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Using An Attachment Lens to Understand God in High Control Religion

It was a Tuesday evening and I was facilitating a religious trauma processing therapy group with the four members over video conference. We were talking about relationships and the fear of getting close to people, even individuals they were romantically attracted to. Participants were describing a mix between pushing away from invitations to connect as well as panicking and trying to draw others close in relationship. 

I said, “This makes sense when you think about God as an attachment figure and consider how you were taught God responded to you relationally.” 

One person responded, “Wait, what?”

I said, “Yes, when you’re taught that the relationship with god is just as important or maybe even more important than your relationship with your caregivers, you learn safety and connection through the perception of how god treats you. In the same way you learn that from how your caregivers treated you.” 

“And,” I added, “it’s not uncommon for people in high control religion to experience a disorganized attachment style because God treated them similarly to an abusive parent.”

The group was shocked. Many of them already had experience with self reflection and understanding attachment theory but never had anyone explained to them that the relationship with god was an attachment-based relationship. Lightbulbs went off as they began to understand this relationship with god can have as meaningful an impact on relationships as that of a parent.

Understanding our natural inclination to attach as humans and then seeing how that was impacted by high control religion can unlock doorways to greater understanding of ourselves and what hurt us, deeper relationships in the present, and new patterns for the present and future. 

So lets break this down: 

A Quick Guide To Attachment Theory

Attachment Theory started with the work of John Bowlby in the 1950s. The popular scientific understanding of the time for why animals and humans bond with their caregivers was because “you won’t slap the hand that feeds you.” But Bowlby’s work opened a new school of thought- we receive other needs from our caregivers such as safety and security- not just food and water. So we will instinctively go towards those caregivers for comfort and safety regardless of their connection to material needs. 

Then Mary Ainsworth steps onto the scene with her Strange Situation Experiment. From this research attachment theory is born. This outlines four patterns of behavior or attachment styles to get our human need for security met. She identified that these patterns are already formed at 12 months old. 

The 4 Attachment Styles (super reductive but this will give you a start):

Secure: I express my needs and I’m able to be soothed and reconnect when there is a rupture. This pattern is associated with many positive health outcomes over the lifetime and especially in forming relationships. There is an ability to trust others. In summary a secure attachment understands- I’m a me, you’re a you, and we’re a we. I can be both autonomous and connected. My relationships serve as a secure base and a safe haven (we’ll talk more on this later).

Insecure Avoidant: I avoid asking others to meet my needs. I am self reliant but internally I have high levels of cortisol because as a child my caregivers were absent. When I become an adult, I pull away from emotional connections. I tend to dismiss others' emotional needs especially, even if I am available to help others with physical needs. 

Insecure Ambivalent: I rely solely on others to meet my needs. As a child, I experienced attachment figures as inconsistent so I try to keep others close because if they leave I don’t trust that they’ll come back.” As an adult, I become preoccupied with relationships, even obsessive. This is an attempt to keep others close so they don’t leave, even keeping them top of mind is a way to find security. 

Disorganized: I have no clear strategy for how to find security in the world. My attachment figures were chaotic. Where I received love and nurturing, I also received harm and abuse. Therefore, I want to come close but my safety system is threatened by closeness. I oscillate between avoidant, ambivalent, and even secure strategies to meet my needs because I don’t know how to find security in the world. 

Since this work, attachment research has become much more robust. This initial work focused on the attachment to a mother in particular. But now we understand attachment from a broader perspective. 

The Nested Model of Attachment shows how we form attachment relationships on many different levels of connection in our lives. In other words, our sense of security comes not only from our intimate relationships but also our relationship to communities, society, and even the globe. 

This is explained in depth in “PolySecure” by Jessica Fern, an excellent in depth understanding of attachment in relationships in adulthood. Additionally, “Attached” by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller is a great way to self reflect on romantic relationships.

So How Does This Relate To God? 

So it depends. For something or someone to be an attachment figure there has to be the real or perceived experience of that being or institution as a source of security. I have worked with people who no longer believe in god but still find that they have trauma reactions to experiences that they were taught separates them from god. 

For this person, the body is still oriented around the old narrative that the relationship with god is at stake.

 In other words, experiences that the body ingrained as not safe due to the teachings of god, may still create attachment insecurity, regardless of whether the person subscribes to that belief system today. For example, if someone was taught that drinking alcohol was a sin even if they no longer believe that, they may feel fear and believe they aren’t safe or feel shame when drinking. 

So ask yourself, regardless of what you believe now, were you taught that a relationship with god was important? Was god a source of security? Were there messages of god being an authority figure? Were you taught to obey god? Were there consequences to not believing in god?

If you answered yes to any of these, then god was to some degree an attachment figure in your life. Your child-brain or teen-brain oriented to the perception of god and this relationship impacted how you made sense of relationships. 

To understand how your attachment was impacted by the relationship with god, we need to examine the stories or messages you were given about the god-figure. Let’s break it down based on attachment styles.

Secure: God was taught to be a consistent, available being. God served as a secure base- you could freely go out and explore the world but check back in with god to know you weren’t alone and god was still there for you. God served as a safe haven- you received emotional support from god, for example you could talk to god about anything without judgment or shame and feel supported. 

Insecure Avoidant: You were taught that god was there but you did not feel god’s presence. You frequently felt ignored by god. Maybe you were taught that god would provide for your physical needs but your emotional needs were too much. God was described as a distant figure, too important or unavailable to give you attention. In times of difficulty you did not experience god as present. Or perhaps you were taught your needs didn’t matter to god, instead you needed to focus on the mission and forfeit your needs.

Insecure Ambivalent: You were taught that god was inconsistent in terms of presence. You were frequently fearful that god will abandon you. Perhaps you were taught that god leaves you every time you sin. Or another example of this is the rapture in christianity. If you were taught that god may return and not bring you to paradise, you might have felt anxious and doubted about whether you would be included in the rapture. People in this category may develop compulsions such as frequently repeating the sinner's prayer to try to assuage the fear that god will abandon them. 

Disorganized: You were taught that god is both a vengeful angry god and is loving and safe. Just like an abusive parent, god was a source of safety and fear. You were told stories of god causing mass genocide to those that weren’t on god’s side as well as stories of god saving the ones he loves. This creates confusion and fear that attachment figures are not sources of safety. That becomes normalized. You don’t feel safe to explore away from god but you also don’t feel safe going to god for support or closeness. It is paralyzing. 

In High Control Religion (HCR’s), the god relationship often parallels the disorganized attachment style. Frequently god is portrayed as a punitive being and going against god will have grave consequences. Additionally, people are often taught that god knows their thoughts and god punishes those that he loves for thinking sinful thoughts, so there truly is nowhere safe to turn to. 

So what now?

You’ve connected with the concepts in this blog. You’ve identified how the messages you were given about a god-figure have impacted your attachment. And now what? Are you supposed to just always be a victim to the messages you didn’t choose? 


The first piece of good news is that attachment is plastic. 

This means that we can change our attachment style throughout the lifespan. So even though I’m focusing on the relationship with a god-figure in this blog, this is true for any attachment style that is formed from any attachment relationship. 

No matter the source of the insecure attachment style- whether it was because of a god-figure, parent, or because of a societal crisis or war, a church or a community- you still have the ability to change how you relate. 

The second piece of good news is that attachment can be changed through relationship.

This means that you don’t have to go back to believing in god or being in a certain religion or church community to heal the attachment wounds you have from the god-figure. You don’t have to engage in the same type of relationship or the same setting where the wounding occurred. 

You can heal them through any secure relationship. 

The third piece of good news is that you can start today.

Understanding where the wounding occurred can be a catalyst for bringing compassion to those instincts towards insecurity. Just by reading this blog, you are self-reflecting and identifying where you might benefit from healing. 

And you don’t have to go through this alone. 

I will continue to write on attachment wounds from High Control Religion in the coming blogs, so you can continue to explore what would support you creating greater felt safety and decreasing anxiety in your life. Additionally, I offer a complimentary phone consultation to see if I’m a good fit to be your therapist. 

So if you want to explore this deeper with a trained professional, don’t hesitate to contact me, Sarah Kate Wilder, with the form below and schedule your consultation to get started. 


Fern, J. (2020). Polysecure : attachment, trauma and consensual nonmonogamy. Thorntree Press.

Levine, A., & Heller, R. (2010). Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find - And Keep - Love. Tarcherperigee.

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