Intimate Partners

Is God a strength?

Researchers try to discern the role of religious belief in healthy relationships.
By Justin Hopkins, Elizabeth Wine, Tiffany Erspamer, Jennifer Ripley, and Vickey Maclin

The literature on intimate partners has disproportionately focused on relational conflict, often neglecting positive qualities and relational strengths (Fincham, Stanley & Beach, 2007). This bias is also reflected in practice, as traditional couples therapy, has centered on couples’ complaints (Dinkmeyer, 1993). With such emphasis on relational distress, therapists may understand the presenting concern, but lack direction on how to resolve conflict and improve relational quality. As such, it is equally important to acknowledge positive traits and develop strategies that build upon couple’s strengths (DeFrain and Asay, 2007).

Religion has been observed as an important construct of intimate relationships. Past studies have revealed a weak correlation between religiosity and marital satisfaction (Ellison, Henderson, Glenn & Harkrider, 2011), yet marital quality seems to be higher among couples who have common religious beliefs and practices (Brandt, 2004; Ellison, Burdette & Wilcox, 2010). In addition, religious orientation is a common function of healthy, enduring relationships (Robinson and Blanton, 1993).

The purpose of the current study was to address the lack of research on positive relational qualities by examining religion as a relational strength. With archival data, the researchers explored whether proximal (religious) and distal (general relationship) measures of couple functioning can predict whether they perceive religiosity variables as a strength in their relationship. It was hypothesized that couples would perceive religion to be a relational strength as evidenced by self-report and observed measures. It was also hypothesized that relational satisfaction, relational experiences, religious commitment, and religious experience, would predict couples’ perception of religion as a relational strength.

This study examined 152 couples from the Southeastern Virginia region who were interested in receiving couples counseling through a university counseling program, over a two year period. Prior to intake, couples completed the Revised Dyadic Adjustment Scale (RDAS; Crane, Middleton & Bean, 2000) to measure couple satisfaction, the Manifestation of God Scale (Mahoney et al., 1999) and Sacred Qualities of Marriage Scale (Mahoney et al., 1999) to measure the couple’s experience of God in the relationship, the Religious Commitment Inventory (Worthington et al., 2003), and an open-ended question about their perceptions of their strengths as a couple. Their responses to the open-ended question about their relational strengths were dichotomized by whether or not they identified a warm emotional connection, and whether or not they specifically mentioned God or religious concepts as a strength.

A multiple regression was used to explore couple’s perception of religion as a relational strength. Predictor variables included: gender, couples rating of their own and partner’s positivity on a 10 minute video communication exercise at baseline, decision to seek religious vs. standard couples therapy, couple’s endorsement of warmth-based strengths, as well as, the aforementioned baseline inventories. The overall model was predictive (R2 = .35); however follow-up correlations indicated that only religious commitment (r = .48**), couples decision to seek religious counseling (r = .35**), manifestations of God in marriage (r = .34**), sacred qualities of marriage ( r = .28**), and warmth based strengths (r = .22**) were meaningful predictors. Couples’ satisfaction was not a meaningful predictor of religion as a strength (r =.13).

The findings of this study suggest that religion is viewed as a common and meaningful construct among intimate partners. Religion, as a relational quality correlates with other religious constructs both individual and relational. It does not, however, relate strongly to general dyadic adjustment. Similar to the study by Mahoney et al., (1999) proximal measures of relationship were predictive but distal measures (like satisfaction) were not. Nevertheless, the couples in the current study spontaneously reported religion as a relational strength. Given this finding, might there be multiple pathways to predict relationship health? Past research has frequently acknowledged that a “healthy” relationship is a complex and somewhat abstract construct (Moore et al., 2004). One set of predictors may relate to traits, others to processes, but values and religion may also be a separate and independent path that has not been well researched.

The findings of this study also indicate that it is possible for a couple to report religious strengths in their relationship, but experience low satisfaction as measured by typical dyadic measures. Warmth-based emotions such as love and friendship were also a poor indication of whether religion was a relational strength. It is yet to be determined whether these couples were in fact satisfied given their religious experience, or if they were disillusioned by relational conflict, expecting their religious strength alone to produce relationship health. High scores on the RCI-10 was the best predictor, indicated that extrinsic devotion, was a major function of couples who viewed religion as their strength.

The limitations of the study include a somewhat homogenous sample. Almost all participants were married heterosexual middle class couples who ascribed to a Christian identity. The couples were also a clinical sample (not general population) interested in receiving couple’s counseling. Furthermore, due to sample size, the data was examined on an individual level, rather than dyadic analysis. Future research should investigate whether highly religious couples function similarly to non-religious couples, and whether there are separate pathways to healthy relationship. In addition, future studies should further the discussion on couples’ strengths, in an effort to balance the negative disposition of available research.


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Justin Hopkins is a 3rd year student in Regent University’s doctoral program in clinical psychology (PsyD). He obtained a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Hampton University in 2010. Justin is involved in a number of academic initiatives, including the PsyD. Diversity Committee, Hope-focused couples counseling research team, and the Diversity Advocacy Research Team (DART). He currently serves as the president of the Regent University chapter of the Association of Black Psychologists (ABPsi). For his 3rd year practicum, he works at a Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center, in the Primary Health Integration sector. As a Queens, New York native, Justin’s clinical interests are inner-city populations, religion and psychology, and marriage and family dynamics.


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