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Attachment to God: a qualitative exploration of emerging adults' spiritual relationship with god.

This study assessed emerging adults' attachment relationships with parents, peers, and God to explore the sufficiency of the correspondence and compensation models of attachment. We analyzed narratives of 119 (60 male) Christian college graduates describing their relational experiences with God. Narratives were coded for five relational patterns in attachment relationships (Granqvist & Kirkpatrick, 2008). Participants also completed the IPPA scale and were categorized into high or low secure parental and peer attachment groups. No significant differences were found between peer and parental attachment so peer attachment was dropped from further analysis. All of the relational attachment patterns appeared in participant narratives. Perceiving God as Stronger and Wiser appeared most often in both high and low secure parental narratives; Safe Haven and Secure Base also appeared in both attachment groups' narratives. Importantly, emerging adults with low parental security nevertheless articulated reciprocal experiences of secure, intimate attachment with God, suggesting refinement in the correspondence and compensation models to include the potential for a spiritual relationship with God that serves a corrective or reparative role.

"Just as the story of anyone's life is the story of relationships--so each persons religious story is a story of relationships" (Greeley, 1981, p. 18). Extensive developmental and clinical literature, building on Bowlby's attachment theory, has guided research on many types of relationships, including individuals' experiences of God (Granqvist, 2002; Granqvist & Kirkpatrick, 2008). Emerging adults are forming distinct spiritual relationships during this particular developmental period (roughly between the ages of 18 and 29, Arnett, 2000), and their stories of these spiritual experiences were our focus. There is a growing literature in the psychological field examining spirituality as a key domain for emerging adults along with their cultivation of identity, ideology and intimate relationships (Barry, Nelson, Davarya & Urry, 2010), It is in this spirit that we explored religious emerging adults' narratives describing their spiritual relationships. We chose a qualitative methodology as a way of finding deeper understanding for the how of these spiritual relationships.

In the current study, we explored parental and God attachment relationships in a religious Christian-college alumni sample. The highly religious are a population that accounts for approximately one quarter of the late adolescent population yet has not received sufficient empirical attention in research (Railsback, 2006; Smith, Faris, Denton, & Regnerus, 2003). Indeed, spirituality is an important concern for many college students (Dalton, Eberhardt, Bracken, & Echols, 2006), with 75% "searching for meaning/purpose in life" and 80% believing in God or a higher power (Sax, Astin, Korn, & Mahoney, 2004; HERI, 2004). Erikson (1968) asserted that concern for spirituality and participation in religious groups provided important ideological anchors for identity formation. Moreover, recent research (Arnett & Jensen, 2002; Smith, 2009) has shown that emerging adults search for ways to individualize their spiritual beliefs and expectations.

Hall, Fujikawa, Halcrow, Hill & Delaney (2009) conceptualized attachment to God as an implicit spiritual relational mode of knowing that emerges from early parent-child relationships. This implicit relational mode of knowing indicates a subjective experience, a 'knowing with your gut' type of intimacy that is distinct from belief systems or theological knowing. Our study expands on Hall et al.'s (2009) model by exploring the relational spiritual intimacy described by religious emerging adults when asked about their relationship with God. We were specifically interested in the God-attachment narratives of emerging adults who have secure parental attachment relationships compared to those who do not.

Attachment Theory

The attachment system, as defined by John Bowlby, has its own distinct internal motivation and serves the biological function of protecting the individual from physical and psychological harm. This system is a psychological organization that is so constituted that feelings of security and actual conditions of safety are highly correlated. The systems set-goal is felt security. The mere knowledge that an attachment figure is available and responsive provides a ubiquitous feeling of security and so encourages the person to value and continue the relationship. Bowlby (1988) identifies attachment behavior as

  ... any form of behavior that results in a person attaining or
  maintaining proximity to some other clearly identified
  individual who is conceived as better able to cope with the world.
  ... for a person to know that an attachment figure is available and
  responsive gives him a strong and pervasive feeling of security,
  and so encourages him to value and continue the relationship. ...
  To remain within easy access of a familiar individual known to be
  ready and willing to come to our aid in an emergency is clearly a
  good insurance policy-whatever our age. (p. 26-27)

The quality of the attachment relationship is built upon the generalized expectations that the child acquires out of the accumulation of failed or successful interactive experiences with caregivers. Differing organizations of the relationship develop on the basis of differing interactive events. The view of the self, which is carried over into other interactions, emerges out of the view of the relationship. Hence, the quality of the early relationships with caregivers gives birth to the early self concept. A crucial consequence for the child with secure attachment is the internalized representational model of attachment figures as being available, responsive, and helpful, and a correlative model of him/herself as a potentially lovable and valuable person. Secure base experiences facilitate the child's cognitive and affective strengths, supporting the child's growing affect regulation, behavioral management, and autonomy (Fonagy, Target, & Gergely, 2002). Hence, children with such internal models tend to grow up valuing the self and, apart from external and unexpected traumas, tend to develop similar attachment patterns in subsequent relationships with peers, romantic partners, and their own children (Ainsworth, Bell, & Stayton, 1971; Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978; Crittenden, 1995; Main & Solomon, 1986).

Corrective Attachment Experiences

It is also the case that those who grow up without secure parental attachment can find corrective experiences that impact their internal working model. Bowlby conceptualized the internal working model as a working model (Bretherton & Munholland, 1999) and thus able to be revised when there are discrepancies between one's model and current experiences (George, 1996). Consequently, when a person with an insecure internal working model, based on early insecure attachments, later encounters new relationships that provide a secure base, the ensuing discrepancy in expectation provides an opportunity for revision of the internal model and something of a corrective experience (Main, Kaplan, & Cassidy, 1985; Payne, Joseph, & Tudway, 2007). For example, maltreated children often develop insecure attachments as a result of inconsistent or negligent care (Carlson, Cicchetti, Barnett, & Braunwald, 1989). Studies of maltreated children in foster care (Caltabiano & Thorpe, 2007; Carlson et al., 1989; Kaniuk, Steel, & Hodges, 2004) and residential care (Moore, Moretti, & Holland, 1998; Moses, 2000) demonstrated that children with substitute caregivers who were available and responsive and who facilitated the children's reframing of their experiences and relational expectancies were able to develop secure attachment relationships with others. These corrective experiences promoted increased affect regulation, behavior management, and relational trust. Discourse analysis of interview responses is the central methodology used to assess these "states of mind" with respect to attachment (Main & Goldwyn, 1998). Those who provide narratives of current supportive relationships despite negative early attachment experiences are categorized as "earned" secure adults (Pearson, Cohn, Cowan, & Cowan, 1994).

One possible source of reparative relationships is peer attachments, a source of growth that is particularly of interest among emerging adults. Undeniably, peer relationships (friends, co-workers, romantic partners) become increasingly significant during this period and often provide essential support for the emerging adult during this transitional period (Armsden & Greenberg, 1987; Lapsley, Rice, & Fitzgerald, 1990).

Attachment to God

Beginning with Kirkpatrick (1994, 2005; Kirkpatrick & Shaver, 1990), religious experiences have been described and understood within an attachment paradigm. In addition to "earthly" relationships, attachment to God studies have demonstrated correspondence between ones early attachment history with parents and later relationship with God (Beck & McDonald, 2004; Hall & Edwards, 2002). Hall et al. (2009) asserted that the mechanism for this correspondence can be understood conceptually by recognizing that all relational experiences are a type of implicit relational knowing. This relational knowledge becomes organized into the internal working model, acquired only through interpersonal experiences, and aids a person in knowing "how to be with someone" (p. 231). Similarly, spiritual relationships are a form of implicit relational knowing which nurtures emotional appraisals of meaning and values. Hence, correspondence between parental attachment and attachment to God can be seen as reciprocal and as confirming expressions of the internal working model.

Alternatively, seeking God as a substitute or compensatory attachment figure during times of distress has been discussed in the attachment literature. Kirkpatrick and Shaver (1990) first reported findings supporting a compensatory role for religion for individuals with insecure parental attachment relationships. Other studies have shown support for a compensatory God attachment for people with insecure romantic relationships (Granqvist & Hagekull, 2003; Kirkpatrick, 1999). In these studies, the attachment compensation, or God-substitute attachment figure, serves to regulate distress when a secure attachment figure is not available. However, relevant findings from studies utilizing the Adult Attachment Inventory (AAI, Granqvist, Ivarsson, Broberg, & Hagekull, 2007; Granqvist, Mikulincer, & Shaver, 2010) suggested a different construction for understanding how one perceives God as an attachment figure. These AAI studies demonstrated that while childhood experiences of insecure parental attachment predicted past use of religion for affect-regulation, current classifications of their attachments were not best described by compensation. These authors concluded, "Hence, some individuals who suffered attachment-related adversities in the past may have earned' a certain degree of attachment security from their perceived relationship with God" (Granqvist et al., 2010, p. 54). They reasoned that this "earned security" may be comparable to the notion of "reparative" outcomes achieved from relational experiences with a competent therapist or sympathetic romantic partner. Bowlby (1988) believed this to be a crucial aspect of therapy:

  A therapist applying attachment theory sees his role as being one
  of providing the conditions in which his patient can explore his
  representational models of himself and his attachment figures with
  a view to reappraising and restructuring them in the light of the
  new understanding he acquires and the new experiences he has in the
  therapeutic relationship. (p. 138)

In the same way, spiritual attachment relationships may serve as a corrective or reparative to other relationships, resulting in new ways of "being with someone" in emotionally healthy connections. Those with insecure attachment relationships may experience a positive change in their internal working model through their relationship with a loving God which enables them to reappraise their view of the self and ultimately other relationships. Understanding how this process occurs within spiritual relationships may help clarify the attachment paradigm.

Granqvist and Kirkpatrick (2008) provided the qualitative means to understand emerging adults' spiritual attachment narratives. In their groundbreaking review of this literature, Granqvist and Kirkpatrick (2008, p. 906) theorized that "core aspects of religious beliefs and behavior can be meaningfully and usefully interpreted in terms of attachment dynamics" and argued that Ainsworth's (1985) and Bowlby's (1969/1982) descriptions of perceptual and behavioral patterns unique to attachment relationships may be used to portray a spiritual or divine attachment relationship. These spiritual relationships meet the "defining criteria" for an attachment relationship and function meaningfully like other attachment relationships (e.g., providing a safe haven when threats or distress are perceived and serving as a secure base for risky or challenging endeavors). Granqvist and Kirkpatrick (2008, pp. 908-909) specified these attachment criteria: "(1) perceived relationships with God are central to many peoples religious beliefs and experiences; (2) the emotional bond experienced in this relationship is a form of love akin to the infant-caregiver attachment bond; and (3) images of God tend to parallel the characteristics of sensitive attachment figures." These criteria are met in the five relational patterns present in a spiritual attachment relationship with God, which are: Seeking and Maintaining Proximity to God, God as a Safe Haven, God as a Secure Base, Response to Separation and Loss, and Perceiving God as Stronger and Wiser (see Granqvist & Kirkpatrick, 2008; Granqvist et al., 2010 for further explanation for each relational pattern).

Purpose of Study

The present study explored these criteria by examining emerging adults' narratives in response to an open-ended question about their relational experiences with God. While there are a number of standardized scales that assess Attachment to God (Beck & McDonald, 2004; Cicirelli, 2004; Rowatt & Kirkpatrick, 2002; Sim & Loh, 2003), our qualitative study provided a rich account of emerging adults' own words to describe their perceptions and relational experiences of their spiritual attachment. Furthermore, we wanted to explore the narratives of emerging adults who reported secure parental attachment and emerging adults who reported low secure parental attachment to learn if these groups differed in describing their relationships with God. To make this comparison, we used a standardized quantitative measure, the Inventory of Parent and Peer Attachment (IPPA, Armsden & Greenberg, 1987), to assess participants' attachments with their parents. If emerging adults who were classified as lacking a secure parental attachment were nevertheless able to describe their relationship with God in intimate attachment language, this may provide evidence for internal working model revision. Exploring their spiritual experience may shed light on how this revision takes place.

Because our research analyzed emerging adults' spiritual relationship patterns in an attachment paradigm, it seemed appropriate to use a sample of emerging adults who value their religious identity. This is in keeping with the many studies that focus on a single religious group (e.g., Beck & McDonald, 2004; Chaudhury & Miller, 2008; Daiute & Luci, 2010; Dollahite, 2003; Granqvist & Hagekull, 1999; Randolph-Seng, Nielsen, Bottoms, & Filipas, 2008). We agree with Hill's (2011) directive to oversample students from religious institutions in order to gain greater understanding of the role of their beliefs and values in their everyday lives.

Research Questions

1. Do emerging adults with high secure parental attachments utilize more attachment language when describing their relationship with God than those with low secure parental attachment?

2. Does peer attachment play a role in the emerging adults' attachment language when describing their relationship with God?

3. If emerging adults with insecure parental attachments describe a secure relational intimacy I with God, can we discover the process for their becoming secure in this relationship with God?



Participants were recruited through email messages sent to all members of the 2006 and 2008 graduating classes of two Christian liberal arts colleges. This paper presents data from a randomly chosen subset who agreed to complete an interview in addition to online surveys that assessed three domains of interest (ego identity, parental attachment, religiosity). There were 119 (or 25% of the larger study) interview respondents, 61 from the class of 2006 (30 males) and 58 from 2008 (30 males), 84 unmarried, and largely Caucasian (92%). When their responses to the surveys were compared to the responses of the non-interview subsample, overall multivariate analyses indicated that the interview sample (n = 119) did not significantly differ from the larger sample (n = 362) on any of the three domains.

Consistent with their Christian college enrollment, participants were highly religious and Protestant (93% reported they were Protestant, 4% other, and 3% did not identify a denomination). For example, religion was "very important" to 83% of them, 84% attended church once a week, and 99% reported that they were "moderately to extremely" interested in religion.


Interview participants were contacted by email and asked to participate. All who agreed were given information about privacy and gave permission for their interviews to be digitally recorded. All interviews were conducted in person or by telephone and took 30-45 minutes. Interviews were later transcribed, generally by their interviewer for maximum accuracy. Six interviews could not be transcribed because of equipment failure; in five of these cases, the notes taken by the interviewer at the time of the interview were used for analysis. The entire interview solicited narratives on a variety of topics that were relevant to our larger study on emerging adults' transition out of college. This paper analyzes participants' responses on the question most relevant to our purposes in this paper: (1) Please give us 3 adjectives that best describe God to you; (2) Using each adjective, please relate a particular time in which you experienced God this way.


Our research utilized qualitative thematic analysis to assess emerging adults' narratives about their relationship with God and to examine whether the attachment language in their narratives about God corresponds to their attachment with their parents.

Narrative Coding for Attachment to God Language. Participants were asked to give 3 adjectives to describe God and then to relate a time when they experienced God in each of those ways (Main, Goldwyn, & Hess, 2003). The participants' ability to narrate a coherent story that reflected how they experienced God was the focus and provided the relational dynamic of the narrative. The adjectives generally verbalized were either very broad (e.g., loving, forgiving, merciful) or traditional religious descriptors (e.g., omniscient, omnipotent, creator). They were, therefore, judged less helpful in determining attachment language and are not reported. Rather, the story elicited from the adjective provided the narrative data. We drew on a deductive content analysis approach (Corbin & Strauss, 2008) to describe the relational patterns consistent with the descriptions given by Granqvist and Kirkpatrick (2008), remaining faithful to the attachment behavioral patterns initially conceived by Ainsworth (1985).

Because participants were asked to narrate three adjectives and their ensuing stories, multiple attachment codes were possible for each participant based on the nature of the relational experiences articulated. Participant stories were transcribed and imported into NVIVO 9 software. The coding process required each coder to initially score an interview independently and then meet with the entire research team, which consisted of the first author and four graduate students, to discuss the codes for each participants response to the interview questions. Consensual validation (Eisner, 1991) was sought through this process as the team met multiple times to determine the appropriate descriptors and examples for each of these attachment language categories. The goal of the research team was to ensure that the descriptors for the attachment language categories were consistently followed and were coherent with the theoretical relational patterns offered by Granqvist and Kirkpatricks (2008) and Granqvist, Mikuliner, and Shavers (2010) relational categories:

1. Seeking and Maintaining Proximity

2. Safe Haven, Secure Base

3. Response to Separation and Loss

4. Perceiving God as Stronger and Wiser (see Table 1).

Each participants relational experience in response to each of his or her verbalized adjective was coded for inclusion into any of these five conceptual categories. Our coding guide reflects our work creating careful descriptions based on Granqvist and Kirkpatrick (2008) and Granqvist et al., (2010) criteria for these attachment categories (Table 1) and is available from the first author.

The research team completed all the coding, with a random sample (30% of the stories) double coded by two members of the team to insure inter-coder reliability. Raters were blind to the participants' parental and peer attachment. Inter-rater reliability was strong (exact agreement, K = .82). The codes used in the final analyses of the narratives were those derived by consensus of the coders after discussing each response in which the coders differed.

Narrative coding for sources for relational spiritual intimacy. Our second aim was to account for ways in which participants may describe the process for becoming intimately related to God. This was done to further our understanding of potential corrective sources for those who experience intimacy in their relationship with God but may not have secure parental attachments. We used an inductive categorical analysis (Corbin & Strauss, 2008) to distinguish prevailing themes identified by the participants. Inductive coding entails identifying themes in the qualitative remarks themselves rather than beginning with a priori themes based on theory or research (Corbin & Strauss, 2008). Deriving our categories inductively, rather than using the deductive process of attachment language, is recommended when there is little substantive literature to guide exploration (Elo & Kyngas, 2008). Multiple readings of the attachment language narratives were conducted by a subset of the research team (first author and one graduate student) for the purpose of discovering the conceptual categories that might best illustrate the source of this spiritual intimacy. By this process, we attempted to determine the source of the spiritual relational experience that was narrated. While engaged in this process of reading and reviewing, the coders paid strict attention to their own perspectives and biases, a necessary reflexivity required within qualitative research (Horsburgh, 2003) as this was new research terrain and the team was intent to capture experiences in categories that reflected participant rather than observer experience.

Two conceptual themes emerged for understanding the source or context of participants' spiritual experiences. The first was Personal connection, illustrated in comments such as "God spoke to me clearly," "God met me in my times of meditation," and "God showed me his faithfulness through provision/forgiveness." The second theme was Communal connection as source of the attachment relationship. This theme was illustrated by comments such as "the church was a strong source for helping me see Gods love," and "the community provided encouragement, demonstrating God's faithfulness." These themes were not evident in every narrative but were present in the majority of the narratives (62%).

Parental and peer attachment. Participants' attachments were measured by the Inventory of Parent and Peer Attachment (Armsden & Greenberg, 1987), which assessed their level of trust in, communication with, and alienation from mothers ([alpha] = .81), fathers ([alpha] = .84), and peers ([alpha] = .80). Participants were then categorized into High (HS) and Low (LS) Security groups following Armsden and Greenberg's instructions (1987, p. 442). The attachment score distribution of each IPPA subscale (Trust, Communication, and Alienation) was divided into thirds for mothers, fathers, and peers and each participant was given a rating of low, medium, and high for each subscale for mothers, fathers and peers. A set of logical rules (1) defined attachment group assignment to, High (HS) vs. Low (LS) Security group, depending on the rating each participant received. For the purposes of this study participants were then classified into one of two groups based on their attachment group assignments for Mother and Father: High secure attachment co both parents (i.e., HS for Mother and Father Attachment) or Low secure parental attachment (LS for both Mother and Father Attachment). Similarly participants were classified into one of two groups based on the peer attachment score, High Secure (HS) or Low Secure (LS) peer attachment.


Attachment to God Language and Parental and Peer Attachment

Figure 1 presents percentages of participants in each parental and peer attachment group. Chi-squares tests of significance examined the relationships between attachment to God language categories and parental attachment ([X.sup.2](4, N = 119) = 8.92, p = .06) and peer attachment ([X.sup.2](4, N= 119) = 2.75, p = .713) and found no significant differences in any attachment relationship (Figure 2). Qualitative analyses showed that all groups of emerging adults--those with a secure parental attachment, those with either a secure parental or peer attachment or both and those without any secure attachment--were able to speak in secure attachment-related ways when describing their relationship with God.

Our qualitative approach permitted a deeper understanding for these findings. We first describe how emerging adults used the five relational categories in attachment theory (Granqvist & Kirkpatrick, 2008) and then explore the sources of spiritual intimacy. We first address how emerging adults with and without secure parental attachments describe their relationships with God and then describe how those without a secure parental attachment described the sources of spiritual intimacy. Because exploring the relationship between peer attachment and attachment to God language did not provide a context for any corrective experiences, we did not explore this further.

Emerging Adults' Attachment to God Narratives

Emerging adults described intimacy in their relationships with God. Figure 1 presents the percentage of narratives coded for each of the 5 relational attachment categories, by attachment status. One category, Response to Separation and Loss, was rare, however, two categories were the most common relational categories in the narratives: God as Secure Base and Perceiving God as Stronger and Wiser. The remaining two categories--God as Safe Haven, and Seeking and Maintain Proximity--were also used. The relational categories were used similarly by emerging adults with and without secure-parent attachments, with no significant differences by Chi-square Test (as reported above). To convey the richness of qualitative data, we provide a number of narrative excerpts to illustrate our findings.

For example, here is a 2008 graduate with a secure parental relationship reflecting on her experiences in her relationship with God. She seems to describe how her early relationships, first with her mother and then friends and church community, have provided her with a formative vision for understanding her secure-attachment relationship with God:

  I've been a Christian my whole life, since I was 5, in varying
  strengths of dedication I suppose. So faithfulness is the one that
  comes to mind first. Second, probably compassionate is how I see
  the Lord. And that has mostly been exhibited to me through people
  I've known, through pastors I've had relationships with and friends
  and people up here at [college] and high school friends and my mom
  is just such a loving person and really shows the love of Christ
  with her whole being, so. It's a wonderful example to me of how a
  Christian should live and how they're supposed to care for
  other people.

A 2006 female graduate in our study, with low secure parental attachment, spoke of intimacy and a sense of security as she reflected on an experience that best describes her relationship:

  ... he is in control of my life and while 1 get to make a lot of
  the choices I get to rely on him in a way I can't rely on anyone
  else. He will always be there, guiding me through every decision
  and choice I make.

The following two narratives were classified with a Secure Base category (e.g., indicating a felt sense of a secure base for exploration, freedom from worry, sense of hope). The first is by a female 2006 graduate emerging adult with a secure parental attachment:

  Yeah constant. And that's kind of like a lifelong thing, because
  you know we're all human and I'm not the best at sticking with them
  or sticking with my faith or following through but whenever God
  kicks me in the head I always come back and just realize that He's
  exactly the same and I can just pick up where I left off and I
  always have faith that he's always going to be there when I get
  back. Not that it's good that I ever went away (laughter) but it's
  comforting to know.

The next comes from a male 2006 graduate emerging adult without a secure parental attachment:

  ... in my experience God has not come in my life and done a whole
  house cleaning in five seconds or made all these great, spiritual
  epiphanies to me. ... God has developed me over time through other
  experiences in my life, he has worked through education, through
  relationships, through a lot of different elements in my life, to
  grow me over time. It's kind of developed my spiritual experience
  of him and his work in my life through his son to be something
  more that happens on, on a long term basis and not something that
  has been one point in time and that has been my conversion
  experience and ever since it's been this high road, awesome,
  really it's been that God has been growing mc over time.

Another relational attachment category, Perceiving God as Stronger and Wiser (e.g., God perceived as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent) was the most common relational category used by the emerging adults. Here is an excerpt from a 2008 male with secure parental attachment:

  Sovereign: Just this summer, praying for jobs and getting four jobs
  over the summer and even more in the last couple of days. Seeing
  God change my Grandmas heart in the past couple of months and what
  he is doing in my Grandpas life. How his sovereignty works, seeing
  him orchestrate things in a way that I enjoy and that I can rejoice
  in and am satisfied in.

Here is an excerpt from a 2008 female without secure parental attachment:

  and just I guess looking back at when as you grow up, a lot of
  times I noticed myself go through phases at different things ...
  just seeing afterwards that God has the oversight and patience to
  be able to pull you through something even though what was best for
  you in the future is not at the time. Maybe all I was asking for
  was just specific things or something that wasn't really what God
  had in mind, I guess.

These are two of the most common relational categories the emerging adults used and both participants with and without secure parental attachments utilized attachment language when describing their spiritual relationships with some differences in frequencies between groups of particular categories.

Sources of the Relational Spiritual Intimacy

Our third research question sought to account for how emerging adults with low parental attachment relationships find relational spiritual intimacy with the divine. Have they learned "to be with God" in ways that suggest revision of their internal models of self and attachment? As noted in the previous section, emerging adults with low parental security indeed found relational spiritual intimacy. Thus, we attempted to determine if the sources of spiritual intimacy, which we identified as grounded either in the personal relationship with God (e.g., "God met me in my times of meditation," and "God showed me his faithfulness through provision/forgiveness") or the relationship with the community (e.g., "the church was a strong source for helping me see Gods love" and "The community provided encouragement, demonstrating Gods faithfulness, etc."), would differ for emerging adults without high parental security.

Results indicated a significant difference between the spiritual relational intimacy categories in the low secure parental attachment group ([X.sup.2](1, N = 119) = 7.79, p < 01). Personal connection sources were described significantly more often (69%) than Communal connection sources (31%). Here is a representative narrative describing Personal connection sources of the attachment relationship was:

  God has, kind of in a number of little ways kind of reminded me of
  His faithfulness to us. And it just kind of, urn, I guess, you
  know, reminding me that, that He is looking out for me and He's not
  going anywhere.

Here is a representative example describing the Communal connection source:

  I would have to say that He has used a variety of people and
  relationship to keep making himself known, to keep showing his love
  to me. He's been a constant source in my life though bringing
  various people into my life to nudge me, guide me, and constantly
  remind me of his love and mercy.

To summarize the results for our third research question, emerging adults without secure parental attachments are finding intimacy in their spiritual relationships and this intimacy appears most often, but not solely, provided by a direct relationship with the divine.


Attachment theory is an effective paradigm for understanding emerging adults' spiritual relationships and our qualitative exploration of their spiritual narratives provided a unique conceptual viewpoint. The religious emerging adults participating in our study utilized all the attachment language categories when reflecting on their spiritual relationship with God. Perceiving God as Stronger and Wiser was a category used often by both groups of participants, those with secure and those without secure parental attachments. Both groups also used the categories of Safe Haven and Secure Base.

Our use of qualitative methodology provides a unique window on the attachment language of emerging adults. In their language, we see attachments that are consistent with those described by Bowlby in young children and explored by Granqvist in individuals of various ages. Qualitative methodology provides a window into the attachment experience and does justice to religious experience as defined by William James (1902/1985).

Our qualitative methodology is supplemented by quantitative analysis. Utilizing chi squares test, no significant differences were found in the use of our five attachment language categories by participants with and without a secure attachment. We believe that our findings are not sufficiently accounted for by either the correspondence model or the compensation model of attachment. While there has been strong research support for a correspondence model between parental and God attachment (Beck & McDonald 2004; Hall & Edwards, 2002; Rowatt & Kirkpatrick, 2002), there have been mixed results regarding a compensation process whereby a secure attachment with God can arise in adulthood to compensate for insecure attachments with parents (Granqvist 1998; Kirkpatrick & Shaver, 1990). Our qualitative study examines emerging adults' reflections on their personal and intimate spiritual relationships and shows that emerging adults with and without a secure parental relationship have found ways to be intimately involved in their relationship with God.

Our conclusions are drawn from a lack of relationship between scores on our measure of parental attachment and God attachment language. Our attachment scale assesses current rather than past attachment and it is conceivable that our participants enjoyed early secure parental attachments but currently are experiencing a poorer parental relationship. We cannot reject this interpretation but nevertheless think our findings are suggestive. Further, we included peer attachments as a possible source of reparative relationships but the lack of a significant relationship between security in peer attachments and God attachment language suggests that peer attachments may not be playing a distinctive role in nurturing secure God attachments. We first discuss the attachment language expressed by our participants and then explore how the emerging adults described the sources for their spiritual relationships.

Emerging adults with secure parent attachments frequently used the theme of Perceiving God as Stronger and Wiser. One potential rationale may be that a person experiencing a current secure parental attachment envisions God as an attachment figure in an asymmetrical relationship that is similar to the one by which they view the parental relationship (Granqvist & Kirkpatrick, 2008). Similarly, consistent with a correspondence model for attachment to God (Beck & McDonald, 2004; Hall & Edwards, 2002), emerging adults with secure parental attachments utilized the Safe Haven category and the Secure Base language relatively frequently.

Emerging adults without secure parental attachments often used the Secure Base and Seeking and Maintaining Proximity attachment to God language. This may reflect the relational need that was unfulfilled in the parental relationship and is sought in this spiritual relationship with the divine. This particular attachment category, Secure Base, may best exemplify how the emerging adults with low parental security have come to "be with God." Indeed, the Secure Base category was the most common one for emerging adults who lacked secure parent attachment and was used by a third of them. As discussed earlier, when a person with an insecure internal working model encounters a new relationship (in this case a spiritual relationship) that provides a secure base, the ensuing discrepancy in expectation may serve as a "corrective experience." This experiences creates an opportunity for revision of the internal working model (Main et al., 1985; Payne et al., 2007). We speculated further on this process when we explored the source of their spiritual intimacy.

Our final question led us to identify how the emerging adults described the source of their spiritual intimacy with God. We found two thematic sources that expressed how they learned "to be with God" in distinctly attachment related and dynamic ways: Personal connection and Communal connection. We found that emerging adults who lacked secure parental attachments spoke most often of their personal spiritual experiences with God as the source for their intimacy. One might expect that others in a spiritual community might point them to God or love them differently than their early relational experiences, and some described this as a source of their God attachment. However, they spoke most often about their direct and personal encounters with God as a source for their spiritual attachment.

Our emerging adult participants, including those with insecure parental relationships, were reflecting on meaningful spiritual experiences that have enabled them to see themselves as "worthy of love." They were speaking of their reaching out to God in times of trouble but also narrating stories of receiving God's help and encouragement. They spoke of prayer as their way of communing with God and of God "meeting them" in their prayer. Surprisingly, therefore, emerging adults without secure parental attachments described their spiritual relationship in language indicative of a shared, reciprocal connectedness. We speculate that this spiritual intimacy is not a reflection of a substitute attachment figure sought to compensate for the lack of human secure attachments. On the contrary, these narratives demonstrate very personalized, intimate experiences with God. These findings may offer qualitative support for Hall et al.'s (2009) model of implicit spirituality. Indeed, we suggest that ones relationship with God, rather than subsequent parental or peer attachments, provides a corrective relationship that impacts a persons view and value of the self.

While subsequent research with other populations will have to explore the generalizability of our findings, participants from Christian colleges were a fruitful starting point for this research. As Wuthnow (2011) argued, "Generalizability does not mean, as it does in the natural sciences, that any observation taken under the same conditions anywhere should produce the same result (gravity, for example), but that generalizations can be made to a particular population" (p. 6, emphasis added). Analogous to other studies cited in the Introduction that focused on a single religious group, our focus on a specific population of evangelical Christians at Christian colleges may illuminate the attachment relationships of Christian individuals. Christian colleges are quickly becoming "one of the fastest growing sectors in higher education" and represent "a distinct segment of the nations 900 religiously affiliated colleges and universities " (CCCU, 2012). This group comprises a considerable minority of young adults in the United States and thus warrants closer study. By focusing on a group of emerging adults from this unique minority, we were able to highlight some of their critical spiritual experiences and their concomitant appraisals of relational meaning and value.

The findings of our study offer additional support for understanding the conceptual nature of spiritual relationships as attachment relationships. Bowlby described the role of the therapist as helping the patient "explore his (sic) representational models of himself and his attachment figures with a view to reappraising and restructuring them in the light of the new understanding he acquires and the new experiences he has in the therapeutic relationship" (1988, p. 138) and it may be that spiritual relationships serve similarly as "corrective" bonds for insecure parental attachments. Caution is necessary, however, given the limitations of our measures. Nonetheless, careful research within the attachment paradigm offers new avenues for empirical study, religious education practices, and clinical application.

Most important for the study of religion in peoples lives is the effective use of qualitative methodology in this research. The collection of emerging adults' reflections on their spiritual relationship with the divine allows for a deeper analysis of relationships than can be achieved through quantitative God-attachment scales alone. We agree with Smith and Denton (2005) who assert that "surveys are very useful for providing big-picture descriptions of and sorting out associations between different variables" but they "rarely provide enough insight to really understand people's lives" for which qualitative methodology is necessary (p. 105). Our approach has been to use qualitative methods to listen to emerging adults' own words about their relationships with God, and in the process illuminate important theoretical issues in attachment theory and emerging adults' religious and spiritual lives.


Coding for Attachment to God Language Categories *

1. Seeking and maintaining proximity to God

--God's presence

--Always being by ones side, holding one's hand, watching over


* Contemplative prayer-attempt to relate deeply to one's God

* Meditational prayer-concern with ones relationship to God

--Other religious behaviors, such as uplifted arms, speaking in tongues.

2. God as a haven of safety

--Bowlby discussed 3 kinds of situations that activate attachment system:

* Frightening or alarming environmental events

* Illness, injury, or fatigue

* Separation or threat of separation from attachment figures

--"experiencing Gods love and care"

--"realized God was trying to strengthen me"

--" look control over what I could and gave up the rest to God"

--Inclined to turn to god particularly when faced with threats and loss

3. God as secure base

--Sense of felt security and a secure base for exploration of the environment

--"When an individual is confident that an attachment figure will be available to him whenever he desires it, that person will be much less prone to either intense or chronic fear..."

--Freedom from worry and guilt; sense of personal competence and control

--Active, flexible approach to problem solving

--Sense of optimism and hope

--Confident, self-assured approach to life that a secure base is thought to provide

4. Response to separation and loss

--concerns responses to separation from, or loss of, that attachment figure per se: the threat of separation causes anxiety in the attached person, and loss of the attachment figure causes grief.

--Most obvious approximation to separation from or loss of God is deconversion or apostasy

5. Perceiving God as stronger and wiser

--God perceived as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent

'While we recognize attachment patterns are not mutually exclusive categories but dynamic organizational patterns, we have created prototypical or exemplar models for each category for the purposes of narrative coding. This is in keeping with Granqvist and Kirkpatrick's (2008) explanation for their category conceptualization, "As applied to the category of attachment relationships, the infant-caregiver relationship would then constitute the category prototype. In order to add a new "family member," one would need to show that it bears convincing resemblance to the prototype, just as we will show that the believer-God relationship does" (p. 928).


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(1.) Individuals were assigned to the High Security (HS) group if their Alienation scores were not high, and if their Trust or Communication scores were at least medium level. Because of the theoretical importance given by Bowlby (1969) to the element of trust in the attachment relationship, in cases in which trust scores were only medium level but Alienation scores were also medium level, HS group assignments were not made. Individuals were assigned to the Low Security (LS) group it their Trust and Communications scores were both low, and if their Alienation scores were medium or high. In cases in which the Trust or Communication score was medium level but the other was low, LS group placement was made if the Alienation score was high (Armsden & Greenberg, 1987, p. 442).

Cynthia N. Kimball, Ph.D.

Wheaton College

Chris J. Boyatzis, Ph.D.

Bucknell University

Kaye V. Cook, Ph.D.

Gordon College

Kathleen C. Leonard, Ph.D.

University of Massachusetts Lowell

Kelly S. Flanagan, Ph.D.

Wheaton College

This research was made possible by an Initiative Grant from the CCCU Program of Networking Grants. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Cynthia N. Kimball, Department of Psychology Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL 61087. E-mail:

Author Information

KIMBALL, CYNTHIA NEAL. Ph.D. Address: Department of Psychology, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL 61087. Email: Degrees: Ph.D. (Developmental Psychology) University of New Mexico; M.A. (Dev Psych) University of New Mexico; B.A. (University Studies) University of New Mexico. Specializations: emerging adults and the effects of their attachments, identity, and religious worldviews on stress and coping.

BOYATZIS, CHRIS J. Ph.D. Address: Department of Psychology, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA, 17837. Email: Title: Professor of Psychology. Degrees: Ph.D. (Developmental Psychology, Psychology of Religion, Culture); M.A. (Psychology) Brandies University; B.A. (Psychology) Boston University. Specializations: developmental psychology, psychology of religion, childhood and adolescent spiritual development, women's spirituality and their body.

COOK, KAYE V. Ph.D. Address: Gordon College, 255 Grapevine Road, Wenham MA 01984. Title: Chair, Professor of Psychology. Degrees: Ph.D. (Developmental Psychology) University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill. Specializations: Developmental transitions, gender issues, qualitative research, and moral and faith development.

LEONARD, KATHLEEN C. Ph.D. Address: Department of Psychology, University of Massachusetts Lowell, 870 Broadway St., Lowell, MA 01854. Title: Adjunct Professor. Degrees: Ph.D. (Developmental Psychology) Boston College. Specializations: Developmental dsychology, cultural psychology, emerging adulthood, religious and spiritual development.

FLANAGAN, KELLY S. Ph.D. Address: Department of Psychology, Wheaton College, 501 College Ave., Wheaton IL 60187. Title: Associate Professor. Degrees: Ph.D. (Clinical Psychology) Pennsylvania State University. Specializations: developmental psychopathology, social development, peer relationships, school-based mental health.
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Author:Kimball, Cynthia N.; Boyatzis, Chris J.; Cook, Kaye V.; Leonard, Kathleen C.; Flanagan, Kelly S.
Publication:Journal of Psychology and Theology
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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