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

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In my last article, I talked about “attachment” as a common thread among addiction, psychology, and spirituality. Attachment in all of these areas is about relationships, whether spiritual (God and the human being), psychological (mother and child), or self-destructive (a person and his or her compulsive, self-destructive behaviors). Healthy divine and human relationships bring about spiritual growth and psychological resilience; unhealthy relationships make us prone to looking for something to fill that vacuum. We thus develop “relationships” with things that aren’t really alive, but that promise to take our pain away and make us happy in spite of our emptiness.  

The late psychiatrist and spiritual teacher Gerald May defines addiction as a “self-defeating force that abuses our freedom and makes us do things we really do not want to do … Addiction attaches desire, bonds and enslaves the energy of desire to certain specific behaviors, things, or people. These objects of attachment then become preoccupations and obsessions; they come to rule our lives” (Gerald May, Addiction and Grace, p. 3). 

Addiction is about attachment to the wrong thing or person: It is about our flailing attempts to control what is disordered inside of us (psychological distress) through devotion to something outside of us, that is, our idols: drugs, money, status, an addict, education, food, a struggling child, shopping, and almost anything else that brings us a fleeting feeling of comfort or control.

St. John of the Cross is particularly adamant that such attachments, preoccupations, and obsessions are a major obstacle to spiritual growth: “Until a soul is purged of its attachments it will be unable to possess God.” Our task, he continues, is to “cast out strange gods, all alien affections and attachments.” In other words, our attachment problems are both spiritual (idolatry) and psychological (disordered emotions and behaviors).  

Both spiritual idolatry and emotional disorders trace back to Genesis 3, where an act of self-assertion severed the connection, the attachment, between God the Creator and the human beings He had created. Once this happened, the human couple’s relationships with each other and with creation became distorted and misdirected. They became attached—addicted—to other things. 

Eve was created in relationship with God and Adam, to be Adam’s helper and a mother to children. After “desiring” the forbidden fruit and eating it, her “desire” would be for her husband in a more possessive way, and his reaction would be to dominate her. The pain of childbirth would be seen as something horrible and to be avoided. Adam was created in relationship with God, the ground, and his wife. Once the relationship with God was severed, the ground became a source of frustration, and his wife a competitor rather than a helper.  

By severing their relationship with God, which would have filled their lives with meaning, grace, and love, they wounded all of their other relationships, which God would have used to fill them even more. In the relational vacuum that was left, they were left grasping and in pain, and they looked to creation itself to fill this emptiness. 

Losing God left them internally fearful, enraged, and in despair, and they turned to external objects that promised control and security: emotional disorder led to spiritual idolatry and other addictions, which led to increasing disorder, more attempts to find security and control, and on and on.

Addiction is about attachment: A severed spiritual attachment to God results in disrupted attachments to others, which leaves us internally empty and disoriented. From this, we develop addictive attachments to external people, places, and things.  

Recovery, too, is about attachment: The Twelve Steps turn our attention from these external attachments (Step 1) and back to the internal: to God (Steps 2-3), to our internal disorder (Steps 4-7), and to our disordered relationships with others (Steps 8-9). Then we maintain our relationships to God and neighbor through continual examination of conscience and the practice of reconciliation (Step 10), a life of prayer and meditation (Step 11), and by reaching out to others in the name of the One who has saved and sent us (Step 12).

Next time, we’ll look at how secure and insecure attachments affect our psychological (social, emotional, and behavioral) development.


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.