By Ron Wright
God’s uncontrolling love is a presence that influences in a similar way as a psychotherapist who provides a caring, attuned, loving presence in therapy.
“I seem to always end up hurt and I don’t know what to do. Why am I always the one hurt? What do you think I should do? Please just tell me and I will do it!”
The words above are sentiments that therapists commonly hear, and which represent a lot more complexity and nuance than one might expect out of such a seemingly simple plea. As a therapist, how might I hear these words? Do I take them at face value? Might there be a danger in telling a client what to do? Do these words reflect deeper assumptions that the person is making about themselves that are problematic? Might these words also reflect assumptions that are being made about God? What really is at work behind these words?
As I reflect upon these words as a therapist, I am also confronted with questions about what I think brings about help or healing through therapy. Is help or healing brought about through instruction and telling people what to do? Do I need to take control for therapy to be helpful or healing? What is the role of the client’s freedom and agency in the therapeutic process? Is there a connection between the help or healing provided and how I am in the room as a therapist?
My hope in this essay is to connect the uncontrolling relational presence that I view as the necessary element for help or healing in the therapeutic process with my understanding of the importance of God’s uncontrolling relational presence. To make this connection I intend to describe some of the psychological dynamics involved in control, how those dynamics might relate to our understanding of who God is, and how reframing power as potency, and not as domination or control, is central for healing and for an understanding of the uncontrolling relational presence of God.
The dynamics of control
Our earliest experiences with our caregivers begin to shape how we understand who we are, who others are, what it means to relate to another, and how we are to be in those relationships. Attachment theory posits that about fifty to sixty percent of people experience secure attachment with caregivers which allows them to develop an understanding of themselves as trustworthy and loveable, of other people as caring and concerned, and of relationships as places where attuned, sensitive, and loving mutual interdependence are found. Unfortunately, that means about another forty to fifty percent of people experience some kind of insecure attachment.
The first insecure attachment, avoidant, reflects an experience with caregivers where one develops an understanding of themselves as having to be independent, self-sufficient, and competent, of other people as neglectful and rejecting, and of relationships as places that are to be escaped because of the expectation of harm. The second insecure attachment, anxious, reflects an experience with caregivers where one develops an understanding of themselves as unlovable, worthless, and needy, of others as inconsistent in their sensitivity and care, yet also desperately needed, and of relationships as places that are craved and clung to no matter what happens.
In this brief summary of attachment styles we can begin to see that the ways we come to understand ourselves, others, and how to be in relationships impact how we might value or resist control. For example, the securely attached person seeks to be in a mutual and interdependent relationship, the avoidantly attached person seeks to resist control and to establish independence, while the anxiously attached person may seek out the control of others due to their feelings of low self-worth and need to merge with another. Adding to this picture of the relational dynamics that are at work in an understanding of control are psychological dynamics relating to the need for security and certainty.
When anxiety is experienced, we are all motivated to move towards those people, ideas, places, and things that we have associated with safety and assurance. In the face of anxiety, an avoidantly attached person will be even more motivated to establish their autonomy and to move away from relationships while the anxiously attached person will find added motivation to seek proximity and submission to another.
Research within attachment theory suggests that we often relate to God in a similar way as we have learned to relate to our caregivers. This makes sense given that God is not embodied, and we often refer to God in parental terms (e.g. Father). Taking what we have discussed about attachment dynamics and applying it to how we come to understand and relate to God yields some interesting insights.
For those who have experienced their caregivers as neglectful and rejecting, they may come to God with expectations that God, too, is ultimately disinterested in them. If they experience pain or suffering in their lives, they may view this as confirmation of the rejecting God they expected. Even if they don’t experience God as rejecting them, they may still view God as attempting to control them, and thus, they may distance themselves from God. It is difficult for those with avoidant tendencies to allow themselves to feel close to God. Given their experiences in relationships, this kind of intimacy is one that stirs up anxiety and so they will emotionally distance themselves from God. Faith, for these folks, may look more intellectual and cerebral than emotional. Questions, doubt, and skepticism may play a more central role in the faith journey of those with avoidant tendencies as they use their intellect to maintain distance from God.
For those who have experienced their caregivers as inconsistent in providing care and concern and have therefore learned to submit and cling in relationships, they may relate to God through submission and attempting to stay emotionally close to God. Due to their assumption that they have nothing to offer, they look to others, including God, as places of security that they must hold on to. They expect to submit to God. This is due to the anxiety that comes with emotional distance and fear of abandonment. They also may desire for God to control them as a way of staying close to God. It is difficult for those with anxious tendencies to allow themselves to feel separate from God so they may cling to God. Faith, for these folks, may look more emotional than intellectual. A desire for certainty, security, and doing the “right thing” may play a more central role in the faith journey of those with anxious tendencies as their anxiety and fear of abandonment motivate them to move as close to God as possible.
Uncontrolling relational presence
So what do those who are avoidant or anxious in their attachment need in therapeutic settings? How might this also relate to an understanding of God? Often power is understood in terms of control and domination and is therefore something to distance from (if one is avoidant) or to submit to (if one is anxious). This is why therapists must be aware of how power might be understood within the therapeutic setting and why the simple plea at the beginning of this article is one that must be intentionally contemplated by the therapist. It is easy for therapists, too, to understand power as being strictly about control or domination. But what if there is a different way to understand power?
Erich Fromm, a psychoanalyst who focused on the dynamics of anxiety involved in our capacity for free will, reframes power as the capacity to be able to do something or to display mastery of some ability. Potency, as the alternative understanding of power for Fromm, is an expression of a self that feels alive. When one feels potent one does not need to dominate or control. Instead, giving is viewed as the highest expression of potency. It is through giving that one experiences their own aliveness, and this giving enhances the other’s sense of aliveness. This perspective is what Fromm is getting at when he says, “Love is a power which produces love; impotence is the inability to produce love.”
When therapists “give” their presence, care, and concern without attempting to control or dominate this dynamic is at work. For the avoidant client, the uncontrolling presence that the therapist gives is one focused on being an alternative caring expression to the harmful, neglecting relationships that the avoidant person has learned to expect. For the anxious client, the uncontrolling presence that the therapist gives is one focused on being the patient, consistent presence that counters the expectation that they have nothing to offer and will be abandoned. What is therapeutic in each of these instances is not how the therapist controls or forcefully changes anything, but rather how the potent and enabling relational presence that the therapist provides calls forth a new response in the client.
It is this dynamic of the uncontrolling relational giving of presence that provides, for me, a powerful metaphor for God as well. The God who IS love continues to express that love to us through being present with us, not through controlling all that happens to us. Loving presence wooing us towards love.
Ron Wright is a professor of psychology at Southern Nazarene University and is also a licensed psychologist. He earned a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and an M.A. in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. Wright has been a Fulbright Scholar in Romania and was a Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford (SCIO) Visiting Scholar in Science and Religion. He consults with pastors, church leaders, and congregations about the impact of psychological dynamics on faith and life together for communities of faith. Ron can be easily reached at [email protected].
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love