The Trinity, Attachment Theory, and the Self

Stephen P. Stratton

There may be no greater challenge in pastoral ministry than loving others consistently while teaching others how to love as well. More than ever, people are in need of genuine loving connections; yet from one complex relational situation to another it is often hard to know how to love. In our uncertainty, love often is reduced to “being nice.” Being loving and being nice are not synonymous.

Pastors face a daily fare of people experiencing crises, conflicts, and confusion. How to love—parishioners, strangers, even spouses and family members—in complicated situations is more difficult than we care to admit. What are the “rules” that we can rely on to know we are exhibiting love? When are we called to submit? When is it necessary to set limits for another’s good? When do we offer a hand to another? When can we say “no” to another? When do our actions create space for God to work, and when do they obstruct what God wants to do?

Scripture offers less than we might prefer to satisfy our desire for concrete answers to these real life questions. John’s first epistle informs us that God is love. It is not simply what the Triune God does; it is who he is. We could say love defines God, yet how does this truth inform practical living? It helps that the second Person of the Trinity came as a relational expression of this love and offered a self-emptied invitation into this reality, but what is the value of this truth in the face of real-life conflicts that demand action from us? Is there any tangible application drawn from the knowledge that the love for which we were made is demonstrated in the communal life of each divine Person totally surrendered to the Others? Indeed, these truths are not abstractions; they are not esoteric ideals. They are the reality that informs every attempt to give and receive love in our relationships with God and those around us.

As we commence our contemplations on how to love, we must start with love personified in the Trinity. When the fathers and mothers of the church wrestled to understand the staggering implications of a Triune God, they were presented with a most perplexing challenge. One God in three Persons—how could they maintain an emphasis on both without downplaying the other? How could they hold in dynamic tension the seemingly polarizing truths of divine particularity and divine communion? Historically, we realize that they had as much difficulty as we do now.

Indeed, it remains tempting to stress one or the other, either overemphasizing persons (tritheism) or the community (modalism). Either way, love gets lost. An overemphasis on persons results in viewing love through the lens of distinctiveness and individualism. An overemphasis on community results in viewing love through another lens, merger and collectivism. The problem remains that as we lose our balance in one direction or the other, we fall from love. We are less likely to create the conditions—for ourselves or for others—for love to be present and active.

Our first step in learning to create the conditions for love comes in the refusal to live outside of this holy tension. Movement to the extremes of separateness or fusion must be avoided. Jürgen Moltmann (The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation [Fortress, 2001]) refers to these polar extremes as self-separated and self-dispersed, respectively. To love, however, requires living in balance as a self-in-relationship . The Trinity models this perichoretic balance and serves as the prototype. The mutual indwelling of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit depicts relations in which persons can give themselves completely to one another without forfeiting uniqueness. We see a community in which persons can limit themselves and make space for others to be present without disengagement. Love is revealed in a dance of self-giving and self-limiting movement. It grows out of a dynamic balance of relational boundaries where self can be asserted for the sake of another and self can be denied for the sake of another.

This language of open and closed boundaries is intricately related to Attachment Theory, a burgeoning psychological, sociological, and neurobiological study of human relating across all age levels. It began in the 1950s when J. Bowlby published his first research observations of children coping with separation from caregivers. Currently, this growing body of research is providing an increasingly comprehensive understanding of healthy and effective selfhood (cf. F.G. Lopez and K.A. Brennan, “Dynamic Processes underlying Adult Attachment Organization,” Journal of Counseling Psychology 47 [2000] 283-300) informed by our innate, adaptive, and lifelong need to love and be loved by a unique, irreplaceable other (S. Johnson, “The Biology of Love,” Networker [September/October, 1997] 36-41.). Indeed, Attachment Theory illuminates the development of persons in our less-than-perfect relational world from moments after birth to the grave. It considers the internal and external context in which the tension of our inherent relationality and our inherent singularity is played out.

Attachment Theory also wrestles with the dynamic balance of being a self-in-relationship, without overemphasizing either self or relations. It depicts how selves, in whatever relational world they perceive, either create the conditions for love or the conditions for protection from fear. Such a framework provides an interesting view of Adam and Eve’s actions in the Garden. These first humans in relationship, made by Love for love, were the first to wrestle with the choice to live in the love for which they were created or in the fear that necessitates self-protection. We can ponder what implications there might be as we consider what creates space for love.

The first thing we notice in God’s process of creating is the original balance of dividing and gathering. We realize again the formative tension, this time of separating and uniting. Light was separated from darkness, day from night, waters above from waters below; and yet, all was united into a new creative whole called heaven and earth. The new humans were born into this dynamic equilibrium, and it was all. In this balance they realized their centering purpose—stewardship of creation and stewardship of relationships. They were given tasks under God for the benefit of the world and relationships with God for the benefit of one another. Life in this context was naked and unashamed. It was intimate, vulnerable, and reciprocal.

We glimpse the loving balance modeled in the Trinity and now lived out in Creation. The conditions were set for love. That self-emptied balance of self-giving and self-limiting movement was present in two persons with separate identities joined in purpose and mutual stewardship of one another. It is what M. Volf (Exclusion and Embrace [Abingdon, 1996]) describes so imaginatively as an embrace, instead of the self-protective exclusiveness that ultimately dominated a fallen world and fallen relationships. In the embrace of one another in creation, God had the space to pour out the love of the Trinity in and through all the created order. As Adam and Eve created the conditions for God to be present by living out their created purpose, love could not be missed. Every self-action reflected love.

The fall came as a self-protective denial of purpose, a self-absorbed refusal of stewardship, and a self-centered rejection of love. Because of Adam and Eve’s choice, love was abandoned as the heart of the created order, and fear became the pervading theme. The kingdom of love, where another is a source of life, was cast off. The usurping kingdom of fear, where another is a threat, was accepted. We, like them, are still formed in relationships, but now as a result, we develop oppositionally, not collaboratively. Before the fall, we were shaped as we created the conditions for love to thrive for one another. There is no better definition of stewardship. Since the fall, however, we tend to be shaped by the necessity of protection. We seem driven to create the space for our own invulnerability and security. Living in the dynamic tension of love seems to us no longer tenable. In every relational situation, we are faced with this Garden temptation: create space for love or create space for self-protection.

Attachment Theory suggests that our self-protectiveness is characterized by two anxious strategies. The first type of protectiveness finds its security in an overemphasis on relationships. In fact, we see a preoccupation with relationships as a way of generating a sense of stability and a feeling of settledness. Persons who use these strategies often cling to sources of security and demand responsiveness, especially in times of distress. The other type of protectiveness might be seen in many ways as its mirror image. This type finds its security in separation from others. Stability and settledness are maximized when relationships are handled in a dismissing manner. These persons are often counter-relational and may over-invest in what must be done around them rather than persons, particularly in difficult times.
Figure 1: Attachment Continuum

Suggestive of the created purposes of human beings, the former protective strategy misuses relationships while the latter relies upon a distortion of the task mandate. In losing the balance of love, tasks and relationships become adversaries. Both types of protectiveness, preoccupied with attachmen t and dismissing of attachment, are self-centering alterations of purpose, humanly designed to manage fear. The conditions for intimate loving relationships are rejected. Fear casts out love.

When we fear, others often become objects that must cooperate in what keeps us safe. It might be the woman whose family must continuously sacrifice time with her for her work. Or it might be the man who demands that his family be available to him whenever he is in need, no matter what the circumstances. It might be the woman who cannot be assertive with the person who is too demanding. Or it might be the man who cannot commit relationally. It is not love; it is self-protection. One is protective independence; the other is protective dependence.

If we view these two types of protectiveness as the polarized extremes of an attachment continuum, the balanced area in the middle can represent secure attachment. In the centeredness of secure attachment, persons can be more or less connected on the basis of what is appropriate for the relational situation—whatever creates conditions for love. Self-absorption is minimized; empathy is possible. There is freedom from the rigidness of the fear-based protective strategies. Interpersonal interactions can be viewed more objectively since defensive biases are reduced.

As the dismissing side of the continuum over-emphasizes independence and the preoccupied side over-emphasizes dependency, we see secure attachment characterized by interdependence and the space for intimacy. Secure attachment assists as we conceptualize the conditions for a robust, trinitarian love. From this vantage point, conflicts are more effectively evaluated and managed. Emotions are more healthily regulated. Others can be valued, apart from the protective function they afford. Love casts out fear.

To one degree or another, persons often move protectively toward the extremes on the attachment continuum, especially when in crisis, conflict, or confusion. Reminiscent of the Garden narrative, humans run for a covering that affords a sense of security in a world that seems less than trustworthy. Running for cover is the telltale sign of fear. It seems too risky to remain in loving balance in a complicated relational situation. When persons move to cover themselves by overemphasizing tasks (dismissing of attachment) or relationships (preoccupied with attachment) for security’s sake, stewardship of either suffers. Outside of balance, persons cannot be available and responsive to one another.
Figure 2: The Balance of Love

From the balance of love, we find a person with the capacity to be more autonomous without disconnecting from the relational situation. This unique type of autonomy differs from the protective independence (dismissing of attachment) described above. There is the ability to be separate without fear, so it avoids becoming controlling or withdrawing with others. This may be the woman who can relate assertively to others. She can speak the truth humbly, whether it looks nice or not. The conditions for love are created because her assertiveness is based as much on what her friend needs as what she needs. Her friend is a person to relate to, not an object to manage or avoid.

From the balance of love, we also find a person with the capacity to be united with another without losing a separate perspective. This type of union is also different than the protective dependence (preoccupied with attachment) described above. There is the ability to be connected without fear, so manipulation or compliance are both avoided. This may be the man who can carry a friend’s burden, as it suggests in Galatians 6, without allowing the other to give up the load for which he or she is responsible. The conditions for love are created because loving communion is based as much on what he can give as on what he needs from his friend. Saying no is as valuable as saying yes. Self-sacrifice or submission is strategically chosen only when it creates space for love. It is not a compulsive role but a wise response to the relational conditions.

The question for the tension of balance is always, What creates the conditions for love to be present and moving? Sometimes it looks more separate. Sometimes it looks more connected. The conditions for love require that we can do both, depending on what we are facing.

When trying to love parishioners who cover themselves with protective independence, we must respond from the side of balance that is closest to their extreme independent reactions. We create conditions for love with those who are aggressively independent (controlling of others: “You must do what I want!”) or passively independent (withdrawing from others: “You must let me do what I want!”) by being able to relate separately, and speak truth humbly. In trinitarian language, love that is based on balanced separateness is the human facsimile of self-limiting love. By placing limits on ourselves, those out of balance are invited to consider a perspective other than their fear, and it is presented in a manner that they can most easily hear—no pursuit, no power struggles, no giving in.

When trying to love parishioners who cover themselves with protective dependence, we must respond from the side of balance closest to their extreme dependent reactions. We create conditions for love with those who are aggressively dependent (manipulating of others: “You must go with me where I want!”) or passively dependent (compliant with others: “You must take me where you want!”) by being able to relate connectedly, and speak truth empathically. In trinitarian language, love that is based on balanced connectedness is the human facsimile of self-giving love. By giving of ourselves, those out of balance are again invited to consider a perspective other than their fear. This type of engagement has no abdication of responsibility, no rescuing, and no taking over.

We now have a foundation to begin a practical conceptualization of how to love. Remember: we love in our complicated relational situations by refusing to live outside of the holy tension of self-giving and self-limiting love. In so doing, we choose the kingdom of love over the kingdom of fear. Living in the kingdom of love means that we model ourselves after our Triune prototype. We live as we were created to live, and each relational step makes room for Love to be present. There is nothing more practical than in every encounter making room for God to be unencumbered in his movement. We are the most dangerous encumbrances to this process. If we are out of balance, we tempt others to need protection with us. If we are in balance, we invite others into the kingdom of love. Do you want to figure out how to love? Check your balance!

Posted Apr 01, 2003