A Reflection on Attachment, Addiction, Psychology, and Spiritual Formation: Part One

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I’ve confronted addiction from several directions in my life: as a therapist treating people in recovery, as a codependent in an alcoholic family, and as a Catholic man trying to discern God’s will and action in the midst of the fear, rage, and despair that addiction unleashes. Through all of these experiences, there is a word I keep coming across that threads through my understanding of addiction, psychology, and spirituality: “attachment.” 

Attachment is both a psychological and recovery word. It is also a spiritual word, deeply embedded in our Catholic tradition. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we read: “Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity” (#1849, emphasis mine). Furthermore, “every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory” (#1472, emphasis mine). Attachment, sin, and salvation, then, are closely intertwined.  

Compiling and sifting through all the quotations from the Fathers and Doctors of the Church on attachment and how to reach healthy detachment and holiness would make a book unto itself. Suffice it to say, “attachment” is a central issue in Catholic doctrine and spirituality, and critical to our spiritual and psychological growth. In a series of articles, I want to explore this term from the angles of spirituality, recovery, and psychology to see how they all intersect to explain our life struggles. I’ll give a brief overview here of what I mean, and expand on these basic ideas in future articles. 

Let’s start with psychology. Attachment, especially in mammals, is foundational for survival. A baby cannot survive without its mother’s attention, and the mother needs to be able to sense, at a deep, intuitive level, what the baby needs, since it can’t communicate in words. When the mutual gaze between mother and infant is reasonably stable, predictable, comforting, and, most of all, nurturing, the baby grows into a child, then an adolescent, and, finally, an adult who can securely love and be loved. When that early relationship is disrupted, insecurity, anger, fear, and despair can become entrenched, and the child grows up with driving needs for security and comfort that demand satisfaction and resolution. They long to attach to someone, or something, that will comfort their pain and instill happiness.  

That longing can get translated into increasingly powerful bonds, not to a nurturing “other,” but to behaviors that bring brief and temporary comfort. Drugs do that, of course, but so do many other behaviors. Most of these behaviors will never land a person in a treatment center, but they can be devastating all the same. They include the people, places, and things we become attached to, that become the pole stars of our lives. Our need for the things that comfort us and relieve our pain, whether a drug, sex, career, food, money, helping (or controlling) others, accumulating things, gambling, or nearly anything else, can become an attachment  to one degree or another, and attachments, once the brain gets used to a certain level of their stimulation, can become destructive addictions.  

I believe this is why the Doctors and Fathers of the Church speak so often of attachment. They seem to have nearly unanimously recognized that one of the fundamental obstacles to full communion with God in Christ is the number and strength of our attachments to created things, rather than to the creator. In some forms, these attachments were symbolized in idol worship, but various Fathers and Doctors, from Augustine, Chrysostom, and John Cassian in ancient times to Maximos the Confessor and the writers of the Philokalia in the Christian East to the Spanish mystics (Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross) during the Counter-Reformation era, have identified the power and danger of attachments great and small. They have also provided a solid body of guidance to identifying and rooting them out, so that we can cooperate more and more with God’s work in us.  

It is probably not an accident, then, why the Twelve Steps have such a Christian and Catholic “feel,” that is, why they seem to mimic so closely the prescriptions of an Augustine or a Maximos or a Teresa for the healing of our souls. Addiction is an attempt to heal the pain of broken relational attachments, and to make ourselves happy. Only a thorough surrender to God, coupled with a thorough examination and spiritual repair of our inner and our relational lives, offers any hope of escape.

Putting the Twelve Steps, and the goal of healthy detachment, into the larger doctrinal and sacramental landscape of Catholic life is what we will explore over the next few articles.


Jeff Thompson, Ph.D., is a therapist, a recovering codependent, and a grateful convert to the Catholic Church. He lives and works in the Pacific Northwest, and is the proud dad of two young adult children.