Proposing another way to understand catalysts to faith disaffection: Attachment injury

This is the first of a seven-part series, “Recruiting Alma the Younger

There continues to be lots of discussion about disaffiliation and disaffection from faith communities these days – most often, involving a language of unexpected “faith crisis” hitting – which can subsequently trigger what many experience as an inevitable, irrevocable “transition process” in relation to religious practice.

While the language of “crisis” may be a useful framework at times, it also has its limitations.[1] So, I’d like to propose today another way to make sense of some of the moments that seem often to act as early catalysts to the process of disaffection.

For the last decade, marriage and family therapists have been learning to better help couples navigate intense moments that can prompt an unraveling of otherwise secure, loving relationships – moments where that marital attachment has essentially become “injured.”  Formally, “attachment injury” has been defined by Dr. Sue Johnson and colleagues as occurring: “when one partner violates the expectation that the other will offer comfort and caring in times of danger or distress” and is “characterized by an abandonment or by a betrayal of trust during a critical moment of need.”

This “injurious incident” subsequently “defines the relationship as insecure and maintains relationship distress because it is continually used as a standard for the dependability of the offending partner.” Whatever happened in the past thus “becomes a clinically recurring theme and creates an impasse that blocks relationship repair in couples therapy” (italics my own).

While acknowledging some limitations of this proposed metaphor as well, I’d like to offer the concept of “attachment injury” as having some unique applicability and relevance to the variety of incidents that often precipitate what is now widely characterized as a “crisis of faith.”  My proposal below applies across faith communities generally, since clearly disaffiliation is a broad phenomenon.  But I take as my primary focus examples from my own faith community: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In particular, I raise this as another way to help make sense of times or specific moments when our understandably high expectations of life in our respective faith communities are not only not met, but in different ways (and for different reasons) painfully disappointed.

For instance, years ago, a friend of mine confided how she was mistreated at an early age by religious leaders in her evangelical faith community – pointing to that as to why she’s kept religion at arm’s distance ever since.  Similar examples now show up regularly in newspapers with titles like, “Her Evangelical Megachurch Was Her World. Then Her Daughter Said She Was Molested by a Minister.”

The impact of any heartbreaking instance of abuse on someone’s previous attachment to faith (especially if that abuse comes from someone who holds a position of trust within that faith community) is the most obvious and clear example of what I’m calling “attachment” injury – where, what used to be a safe, secure (and even nourishing) attachment to faith, becomes something else – something pained, wounded, and raw – in the wake of an unexpectedly disheartening moment (or period of time).  In a Latter-day Saint faith context, this might also include:

  • Entering the mission field with high positive anticipations, but then encountering especially difficult experiences such as depression/anxiety, pressure to achieve more than you feel able, etc.
  • Going to the temple for the first time with huge expectations, but for whatever reason feeling some discomfort with your initial experience, rather than immediate comfort and joy.
  • Against the backdrop of understandably high hopes that go into most any marriage, discovering that your spouse isn’t keeping their promises to you (whether through abuse, neglect or addiction) – with the resulting confusion and ache of figuring out what that means.
  • Feeling your own personal disappointment at struggling to find lasting, sustainable healing from an addiction or a painful mental/physical health condition – despite earnest petitions to God in prayer.
  • Having a child share that they experience same-sex attraction and/or identify as LGBT – grappling then with question about what this means for his/her future and place in our faith community.
  • Coming across some new information or arguments about church history that you hadn’t heard before – and being told you’ve “been lied to by leaders.”

While each of these circumstances clearly involve a wide spectrum of meaningful and important differences, I would argue they share at least one striking commonality:  the felt experience of a previously unquestioned expectation of trust and dependability in one’s faith being violated or betrayed during a key or critical time of life. Whatever had been imagined as the right way to feel (on a mission, in a marriage, within the temple), lived experience had been surprising: “This isn’t how a mission is supposed to feel, how a marriage is supposed to go – or how I’m supposed to feel in the temple…etc.”

While each of these experiences are real in an important way and deserve to be held and respected as such (especially given the tragic history of abuse being denied or minimized), this is not the same thing as any specific experience of concern (such as those described in the list above) be accepted as unquestionably true and valid. As reflected in the final two examples especially (and consistent with what happens in intimate relationships), it’s clear this sense of betrayal or violation can arise not only from what happened – but from the deeply complex ways people respond to (and interpret) what happened.[2]

Whatever the source and whatever the details, this kind of a resulting felt experience of betrayal introduces a significant rupture in what may have been to that point a fairly safe and secure “attachment”[3] towards one’s faith community. As evident in so many stories, that rupture can subsequently ripple out and influence everything that comes afterwards.

After having her son “come out” as gay, for instance, one mother recounts: “We tucked him into bed, told him for the hundredth time that we loved him, then went to our room and fell apart. [My husband] started crying at this point. We just looked at each other with devastation in our eyes. Mission, gone. Temple marriage, gone. Grandbabies, gone. It was almost unbearable.”[4]

How well does this language of “attachment injury” fit what we see in these kinds of early disruptive experiences precipitating faith crisis? And how might its influence extend to what happens next – particularly, coming to experience a “string of injuries” that build up over time (to a crisis or breaking point).

In each case, the difficult experience or moment seems to “define” a new kind of relationship with the church in a vivid way – with a resulting connection that often no longer feels “secure,” but instead involves “relationship distress because it is continually used as a standard for the dependability” of the church. So, in other words, whatever happened in those difficult, intense, painful moments lives on in an acutely transformed (disrupted/deformed) working “model” for the relationship.[5]

Once again, does that language resonate with what you have seen or experienced in your own lives – or people you love?  I’ve seen in my own life how loved ones relate to the Church (which they have often loved and trusted implicitly to that point) from a fundamentally different place after moments like these.  Whatever confidence and reassurance may have been placed in prophetic leadership, priesthood and historical respect for Church history, for instance, may get displaced and dislodged profoundly.

In their place, other kinds of trust can arise, with different kinds of reassurances (in a particular scholar or website, or argument, or philosophy – or someone’s own feelings and thoughts). The process by which the direction of our trust-and-love can shift so markedly and substantially is fascinating – and in my opinion, under-discussed + under-explored (especially given how broad the rippling effects can be). All of our subsequent interactions with the Church can thus be colored and influenced by this bedrock shift in trust.

I would propose to you that this same rippling-influence-of-shifting-trust (and remnant suspicion, disdain, or hostility) is precisely what marriage therapists often see happening in real-life family relationships.

If that comparison with marital attachment is a fitting one, I’d suggest that may be good news:  because recognizing something as an attachment injury offers a hopeful possibility. Compared with the sense of inevitable deterioration of faith sometimes connected to a language of “crisis,” the attachment injury model presents a striking choice:  do you want to heal the injury…or not?

 In the case of an injury to secure attachment in a marriage relationship, there are certain processes and pathways one can pursue that often (even predictably) lead to a deep restoration of intimacy. For instance, in a context of mutually desiring a renewal of intimacy and recommitment, a couple could walk a sustained path of intentional learning together. They can revisit painful moments together and tenderly explore what happened, and the particular details of responses (and interpretations) involved in the painful aftermath.  Doing so gently and skillfully can introduce new ways of making sense of those moments – and discoveries that invite relief (and even potentially different kinds of forgiveness). There are also many new emotion-focused and somatic/body-oriented therapies that help people work through and release feelings that have been suppressed, ignored and bothersome for years.

Could similar pathways of healing be available for people who have endured an attachment injury in relation to the church?

I believe so – and I’d love to explore with others what those might look like. If you’ve experienced something like this in either a rupture of your relationship with the church – or in a subsequent restoration and healing of that same relationship, I’d love to hear from you.  Of course, critical questions and critique are always welcome too.

I wanted to acknowledge in closing that if any of the above comparison makes sense, it’s a whole different question of what to do about it. For most human beings + most human conflicts, my experience is we’re really not that great at working through the painful stuff. Part of that, I think, is we really just don’t know how: What do I do with this intense anger sitting in my gut? How to I move forward in this relationship after feeling so much suspicion and hostility for you? We all know the miracle stories of a couple coming back from the brink. But for every inspiring story, it’s much more likely to hear about people pushing away from the mess and the pain.

And that’s kind of where it seems most people are in relation to institutional ruptures. Rather than turning towards the mess and pursuing some kind of inner journey, it seems far more common to separate ourselves from what hurts (in different ways). One person might “stay mostly active” while building an emotional wall – while another steps away more substantially. These moves are understandable, if limiting – since neither constitutes what might be described as “healing the injury.”

But that’s probably the more common path – in these terms, to just live with the injury. Isn’t it common to hear or see instances where, as one person put it, “she hasn’t completely been able to work through something”? As a result, everything in our experience with the Church becomes filtered through the lens of that Uncomfortable, Unsettling, Unresolved Something.

But (and here’s the real point), if those people knew there was a way to Heal The Injury (fully and completely), I can’t imagine many would want to keep living with it (or protecting themselves from any future wound)….unless, of course, they truly saw the relationship as un-redeemable – with the person or institution in question So Deceptive, So Evil, and So Unforgivable that the only future possible was an estranged one.

To any who feel that way about the Church, I hope you will push back to reconsider the intensity of your own judgments – and consider afresh the possibility of a healing reconciliation of even intense wounds and injury. I’d love to find out what that could look like, even for you!


[1] After all, “crisis” implies and invites drastic measures, even as it viscerally (physiologically and emotionally) calls forth a kind of “fight or flight” mentality moving forward. Mountains of research make it clear the degree to which this survival mentality impedes creativity, resilience and inner space necessary to explore steps of deeper healing.

[2] There are very different ways to interpret any given moment or experience. And so much depends on the particular way of interpreting what happened that we adopt. In some cases where the Church is seen as betraying trust, for instance (“you lied to me about Church history”…”I now understand you hate gay people”), it’s clear that a particularly accusing narrative of church leaders that questions motives and hearts plays a significant role in the feelings of betrayal (with those who take up a different narrative having a predictably different resulting experience).  None of us, in other words, can escape our responsibility to interpret the world – with contrasting perceptions of what happened (or didn’t happen) important to explore and take into account.

[3] It was Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby who originally founded modern attachment theory on studies of children and their caregivers in the 1970’s and early 80’s. Then, in the late 1980s, Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver applied attachment theory to adult relationships.

[4] As detailed in my analysis of many similar stories, there’s a particular narrative that clearly influences these kinds of experiences (in one way or another) – and leading parents and families in a particular direction (in this case, creating substantial distance and estrangement with the church).  Check out section 3 called “So much for our Mormon dreams” for more examples of this disruptive kind of experience – as examples of what I’m calling “attachment injury” here.

[5] This proposal attempts to draw upon key basic principles of attachment theory, wherein individual differences in adult attachment behavior are understood to be “reflections of the expectations and beliefs people have formed about themselves and their close relationships on the basis of their attachment histories.” [Fraley, R.C.; Shaver, P.R. (2000). “Adult attachment: Theoretical developments, emerging controversies, and unanswered questions”. Review of General Psychology. 4 (2): 132–154]. Similarly, another research team underscores how “experiences in earlier relationships create internal working models and attachment styles that systematically affect attachment relationships.”  [Rholes, W.S. & Simpson, J.A. (2004). Attachment theory: Basic concepts and contemporary questions. In W.S. Rholes and J.A. Simpson (Eds.), Adult Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Implications, pp. 3–14. New York, NY: Guilford Press].

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