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

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Attachment, as we have seen in previous articles (Part One and Part Two), is central to addiction, recovery, and spiritual growth. But what is it? Where does it come from? How does it get so compromised that we turn to substance abuse and other compulsive behaviors to fill the vacuum in our hearts? 

Attachment is biological, psychological, and spiritual. Biologically, it is the connection between a mother and her offspring that maximizes their chances for survival: Newly hatched ducks line up behind their mother for protection and food and the mother is fiercely protective of her offspring in their vulnerability. 

Does the mother duck “care” about these offspring? She will do everything possible to protect them and keep them alive until they are grown, even at great cost to herself, but this is still a biological function, aimed at continuing the species. 

In human relationships, attachment becomes more psychological and sophisticated, because human attachment is primarily an emotional bond between a mother and her baby. Survival is still a primary issue, certainly, but the human mother values her baby at a deeper level. She sees it as somehow emotionally connected to her, almost a part of her. 

If she values herself, too, she will sensitively seek to understand the baby’s needs, verbalize them, and seek to meet them. More importantly, she will shift between supporting the baby’s needs to explore and develop, on the one hand, and on the other hand, be open to its need to return to her for protection and reassurance when it is distressed. 

What can go wrong? Sadly, quite a lot. 

Causes of Unhealthy Attachments

Poverty, abuse, addiction, lack of support, temperament, and many other things can bring a woman into motherhood not valuing herself, and thus valuing her child too much or too little. 

She might be needy and look to the baby for signs that it loves her, feeling rejected if she doesn’t get that need met. She might be competitive, actually jealous of the attention the baby receives from others that now doesn’t go to her. She might be fearful, always scanning the environment for danger, and not able to focus enough on her child’s needs. She might be angry at her loss of freedom amid all the changes motherhood has brought into her life. She might be depressed, and unable to muster the energy she needs to fully love and care for her child. 

All mothers can vary among these conflicted feelings. Fathers, grandparents, siblings, and others in the baby’s widening circle of relationships do, too. What the infant takes into itself, though, as it develops into childhood and beyond, is a general sense of how others see it: Am I valued? Cared for? Safe? 

Or am I an extension of one or the other of my parents’ egos? Am I somehow supposed to take care of those who take care of me? Is love conditional and dependent on what I do or fail to do? Am I carrying a burden for my family, or supposed to accomplish something to make them feel better about themselves? Or am I the burden, making my family’s life harder because of my needs or my personality? 

In short: Am I loved? 

A Lack of Feeling Loved

Sadly, few of us enter adolescence and adulthood with a firm sense that, “Yes, I am loved.” We have attached imperfectly, somehow, and we are left with a sense of insecurity, loss, fear, anger, or emptiness. We are left with a vacuum needing to be filled. 

We carry this vacuum into our adult relationships, and try to fill the emptiness, assuage the anger, heal the sadness, or buffer the fear through those relationships to people, but also to many other things: accomplishments, money, possessions, or status, for example. 

In the extreme, our internal emptiness can carry us into drug abuse, codependency, gambling, eating disorders, and other addictions. Our early traumas and our insecure or broken personal attachments flow into an expanding list of impersonal ones, as even the important people in our lives, even our children, and even God Himself, are depersonalized into means to an end of feeling important, valued, cared for, and loved. 

Addiction develops from an attachment vacuum that can only be filled by love, that is, by God, who is love.

Disposing of Our Inordinate Attachments

St. Ignatius of Loyola defines his “spiritual exercises” as “every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and, after their removal, of seeking and finding the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul.” 

Similarly, in a 12-step program, we engage in a process of creating a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of both our various “defects of character” and our virtues. Or, in other words, our ways of loving God and others that have been lost, overshadowed, or even co-opted by our attachments and addictions. We take our brokenness “to God, to ourselves and to another human being,” and “humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings.” 

Such spiritual exercises are our contribution to God’s infinitely larger work of salvation, which heals our addictions, and the disordered attachments, biological, psychological, and spiritual, that lie buried beneath them. 


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.