Relationships: Why you love, feel and act the way you do


By Dr. Tim Clinton & Dr. Joshua Straub

Life is all about relationships—particularly with God and with those we love. You don’t have to go very far in the Bible to be reminded that God desires to be in a relationship with each and every one of us. Even more, the Bible says that He is a pursuer God, and that He works to win our hearts. His desire and His love are for us.

The Apostle Paul knew of the great love of God and concluded that to know Him and be found in Him was the greatest joy in the world. John the beloved—he talked often of the great love of God, “Not that we loved God but that He loved us” (1 John 4:10). The Father expressed His deep love for His Son, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). Paul said in Romans 8:35, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” It really is a sacred romance. And when a man or woman gets touched by that love, it changes everything.

God placed that same relational impetus in the hearts of men and women. After all of creation was completed, before the fall, God looked around the Garden and realized something wasn’t good. Even though God walked with Adam, He knew that man should not be alone. So out of the rib of Adam he created an ezer, a helpmate, to come alongside and complement Adam. Bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. God gave him Eve. He designed them for the deepest of all intimacy—united as one flesh. An intimacy signified by innocence, beauty, and freedom. They were naked together and unashamed. There for one another. Safe.

But anything that has that much potential for good has that much potential for hurt. You don’t have to read very far into the next chapter to find that all Hell is against anything God wants to bless. We believe that we are broken in relationship and we’re healed in relationship.

Broken in relationship

When man sinned, he became mortal; “Till you return to the ground” (Gen. 3:19b, NASB). This passage denotes man’s immediate susceptibility to suffering, misery, pain, and even death. Man was cursed. Relationships were afflicted. And when sin invades the marital union (or familial relations) it leaves those oppressed grieving the loss of the closeness they so desire. As feelings of safety and significance in the relationship wane both intrinsic and extrinsic pressures force man and woman to seek isolation and seclusion. Many times these pressures go unrecognized and are therefore indiscernible. As a result, the tendency is to withdraw from the relationship believing and acting on the lie that relationships are too dangerous to maintain; or he criticizes and pushes others to a safe emotional distance. Either way, man enters the island of self-sufficiency, turning to things instead of loved ones to calm and soothe him (Hart Morris, 2002a). Freedom is suffocated. People are enslaved.

Unfortunately, the enslavement of social isolation has become pandemic in America. In fact, more than twice as many people are socially isolated today than were twenty years ago and the number of reported confidants one has is steadily decreasing1. Many have learned that relationships are unsafe and unpredictable. They have a hard time believing they were truly designed for close connected relationships first with God (Deut. 6:5) and then with one another (Matt. 22:37-40). The experienced hurt and brokenness in earthly attachment relationships becomes too unbearable and in many cases influences one’s way of relating to God Himself.2 Studies have found that one’s perceived relationship with God is similar in its function to the necessities offered by attachment relationships.3 Not only do man and woman isolate themselves from one another, they ultimately isolate themselves even from God.

Core Relational Beliefs

In the context of relationships each person begins to develop core relational beliefs that infect and affect the way that we do intimacy. These relational beliefs about the self and others are formed within the context of safe, close, affectionate and secure bonds. And the way we relate in times of distress reveals whether we believe we’re capable of getting the love and comfort we need and how much we trust others to be accessible and available in these moments of duress. They also shape our expectations about how God will relate to us, especially during times of need.

This you/me factor, or what we believe about the self and others, is developed early in life with our primary caregiver—most often mom and/or dad. And there are four behaviors in particular that help us develop healthy relational beliefs.4

Proximity Seeking: When we’re faced with stress, we seek closeness (proximity) to those we love. Each one of us exerts specific behaviors to help us get closer to those we’re attached to in times of need.

Safe Haven: Seeking proximity, or getting connected, helps ease a person’s anxiety or tension. When trouble comes, and we feel our relationships threatened, our partner becomes a source of comfort, peace, and calmness. This is a safe-haven experience. The more others are there for us, the more confident we become with our self. Self-confidence is birthed in other-confidence, the basic belief that another person is reliable, trustworthy, and accessible.

When it comes to building a healthy relationship with Christ, we have to understand this. The Word teaches that God is faithful. Reliable. True. He is capable and so willing to love us that He gave His Son to die for us (John 3:16). He can overcome our greatest fears. When we experience God as a safe haven, we can approach the world with confidence and boldness. The author of Hebrews says, “…[He, Christ]…shared in [our] humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb 2:14ff-15).

Secure-Base/Exploration: When those we love are readily available and accessible during times of stress, it provides a sense of security and we feel safe. When we’re secure in our relationship, we’re able to explore the world around us in a creative and self-confident way. But when we feel threatened, we go into self-protection mode. We build emotional walls and stop exploring. Overwhelmed by the stress, we return to the one we love. If that person is not there for us, or don’t believe they will be, we isolate ourselves. But if our partner is found capable of comfort and reassurance (the safe-haven experience), we are once again free to explore.

Separation: When we’re threatened with separation from the one(s) we love, powerful emotions such as anxiety or anger emerge and are the distress signal to once again seek closeness. Take for example the husband who tells his wife he will be home from work by six o’clock. Two hours later he returns home to an anxious wife who chews him out. Mixed feelings overwhelmed her as worried about whether she should call the local E.R., yet seethed with anger that he would be so disrespectful. Knowing what triggers and makes your partner feel unsafe will help you, in times of stress, to understand and be there for him/her in ways that makes them feel safe. Hence, emotions are best understood in the context of relationships.

Healed in relationship

Healthy relationships are all about fidelity and safety. There is a level of investedness—you have to understand what makes your partner feel safe. This requires communication, honesty, and openness. You have to participate in their life in a meaningful way. When this happens, he won’t have to worry about his wife criticizing him for playing golf this Saturday. When she feels safe, she’ll won’t mind the golf and time with the boys. And when he feels safe, he won’t mind the shopping trip or time she takes with her friends. Feeling safe promotes exploration. Freedom and intimacy.

It’s like that with God too. When we get in a vibrant relationship with Him we are free to explore our world in a meaningful way. Freedom breeds intimacy. Intimacy breeds freedom.

And in the end all that really matters is who you loved and who loved you. That’s the gospel and it’s what makes everyone dance for joy.

1Vedantam, S. (2006, June 23). Social isolation growing in U.S., study says: The number of people who say they have no one to confide in has risen. Washington Post, A03.

2 Hart, A. & Hart Morris, S. (2003). Safe haven marriage: Building a relationship you want to come home to. Nashville, TN: Word.

3 Granqvist, P. (2005). Building a bridge between attachment and religious coping: Tests of moderators and mediators. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 8(1), 35-47 and Kirkpatrick, L.A. & Shaver P.R. (1990). Attachment theory and religion: Childhood attachments, religious beliefs, and conversion. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 29(3), 315-334.

4Ainsworth, M.D.S. (1973). The development of infant-mother attachment. In B.M. Caldwell & H.N. Ricciuti (Eds.), Review of child development research (Vol. 3). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.