Boundary Lessons From Infants

I am about to graduate, and one of my greatest fears is that I won’t have any friends after college. I know it sounds irrational, but I have had a bad history with friendships. Throughout my childhood, I alternated between one best friend I would become tired of and a group of friends where everyone else seemed closer to each other than they were to me. Is there hope for me? Or will my greatest fear soon become realized? In my desire to learn more about forming friendships, I began to research how people form attachments. According to the British psychiatrist John Bowlby, “our early attachments with our parents and other caregivers shape our relationships for the rest of our lives.”[1] The key to healthy relationships must be found in examining early attachments.

One of John Bowlby’s collaborators, a developmental psychologist named Mary Ainsworth,[2] invented the Strange Situation in 1969 to evaluate early attachment. The Strange Situation is an experiment where 12-18-month-olds[3] are briefly separated from their mothers and then reunited. Ainsworth and her team observed two major categories of behavior. Some babies were distressed when their mothers left, and then comforted when they came back. The babies then explored the room and showed their mothers the toys they found. The other babies were either distressed when their mothers left and still inconsolable after they returned, or had no response when their mothers left and ignored them when they returned. Babies who exhibited behavior consistent with the first category were classified as securely attached, while babies who exhibited behavior consistent with the second category were classified as insecurely attached.

Studies have shown that early attachment styles predict adult attachment styles. Securely attached babies are most likely to become adults who believe they are lovable and others are generally responsive. They are comfortable with independence and intimacy[4]. Insecurely attached babies are most likely to become adults with relationships characterized by avoidance and/or anxiety[5]. Adults with anxious style relationships have a high view of others but a low view of themselves; they look to others for validation, yet anticipate rejection and constantly look for signs that others are losing interest.[6] Adults with avoidant style relationships have a low view of others but a high view of themselves; their high self-esteem protects a “fragile self that is highly vulnerable to wounds.” They are fearful of emotional intimacy and typically respond to conflict or a stressful situation by becoming distant and aloof.[7]

I would argue that at its core, insecure attachment is an inability to set emotional boundaries. According to author and clinical psychologist Henry Cloud, boundaries are “lines… that mark a limit, bound, or border.” One type of boundary is the psychological kind, which is the “realization of our own person apart from others.” Boundaries are meant to be permeable, for they are merely lines, not walls: just as people can enter and exit private property as invited, so should encouragement and emotional support flow in and out of a person.[8] Adults with anxious style relationships are unable to see where others end and they begin; they feel entitled to have validation and support from others, and do not believe they have anything worth giving. Adults with avoidant style relationships construct walls, rather than boundaries, around their lives. They do not allow others to enter into their personal struggles and choose to carry giant burdens on their own.

I am unsure of what my attachment style was as an infant, since I never went through the Strange Situation procedure, but as an adult, descriptions of both avoidant and anxious relationships characterize most of my friendships. I have consistently struggled to believe that I am lovable. With some people, I continually expect the other person to lose interest in maintaining our friendship; with others, I become distant when we experience conflict, choosing to become withdrawn rather than experience further pain by discussing a difference in opinion.

Like nearly everyone, I want to be securely attached to others. And it is possible I was securely attached as an infant. But maybe somewhere between age eighteen months and age twenty-one, I forgot how to be securely attached. Maybe as my needs changed to include social, emotional, and cognitive aspects, I never learned how to attach myself to a caregiver who could provide for more than just my physical needs. Maybe I need to think as an infant again to learn how to meet my need for lifelong friendships.

How do I become securely attached as an adult? It appears that I cannot attach to another human in the same way I attached to my mother as an infant, for no one has the capacity to take care of me in the same way. Specifically, no one knows my needs perfectly, no one has the resources, and no one has the responsibility.

It may be true that my mother was extremely responsive to my physical needs when I was an infant, but my needs were much simpler then: to be fed, have my diaper changed, experience physical contact, be exposed to language. As an adult, my needs are much more complicated, and the reality is that people will inevitably fail to meet my needs. They do not know exactly what I need, much less how to provide for my needs; indeed, I rarely know exactly what I need.

Furthermore, no one has the resources to take care of me like an infant. Ask any parent, and s/he will tell you babies are a 24/7 responsibility. Even the best of friends cannot be responsive to my needs 24/7 because they cannot be everywhere at the same time. In addition, even if someone were available 24/7, no one would have the willingness to respond to my needs every second of every day because that can be exhausting.

Finally, it was my mother’s responsibility to take care of me, for we were in a hierarchical relationship. It would be irresponsible to have my mother do everything for me now that she did when I was three months old. We are now both adults with our own lives to lead. My friends are peers with their own lives to lead, and asking a friend to be responsive 24/7 could lead to resentment.

So where does that leave me? Am I left to be perpetually let down by others? Do I need to simply “grow up” and accept that it is unreasonable to expect this kind of love from others?

No, while it is unreasonable to look to others for fulfillment of my needs, I choose to believe in a God who is a perfect Father, regardless of my age. First, unlike my parents and friends, he “knows what [I] need before [I] ask him.”[9] He is aware of my more complicated needs, like my need to be loved and accepted and have purpose. He knows when I need someone to listen and when I need someone to tell me the painful truth.

Second, unlike my parents and friends, he has the capacity to be responsive to me 24/7. He is with me 24/7, and declares he will never leave me.[10] He is beyond time, for “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”[11] He has the financial capacity to respond to my every need for the entire earth is His.[12]

Finally, I will never move beyond that hierarchical relationship with God. My parents have always known they would have to let me go for at least two reasons: they cannot be with me forever, and they are imperfect people. One day, their minds and/or bodies will become frail, and I will need to take care of them, reversing our hierarchical relationship. And on another day, my parents will die and leave me on this earth. However, God is unchanging, and he is with me forever, as mentioned above. As I grow in my understanding, I recognize more and more that my parents are imperfect. Although I respect them, I would not choose to obey anyone for the rest of my life unless I knew his or her character was perfect. But because God’s character is perfect, I can try to emulate him and see him as the standard of perfection. Thus, he is a Father who never has to let his children go and I can always remain a child in his presence. Like a child, I can securely attach myself to God, knowing he will never let me down.

What happens when I am securely attached to God? I have the freedom to explore, like the securely attached infants who used their mothers as a base from which they explored the room. I have the freedom to run experiments on the world and create beautiful artwork using the world’s resources, which I can run to show my Father, knowing he delights in seeing my handicraft.

When I am securely attached in the love the Father has for me, I can engage with other people and build friendships with them, for I know there is one person I can always count on. Rather than needing to be built up by others and running after their affirmation and approval to feel like I have purpose and belonging, I can rest in the fact that God loves me unconditionally. This gives me the freedom to love others out of abundance, rather than need.

When I am securely attached to God, I can love my friends enough to go to them for community but not to fill the places only God can fill. I can stop trying to be God in other people’s lives by having their well-being depend on me and point them to the only one who can fill those hollow places.

When I am securely attached to God, I can discern the boundary between needs only God can fulfill and needs God uses other humans to fulfill. I sit on a boundary between God and man, and only when I am securely attached can I distinguish between what is supposed to come from God’s side of the line, and what is supposed to come from man’s side of the line. All the “good” comes from God, but God sometimes uses other humans to send me “good” on His behalf.

I do not mean to say friendships are unimportant or unnecessary. Rather, the relationship God desires to have with man is emulated in the very best of human friendships. What kind of friendship am I imagining? The kind of friendship based on unconditional love. The kind of friendship where I can have other friends and other interests. The kind of friendship where I already know the other person cares about me, so I don’t need to be with him/her every second of every day. The kind of friendship where I bring up where I have been hurt by the other person instead of distancing myself. The kind of friendship I want to replicate in all my other friendships. The kind of friendship where encouragement rapidly flows in and out.

Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend call the “Serenity Prayer” the greatest boundary prayer ever prayed.[13]

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.

Here is my version for you: You cannot change your early attachment style. You also cannot change the fact that your Father loves you infinitely. What you can change is your perception of your Father. Rest in his unconditional love for you, and all else will follow.


1 Gilovich et al., Social Psychology (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2013), 363-364. 2 3 4 Bartholomew, Kim and Leonard M. Horowitz. “Attachment Styles among Young Adults: A Test of a Four-Category Model.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 61, no. 2 (1991): 226-244. 5 Technically, there are three types of insecure attachment in adults: fearful, avoidant/dismissing, and pre­occupied, but for the sake of simplification, I call avoidant/dismissing avoidant, preoccupied anxious, and do not mention fearful, since the point is merely to describe insecure attachment. 6 7 8 Henry Cloud. Changes that Heal (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992). 9 Matthew 6:8 (ESV) 10 Hebrews 13:511 2 Peter 3:8 (ESV) 12 Psalm 24:113 Henry Cloud and John Townsend. Boundaries (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).



Lisa Ann is a graduating psychology and statistics major who will be attending “that one school across the bay” next year to study statistics.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,