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The role of spirituality in young adults' relational adjustment to parental divorce

Exploring mediation and moderation relationships between spirituality and divorce among young adults.

By Anna Wang, MA, Jenny, H. Pak, PhD, and David C. Wang, PhD

Divorce is a universally increasing phenomenon that affects all members of a family. The divorce rate has increased dramatically within the past 50 years, with about half of all current marriages ending in divorce. Parental divorce has significant short- and long-term implications for children that extend into their adult years. A plethora of studies have revealed that parental divorce has negative effects on children, which include an increase in behavioral issues, a higher high school dropout rate, economic deprivation, increased psychological stress and turmoil, and reduced academic achievement (Allison & Furstenberg, 1989; Amato & Keith, 1991). In fact, Mack (2001) asserts that adults who experience parental divorce during childhood have lower levels of parent-child relationship quality than adults who experienced parental death during childhood.

One enduring effect of parental divorce is the increased risk of children for divorce later in life when they eventually marry (Cui & Fincham, 2010; Cui, Fincham, & Durtschi, 2010; Segrin, Taylor, & Altman, 2005; Wallerstein & Lewis, 2004). Children model the behaviors of their parents, including behaviors such as ineffective marital communication and decreased commitment to marriage. By watching their parents' marriages breakdown, children learn that marriage is not an enjoyable experience, that marital relationships do not last and that divorce is a solution for conflict. Adults who experienced parental divorce as children were 30 percent less likely than their counterparts from intact families to be in close and intimate relationships, were 50 percent more likely to have gotten a divorce themselves and about 50 percent more likely to be married to someone who had already been divorced. Therefore, while divorce may lead to more freedom for the parents, it ultimately results in hardships for the children that endure throughout their lives (Wallerstein & Lewis, 2004). Divorce creates fewer and poorer marriages, and it results in more divorces.

Spirituality has been considered in the literature as a mechanism that may intensify or reduce the psychological distress of divorce, depending on how each individual views the role of spirituality in their lives. Most world religions emphasize the importance of commitment in marriage and discourage divorce (Warner, Mahoney, & Krumrei, 2009). Approximately 90 percent of Americans reported believing in God, with 85 percent reporting a denominational preference (Davis, Smith, & Marsden, 2005). In a survey of individuals from 98 divorced families, more than half of the respondents spontaneously identified religion as being an important coping resource for them (Greeff & Merwe, 2004). In general, positive religious and spiritual coping has been associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression, and negative coping has been linked with higher levels of mood disturbance (Gall, 2006). Individuals who viewed their parents' divorce as a sacred loss or as a form of religious desecration struggled with higher amounts of depression, anxiety and painful feelings about the divorce (Brown, Carney, Parrish, & Klem, 2013; Krumrei, Mahoney, & Pargament, 2011; Warner, Mahoney, & Krumrei, 2009). However, these struggles eventually resulted in greater personal and spiritual growth. As a result, it seems that spiritual struggles partially or fully mediated at least some of the links between divorce and negative psychological outcomes. The American Psychological Association's 2010 ethical standards note that spiritual and religious faith traditions are important aspects for clinicians to understand and utilize in providing ethical treatment.

The present study sought to fill the literature gap that exists in studying the effects of parental divorce as mediated or moderated by spirituality, an important coping mechanism. For this study, parental divorce and the degree of marital conflict acted as the independent variables. The dependent variables were attitude towards marriage and commitment to the participants' current relationship. The sample consisted of 173 young adults between the ages of 18-35 who volunteered to complete a questionnaire online. Participants were recruited from a local Christian university and obtained through convenience sampling from Facebook.

Participants completed a self-paced questionnaire online that included a demographic questionnaire and the following measures: Marital Attitude Scale (Braaten & Rosen, 1998), Children's Perceptions of Interparental Conflict Scale (Grych, Seid, & Fincham, 1992 ), Religious Commitment Inventory (Worthington et al., 2003), Intrinsic/Extrinsic Revised Scale (Gorsuch & McPherson, 1989), Commitment Scale (Stanley, Markman, & Whitton, 2002), Relationship Assessment Scale (Hendrick, 1988 ) and the Couples Satisfaction Index (Funk & Rogge, 2007).

Multiple regression analyses were used to assess the unique contribution of parental divorce, marital conflict and spirituality on the participants' attitude towards marriage and commitment to their current relationship. It was predicted that participants' who experienced parental divorce and a high level of parental marital conflict would display more negative attitudes towards marriage and a lower commitment to their current relationship. Further, it was predicted that spirituality would act as a mediator or moderator in the relationship between parental divorce and marital conflict to participants' attitude and commitment towards marriage and relationships.

Concerning the hypotheses of this study, a significant correlation was not found between parental divorce and respondent's marital attitude (H1), nor was there a significant correlation between parental divorce and a lower commitment to current relationships (H2). However, higher marital conflict (H3) was indeed significantly correlated with more negative marital attitudes in the expected direction ( r = 0.266, p < .01). Marital conflict, however, was not significantly correlated with lower commitment to current relationships (H4).

Mediation was tested for following Baron and Kenny's (1986) four-step method. Interpersonal religious commitment was significantly related to parental conflict (F = 3.908, p < 0.05). As interpersonal religious commitment is significantly related to marital attitudes and the overall mediation model was significant, then interpersonal religious commitment can be considered a mediator between parental conflict and marital attitudes. This was confirmed through further testing using STATA 12 and path analysis. This indicates that interpersonal religious commitment is one of the reasons why higher parental conflict was related to a less positive attitude towards marriage (or a more positive attitude towards divorce).

The findings on interpersonal religious commitment serve to underlie the importance of our study as it supports the notion that parental divorce and conflict have significant effects on how youth view and handle relationships, and not just romantic relationships. The data suggest that interpersonal interactions with people in religious settings, financial contributions to religious organizations and one's influence and commitment to local religious groups affects the impact of perceived parental conflict on how young adults view marriage.

This partial mediation effect of interpersonal religious commitment on the relationship between perceived parental conflict and marriage attitudes may be due to an environment at church that leads churchgoers to act as if their personal and familial lives are better than they are. Notably, Chia (2011) found that while church and religion was a significant coping resource for a family experiencing domestic violence, church also became a source of social pressure for the family to remain intact and overcome their struggles through Christian beliefs. As related to this study, individuals who experience high levels of perceived marital conflict may find that they do not fit in to what is expected of churchgoing families. Other churchgoers may lead them to feel ashamed of their family dysfunction or be unable to offer empathy or help. As such, individuals may actually have less positive attitude towards marriage the more they interact with other church members. Individuals from families that have high levels of conflict may also despair of their ability to have healthy marriages in the future because they do not have good role models or examples of healthy conflict resolution and marriage commitment. They may learn in church about the high ideals for marriage and fear that their own relationships cannot compare.

These findings are directly applicable for college counseling centers as they seek to promote greater overall well-being and more positive beliefs for their college students. College is an opportune time for young adults to find religious groups to participate in, and encouraging students to participate in religiously affiliated groups that involve relationship building and strong peer relationships can be especially beneficial. However, these religious groups should be careful to fully welcome individuals from all walks of life and family backgrounds, accepting that church is not a place for perfect people. Additionally, parents who are experiencing or have experienced divorce should strongly consider involving their children in religious groups where their children can speak openly and honestly about the struggles their family is undergoing. When individuals can openly share their family conflicts without fear of judgment, then interpersonal interactions in a religious setting may act as a potential coping mechanism. Family therapists would do well to suggest religious resources that are specifically offered for families with divorce or high conflict backgrounds.

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