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Understanding the God Image

Through Attachment Theory:

Theory, Research, and Practice
Glendon L. Moriarty, PsyD
Louis Hoffman, PhD
Christopher Grimes, PsyD

ABSTRACT. This paper uses attachment theory as an explanatory

framework to better understand the God image. The first part explores theoretical foundations and contemporary perspectives on attachment theory.
Next, empirical research on the God image and attachment is reviewed.
The final part discusses how clinicians can use this framework to conceptualize and collaborate with clients who wish to address their relationship
with God in the psychotherapy process. doi:10.1300/J515v09n02_04 [Article copies available for a fee from The Haworth Document Delivery Service:
1-800-HAWORTH. E-mail address: <> Website: <> 2006 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All
rights reserved.]

KEYWORDS. Attachment theory, God image, adaptation, integration

Glendon L. Moriarty is Assistant Professor, Regent University, School of Psychology and Counseling, 163, 1000 Regent University Drive, Virginia Beach, VA 23464
Louis Hoffman is Core Faculty, Colorado School of Professional Psychology, 555
East Piker Avenue #108, Colorado Springs, CO 80903.
Christopher Grimes is affiliated with Diakonos, Inc., 3031 Frontaya Road, Street
200, Indianapolis, MD 64056.
Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, Vol. 9(2) 2006
Available online at
2006 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.




Attachment theory is at its heart a theory of development, specifically
a theory of how ones early interactions and relationships with primary
caregivers influence the individuals understanding of self, others, and
their relationships. Until Bowlbys (1969, 1973) research and writings,
the prominent theories of development of psychopathology were based
largely on the Freudian understanding of unconscious drives and conflicts uncovered in the work of psychoanalysis. Although influenced by
Freuds theory, from the very early stages of his research, Bowlby
assumed a different point of view than Freud.
Bowlby was concerned that what appeared to be a continuous string
of events, when traced from the adulthood backward to childhood, may
in fact only appear to be a continuous string of events because of the
point of view of the analyzer. Bowlby proposed the direct observations
of children, rather than relying of an adults recollection of their childhood experiences, was a more accurate method for understanding the
course of development. To this end, Bowlby and his colleagues began
researching childrens reactions to the absence of their mother.
In developing and researching attachment theory, Bowlby incorporated theories from other fields of study including evolutionary biology,
ethology, developmental psychology, cognitive science, and control
systems theory. From evolutionary biology Bowlby incorporated the
idea of adaptedness, the evolutionary processes through which an organism adapts to their environment as a means of survival. Attachment
behaviors are adaptive behaviors, concluded Bowlby (1969), and are
carried out in an attempt to maintain proximity, safety, and security.
These behaviors are displayed in the childs seeming natural inclination
to seek the parent when distressed. Bowlby posits the child benefits
from their attachment behavior, and the main benefit is protection.
The attachment behavior is a component of a larger behavioral and
relational system in which the child is developing. Bowlby (1969) used
principles from control systems theory to explain the relationship of
the childs attachment behavior to his or her environment. A simple
and ready example of a controlled system is the use of a thermostat to
control the temperature of a room. A thermometer within the thermostat
constantly monitors the state of the rooms temperature and compares
the actual temperature with the desired temperature. If the temperature
drops below the desired temperature, feedback from the thermometer will signal the thermostat to activate the heating unit to warm the
room until feedback is received that the desired temperature has been

Moriarty, Hoffman, and Grimes


achieved. In a similar way, attachment behavior is modified by feedback processed by the child, and is activated or inhibited depending on
the desired state of proximity and felt safety and security.
It is important to distinguish, as Cassidy (1999) reminds us, the goal
of attachment behavior is not the object (i.e., mother). Instead, the goal
of attachment behavior is a feeling state (i.e., safety and security) which
is generally related to the proximity of the child and parent. However,
the desired proximity varies with context. In the same way that higher
humidity makes a cooler temperature more desirable, and low humidity
makes a warmer temperature more bearable, desired proximity can vary
based on the condition of the child (tired, ill, hungry, etc.) and condition
of the environment.
Because attachment behavior is learned and modified overtime, based
on the feedback the child receives, individual differences in the attachment bond occur (Ainsworth, 1989). The term Internal Working Model
acknowledges our ability to use past experience to forecast future occurrences. Differences in internal working models (or cognitive appraisals)
are critical for understanding human differences in security and anxiety.
Further, the childs cognitive appraisal of the parents availability appears
to be the critical appraisal. Availability refers to the extent to which a
child believes his or her parent will be responsive if called on, and is
related the childs felt security (Bowlby, 1973).
It is important to emphasize that proximity alone does not lead to
feelings of security. Rather proximity to parents and the responsiveness
of the parent to the childs attachment behavior is crucial (Bowlby,
1973). Consider for example a parent who is physically present, but
emotionally withdrawn and unresponsive to the childs attachment
behavior. Such a scenario is likely to lead to an insecure attachment despite the proximity of the child and parent.
Attachment theorists understand psychopathology to arise from childhood experiences of an insecure attachment and the effect those experiences have on the individuals future appraisals based on their working
models (Kobak, 1999). This differs from psychoanalytic theory which
views pathology as arising from internal conflicts and fantasies. Instead,
many childhood and adult difficulties result from actual experiences of
childhood, which are then generalized through internal working models
to other relationships and interactions with the environment.
Ainsworth et al. (1978), based on their research using the strange situation, theorized different patterns of attachment behavior that suggested different working modes. Ainsworth and her research partners
categorized individual differences in attachment behavior into one of



three basic attachment styles: Secure, avoidant, and anxious-ambivalent.

Children characterized as possessing a secure attachment style where
able to explore their environment when their caregiver was present, and
although they displayed some distress when the caregiver was absent,
were easily comforted upon the caregivers return. Children with a
secure attachment style demonstrated a strong sense of security. Although the proximity between them and their caregiver may be far, secure children trust the caregiver will be responsive to their attachment
behavior. This felt security allows the child a secure base (Ainsworth
et al., 1978) from which to explore their environment.
Children who developed an avoidant attachment style were observed
to have been raised in an environment where their caregiver tended to be
cold and rigid and, despite close proximity, rarely offered the child
physical or emotional contact. These children develop a working model
which suggested attachment behavior is futile, as the caregiver tends to
be generally unresponsive. The anxious-ambivalent attachment style
was observed in children whose caregiver tended to be highly inconsistent in their response to the childs attachment behavior. The unpredictable nature of the caregivers response to the childs attachment
behavior appears to create great anxiety within the child, who is unable
to generate consistent working models, presuming to lead to tenuous
and ambivalent relationships (Ainsworth et al., 1978). A fourth attachment style, the disorganized/disoriented style, was later differentiated by Main and Soloman (1990). These children tended to display
disorganized and/or disoriented behaviors in the caregivers presence.
Attachment theory holds that the working models, which are developed in the first years of a childs life, and based largely on interactions
with parents or other primary caregivers, determine how the individual
approaches future relationships. That working models of childhood are
maintained, and the notion if necessary the individual can reunite with
the attachment figure, remains fundamental to healthy development
throughout development (Cassidy, 1999). The fear of abandonment,
which is a fear the attachment figure will not be available when needed,
is often covered with anger and hidden in defense-mechanisms (Bowlby,
1973). Although what constitutes a threat to availability, and the capacity to manage emotional reactions, may change with age, the core emotional reaction to these threats, which are developed in early childhood,
seem to remain similar (Kobak, 1999). However, as Thompsons (1999)
review of the literature suggests, there are multiple possibilities for influencing the progression of attachment behavior between early infancy
and adulthood. Thompson concludes adult attachment behavior is multi-

Moriarty, Hoffman, and Grimes


determined, and must be considered in a developmental context. He states

succinctly two decades of research in to relationship between early
attachment and later development has yielded this conclusion: Sometimes attachment in infancy predicts later psychosocial function, and
sometimes it does not (Thompson, 1999, p. 274).


Attachment research has explored many religious and spiritual constructs. Results suggest attachment impacts an individuals God image
(Hall, Brokaw, Edwards, & Pike, 1998; Hoffman et al., 2005; Hoffman,
Jones, Williams, & Dillard, 2004; Tisdale et al., 1997), God concept
(Hoffman et al., 2004), degree of religiosity (Kirkpatrick & Shaver,
1990), conversion experiences (Kirkpatrick, 1997, 1998; Kirkpatrick &
Shaver, 1990), and religious experience such as Glossolalia (Kirkpatrick &
Shaver, 1990, 1992).
The resulting empirical and theoretical literature suggested three primary types of models which attempt to explain these complex relationships: Compensation Models, Correspondence Models, and Complex
Relationship Models (Moriarty, Hoffman, Grimes, & Gattis, 2005).
Compensation models purport that God functions as an ideal or substitute attachment figure in the absence of a real-life healthy attachment
(Kirkpatrick, 2005). This correspondence models purport that God
is experienced in a manner consistent with early attachment figures
(MacDonald, Beck, Allison, & Norsworthy, 2004; Tisdale et al., 1997).
Early research showed mixed support for both models. These disparate
results led theorists to develop new models which attempted to explain
these variations, which we will refer to as complex relationship models.
These models bear similarity to Thompsons (1999) idea that behavior
is multi-determined and can only be understood in this context. While
different names were attached to these attempts to synthesize the literature,
their commonality pointed toward a complex model in which both the
correspondence and compensational models were partially true or true
in different circumstances.
Dickie et al. (1997) reported findings suggestive of a complex relationship were dependent upon the individuals developmental level.
When the child is young, their God images tend to be similar to the
way they experienced their parents (correspondence model). However,
as the child grows older, their God images become more idealized while



they began recognizing the imperfections of their parents, leading to a

God image more dissimilar to early parental attachments (compensation model). This complex model suggests both the correspondence and
compensation models may be primary influences on how an individual
experiences God at different points of psychological development. Initially, the God image emerges similar to the experience of the primary
care giver. Through time, the God image begins to serve a more compensatory function, at least in some individuals.
Hall and colleagues (Halcrow, Hall, Hills, & Delaney, 2004; Hall &
Porter, 2004; Hill & Hall, 2002) provide an alternative complex relationship model referred to as Multiple Code Theory. This more complex model does a better job at accounting for research variations and
individual differences in the God image. Based upon Emotional Information Processing Theory, this theory delineates three different levels
of process ranging from Subsymbolic Emotional Processing to Nonverbal Emotional Processing to Verbal or Symbolic Processing. The former two levels tend toward being more implicit and remain largely at
the unconscious level for most individuals. Conversely, the latter level
is more explicit and conscious. According to this theory, it is possible
for both the compensational and correspondence models to be concurrently true at different levels of processing.
Multiple Code Theory suggests, for example, that the correspondence model is more accurate at the unconscious, implicit level of processing while the compensational model better accounts for the explicit,
conscious level of processing. In fact, these models can even be supportive of each other. A child who experienced their parents as harsh
and unloving is likely to experience God in a similar manner at the
unconscious, subsymbolic level. However, this creates depression, anxiety, and fear for the individual. In order to deal with the emotional discomfort, he or she utilizes the compensational model at the conscious,
verbal level. God is idealized and seen as the attachment figure they desire at the unconscious level. Stated succinctly, the unconscious view of
God as harsh and judgmental drives the conscious view of God as the
ideal parent.
A third complex relationship model focusing on individual and cultural differences may work in conjunction with Multiple Code Theory.
Hoffman (2004) suggested the manner in which individuals experience
God may vary in accordance with various forms of diversity including
cultural and gender differences. Initial research supports a cultural component influencing the God image (Hoffman et al., 2005). Future research
may further demonstrate that other forms of diversity and individual

Moriarty, Hoffman, and Grimes


differences may impact the relationship between attachment and various forms of spirituality, including the way people experience God.
Comprehensive reviews of the literature consistently suggest a
complex relationship between religion, spirituality, and psychological
Health (Ervin-Cox, Hoffman, & Grimes, 2005; Koenig, McCullough, &
Larson, 2001). This is also true with the God image. As the article shifts
to discussing treatment issues, it is important to keep this complexity in
mind. Oversimplifying how clients experience God can have strong,
negative implications for treatment planning and the treatment process.
Just as human relations are complex with a mixture of conflicting feelings
existing at once, the same can be true with the experience of God. Assisting individuals as they attempt to make sense of these complex emotions
oftentimes leads to a healthier, more genuine spiritual relationship.


The relationship between attachment and the God image is somewhat
complex. This requires the clinician to be that much more careful in assessing the clients God image (Moriarty, 2006). Despite this multifaceted relationship, there seems to be some agreement that a persons
internal working model will correspond with their emotional experience of God. As Halcrow et al. (2004) note, it may sound as if the client
has an intimate and supportive relationship with God. However, if they
evidence an avoidant or ambivalent relational style, then it is worthwhile for the clinician to look underneath the religious language to see if
it is acting as a defense. So, it seems in most situations the therapist can
lead with the assumption that a clients attachment style and God image
will parallel. It follows that changing a persons internal working model
will also change their God image. So, one of the goals of attachment
integration therapy is to help a person with anxious or ambivalent
attachment develop a more secure way of relating to the therapist and
to God.
How is this done? It is accomplished in many ways, but three main
interrelated ways are outlined here. The first is by establishing a strong
bond and secure base with the client. The second is to work with the
clients transference and the clinicians countertransference. The third
encourages the client to identify and let go of their maladaptive way of



There is no shortage of literature that describes the healing affects of

a strong bond with the client. Studies consistently show that the therapeutic alliance contributes more to psychological recovery than any
other factor (Martin, 1995). Bowlby may not have used the words therapeutic alliance, but that is exactly what he was he was describing when
he spoke about the secure base parents provided to their children. Therapists, like loving caregivers, do many of the same things to provide a
secure base for clients. Clinicians are sensitive to the unique attributes
of their clients. They see them, understand their complexities and gently
follow them. That is accomplished through being emotionally available
and accurately reflecting what the client thinks and feels.
Providing this context helps the client feel safe and trust the therapist.
It communicates to the client that they can rely on the therapist for comfort and consolationmuch like an infant knows she or he can turn to his
or her parent when confused or in pain. One helpful side effect of providing a secure base is that it allows the client space to explore. If a client feels safe, then they are more willing to discuss painful issues. They
can use the energy that they usually use to protect themselves to process
unresolved issues and experiment with new ways of being and new
ways or relating.
These therapeutic factors will also translate to the clients experience
of God. They will experience relational differences in their emotional
experience of God as their attachment style changes from being modeled after their relationship with caregivers to being patterned after their
relationship with the therapist. God will begin to feel more safe, trustworthy and available. They will feel more able to turn to God with
painful issues.
Another important aspect of helping clients move to a secure way of
relating involves working through the transference and countertransference issues. Weiner (1998) states, Transference consists of the
displacement of feelings, attitudes or impulses experienced towards previous figures in a persons life onto current figures to whom they do not
realistically apply (p. 196). Clients unconsciously transfer unresolved
feelings and issues they have with a person from their past, usually a
parent, onto the therapist. As a result, they experience the therapist as
behaving like that person.
The traditional way of understanding countertransference was that it
represented unresolved therapist issues. That is, the client reminded the
therapist of a person from their past with whom they have unresolved
issues. The idealistic idea was that through enough supervision the
therapist would get to a point to where they no longer experienced

Moriarty, Hoffman, and Grimes


countertransference. A more contemporary, and realistic, understanding posits that therapists will always experience countertransference
and that this is actually a good thing.
Stolorow and Atwood (1992) along with Levenson (1995) have
shown that therapists often respond to clients in a manner that others
respond to the client. That is, clients recreate their interpersonal world
with the therapist. This provides the therapist with a visceral understanding of the clients relational difficulties. They can then use their relationship to provide the client with a curative interpersonal experience.
Clients with a disorganized, ambivalent or avoidant attachment style all
have distinct ways of relating. For example, consider the client who is
avoidant. They tend to be afraid of rejection, are slow to warm, and keep
people distant. Most people respond to this behavior by pulling away
from the person who is avoidant. That is, the person who is avoidant
consistently pulls for this type of reaction by relating in a withdrawn
Therapists need to be mindful of clients maladaptive ways of relating so that they can offer a different response. Levenson (1995)
suggests that all therapists will automatically and unconsciously get
hooked into responding to clients like other people do. The goal,
however, is to get unhooked by becoming aware of the dynamic and offering a different, healthy, relational response.
Alexander (1956) referred to this as the corrective emotional experience. The therapist needed to provide the client with a new emotional
experience and a new cognitive understanding. He posited that clients
need an affective experience and an intellectual shift for long-term
change to occur. For example, consider the person who is avoidant.
They will have the new experience of feeling accepted and the new understanding that other people can care for them and not reject them.
This therapeutic process will also modify the clients experience of
God. The ability of the therapist to recognize the style and get unhooked
allows the clients to play this out with their God image as well. The
avoidant individual will have the affective experience of feeling accepted by God. In addition, they will have the cognitive understanding
that God cares for them and does not reject them.
A third intervention involves helping the client identify and let go of
maladaptive ways of relating (McCullough-Vaillant, 1997). It can be
very helpful for the client to recognize that their attachment style served
a purpose. Giving them a framework to understand it can help them see
that it was essential in the past, but is now no longer necessary. Consider
the avoidant person again. They likely developed the style as a means



of protecting themselves from emotionally unavailable parents. They

learned to cope by withdrawing so they would not get hurt. This helped
them navigate a trying childhood, but is not best suited for a psychologically satisfying adulthood.
The next step is to help them transition out of the old way of relating
and into a new way of relating. Because change is difficult, this can be a
very challenging part of the therapy process. It can be hard for clients to
relate in a new manner, even if they recognize that the old way continues to cause them pain. One intervention facilitates the clients grieving
of what his or her life might have looked like if they related differently.
This is not done in a sadistic manner; rather it is a compassionate way of
helping them see that change is painful, but it can dramatically better
their remaining years. It encourages them to grieve their past and envision a future where they relate in a satisfying manner.
This last intervention, like the others, also likely affects the God image. Clients act out their attachment style with others and God. If they
are mindful of it in relationship with people, then they can also be aware
of it with God. Once they understand the framework, they can monitor
their thoughts and feelings to see if they are automatically acting in the
old way or the new way. For example, the person who is avoidant
can recognize that he or she will likely experience him or herself as
withdrawn and distant from God. If they sense this, then they can consciously choose to allow themselves to open-up or imagine God as
closer and more intimate. This affective experience can be accompanied by the cognitive understanding that God does indeed love and
accept them.
Complex relationship models, such as Multiple Code Theory, provide a theoretical foundation for the therapeutic processes discussed
above along with offering important insight to therapeutic impasses.
Multiple Code Theory suggests there are both conscious and unconscious realms of experience which contribute to psychological distress.
While these two levels may impact each other, they are distinct. The
cognitive, conscious realms of experience are more susceptible to direct
interventions. Conversely, the unconscious realms are more dependent
experience. Therapies which just offer cognitive change or insight may
appear to be successful through changes in thoughts, behaviors, and
insights while not addressing unconscious levels of distress. For many
individuals, therapy must address both the cognitive and experiential
realms of change to be effective.
Complex relationship models which emphasize the importance of
diversity implicate the need to address further contextual and cultural

Moriarty, Hoffman, and Grimes


issues. The individual experiencing acceptance from the therapist, while

still experiencing a lack of acceptance in the world, will only receive
partial healing if cultural and broader social issues are not addressed.
Psychotherapy is very adept at addressing intrapersonal issues and
interpersonal issues on an individual level, but often is ineffective at
dealing with the cultural and social realms.
An African American client who experiences racism on a daily
basis, including racism in religions contexts, may have more difficultly
changing their God image by only working through transference and
countertransference issues, identifying and changing relational patterns, and gaining insight. Furthermore, as Hillman and Ventura (1993)
point out, psychotherapy, particularly individual psychotherapy, facilitates clients to become passive and accepting about issues which warrant anger, concern, and action. Instead, it is important for clients to
work to integrate these experiences in meaningful ways. For example,
an African American client attending a predominantly white church
may feel their cultural approaches to religion are ignored and devalued.
They may become involved in educating their church about their culture
and ways of being religious. Similarly, an African American client may
use God, their religious community, and their religious beliefs to take
stands against racism. Through integrating these negative experiences
and utilizing them in a constructive, meaningful manner, it takes away
the intrapersonal oppressive power these experiences have over their
Finally, complex relationship models can help therapists understand
therapeutic impasses. It is not uncommon for therapists to see improvements on many levels, such as increased insight and changed behavior,
while recognizing that the emotional and visceral responses in the client
have been largely unchanged, despite the provision of corrective emotional experiences. The complex relational models suggest this may indicate undiscovered realms of experience, or realms which have not
received corrective experience, which need further exploration. Healing
needs to occur on multiple levels and often through multiple mediums.
This requires the therapist to be patient and not too quickly question the
effectiveness of therapy. Continued curiosity and exploration will allow
the client and therapist together to uncover these unhealed realms.
To sum up, attachment integration therapy changes the way clients
relate to their God image. Providing clients with a secure base allows
them to seek comfort and consolation from their God image. Similarly,
working through transference and countertransference issues provides
clients with a corrective emotional experience. In vivo relational change



with the therapist evokes change in their God image. Finally, once they
are aware of their attachment style, they can see how it plays out with
their God image. They can then take steps to experience their God image in a healthier manner. Attachment integration therapy provides a
way for clients to change the way that they emotionally experience their
God image.

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RECEIVED: 10/31/06
REVISED: 11/15/06
ACCEPTED: 12/06/06