherapy,” on Friday April 20, from 9am-3pm, valid for five Continuing Education units.  For more information or to register, click here.

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