Why the former Sunday School general president says covenants help create healthy attachment


In the 1950s, a British psychologist named John Bowlby began to observe infants’ need to form an attachment bond with their caregiver and explored how this attachment served the child throughout his or her life. Years later, Russell Osguthorpe, former Sunday School general president, began to observe the importance of attachment during his time as a stake president as he counseled with couples. With a background in psychology, Brother Osguthorpe began to study at length how learning to create healthy attachments can increase our capacity to give and receive love from both God and others closest to us.

On this week’s All In podcast, Brother Osguthorpe helps us understand attachment and how it relates to the covenants we make as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Listen to the full episode by clicking here or in the player below. You can also read a full transcript here.

The following excerpt has been edited for clarity.

Morgan Jones: You write that nothing can create attachments as strong and enduring as making and keeping covenants with God. Why would you say that that is, Brother Osguthorpe?

Russell Osguthorpe: I really like that question, Morgan. To me, that gets to the heart of what we're trying to do in this book. Covenants obviously bind us to God, we are called “Children of the Covenant,” we make promises to Him, He makes promises to us. And we don't make such promises or covenants to people we barely know. We might have 300 friends on LinkedIn, but that doesn't mean that we make covenants and promises with these people, right?

This is a special relationship that we have with God. We have covenanted to be His covenant children. So making a covenant is just the beginning. ... It is in the keeping of the covenant that we deepen that relationship. We help that attachment become stronger. And that's what I think is beautiful about temple worship.

The Lord didn't say, “Go to the temple sometime in your life, and then enjoy the rest of your life.” He didn't say that. He said, “Go to the temple, and make those covenants and then go back again, and make the covenants that you made for yourself, make those same covenants for others. And you'll be reminded of the importance of keeping those covenants.” And when we keep those covenants … basically at that point, that's when He can fill us with His love. When we are His children, totally committed to Him, then we can be filled with the love that He has for us, which is an infinite love.

Morgan Jones: If we understand covenants, and that we are sealed together as families, we want to do whatever we can to preserve those relationships, recognizing that there's power in covenants. You also talk about the effect, that—so this is kind of moving into the later part of the book—you talk about the effect that giving specific praise can have on our ability to attach to those around us. Why would you say that words are so important?

Russell Osguthorpe: I’ve always loved that quote by Elder Maxwell where he said, “We need to give each other more deserved specific praise.” We don't want to praise each other if it's not deserved. We don't want to tell a child, “Oh, you just read that correct word,” if he didn't read the word correctly. But we want to give more deserved specific praise, and why?

Because words are at the heart of relationships. ... When I was stake president, I would ask couples who were struggling a little bit, “Tell me about your communication patterns? Is there ever any harshness?”

And sometimes they would say, “Well, what do you mean harshness?” And I’d say, “I mean, are you ever kind of verbally attacking each other?” And they’d say, “Well, you know, everybody fights.” And I’d say, “Well, no, everybody doesn’t have to fight to come to agreement. You can come to agreement over a disagreement by calm and measured communication—kind communication. You don’t have to attack each other.”

And so words can hurt people. The scriptures teach us, you know, it says, “It is said that thou shalt not kill”—this is in the New Testament—and it's saying, “Thou shalt not kill.” We all know this commandment, but then after that, He follows it and [says], well, “I say unto you, even now, that you should not use the word Raca.” In other words, you should not use verbal attacks on each other either.

I had a friend back East. Not a member of the Church, but I thought it was a great insight. He said, “When we give advice that is not sought or not wanted, it is an act “—he says it can be—“an act of violence.” So when someone doesn't want the thing that we’re saying, and we keep forcing it on them and pushing it on them, we’re hurting them in some ways. And when we attack verbally, I think we literally kill something inside the person. Sometimes people say after these verbal fights, “I feel like something died inside of me after I got so attacked verbally.”

So these are things we do not want in secure attachments. They are things we don’t want in enduring eternal relationships. And so we have to find ways to change those patterns of communication so that we give life to each other. I thought the other day of one of my favorite greetings. When I was a young missionary, I went to Tahiti. The way they say hello is, “Ia orana,” which means literally, “That you might live,” or “Life to you.” That's what we want to do with each other. We want to give life. We don't want to kill something inside somebody.

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