Journal of Psychology and Theology
2011, Vol. 39, No. 2, 122-129
Copyright 2011 by Rosemead School of Psychology
Biola University, 0091-6471/410-730
ver the past few decades, research on attach-
ment has investigated its development in
infancy (Ainsworth, 1973; Ainsworth, Ble-
har, Walters, & Wall, 1978; Bowlby, 1969), transition
to adult romantic relationships (Bartholomew &
Horowitz, 1991; Hazan & Shaver, 1987; Simpson,
1990), and most recently, the relationship between
attachment and issues of faith (Beck, 2006; Hart,
Limke, & Budd, 2010; McDonald, Beck, Allison, &
Norsworthy, 2005; TenElshof & Furrow, 2000).
Research on attachment to God has suggested that
relationships with primary caregivers are reenacted
in an idea of the characteristics of God as well as the
type of attachment relationship experienced with
God. However, this new direction of research is lim-
ited by the language used to investigate the con-
structs of interest as well as a lack of differentiation
of the contribution of attachment to fathers and
Image of God
Despite large variation in the designs of the stud-
ies, researchers have agreed upon a number of posi-
tive characteristics (e.g., “loving” and “protective”)
and negative characteristics (such as “remote” and
“uninterested”) used in describing images of God
(Gorsuch, 1968 ; Spilka, Armatas & Nussbaum,
1964). Lawrence (1997) suggested that a positive
image of God consists of eight characteristics: pres-
ence, challenge, acceptance, benevolence, influence,
providence, faith, and salience. Importantly, experi-
ences with both parents as loving have been linked to
a loving God image (Granqvist, Ivarsson, Broberg, &
Hagekull, 2007). That is, as children begin to form
an idea of “God,” memories that were originally
associated with primary caregivers (often involving
both parents) are attributed to an image of God
(Lawrence, 1997). In fact, these important relation-
ships with parents may actually provide the necessary
context for successful socialization into religion
(Reinert & Edwards, 2009).
Attachment to God
Although the conceptualization of God and a
relationship with God should be related, Bradshaw,
Ellison, and Marcum (2010) found that there was
only a small correlation between a loving image of
God and a healthy relationship with God, support-
ing the idea that these are separate constructs. In
fact, there is a small but growing body of literature
ATTACHMENT TO GOD: DIFFERENTIATING
THE CONTRIBUTIONS OF FATHERS AND
MOTHERS USING THE EXPERIENCES IN
PARENTAL RELATIONSHIPS SCALE
Research on attachment to God has suggested that
relationships with primary caregivers are reenacted
in the type of attachment relationship experienced
with God. However, this research is limited by the
language used to investigate the constructs of interest
as well as a lack of differentiation of the contribu-
tion of attachment to fathers and attachment to
mothers independently. Thus, the primary purpose
of the current study was to investigate the indepen-
dent contributions of attachment to mother, attach-
ment to father, and attachment to romantic partners
on attachment to God. In addition, the study exam-
ined the association between attachment to God and
spiritual well-being using a sample not chosen for
religious characteristics (and thus, more generaliz-
able). Attachment to fathers predicted attachment to
God. Moreover, attachment to God predicted both
religious and existential well-being.
ALICIA LIMKE AND PATRICK B. MAYFIELD
University of Central Oklahoma
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to
Alicia Limke at the Department of Psychology, University of Cen-
tral Oklahoma, 100 N. University Drive, Edmond, OK 73034. E-
LIMKE and MAYFIELD 123
that has worked to extend the theory of attachment
to individuals’ relationships with God, suggesting
that this type of intimate relationship meets the crite-
ria of attachments, incl uding proximity-seeking
behavior, a safe haven, and a secure base among a
variety of populations (e.g., Beck, 2006; Cicirelli,
2004; see Granqvist, Mikulincer, & Shaver, 2010, for
a review). The ability to create a secure base in God
provides the foundation to explore issues of faith
and display tolerance to others with different reli-
gious views (Beck, 2006).
But how are attachment relationships with God
created? Kirkpatrick and Shaver (1990) proposed that
the correspondence model suggests that attachment
patterns with humans correspond to, or are reflected
in the attachment patterns in individuals’ experiences
of or relationships with God. The compensational
model, in contrast, proposes that individuals’ attach-
ment to God may not correspond to their attach-
ments to humans because God serves as a substitute
attachment figure (or secure base) for individuals
with insecure or unfulfilling human attachments. In
fact, perceived childhood attachment history with
parents predicts sudden and gradual religious conver-
sions or changes, such that individuals with secure
attachments to their parents report a more gradual
conversion whereas individuals with insecure attach-
ments report a more sudden one, supporting both
the correspondence and compensation models
(Granqvist & Kirkpatrick, 2004; Granqvist et al.,
2007; Kirkpatrick & Shaver, 1990). However, models
of correspondence and compensation have also been
criticized in research addressing their usefulness due
to the limited way in which spirituality and religiosity
has been conceptualized and measured (Hall,
Fujikawa, Halcrow, Hill, & Delaney, 2009) and sup-
port for one model over the other is often weak or
mixed (e.g., Beck & McDonald, 2004).
Parental religiosity and spirituality predicts chil-
dren’s attachment to God as well (McDonald et al.,
2005). Secure attachments with parents have been
associated with perceptions of God as more loving,
less distant, and less controlling (Brokaw &
Edwards, 1994; Hall, Brokaw, Edwards & Pike,
1998) as well as more stable and emotionally close
(Hall & Edwards, 2002). In the same vein, insecure
romantic attachment predicts specific religious
change, such as new relationships with God and spe-
cific religious experiences (Kirkpatrick, 1997). How-
ever, attachment to God affects more than just con-
ceptualization of relationships with a deity. Beck and
McDonald (2004) found that attachment to God is
associated with spiritual (both religious and existen-
tial) well-being. Similarly, Hart and colleagues (2010)
found that attachment anxiety toward God (but not
avoidance) predicted faith development. Bradshaw
and colleagues (2010) found that individuals’ rela-
tionships with God are better predictors of psycho-
logical well-being than are other conventional indica-
tors of religious practice (such as frequency of prayer
or church attendance) and even individuals’ concep-
tualization of the characteristics of God (i.e., God
image). In fact, attachments to God predict psycho-
logical well-being even after controlling for individu-
als’ attachments to their primary caregivers (Miner,
2009). Similarly, research has suggested that styles of
attachment to God are associated with the use of
religious activities to cope with life experiences
(Cooper, Bruce, Harman, & Boccaccini, 2009).
Clearly, attachment theory provides an important
framework for examining the relationships between
individuals and God. But several questions regarding
th e cre ation of the att ach ment repr ese nta tion
remain. First, McDonald and colleagues (2005)
found that emotionally cold home environments
were associated with avoidance of intimacy with
God, whereas overprotective, rigid, or authoritarian
homes predicted high levels of both avoidance of
intimacy with God and anxiety over lovability in a
relationship to God. However, because the discus-
sion of past relationships with parents does not uti-
lize “attachment language,” it is difficult to draw con-
clus ions re gardi ng whet her the se rela tionships
represent correspondence or compensation.
Second, McDonald and colleagues, like many
others (e.g., Granqvist et al., 2007; Lawrence, 1997;
Reinert & Edwards, 2009) did not differentiate
between the individual contributions of attachment
to fathers and attachment to mothers to this impor-
tant attachment relationship. (They did, however,
di stin gui sh the c ontribu tion s of mo ther s’ and
fathers’ spirituality, hypocrisy, care, and overprotec-
tion t o children’s atta chmen t to God.) In fact,
fathers’ and mothers’ contributions to children’s
attachment may be different because they involve dif-
ferent kinds of experiences in infancy and childhood
(Lamb, 1977a, 1977b). Specifically, fathers provide
sensitive support during exploratory play (fostering
secure exploration) whereas mothers contribute by
124 ATTACHMENT TO PARENTS, TO PARTNERS, AND TO GOD
providing comfort in times of distress (encouraging
proximity seeking; Grossman et al., 2002). Thus,
whereas mothers have received the majority of atten-
tion in attachment research, the inclusion of fathers’
independent contributions to attachment is impor-
tant because fathers’ sensitivity is responsible for
increasing children’s concentration, curiosity, and
mastery of new skills (see Bretherton, 2010, for a
review of research on attachment to fathers).
Finally, although attachment to God and attach-
ment in romantic relationships have been studied
(e.g., Beck & McDonald, 2004), they have not yet
been investigated in conjunction with attachment to
parents. Thus, the primary purpose of the current
study was to investigate the independent contribu-
tions of attachment to mother, attachment to father,
and attachment to romantic partners on attachment
to God. We expected that attachment to fathers
would contribute to attachment to God indepen-
dently of attachment to mothers or partners due to
the emphasis on fathers responsibility for children’s
exploration of new environments (including spiritual
ones) as well as the traditional male image of God
included in monotheistic religions (e.g., Christiani-
ty). In addition, the study examined the association
between attachment to God and spiritual well-being
using a sample not chosen for religious characteris-
tics (and thus, more generalizable).
One hundred and seventy-three students at the
University of Central Oklahoma volunteered to par-
ticipate in a study entitled “Attitudes and Relation-
ships.” The undergraduates were between the ages
of 18 and 40 (M= 20.47, SD = 3.51). Of these 173
participants, 43.35% were male, 56.07% were
female, and 0.58% indicated a gender of
“other/neither.” Of the 173, 63.58% reported that
they were White (non Hispanic), 12.71% were Black
or African American, 7.51% were Native American
or Alaskan Native, 0.58% were Native Hawaiian or
Pacific Islander, 5.78% were Hispanic or Latino/a,
5.20% were Asian, and 4.62% were self-categorized
as “Other.” Of the 173 participants, 59.54% lived
with either biological parents or adoptive parents
until the age of 18 (whereas 40.46% did not). Of the
participants, 80.92% reported that they were single,
never been married, not living with a significant
other; 11.56% reported that they were single, never
been married, living with a significant other; 1.16%
were divorced; 0.58% were separated; and 5.78%
were married. Moreover, of the 173 participants,
89.60% reported that they are exclusively heterosex-
ual/straight; 3.47% identified themselves as exclu-
sively homosexual/gay/lesbian; 4.05% reported that
they are bisexual; and 2.89% reported that none of
these accurately described their sexual orientation.
Of the 173 participants, 16.76% reported no reli-
gious affiliation; 0.00% reported a pagan affiliation;
2.32% reported a universal affiliation; 0.58% report-
ed an East Asian affiliation; 1.16% reported an Indian
affiliation; 0.00% reported a Judaism affiliation;
0.58% reported an Islam affiliation; 9.83% reported
a Christian-Catholic affiliation; 59.53% reported a
Christian-Protestant affiliation; 1.74% reported a
Chri stian -Nont rinit arian a ffili ation ; and 7.56%
reported an “other” religious affiliation.
Participants completed one online survey session
lasting approximately 60 minutes in which they com-
pleted measures of attachment to parents, to part-
ners, and to God, as well as measures of spiritual
well-being, and items not used for this study. In
exchange for study completion, participants received
one credit towards their research requirement for
their General Psychology courses.
Attachment to partners. Attachment to romantic
relationship partners was assessed using the Experi-
ences in Close Relationships scale (ECR; Brennan,
Clark, & Shaver, 1998). The ECR contains 36 ques-
tions measuring levels of attachment-related anxiety
(e.g., “I worry about being abandoned,” “I worry a
lot abo ut my r ela tio nsh ips ,” a nd “I w orr y t hat
romantic partners won’t care about me as much as I
care about them”) and attachment-related avoid-
ance (e.g., “I prefer not to show a partner how I feel
deep down,” “Just when my partner starts to get
close to me I find myself pulling away,” and “I get
uncomfortable when a romantic partner wants to be
very close”). Questions are rated on a 7-point scale
(1 = Strongly Disagree; 7 = Strongly Agree).
Scores reflect two continuous dimensions (attach-
ment anxiety and attachment avoidance), in which
lower scores reflect a more secure attachment and
higher scores reflect anxious or avoidant attach-
ment, but can also be transformed into a categorical
measure of attachment (i.e., either secure, fearful,
preoccupied, or dismissing). Brennan and colleagues
LIMKE and MAYFIELD 125
reported high internal consistency for the measure,
.94 for avoidance and .91 for anxiety.
Attachment to God. Participants also completed
the Attachment to God Inventory (AGI; Beck &
McDonald, 2004). The AGI contains 28 items mea-
suring avoidance of intimacy with God (e.g., “I pre-
fer not to depend too much on God” and “I am
uncomfortable allowing God to control every aspect
of my life”) and anxiety about abandonment by God
(e.g., “I fear God does not accept me when I do
wrong” and “I often feel angry with God for not
responding to me when I want”). Questions are
rated on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7
(strongly agree). Beck and McDonald reported
high internal consistency for both subscales, αs > .80
across all samples.
Attachment to parents. Because the focus of the
study centers on the association between attachment
to parents, to partners, and to God, it is important
that the operational definitions for the variables are
consistent. To date, no self-report surveys assessing
retrospective accounts of parental attachment pro-
vide for the use of the two continuous dimensions
reported in the adult (romantic) attachment litera-
ture: attachment avoidance and attachment anxiety.
Thus, we began by closely following the wording of
the Experiences in Close Relationships scale (cf.
Brennan et al., 1998). Including only appropriately-
worded modified items, we were able to use 22
items (11 anxiety; 11 avoidance) to be rated on a 7-
point Likert scale (1 = disagree strongly; 4 = neu-
tral/mixed; 7 = agree strongly). Using these 22
items, versions for both fathers and mothers were
created (see Appendix for full version of the father
scale). Internal consistency was high for all four sub-
scales, αs > .84.
Spiritual well-being. To replicate the effects
observed by Beck and McDonald (2004), we also
included the Spiritual Well-Being Scale (SWS;
Paloutzian & Ellison, 1982). The SWS includes two
10-item subscales assessing religious well-being (e.g.,
“I have a personally meaningful relationship with
God” and “I feel most fulfilled when I am in close
communion with God”) and existential well-being
(e.g., “I feel good about my future” and “I feel very
fulfilled and satisfied with life”) as well as a total spir-
itual well-being score. Participants responded to
each item on a 6-point Likert scale (1 = strongly
agree;6=strongly disagree). Bufford, Paloutzian,
and Ellison (1991) reported good internal consisten-
cy, ranging from .78 to .94 across seven samples.
Demographic and background information. Partici-
pants also c ompleted a demo graphic and bac k-
ground questionnaire assessing gender, age, ethnicity,
religious background/affiliation, and marital status.
Attachment to partners, to parents, and to God.
The primary goal of the present study was to extend
the findings of Beck and McDonald (2004) to
include measures of parental attachment. Due to the
illogical nature of including non-believers in an analy-
sis of attachment to God, individuals identifying
themselves as atheist or agnostic were excluded from
analyses (N= 29). Furthermore, religious affiliations
with small sample sizes (i.e., Universal, East Asian,
Indian, Islam, Other, and Christian-Nontriniatiran)
were also excluded (N= 24). Thus, only individuals
identifying themselves as “Christian” were included
in analyses (N= 120).
Table 1 provides the zero-order correlations of the
measures of attachment to partners, to parents, and
to God. Interestingly, both avoidance (r= .21) and
anxiety (r= .21) in attachment to mothers are related
to a nxiet y in att a chme nt to Go d . In con tras t ,
although both avoidance (r= .22) and anxiety (r=
.29) in attachment to fathers are related to anxiety in
attachment to God, avoidance (r= .24) in attachment
to fathers is also related to avoidance in attachment
to God. This suggests that the role of mothers and
fathers in developing attachment to God may be dif-
ferent. For example, it is possible that both inconsis-
tency and distance by mothers results in a general
worry about God’s provision of care, whereas incon-
sistency and distance by fathers develops into a more
specific reflection of the nature of God.
Furthermore, the relationship between attach-
ment avoidance towards fathers and mothers (r=
.30) and attachment anxiety towards fathers and
mothers (r= .55) sheds light on the controversy
regarding the consistency of attachment across rela-
tionship partners (cf. Collins & Read, 1990; Cook,
2000; Hazan & Shaver, 1987; Horppu & Ikonen-Vari-
la, 2001; La Guardia, Ryan, Couchman, & Deci,
2000). That is, although there is a substantial correla-
tion between attachment to fathers and mothers, this
relationship is not perfect, leaving plenty of variability
for attachment relationships between parents.
A hierarchical multiple regression analysis was
used to examine the relationship between attachment
to mothers, attachment to fathers, attachment to
126 ATTACHMENT TO PARENTS, TO PARTNERS, AND TO GOD
partners, and attachment to God. Because the prima-
ry purpose of this study was to examine the contribu-
tions of mothers and fathers to attachment to God,
attachment avoidance towards mothers, attachment
anxiety towards mothers, attachment avoidance
towards fathers, and attachment anxiety towards
fathers were entered on the first step. Attachment
avoidance towards partners and attachment anxiety
towards partners were entered on the second step.
Attachment avoidance towards fathers predicted
attachment avoidance towards God, β= .24, t(113) =
2.24, p= .03, such that the higher the attachment
avoidance towards fathers, the higher the attachment
avoidance towards God. Similarly, attachment anxi-
ety towards fathers predicted attachment anxiety
towards God, β= .23, t(113) = 1.97, p= .05, such that
the higher the attachment anxiety towards fathers,
the higher the attachment anxiety towards God.
These results suggest that attachment to God may
represent a correspondence rather than compensa-
tion because attachment to God is similar to (instead
of opposite from) attachment to fathers. No other
effects were found.
Attachment to God and spiritual well-being. A sec-
ondary goal of this study was to examine the relation-
ship between attachment to God and spiritual well-
being in a more generalized sample (not chosen for
religious characteristics or selected from a religious
university). Using all participants (N= 173), zero-
order correlations were obtained for measures of spir-
itual well-being and attachment to God (see Table 2).
The correlations supported the relationships noted by
Beck and McDonald (2004), such that the higher the
attachment anxiety or avoidance toward God, the
lower the religious and existential spiritual well-being.
Next, a multiple regression was used to determine the
unique contributions of attachment anxiety and avoid-
ance on spiritual well-being.
Attachment avoidance towards God predicted reli-
gious well-being, β= .69, t(170) = 10.80, p= .000, and
existential well-being, β= .31, t(170) = 4.00, p= .000,
such that the hi ghe r the attachment avo ida nce
towards God, the lower the religious and existential
well-being. In addition, attachment anxiety towards
God predicted religious well-being, β= .15, t(170) =
2.40, p= .02, and existential well-being, β= .36, t(170)
= 4.52, p= .000, such that the higher the attachment
anxiety towards God, the lower the religious and exis-
The results of the present study extend the work of
previous researchers on the link between attachment
to partners, to parents, and to God. First, this study
provides strong support for the correspondence the-
ory of attachment to God; that is, attachment anxiety
towards God was predicted by attachment anxiety in
relationships with fathers whereas attachment avoid-
ance towards God was predicted by attachment avoid-
ance in relationship with fathers.
Second, the results of this study suggest that
although previous researchers have not differentiated
the contributions of attachment to fathers and moth-
ers to this important attachment relationship, they
Correlations between Measures of Attachment to Parents, to Partners, and to God
Variable 1 23 45 67
1. Mother Avoidant
2. Mother Anxious .50***
3. Father Avoidant .30*** .29**
4. Father Anxious .23** .55*** .46***
5. Partner Avoidant .12 .27** .06 .21*
6. Partner Anxious .27** .29** .30** .27** .37***
7. God Avoidant .08 .08 .24** .18 .20* .21*
8. God Anxious .21* .21* .22* .29** .19* .30** .16
Note. N = 120.
*p< .05. **p< .01. ***p< .001.
LIMKE and MAYFIELD 127
clearly have different effects. Specifically, attachment
to fathers (but not mothers) predicts attachment to
God. Although this finding is somewhat new in the lit-
erature and may contradict traditional attachment the-
ory predictions (i.e., those suggesting that relation-
ships with mothers may be more important than
relationships with fathers), it is certainly supported by
the view held by Judeo-Christians that God is a “heav-
enly father” and extends recent research in the field of
attachment emphasizing the important role of fathers
on the development of attachment relationships (e.g.,
Bretherton, 2010; Grossman et al., 2002; Grossman,
Grossman, Kindler, & Zimmerman, 2008).
Finally, this study provides support to research
examining the link between attachment to God and
spirituality. Previous research has tended to use samples
from religious universities (e.g., Beck & McDonald,
2004; Hall et al., 2009; Hart et al., 2010) or from reli-
gious communities (e.g., Cassiba, Granqvist, Costanti-
ni, & Gatto, 2008). Findings from this study suggest
that the link between attachment to God and spiritual
well-being is strong, even in a more generalizable sam-
ple of individuals. Specifically, attachment avoidance as
well as attachment anxiety towards God predicts both
religious and existential well-being, such that as avoid-
ance and anxiety increases, well-being decreases.
Although this study provides clarification regard-
ing the relationship between attachment to parents
and to God, it is not without limitations. Although
this study was conducted at a non-religious university,
the overwhelming majority of participants (71.10%)
reported a “Christian” religious affiliation, although
almost one-third (31.43%) reported attending no reli-
gious services within a given week (Mdn = 1.00).
However, it is possible that this sample may still be
“overly religious,” thus limiting the generalizability of
the findings. This study also did not account for other
potentially important factors, such as current relation-
ships with parents. It is possible that these current
relationships affect the availability of information
regarding childhood relationships with them. Finally,
the causal connection between attachment to parents
and attachment to God is merely speculative.
Future research is needed to determine the rela-
tionship between attachment to parents and attach-
ment to God across the lifespan. For example, it
would be interesting to investigate changes within
each of these relationships when the participants
become parents themselves. Future research should
also address the use of these attachment relationships
in a clinical setting. For example, Lawrence (1997)
suggested that obtaining information regarding
clients’ images of God may be useful in a counseling
setting. Thus, it is possible that obtaining information
regarding attachment to parents may be useful in pro-
viding counseling regarding issues of faith. Moreover,
attachment to God may be a useful language to use
with clients to discuss a wealth of spiritual and psycho-
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LIMKE, ALICIA. Address: Department of Psychology, University
of Central Oklahoma, 100 N. University Drive, Edmond , OK
73034. Email: email@example.com. Title: Assistant Professor in the
Department of Psychology, University of Central Oklahoma, and
Research Coordinator, Graduate Programs in Counseling, South-
ern Nazarene University. Degrees: Ph.D. & M.S., University of
Oklahoma. B.S., Southern Nazarene University. Areas of inter-
est/specialization: Social/personality psychology, particularly
self-concept and relationship processes.
MAYFIELD, PATRICK, B. Address: Department of Psychology,
University of Ce nt ra l Ok la ho ma , 100 N. Un iversity Driv e,
Edmond, OK 73034. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Title: Graduate
Research Assistant in the Department of Psychology, University of
Central Oklahoma. Degree: B.A., University of Central Okla-
homa. Areas of interest/specialization: Social/personality psy-
chology, particularly regarding relationship (both religious and
Experiences in Parental Relationships Scale – Father Version
Instructions: This questionnaire lists various attitudes and behaviors of fathers. As you remember your father in your first 16
years, respond to each statement by indicating how much you agree or disagree with it. Use the following rating scale:
Disagree strongly Neutral/mixed Agree strongly
12 3 4 5 6 7
1. I preferred not to show my father how I felt deep down.
2. I worried about being abandoned by my father.
3. I was very comfortable being close to my father.*
4. I worried a lot about my relationship with my father.
5. Just when my father started to get close to me, I found myself pulling away.
6. I worried that my father did not care as much about me as I cared about him.
7. I did not feel comfortable opening up to my father.
8. I worried a fair amount about losing my father.
9. I felt comfortable sharing my private thoughts and feelings with my father.*
10. I needed a lot of reassurance that I am loved by my father.
11. I found it relatively easy to get close to my father.*
12. If I couldn’t get my father to show interest in me, I got upset or angry.
13. I found it difficult to allow myself to depend on my father.
14. I got frustrated if my father was not available when I need him.
15. I preferred not to be too close to my father.
16. I found that my father did not want to get as close as I would have liked.
17. I usually discussed my problems and concerns with my father.*
18. When my father disapproved of me, I felt really badly about myself.
19. I felt comfortable depending on my father.*
20. I got frustrated when my father was not around as much as I would have liked.
21. I did not mind asking my father for comfort, advice, or help.*
22. I resented it when my father spent time away from me.
Note. *Item is reverse scored.