Conversatio Divina

Part 1 of 2

Attachment and Desire

Ross Tatum, MD

01.  Introduction

Ignatius taught us to pray in three steps:

(1) Behold the Lord beholding you,

(2) Ask for what you desire, and

(3) Engage in colloquy or intimate conversation with Jesus.

Imagine yourself in prayer, right now, using those three steps. What is your deepest desire? What would you tell him that you desire today? What would you have told him when you were twelve?

When I was twelve, I told God I wanted a motorcycle. But for me now, as inspired by Ignatius, my deepest desire is to help souls. But what about you? What would you have desired when you were twelve? What will you tell him now? As followers of the Way, what is the endgame of our desire? [Hint: It is always the deepest desire from the deepest place in our heart.]

02.  Scripture and Desire

Scripture has a lot to say about desire. Psalm 37:4 states, “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”All Scripture quotations marked are taken from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition, copyright © 1989, 2021 The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.  Paul tells us, “It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). As we mature in Christ, as we are transformed into his likeness, he remodels our desires to match his—which we will always find in the deepest levels of our own hearts.

Not surprisingly, the foundation for that process has been in place since our birth. “So, God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them” (Gen. 1:27). Dallas Willard taught that this means we have been given dominion to rule over the earth within the context of the Kingdom of God (Gen. 1:28). What then is that context? How does it relate to our desire? How does being fully alive in the Kingdom impact desire?

Those questions can best be answered by starting with the end in mind. Christ said,

The glory that you have given me I have given to them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (John 17:22–23).

Union with God—and with each other—is the divinely intended endgame of desire. We actually are born oriented toward union having the predisposition and desire for love and connection. Enter attachment.

03.  Attachment Theory and Desire

Attachment theory speaks to the need we have to connect with one another and live in relationship. That need within the newborn for a healthy attachment to a primary caregiver and a supporting community cannot be overstated.

John Bowlby, a British psychologist and psychoanalyst, is one of the earliest figures in the field of attachment. His first published article, which trended toward attachment, came out in 1944: “Forty-four juvenile thieves: their character and home-life.”John Bowlby, “Forty-four juvenile thieves: their characters and home-life,” The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 25 (1944): 19–53.

In the late 1960s, Bowlby partnered with Canadian developmental psychologist, Mary Ainsworth, and the field grew from there. More recent authorities on the topic of attachment include psychologist Alan Schore and psychiatrist Dan Siegel. In the context of the field of Interpersonal Neurobiology, Siegel and Schore offer that early attachment experiences are tied closely to brain development and future brain functioning.Dr. Schore’s and Dr. Siegel’s excellent resources can be found on their websites: and, both accessed August 28, 2023.

Attachment is an interpersonal experience. The quality of very early experiences will grow the infant’s actual brain structure in a manner that will place the child/future adult on a relational continuum of being oriented toward future relationships or away from them. During the first year of life, the size of the infant’s brain doubles.

As the child is still preverbal, much of that growth is right-sided brain development, which includes the development of intuitive and emotional abilities that are important in future relationships. It is the attachment experience of the child that, to a large extent, directs how his brain development proceeds. It is important to remember that attachment is not all or nothing and that other factors also affect the attachment process.

Ultimately, the newborn’s attachment experience will in some ways define love for her. With the inborn need for love and attachment, the child will nonverbally decide to what extent love is trustworthy—or if it is best to be avoided as a safety precaution. From that orientation, the child develops a schema of how to engage all relationships in the future—much of which is dictated by the “relationship reflexes” engrained in the child’s neurohormonal response system.

For those who develop a less than secure attachment to the mother/primary attachment figure, and correlated with the extent to which she perceives that love cannot be trusted, she must live with the contradiction that what she most desires is not satiable. Reality has been defined as such that whatever fulfillment there is to be found is not to be found in the context of relationships. That conclusion leaves every person fending for themselves. When at the extreme end of a lack of attachment resources, that condition sounds like hell.

Unable to distinguish between self and other, a child is born in psychological union with the mother. Always occurring on a continuum, healthy individuation and relational progression occurs through the physical and psychological process of rapprochement in which progressive amounts of separation from the mother are experienced with the ultimate goal of developing an autonomous self.For a brief introduction to Margaret Mahler’s work in human development see, accessed August 28, 2023. The value of this is seen in that it is that separate self that can then freely enter relationships with another. Those investments—which represent attachment behaviors—require expenditures of the self.

An investment in something is the very nature of love. Dallas Willard noted that “we love something or someone when we promote its good for its own sake.”Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), 130. Loving others involves willing and acting on what is good for them. An attachment behavior is any expression of love to another.

Love is how we engage all relationships for good. The relationships in which we engage are in some ways our lab courses in this life on how to love. That starts with the mother and then expands to all others in our lives. That progression might include the family of origin, playmates, adolescent peers, college roommate, a boss, one’s spouse—and even God.

Recall where we start—with an inborn desire for love and relationship—and that the endgame is union with the Trinity and with each other. With that in mind, I will give you a “clinical example” of how that has worked/is working in our marriage.

04.  A Personal Example

My wife, Kimberly, is the most lovely woman ever (and has consented to my sharing this). Always giving, she has been kind and patient to put up with a lot! I married her when I was a senior medical student. She was a first-year teacher. At that point, I had long been an intentional disciple of Christ, and I thought I was relatively mature. Wow, was I wrong! In retrospect, our course toward union—at least on my end—has gone like this:

After the newness of getting married wore off, I thought that I had committed my life to someone who would stand in the way of many of the things I wanted to do. I was thinking as if I was still single. Over time, I began to remember that she was a separate person with her own desires and hopes. I gradually grew in wanting to support her on her own path. But, still I would wince at times due to what that would cost me. However, that was what I was supposed to do, so I did it.

As my desire to truly please her grew, when asked to do something or help in some way, I would smile while still internally groaning and think that I would rather stay in my chair and read. However, I could follow through cheerfully. Finally, after a prolonged silent personal retreat, she asked for my help in something. On that day, I felt—seemingly in my chest—an involuntary response that said, “Oh. That must be important.” What had been important to her had become my own value without any resistance. That which was important to her was important to the larger “us.”

Over time, Kimberly and I have learned to join together in something bigger than the both of us. That is what love does. Love joins with. Christ sacrificed the experience of life in the most glorious Trinitarian community to come and join with us on the earth in the incarnation. As previously noted, sacrifice is required to join with. It is also true that to receive from another requires some sacrifice on the part of the self.

05.  Love and Fear: Two Physiological Opposites

It is helpful to consider the words of author and teacher, Dr. Gary Moon, who has noted that, with regard to relational orientation, there are two primary stances—love and fear. In love, we join with another. The fear orientation is expressed as rejection.

The posture that precedes those two responses revolves around whether we most want to join with the other in love or judge the other from a posture of fear. In every interpersonal engagement, we assess the other. Is the person tired, able to communicate, joyful, in acute need? Without assessment, we do not know how to respond to that person.

The difference between joining with and judging is that in joining with, we have assigned a value to the person before we even engage them. In judging, the valuation is held off until the end of the assessment. Judgment is then made based on our personal standards—and is often fueled by fear and anger.

Joining with another is facilitated by seeking to learn about the person, while rejection can occur passively in association with a spirit of indifference or disregard. It is evident that one’s relational posture can naturally lead to a loving relationship or can be counterproductive with regard to love.

Attachment is the same whether the relationship of focus is another person or God. In joining with, or attaching to another, we learn that the relationship is not centered on ourselves. Love is infinitely bigger than one person. That is what Kimberly and I have experienced in our marriage. In our relationship with God, as when one is very young and just learning about how to relate to others, it is pretty typical to start with the idea that our salvation and our relationship with God is about us.

Consider this—if I threw a party—inviting thousands of people and included you on the guest list, would that party be primarily about you or about me? It’s my party. It would primarily be about me, but I would have gladly invited you to come join for your enjoyment, too. The Kingdom of God is God’s party. At the same time, our salvation is intensely personal. Love is always personal.

Typically, our salvific journey starts as if at the headwaters of a small river as we, as individuals, turn to Christ. Over time, as we grow and move downstream, the river previously around us—and which we thought was about us—grows until we end up in the waters of a vast ocean. We learn that our salvation is about the infinite whole that is the Trinity and about every person and all of creation. It turns out that we are about God and his kingdom rather than the other way around. It is in God and his kingdom that we learn what we are about and meant for.

That is how it is with our healing journey of salvation. I started in a state of very small-mindedness in my marriage, thinking it was about me when it was actually an invitation from God to participate in his kingdom and grow in the experience of love. Like in my marriage, growing ourselves in Christ requires putting ourselves aside for his will and his good. It is all about him—but he graciously includes us in that good. This type of other-centered “self-sacrifice” is the best thing we can do for our emotional health and maturity. It is actually a short-cut to a thriving life.

That is how Christ lived his life on earth. In John 5:19, we see Christ modeling this when he said, “The Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.” Christ modeled that his life was not about him, but about the Father. The Father is love (1 John 4:8). He is the source of all love, and the radiation of that love is the meaning of life and is the party to which we are invited.

06.  Our Most Fundamental Desire

Our most fundamental desire never changes. That desire is to live in love and relationship. We move forward—in relationship—down the path toward the ultimate relationship, which is union with the Trinity and each other, by modeling our lives after Christ’s and by putting aside our “inordinate desires” (as Ignatius calls them—our desires that block our vision of all that is truly good and true) in order to further our faithful pursuit of life in Christ.

That relationship—which is the journey of salvation—is not a cognitive experience. It includes cognition, but it is an experience that brings knowledge of God (see John 17:3) which requires a set of the will. We set our will toward him by loving him—by doing what is good for God. Those behaviors are attachment behaviors. By loving God, we attach our life to his. The outcome is, as it says in Psalm 23:3, a restored soul.

Psalm 19:7 says, “The law of the Lord is perfect.” The laws in the Old Testament are too often seen as a list of rules to obey—or else! Even then, they were an expression of how to best live. You have a better life if you don’t kill people or lie. Those laws are active in the universe, not unlike gravity. In the New Testament, we learn that the law of the Lord is love. To attach our life to Christ’s is to abide in love—his love. That is not an instruction as how to have the best life (though that is a by-product), it is life itself.

The word, “perfect,” might best be understood as complete or whole. Thus, the law of the Lord is complete, whole, relationally mature, full of unending goodness. It is infinitely more than enough. Therefore, because of how we love Christ, we can grow to the point where we “shall not want” (Ps. 23:1).

In summary, it is by attaching to Christ—joining with the life of love—that our greatest desire is satiated.

07.  Three Disciplines to Practice

Here are three “joining with” disciplines for you to consider:

  1. When you engage another, whether it is God or another person, think about how you might best join within that circumstance. In conversation, that might mean reflecting back what someone has told you or providing for a need. With God, that might mean engaging in a celebration of praise or following him in obedience.
  2. When in the presence of another, rather than judging what you are perceiving regarding that person’s presentation, seek to learn what might be behind it.

Spend time in contemplative prayer after telling God your greatest desires. In such prayer we are free to be with him without preset notions, expectations, or questions. It is presence for presence sake. With others, you might spend time alone praying for them or jotting them a note of encouragement.