The President’s Column

Encouragement and Advice to Leap into Relational Spirituality

Div. 36 President Annette Mahoney, professor at Bowling Green State University, presents a dialogue reflective of her time mentoring students on relational spirituality.

By Annette Mahoney, PhD

The theme of this newsletter is on mentoring, so I wrote this informal column imagining I was having a conversation to encourage a graduate student, postdoc or early career psychologist to leap into “relational spirituality.” I can also imagine similar conversations with anyone reading this newsletter who would like to learn more about this topic. This imaginary question and answer dialogue might go as follows:

What is relational spirituality? And is it a good thing?

Answer (A): For the sake of our discussion, I see the realm of “relational spirituality” as encompassing three sets of relational processes that tap into religious or spiritual beliefs and behaviors that can shape close relationships, for better or worse, over the lifespan.

First, relational spirituality refers turning to felt connections with transcendent or immanent supernatural entities in ways that influence the quality of human relationships and the psychological adjustment of the people in those relationships. For example, your (or your research participants’ or clients’) felt connections to deities, universal spirits, angels, saints and/or deceased immortal ancestors may function as supportive and loving attachment figures that facilitate your relationship and personal well-being. Indeed, benevolent prayer for a romantic partner or spouse has been repeatedly tied to better relational functioning.

Second, relational spirituality refers to people reporting that one or more of their human relationships possess a religious/spiritual dimension. For example, you may view a romantic union, marriage, sexual bond, parent-child relationship, friendship, mentorship or work partnership as embodying a deity’s presence or sacred qualities (i.e., theistic and non-theistic sanctification, respectively). As another example, people in a relationship may engage religious activities or in-depth spiritual dialogues together. Such processes have been clearly tied to better relational functioning between couples and college student-parent dyads, with limited but promising parallel findings on parenting across married and single-parent families.

Third, relational spirituality refers to ways that close relationships are shaped by peoples’ connections with religious communities. For example, ample research has linked higher religious attendance to many interpersonal outcomes that you may desire, such as marital and parental satisfaction. More research is needed, however, on exactly what it is about involvement in organized religion that helps close relationships.

Finally, the above salutary relational spirituality processes are likely to overlap for many people, especially people who belong to religious groups who theologically support and affirm their socially progressive to conservative choices about forming, maintaining or exiting close relationships over the lifespan. But atheists are probably less likely to rely on prayer or a felt relationship with God. And people in unconventional family units, such as couples without children, as well as single, same-sex, cohabiting or divorced parents are probably less likely to rely on organized religious communities.

Pathways from Relational Spirituality Resources to Relational and Individual Well-being

Fig. 1 illustrates graphically theoretical reciprocal pathways from relational spirituality resources to relational and individual well-being. This figure is based on a relational spiritual framework I created to organize and unpack the research literature on the many possible roles religion and spirituality can play in the context of family life. But the framework also applies to close relationships in other contexts (e.g., friendships and mentor-mentoree relationships at school or work).

Is there a down side to relational spirituality?

A: Yes. All of the examples I just mentioned highlight the domain of relational spirituality as a resource that could enhance relational and personal well-being. But of course, relational spirituality has a dark side. Examples of significant relational spiritual risk factors include experiencing spiritual struggles with divine or demonic forces over relationship issues, viewing relationship problems or endings through a negative spiritual lens (e.g., sacred losses or desecration) and experiencing faith-based conflicts or a lack of social support from religious communities about relationship issues.

It is important to recognize that religious/spiritual resources tend to be commonplace. By contrast, problematic manifestations of relational spirituality tend to be rare, but evidence hints that such processes are toxic. Far more research is needed on relational spirituality risk factors. Such risks may be more frequent and especially need to be addressed in distressed sub-samples: people struggling to form healthy relationships, fix dysfunctional relationships or recover from relational endings or trauma. Interpersonal abuse or violations within relationships framed as sacred may be especially damaging, such as sexual infidelity by a spouse or sexual exploitation by a mentor or religious leader.

Finally, it is important to note that mental health professionals who work with clinically distressed clients may be disproportionally exposed to the dark side of relational spirituality. By contrast, religious leaders and those who belong to religious communities may be especially aware of the bright side of relational spirituality. Ideally, psychologists could build more bridges with religious groups and mental health professionals that increases greater awareness of both helpful and harmful manifestations of relational spirituality. In sum, we need more research and related education that untangles relational spirituality resources and risks.

What is cutting-edge and exciting about pursuing research on relational spirituality?

A: You’ll probably find it easy to delve into an important topic that no one has looked at yet.

For example, to my knowledge, only three studies to date have been conducted on specific religious or spiritual behaviors or beliefs that married individuals hold about their sexual relationship with their spouse that may enhance their sexual satisfaction or frequency. In a recent study of heterosexual newlyweds, for example, greater sanctity of marital sex robustly predicted better sexual functioning over time. Nearly all prior research has been on ways that religion and spirituality may inhibit sex outside of marriage, such as premarital or extra-marital sex.

More broadly, I have estimated that only around 1-2 percent of studies focused on heterosexual marriage and divorce published in social science journals between 1980 and 2009 examined specific hypotheses using religiousness or spirituality variables, with studies targeting parenting being even scarcer (Mahoney, 2010). But there is good news. Since 2010, the pace and quality of studies that delve into hypotheses about religion/spirituality about couples and family life seems be to increasing. This means more studies are being published on close relationships that treat religiousness or spirituality as important. In my view, this is very encouraging. 

What is difficult and daunting about pursuing research on relational spirituality?

A: You’ll probably find it easy to delve into an important topic that no one has looked at yet. Yes, I repeated the same reason I said for question three.

This means that you may be the first to dive into exploring a specific relational spiritual process in a particular relationship context. In addition to the examples above, to my knowledge, only one study to date has been conducted on ways that parents in same-sex unions attempt to integrate religion or spirituality into their parenting and family life. Only one study appears to have been done on the sanctity of parenting by single parents, with higher sanctification of parenting by single and married parents being tied to more happiness about being a parent. In short, there is a lot of unexplored territory on all kinds of couples and families. You may need guidance to find and integrate supporting literature from different subfields. Try to find an open-minded mentor who likes adventure and doing cutting edge research to help you. 

Is relational spirituality really relevant to modern societies with diverse types of couples and families?

A: It is the case that most empirical research on faith and family life has focused on “traditional families” comprised of married mothers and fathers with children. But growing empirical evidence highlights that higher levels of relational spirituality can be a resource for single mothers. Moving forward, more research is needed the roles of relational spirituality for the significant number of “non-traditional” couples or parents. This includes dating, cohabiting or same-sex couples as well as divorced or never married co-parents, single fathers and non-birth parents such as adoptive and stepparents, foster parents and grandparents. Expanding the scope of research will help keep the science of faith and family life relevant to modern societies.

What is difficult to remember when pursuing research on relational spirituality?

A: Remember that higher levels of a given relational spiritual construct may be helpful to people regardless of their membership in a demographic group. This can help transcend simplistic stereotypes based on demographic labels. To elaborate, differences in the percentage of people in different groups who endorse higher levels of a religious or spiritual factor does not reveal if that factor is a risk or resource for the people within those groups. For example, the percentage of people who frequently attend religious services (e.g., at least 2-3 times/month) is usually higher for wives compared to husbands, for married compared to single parents and for members of theologically conservative compared to progressive religious groups. But higher religious attendance at any place of worship tends to be correlated as strongly with any given relational outcomes for husbands and wives, for married and single parents and for family members from diverse religious groups.

What are a couple of critical things to consider when designing research studies?

A: First, pay attention to the details when it comes to constructs and measures. Look carefully at the items on a given measure. What do the items on the sub-scale that you are considering actually ask? Read the questions. Try to answer them. Make sure that, regardless of the name of the sub-scale, the items are tapping into the construct and hypotheses that you are interested in. For example, all of the 10 items the “Religious Well-Being Sub-Scale (RWRS), from Paloutzian and Ellison’s (1982) popular Spiritual Well-Being Scale (SWBS), involve questions about the quality of one’s felt relationship with God.

Second, pay attention the details when it comes to talking about your sample and generalizing results. For example, use the term “religious attendance” not “church attendance” when referring to items that ask how often the respondent attends religious services. Only use “church attendance” if your study is restricted to individuals who endorse exclusively belonging to a Christian group. People from other religious traditions do not worship in buildings that they historically have called churches. They attend services at temples, mosques, synagogues and houses of worship. The use of the term “church” can be viewed as signaling that a researcher or clinician has a Christian-centric bias.

What do I do about the declining rates of participation in organized religious groups by people in modern societies?

A: Face the facts, which are fascinating. US national surveys show declines in rates of participation in religious groups, willingness to label oneself as religious, rates of prayer and other markers of involvement in organized religion. But rates of belief in God or a universal spirit have not declined all that much. More importantly, most people across the globe strive to connect with invisible “higher powers” both within and outside the self that they perceive to exist. Forming and maintaining such connections lie at the heart of most organized religions. But peoples’ disagreements about what kinds of messages they receive from such entities reflect some of the most profound motivations and intractable conflicts that exist between humans. And unless or until no one perceives themselves being in relationships with divine and demonic forces, it seems wise to pursue research on the role of religion and spirituality for human relationships.

How will my in-depth qualitative or quantitative psychological research make an important contribution to social science?

A: Historically, most social science on faith and family life comes from handful of items on involvement in organized religion embedded in very large national surveys. If you want to see what kinds of items on religion have been used in major sociological surveys focused couples and families, you can go to the National Center for Marriage and Family Research’s website.

In my view, a major contribution that research psychologists bring to the social science table are that they tend to be experts in theories and assessment methods that go beyond global items that tap into involvement in organized religion (e.g., religious attendance or affiliation or Biblical literalism). Many research psychologists have created scales with 5-15 items to assess specific constructs. Others use in-depth qualitative interviews to delve into the details, so we have a lot to offer in unpacking what it is about religious participation that helps or harms close relational functioning in family, work, school and other contexts. 

But it is always a good idea to ask a few global questions about religious affiliation and involvement that are worded exactly the same as a national survey in the nation where your participants live. You can then explain exactly how your sample is similar or different from those national norms. You can then provide a better estimate of to whom your results generalize.

What do we know the most and least about when it comes to relational spirituality in a family context?

A: In a nutshell, we know the most about the role of religion and spirituality for the marriages of heterosexual couples and for corporal punishment by married, conservative Protestant Christian parents (see my column in the Oct. 2017 newsletter issue). Otherwise, there are a lot of initial findings and uncharted territory to explore.

How do I get started?

A: I intentionally left out citations in this essay to try to mimic an actual conversation. Below I have listed some suggested background readings. This includes reviews I have authored that provide relevant citations and more in-depth coverage of my comments above. You can also go to Bowling Green State University’s page on the psychology of spirituality and relationships to find more resources to consider for your work.

Suggested background reading 

Fincham, F. D., & Beach, S. R. H. (2013). Can religion and spirituality enhance Prevention programs for couples? In K. I. Pargament (Editor-in-Chief), APA handbook of psychology, religion, and spirituality: Vol 2, (pp. 461-480). Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

Holden, G. W. & Vittrup, B. (2010). Religion. In M. H. Bornstein (Ed.), Handbook of cultural developmental science (pp. 279-295). Psychology Press, New York, NY.

King, P.E., & Boyatzis, C.J. (2015). Religious and spiritual development.  In M. E. Lamb (Ed.), Socioemotional processes. Vol. 3 of the Handbook of child psychology and developmental science (7th ed., pp. 975-1021).  Editor-in-Chief:  R.M. Lerner. New York:  Wiley. 

Mahoney, A. (2010). Religion in families, 1999-2009: A relational spirituality framework. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 805-827. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2010.00732.x

Mahoney, A. (2013). The spirituality of us: Relational spirituality in the context of family relationships. In K. I. Pargament, J. J. Exline, & J. Jones, J. (Eds.). APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality: Vol 1. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/14045-020.

Mahoney, A. & Boyatzis, C. J. (in press). Parenting, religion, and spirituality. M. Bornstein (Ed.), Handbook of parenting (3ed). NY, NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis.

Mahoney, A., LeRoy, M., Kusner, K., Padgett, E., & Grimes, L. (2013). Addressing parental spirituality as part of the problem and solution in family psychotherapy. D. F. Walker & W. Hathaway (Ed.) Spiritually oriented interventions in child and adolescent psychotherapy, (pp. 65-88).  Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

Mahoney, A., Pomerleau, J. M., & Riley, A. (in press). Transcending barriers to build bridges between family psychology and religious organizations. B. Fiese (Ed.) APA Handbook of contemporary family psychology. Washington DC: APA Publications.

Marks, L. D., & Dollahite, D. C. (2017). Religion and families. NY, NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis.

Sullivan, S. C. (2011). Living faith: Everyday religion and mothers in poverty. London: University of Chicago

Walker, D. F. & Hathaway, W. (2013). Spiritually oriented interventions in child and adolescent psychotherapy, (pp. 65-88).  Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

Wilcox, W. B., & Wolfinger, N. H. (2016). Soul mates: Religion, sex, love, and marriage among African Americans and Latinos. Oxford University Press, New York, NY.