Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality / edited by Raymond F.
Paloutzian, Crystal L. Park. (p.177-195)
Religion’s Role in Marriage and Parenting in Daily Life and during Family Crises
In a 1995 Gallup poll of U.S. families, 65% of mothers and 57% of fathers said that religion was “extremely” or “very” important in their lives (Mahoney et al., 1999). About 90% of the U.S. population desire religious training for their children (Gallup & Castelli, 1989) and 55% of married individuals (Heaton & Pratt, 1990) attend religious services at least several times a year. Thus, a vast audience in the United States is presumably receptive to messages that can be drawn from religion about family relationships. In turn, empirical studies from past decades indicate that religion is an important factor linked to marital and parental functioning (e.g., Dollahite, Marks, & Goodman, 2004; Mahoney, Pargament, Tarakeshwar, & Swank, 2001).
Yet psychologists have produced little theory or research on the role of religion in family life. In hopes of stimulating more psychological research on religion and family relationships, we begin this chapter with a review of empirical findings on key aspects of religion and family life over the past 25 years. In this section, we discuss the role of religion in marital and parent–child subsystems in daily life as well as during various family crises.
We also delineate major conceptual and methodological challenges left to be tackled in the field of religion and family life. We end the chapter by offering illustrative theoretical constructs for how religion might operate during normative family transitions and family crises.
EMPIRICAL RESEARCH ON RELIGION AND FAMILY LIFE
Family psychology encompasses the study of different family relationships during normative stages of the family life cycle and family crises. Several comprehensive reviews of re-177 search on religion and family life have recently been published (Dollahite et al., 2004; Mahoney et al., 2001; Sherkat, & Ellison, 1999). In this section, we review research on religion and daily life across the domains of marital functioning, the transition to parenthood, and the parenting of children and adolescents. We then discuss research on family crises including marital infidelity, divorce, domestic violence, child abuse, and raising a child with special needs.
To convey well-documented empirical findings in this chapter, we cite effect sizes calculated in a study by Mahoney et al. (2001) where meta-analytical techniques were used to summarize religion–family links reported at least five times across three or more studies. These quantitative studies reported bivariate associations between religious variables and marital and parental functioning and were published during the 1980s and 1990s.
The majority of these studies (87%) involved national or community samples. This minimizes the concern that findings were biased by the selection of highly religious individuals from religious organizations. But, as is typical of large surveys, most of the marital (80%) and parenting (66%) studies relied only on single-item markers of religiousness, such as religious affiliation, frequency of church attendance or prayer, and overall importance of religion. Not surprisingly, the average effect sizes were therefore small in size. Nevertheless, such associations across large heterogenous samples are impressive since global items have very limited variability. For less well-established findings, we discuss studies that are especially noteworthy on conceptual or methodological grounds.
Religion and Daily Life in Families
Global Marital Satisfaction. Two pieces of evidence indicate that greater involvement in religion is tied to spouses’ global satisfaction with their marriage based on single items (e.g., “Taking all things together, how would you describe your marriage: very happy, pretty happy, not too happy”) or brief questionnaires surveying a wide range of marital issues. First, more frequent church attendance covaries with greater marital satisfaction (average r= .07; Mahoney et al., 2001). Second, and more compelling, the personal relevance of religion relates to greater marital satisfaction with an averagerof .15 (Mahoney et al., 2001). The latter variable includes single-item ratings of the importance of religion and frequency of prayer or Bible reading, as well as more complex questionnaires about personal religiousness. This suggests more in-depth indices of religiousness could better account for marital satisfaction.
Two important moderators of links between religion and marital satisfaction have been identified. First, in a methodologically rigorous longitudinal study, Sullivan (2001) found that global religiosity promoted marital satisfaction for newlyweds over time, but only for couples with husbands with relatively greater mental health. Both husbands and wives in more religious couples with a more “neurotic” (reactive, negative) husband were less satisfied. Thus, in marriages where both partners fulfill normative expectations of healthy behavior, religion may heighten marital satisfaction; but in couples with a distressed partner, greater religiousness may exacerbate marital difficulties. Second, personal religiousness is especially predictive of marital happiness for churchgoing people (r= .27; Mahoney et al., 2001). But contrary to the notion that greater religiousness is merely a marker of marital conventionalization, religiousness remains tied to marital satisfaction after controlling this variable (Wilson & Filsinger, 1986).
Marital Commitment. Several researchers have examined the idea that more religious people are more committed to marriage than less religious people (Mahoney et al., 2001). Efforts to assess commitment have included direct inquiry about investment in the marriage and inferring commitment from the costs of losing the marriage. Greater individual religiousness, as reflected by global items, is consistently tied to greater commitment (average effect size ofr= .19; Mahoney et al., 2001). Furthermore, two studies have found that greater church attendance relates to marital commitment even after taking into account demographic factors and marital or family satisfaction (Larson & Goltz, 1989; Wilson & Musick, 1996). In addition, couples’ religious homogamy (i.e., shared religious affiliation, church attendance, and/or beliefs) has been repeatedly tied to greater marital commitment (averager= .097; Mahoney et al., 2001). Sharing deeply held religious values about investing in their marriage over the long term may help couples cement a long-range “couple identity,” which other research has tied to greater sacrifices and harmony within the relationship (Stanley & Markman, 1992).
Marital Verbal Conflict and Conflict-Resolution Strategies. Research indicates that religion is a topic about which couples rarely directly argue (Oggins, 2003). Also, contrary to concerns that more religious people may tolerate conflict to stay together, spouses’ personal religiousness is unrelated to the frequency of marital disputes (Mahoney et al., 2001). However, the extent to which couples share religiously based views of particular topics may inhibit conflict about these issues (Mahoney, 2005). For example, greater religious similarity between spouses has been tied to fewer arguments (Curtis & Ellison, 2002) and lower divorce rates (Call & Heaton, 1997). Conversely, marked disparities in spouses’ beliefs about the Bible generate more conflict about housework and money (Curtis & Ellison, 2002). Although few couples report such polarization, couples argue more often about how they spend time and about in-laws when the wife holds much more conservative biblical beliefs than her husband, and more childrearing disputes arise for couples when the husband is more conservative than his wife (Curtis & Ellison, 2002).
Religion also offers couples guidelines to resolve conflict after it erupts (Mahoney, 2005). Several studies indicate that greater religiousness is tied to more constructive conflict-resolution strategies. For instance, Brody, Stoneman, Flor, and McCrary (1994) found that greater self-rated religiousness was tied to better marital communication skills during direct observations of African American families. Mahoney et al. (1999) also found that Caucasian couples who engaged in more joint religious activities and viewed their marriage as sacred said they more often resolved conflict via collaborative discussion. Further, greater religiousness has not been linked to counterproductive problemsolving strategies, such as yelling or stonewalling (Mahoney et al., 1999). Likewise, no differences have emerged in the level of negative communication patterns in marriages of fundamentalist than nonfundamentalist Protestants (e.g., Schumm, Ja Jeong, & Silliman, 1990). In sum, evidence suggests that greater religiousness is linked to less frequent marital conflict and better communication patterns. More research is needed on how (dis)similarities in spouses’ religiously based values could moderate conflict.
Transition to Parenthood
Greater church attendance has been consistently tied to higher birthrates (Krishnan, 1993). Other research suggests that the birth of a child may trigger a transformation in the spiritual orientation of parents, such that mothers in particular attend church more frequently and experience a heightened sense of the importance of God (Becker & Hofmeister, 2001). One qualitative study has also found that the birth or presence of children prompted religious introspection or involvement for some men (Palkovitz, 2002).
Although such evidence implies that religion may ease the transition from childlessness to parenthood, only a few studies have directly addressed this topic.
In terms of obstetric outcomes, King and Hueston (1994) found that rates of maternal complications and neonatal intensive care were lowest for mainline Christian women, intermediate for evangelical Christians, and highest for patients with no religious preference. Even after controlling for socioeconomic confounds, mothers from mainline churches had a lower rate of complications, and mothers who reported any type of religious affiliation had infants with a lower risk of neonatal intensive care. In addition, Magana and Clark (1995) argue that religious factors partly account for the well-established but paradoxical findings on obstetric outcomes for Mexican American women. Despite their relatively low socioeconomic status, Mexican American women deliver significantly fewer low-birth-weight babies and lose fewer babies to all causes during infancy than do women of other non-Angelo ethnic groups and are on par with more socioeconomically advantaged Caucasian groups. Magana and Clark speculate that more religiously devout Mexican American women turn to feminine religious figures (e.g., the Virgin of Guadalupe) as positive role models, which facilitates pre- and postnatal health care and coping with an infant.
To our knowledge, only one longitudinal study has assessed the role of religion and marital adjustment before and after the birth of a child. Wilcox and Wolfinger (2003) found that urban mothers who attend church regularly were more likely to be married at the time of birth than those who rarely attend church, and women who had a nonmarital birth were more likely to marry within a year if they attend church frequently. These religious effects were partly mediated by the relationship-related beliefs and behaviors promoted by churches. Churchgoing mothers expressed higher levels of commitment to the institution of marriage. They were also more likely to receive higher levels of supportive behavior (e.g., affection) from the child’s father and have less conflict with the father over sexual fidelity. These findings imply that religion may serve as a protective resource for marriages during the transition to parenthood.
Parenting of Children
Discipline Practices.The bulk of research on religion and parenting has focused on whether Christian conservatism is tied to attitudes about, and the use of, corporal punishment with preschoolers and schoolage children. Such hypotheses are consistent with conservative theological views about discipline practices (see Ellison, 1996, for an excellent discussion). Adults who are affiliated with conservative Christian groups or who hold literalistic beliefs about the Bible have repeatedly been found to be more likely than other people to value child obedience (averager= .18) and believe in corporal punishment (averager= .21; Mahoney et al., 2001). Most of this attitudinal research has not, however, focused on parents. Fortunately, a study by Gershoff, Miller, and Holden (1999) provides unique insight into the topic. These researchers found that conservative Protestant parents of 3-year-olds are more likely than other parents to believe that spanking is a necessary, effective way to gain immediate and long-term obedience, and less likely to believe spanking has negative consequences, such as engendering fear or resentment. When asked to respond to vignettes that portrayed their child exhibiting increasing noncompliance, conservative Protestant parents also were more likely to select spanking and less likely to select reasoning to handle defiance. Finally, they were less likely to report feeling guilty about spanking. In terms of the actual use of corporal punishment, Christian conservatism is related to parental spanking of preadolescents with an average = .09 (Mahoney et al., 2001). This effect is about half as robust as attitudinal links found in general adult samples. Research has also failed to substantiate concerns that conservative Christian membership or beliefs increase parents’ use of nonphysical, aversive punishments (e.g., time-outs, threats, yelling; Gershoff et al., 1999) or severe physical discipline (e.g., hitting with fist; Mahoney et al., 2001).
When considering these findings, it is important to realize that the degree to which parents endorse biblical literalism (e.g., “The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word”) or Christian fundamentalism (e.g., “The Bible is the answer to all important human problems”) is more critical in predicting disciplinary attitudes or behavior than mere membership in a conservative Christian group. The former variables mediate links between religious denomination and both corporal punishment attitudes and behavior (e.g., Ellison, Bartkowski, & Segal, 1996). Finally, an interactive effect has been found between parents’ orientation toward the Bible (liberal vs. conservative) and view parenting as a sacred endeavor when predicting corporal punishment.
Murray-Swank, Mahoney, and Pargament (2003) found that greater sanctification of parenting was associated with decreased use of corporal punishment for mothers of young children who had more liberal beliefs about the Bible. In contrast, among more biblically conservative mothers, sanctification of parenting was unrelated to the frequency of corporal punishment. Thus, viewing parenting as a divine endeavor is tied to lower rates of corporal punishment, but only for parents who have a more liberal Christian religious orientation. Overall, these studies highlight the need to assess directly how much parents personally integrate particular religious beliefs into their views of parenting.
Warmth and Effective Parenting of Children. Numerous studies suggest that religion may be tied to more effective parenting, parental warmth, and family cohesiveness, but the diversity of samples and methodologies precludes the quantification of summary effect sizes (Mahoney et al., 2001). Thus, we highlight here five especially sophisticated studies. First, two excellent studies examining African American families of 9- to 12-yearolds indicate that parents’ self-reported religiousness (church attendance rate multiplied by self-rated importance) is tied to better observed parenting and coparenting processes.
Specifically, in Brody et al.’s study (1994), mothers’ religiousness was related to more skilled parenting, less coparenting conflict, and better marital quality during observed family interactions. Greater religiousness of fathers was also tied to less coparenting conflict and better marital quality. Moreover, associations between parental religiousness and parenting skills were mediated through marital quality and coparenting skills. In the second study (Brody, Stoneman, & Flor, 1996), measures of child adjustment were used.
Greater maternal and paternal religiousness were directly tied to fewer child behavior problems. Moreover, parental religiousness indirectly influenced youth self-regulation by promoting family cohesiveness and lowering marital conflict.
Wilcox (1998) also found that parents’ level of endorsement of theologically conservative views about the Bible was related to self-reports of more frequent hugging and praising of preschool and schoolage children after controlling for religious and demo graphic factors. In a follow-up study, Wilcox (2002) found that conservative parents were also less likely than their nonconservative Protestant counterparts to yell at their preschool and schoolage children. Further, Murray-Swank et al. (2003) found that greater sanctification of parenting was tied to increased positive mother–child interactions when mothers had more conservative beliefs about the Bible. But among more liberal mothers, no link was found. Thus, even as parents with more conservative Christian beliefs are more inclined to spank their children, they are also likely to be warmer toward them, especially if they view parenting to be a sacred calling.
Parenting of Adolescents
Research clearly indicates that greater parental religiousness influences adolescents’ adoption of religious beliefs and practices (e.g., Sherkat, 2003). In turn, adolescents’ personal religiousness has been consistently tied to lower rates of delinquency, substance use, and premarital sexuality (e.g., Donahue & Benson, 1995) as well as to higher levels of positive outcomes (e.g., Regnerus, 2003). Surprisingly few studies, however, have directly investigated parental religiousness and parent–adolescent interactions, but available findings are encouraging.
Discipline Practices. We were unable to locate published empirical studies that directly address the overlap between religion and physical discipline of adolescents. However, in national surveys that combine youth from ages 2 to 18, significant correlations have not emerged between corporal punishment and either Christian conservatism (Alwin, 1986) or the general importance of religion (Jackson et al., 1999). Thus, links between conservative Christianity and corporal punishment seem to be restricted to families of younger children. A longitudinal study by Regnerus (2003) uncovered complex dynamics that may occur when highly devout religious parents try to control teenagers. Greater global religiousness by parents and adolescents was directly tied to less frequent serious delinquency for girls, but not boys. In addition, via the degree to which parents granted freedoms to their teenagers and the extent of teenagers’ happiness with the family, parent religiosity predicted less teenage delinquency. However, these indirect pathways of influence were much stronger for girls. Taken together, this suggests that high levels of parental religiousness may “backfire” for sons who resist efforts to control their behavior, while daughters may be more open to similar efforts by highly religious parents.
Warmth and Positivity.Two rigorous studies suggest that religion facilitates positive parent–adolescent relationships. In a rare longitudinal study, Pearce and Axinn (1998) found that greater maternal religiousness when an adolescent was 18 predicted more positive parent–child relationship when the youth was 23 as reported by both parties. In addition, congruence at the end of high school between mothers’ and youths’ religious attendance and self-ratings of religion also predicted more positive mother–child relationship satisfaction 5 years later. Likewise, using a large national sample, Gunnoe, Hetherington, and Reiss (1999) found robust direct links between parental self-reports of greater personal religiousness and observations of greater authoritative parenting during dyadic problem-solving discussions between adolescents and both parents. Moreover, indirect pathways of influence were found for parental religiousness leading to greater social responsibility by adolescents through authoritative parenting.
Parental Gender and Family Life
Fathering. Since about 1995, a rapidly growing body of research has focused on religion and fatherhood (Dollahite et al., 2004). Based on national surveys, greater church attendance has been tied to more involvement by fathers’ in youth activities (Wilcox, 2002) and greater paternal supervision, father–child interaction, and affection (Bartkowski & Xu, 2000). Further, King (2003) persuasively demonstrated that global paternal religiousness is tied to greater father–child relationship quality, positive expectations for future relationship, felt obligation, and effort devoted to parenting for married and divorced fathers, after controlling for demographic, marital, and family attitudinal mediators. Further, a series of papers by Dollahite and colleagues (e.g., Dollahite, Marks, & Olson, 1998, 2002) based on interviews with religious fathers of special needs children who are affiliated with the Church of the Latter Day Saints indicate that religious faith provides a unique source of motivation and support to devote time and effort into fathering.
Mothering. As Dollahite et al. (2004) note, feminist scholars have theorized at length about complex intersections between women, religion, and families. Yet, in puzzling contrast to the rest of family psychology, mothers as a group seem to be overlooked in studies of religion and family life. Existing research on religion and motherhood predominately involve descriptive studies of African American (e.g., Brodsky, 2000) and Mexican American mothers (e.g., Garcia, Perez, & Ortiz, 2000). Findings suggest that religious faith can facilitate adaptive parenting and the personal well-being of mothers struggling with difficult circumstances (e.g., single parenthood, poverty). Given ample research that women are more likely than men to attend religious services, to pray, to feel that religion is important, and to use religious coping behaviors, and may benefit more than men from such practices (e.g., Koenig, McCullough, & Larson, 2001), more systematic research needs to occur on the intersection between mothering and religion.
Religion and Family Crises
The findings reviewed thus far indicate that religion is linked to better marital and parental functioning in families selected from the general population. Thus, under normative conditions, religion appears to benefit family relationships. This raises the question about what are the circumstances, if any, in which religion goes awry for family dynamics? Given that religious systems of meaning provide people with fundamental assumptions about appropriate, “God-given” family values and processes (Mahoney, Pargament, Murray-Swank, & Murray-Swank, 2003) events that violate these assumptions may trigger individual and relationship distress. We now discuss family crises that would seem likely to have important religion dimensions.
Multiple studies indicate that religion is a protective factor against divorce. People who endorse a religious affiliation have a lower risk of divorce than those who indicate no affiliation (averager= –.08). This translates into a divorce rate of approximately 49% for affiliated versus 62% for nonaffiliated people (Mahoney et al., 2001). Likewise, more frequent church attendance is associated with lower divorce rates (averager= –.13). This roughly corresponds to a 44% divorce rate for frequent churchgoers compared to a 60% rate for infrequent churchgoers. Several longitudinal studies indicate that church attendance is a predictor, not merely a consequence, of divorce (Booth, Johnson, Branaman, & Sica, 1995), even after controlling for more proximal variables (e.g., alcohol or drug use, infidelity) associated with divorce (Amato & Rogers, 1997).
Given that divorce is a less normative event for more religious people, the dissolution of a marriage may be an especially potent crisis for these families. More religious adults and children may experience divorce as a spiritual failure and struggle to reconcile this event with their religious values. Empirical research apparently has not been done on the role of religion to either facilitate or undermine the postdivorce adjustment of family members or family relationships. However, adults who have divorced (Feigelman, Gormand, & Varacalli, 1992) and their children (Lawton & Bures, 2001) are more likely to repudiate religion, and would presumably have less access to the positive psychosocial resources that religion offers.
Three large-scale, sophisticated studies have found that frequent churchgoers are about half as likely as infrequent attenders to experience marital physical aggression over time (Fergusson, Horwood, Kershaw, & Shannon, 1986) and to use physical aggression against their partners (Ellison, Bartkowski, & Anderson, 1999). However, in the small percentage of couples where marked dissimilarity exists between spouses’ biblical beliefs, Ellison et al. (1999) found that more conservative men married to more liberal wives were 2.5 times more likely to be aggressive than men married to women with similar biblical views. Thus, overall, religion appears to typically be a protective factor against marital violence. But questions remain about if and when perpetrators may use religion to justify aggression, and how more devout believers may react when they are victims of domestic violence. For example, Nason-Clark (1997) observes that some religious beliefs of Evangelical Christian women may increase their reluctance to leave a physically abusive husband. Clearly, more research needs to untangle how religious practices or beliefs can become intertwined with domestic violence.
Although sexual fidelity in marriage is a hallmark value promoted by major religions, scarce research has focused on religion and sexual attitudes or behaviors within marriage, as most research deals only with premarital sex. Nevertheless, a few studies imply that sexual infidelity may be especially distressing for more religious people. For instance, greater church attendance has been linked with greater disapproval of extramarital sex in the United States, West Germany, and Poland (Scott, 1998). Cochran and Beeghley (1991) also found that the strength of U.S. adults’ professed commitment to their church doctrines for affiliates of Catholic and Protestant denominations (the exception was Episcopalians) was related to stronger disapproval of extramarital sex.
In terms of behavior, in a national U.S. survey, frequent churchgoers said they had engaged in extramarital sex less often than people who never attended services (Atkins, Baucom, & Jacobson, 2001). This link was especially robust for individuals within “very happy” marriages, whereas rates of extramarital sex in “pretty happy” and “not too happy” marriages were constant regardless of church attendance rates. Thus, reli-gious values may bolster fidelity for the very happily married, but marital discontent may override religious prohibitions for others. Overall, research implies that more religious people hold higher expectations of sexual monogamy and would feel especially guilt-ridden if they engaged in sexual infidelity or devastated if their spouse had an affair, particularly if they thought their marriage was a success. Such speculations, however, have yet to be empirically confirmed.
Child Physical Abuse
In contrast to findings about corporal punishment, current research does not support the idea that greater religiousness encourages child physical abuse. In fact, a rigorous, large-scale, longitudinal study yielded opposite findings: namely, young children whose parents rarely attended church in 1975 were more than twice as likely to suffer from physical abuse during the subsequent 17 years than children whose parents attended church regularly (Brown, Cohen, Johnson, & Salzinger, 1998). The two other studies we located on this topic were only descriptive in nature. Neither found a greater incidence of child physical abuse in Latter-Day Saint (Rollins & Oheneba-Sakyi, 1990) or Quaker (Brutz & Ingoldsby, 1984) families relative to the general population. Further, links between conservative Christian variables and physical discipline appear to be limited to families with young children and commonly used acts of corporal punishment in this age group (e.g., spanking). Overall, it is unclear what specific religious beliefs buffer or exacerbates parents’ use of excessive physical force with youth.
Parenting a Child with Special Needs
A sizable body of literature, primarily descriptive and qualitative in nature, has examined how families rely on religion to cope with children with a developmental disability or serious illness (Dollahite et al., 2004). Many parents spontaneously report during interviews that they use religion in a positive manner to cope with children who have special needs. One positive form of parental religious coping consists of benevolent reappraisals of a child’s problems and the parent’s role as a caregiver. For example, Skinner, Bailey, Correa, and Rodriguez (1999) found that 71% of Latino mothers viewed their disabled child as a gift from God who found them worthy of the responsibility of raising such a child or wanted them to grow from the experience. Another positive form of religious coping consists of religious rituals and practices, such as praying, attending religious services, or making pilgrimages to holy places on behalf of oneself or one’s child (Bailey, Skinner, Rodriguez, Gut, & Correa, 1999). However, in examining religious coping among parents of children with autism, Tarakeshwar and Pargament (2001) found that mothers can also experience negative emotions, such as being abandoned by their church and by God. Notably, such feelings were predictive of greater depressive affect and anxiety. Overall, research on religious coping per se in families of special needs children has involved only mothers. However, Dollahite and colleagues have found that fathers’ religious beliefs, religious practices, and religious communities facilitated meaningful father–child relationships among Latter-Day Saint families with special needs children, although there were some congregational challenges (Dollahite et al., 1998, 2002, 2004).
Research indicates that global markers of greater parental and familial religiousness are linked to better child psychological adjustment. This includes youth exhibiting fewer externalizing and internalizing behavior problems, greater prosocial traits, lower alcohol usage, less marijuana usage, and less serious antisocial behavior (see Mahoney et al., 2001). As noted earlier, a few studies suggest that parents’ religiousness promotes children’s functioning by facilitating effective parenting (Brody et al., 1994; 1996; Gunnoe et al., 1999).
Given that more religious families tend to have better behaved children, it may be especially challenging for such families to deal with child psychopathology when it does occur. Consistent with this idea, Strawbridge et al., (1998) found that more involvement in religious activities exacerbated the negative impact of family dysfunction (e.g., marital or child problems) on depressive symptoms of elderly adults, whereas religiousness buffered the negative effects of more “uncontrollable” types of problems (e.g., chronic health problems, poverty). While similar research has yet to be conducted with families of clinicreferred youth, certain religious beliefs and practices could exacerbate as well as buffer the maladjustment of clinically distressed youth.
Summary of Empirical Research and Future Challenges
Overall, social science research indicates that greater religiousness is clearly tied to multiple aspects of family life. However, this body of research is best described as embryonic. Several challenges lie ahead to develop this subfield. First, current findings are overwhelmingly based on markers of religiousness that fail to delve into the multifaceted nature of religion (Mahoney et al., 2001). Religion is unique because it infuses peoples’ perceptions of daily life with religious significance (Pargament & Mahoney, 2005). While religions might differ on notions of God and other supernatural constructs, religions provide family members with prescriptive guidelines about family relationships that are reinforced through religious rituals, myths, and belief systems (Mahoney, 2005). Moreover, it is important to distinguish between two types of theological messages (Mahoney, 2005). One involves constructs, such as commitment or forgiveness, which may be advocated by both religious and nonreligious worldviews. The second type of substantive message emphasized by religion involves constructs, such as the sanctification of marriage or parenting (Mahoney et al., 2003), that directly assess perceptions about the sacred realm and are specific to religious worldviews. Such explicitly religious processes do not have direct parallels within secular systems of meaning.
A second challenge for the psychology of religion is to take seriously the notion that religiously based beliefs and practices about family life could be integrated into (1) individuals’ appraisals and experiences of family relationships; (2) the dynamics of dyadic family interactions; and (3) the functioning of a family system as a whole. To date, the prevailing conceptual theory and findings in the psychology of religion address individual religious functioning (e.g., private prayer; Koenig et al., 2001). However, religion also has profound implications for social relationships. For example, people may use religion as a guide for how to respond to the behavior of other family members. Family dyads may engage in spiritual activities together or pull religious figures into the relationship as a third party. Whole family systems can call on religion to reinforce values to which all family members are expected to adhere. Research on such religiously based interpersonal pro-cesses, and their effects, is scarce.
A third challenge is to address ways in which religion can help or harm family relationships. While many messages offered by mainstream religions would seem to promote desirable family dynamics, certain religious beliefs and practices may be detrimental, especially for distressed family systems. Critics’ warnings about the negative effects of religion on families seem implicitly concerned with how religion may be used to justify pathological processes. However, current empirical studies focus primarily on nondistressed samples. Thus, while religion seems to facilitate family life in normative conditions, an enormous amount of work remains to untangle the pros and cons of religion in different family circumstances. Finally, when studying families, the costs and benefits of religion need to be addressed at both the individual and relationship level of system. While a particular religious belief or practice may be beneficial for a family relationship, this may sometimes come at a cost to individual well-being.
A fourth challenge is to establish causal links between religion and family life.
Divorce rates or proneness represent the sole outcome that has been repeatedly linked to religiousness in longitudinal studies. Research on other constructs is mostly crosssectional in design. Thus, even well-established findings could be interpreted as positive family dynamics causing greater religiousness, not the other way around. Reciprocal influences are, of course, also possible. In any case, longitudinal studies would help to clarify the interplay of religion and family factors over time, including the role of “third variables” as mediators or moderators. Although many large-scale sociological studies have statistically controlled for demographic covariates, more research is needed on the salience of religion in the context of other protective family factors.
A fifth challenge is to better differentiate how religion operates for subsets of the general population, including different religious communities, ethnic groups, and family systems. Nominal religious membership (e.g., Jewish, Latter-Day Saint, Catholic, and various Protestant groups) reveals little about individual differences or the function of beliefs or practices within a given religious group. Overall, ample room remains for the development of in-depth assessment about religiously based beliefs about marriage or parenting for Western religious groups. Moreover, questions remain about how diverse ethnic groups integrate different religions with family life (Dollahite et al., 2004). Although some research has been conducted on religion and African American families (e.g., Brody et al., 1994, 1996), other American racial minorities including Asians and Hispanics are understudied. Further, a glaring gap concerns non-Western religions despite the fact that there are roughly 1.1 billion Muslims (Koenig et al., 2001) and 800 million Hindus worldwide (Almeida, 1996). Finally, there has been a lack of diversity in the types of families studied, with most empirical research focused on traditional, two-parent, married households. Thus, nontraditional family systems are not well represented; this includes single-parent, gay, and blended families, as well as multigenerational and grandparent-led households.
In sum, psychologists have a great deal to offer and gain by helping to discover factors that drive religion–family links. The scarcity of psychological research on religion and family life may lead psychologists to underestimate the salience of the spiritual realm, or reduce its influence to generic psychosocial mechanisms (e.g., social support) also served by nonreligious institutions and belief systems. We contend, however, that religion has important implications for family life that deserve recognition from social scientists (Mahoney et al., 2001).
EMERGING THEORETICAL CONSTRUCTS TO ADVANCE
RESEARCH ON RELIGION AND FAMILY DYNAMICS
Constructive Religious Constructs and the Transition to Parenthood Snarey and Dollahite (2001) argue that there is an “urgent need” for good middle-range theories that address the complex relationships between familial and religious processes.
In this section, we offer an illustrative model of a constructive religious construct, called “sanctification,” that could facilitate family adjustment during normative family life changes. Namely, the sanctification of pregnancy is proposed as a process that could aid the transition to parenthood. Sanctification refers to perceiving an aspect of life as having “divine” significance and character (Pargament & Mahoney, 2005). Sanctification can occur in two ways. Theistic sanctification refers to perceiving an aspect of life as a manifestation of God (e.g., God is present in my marriage). Nontheistic sanctification refers to imbuing an aspect of life with qualities that characterize divinity (e.g., sacred, blessed, holy). Elsewhere, various theological positions have been delineated in support of the sanctification of marriage and of parenting (Mahoney et al., 2003). In a similar manner, a pregnancy can be much more than a biological event; it can have spiritual significance.
Many religions attach deep spiritual meaning to conceiving and giving birth, particularly in the context of a marriage. Pregnancy in this light becomes a blessing from God and can be described in terms of sacred adjectives, such as “miraculous” and “divine.”
Initial studies on sanctification have been conducted on marriage (Mahoney et al., 1999), parenting (Murray-Swank et al., 2003), major life strivings (Mahoney, Pargament, et al., 2005), one’s physical body (Mahoney, Carels, et al., 2005), the environment (Tarakeshwar, Swank, Pargament, & Mahoney, 2001), and premarital sexuality (MurraySwank, Pargament, & Mahoney, 2005). Overall, findings on sanctification suggest that viewing an aspect of life through a sacred lens has four important implications for family and individual functioning (Mahoney et al., 2003; Pargament & Mahoney, 2005). First, people tend to make major investments in sacred matters. As applied to the transition to parenthood, parents who sanctify pregnancy would be expected to invest more time and energy into prenatal care and make greater personal sacrifices for the emerging family.
Second, when people perceive aspects of their lives through a sacred lens, they enter a spiritual world, one that contains a variety of spiritual resources to draw upon to preserve and protect sanctified aspects of life. For example, the transition to parenthood places significant stress on marriages and parents themselves. Those who sanctify pregnancy would be expected to draw on spiritual resources to help them cope. Individuallevel resources include prayer, benevolent spiritual appraisals of situations, a collaborative relationship with God, and spiritual support (Pargament, 1997). The couple could also tap into family-based resources, such as joint prayer and spiritual intimacy, to help protect the emerging family (Mahoney et al., 2003). Third, sanctification is likely to elicit spiritual emotions. For example, pregnancy could be seen not only as a psychological and social turning point, but also as a “signal of transcendence” (cf. Berger, 1969), a sign that mother, father, and child are part of a larger reality, a greater unfolding design in the universe. Such perceptions are both cognitive and deeply emotional in nature. Although research on sanctification has not evaluated emotional outcomes, the sanctification of pregnancy could trigger strong emotions, especially “spiritual emotions,” including feelings of gratitude, awe, humility, faith, and hope about life in general and about the infant specifically.
Finally, sanctification has been linked to psychological and spiritual benefits (Mahoney et al., 2003; Pargament & Mahoney, 2005). Thus, the sanctification of pregnancy would be expected to be tied directly to positive outcomes as well as indirectly relate to benefits by way of the aforementioned processes of investment, spiritual emotions, and spiritual resources. For example, greater sanctification of pregnancy by mothers would be expected to be tied to greater satisfaction with the pregnancy, a smoother labor and delivery, less postpartum depression, and enhanced spiritual growth and well-being. Husbands would presumably also experience many of these individual benefits. The effects of sanctification should also encompass the marriage and thefamily as a whole.This would include better marital and parental functioning aswell as strongerparent–infant bonds.
The infant, in turn, should exhibit better well-being at birth and during early infancy. While speculative in nature, this model of the sanctification of pregnancy is consistent with previous findings on the sanctification of marriage (Mahoney et al., 1999) and parenting (Murray-Swank et al., 2003). More importantly, it is presented here as an illustration of one approach to examine more closely how religiously based beliefs could facilitate a normative transition in the family life cycle.
Counterproductive Religious Constructs and Divorce
We now turn to one family crisis, namely, divorce, in which religiously based beliefs and behaviors about family relationships could exacerbate individual and relationship distress.
Sacred Loss and Desecration
Given that marriage is typically sanctified (Mahoney et al., 1999), divorce often could be appraised as a “sacred loss,” which is defined as the loss of an aspect of life that previously had been viewed as a manifestation of the divine and/or invested with sacred qualities (Pargament, Magyar, Benore, & Mahoney, 2005). An alternative negative religious appraisal would be to view divorce as a desecration. This refers to perceiving a sanctified aspect of life as having been knowingly violated (Pargament et al., 2005). A recent study on desecration and college students’ experiences of betrayal in romantic relationship (Magyar, Pargament, & Mahoney, 2000) suggests that desecration attributions may often occur when a spouse or child feels that one of the spouses did something that violated the marriage (e.g., deception, infidelity). In an initial study of sacred loss and desecration with a community sample (Pargament et al., 2005), higher levels of both constructs were related to more intrusive thoughts for adults who rated their most negative life event in the past 2 years (8% identified divorce or separation as the event). However, only sacred loss was related to depression and only desecration was related to greater anger. Furthermore, sacred loss was linked to greater posttraumatic growth and positive spiritual change; in contrast, desecration was associated with less posttraumatic growth. These results imply that the spiritual meaning people attach to traumatic events is linked to different types of psychological distress. Thus, within the context of a divorce, people’s reactions may partly depend on the spiritual meaning attached to the event.
In addition to appraisals of the divorce itself, people may make religious appraisals of their own role in the dissolution of a marriage. To the degree that spouses or children feel responsible for the divorce, they may experience a profound sense of spiritual failure, ac-companied by a heightened sense of religious guilt (Mahoney et al., 2003). For example, divorced spouses may reason that because they had not been able to be perfectly accepting, giving, and healing to one another in their marriage, they deserve to be cut off from the presence of God (Livingston, 1985). Systematic research on parents’ or children’s religious guilt in connection with divorce or other family crises appears to be sparse.
In divorce cases where one party has violated a traditional religious wedding vow (e.g., by adultery, abandonment during a serious illness), the other spouse may demonize this partner. “Demonization” refers to viewing the perceived perpetrator of a traumatic event as operating under the influence of demonic forces, either intentionally or unwittingly. An initial study of demonization focused on college students’ perceptions of the terrorists involved in the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and found that demonization was linked to more extreme retaliation toward, and fear of, the terrorists (Mahoney et al., 2002). In some divorce situations, one partner may similarly experience more intense negative reactions if the spouse is seen as being aligned with evil demonic forces. Such perceptions could undermine a child’s relationship with the other parent and set the stage for greater postdivorce conflicts.
Finally, theistic triangulation is a potentially powerful negative religious process that could occur between family members as they work through a divorce. Based on a Bowenian and/or structural family systems approach, clinicians have highlighted howcouples may triangulate God into the marital system when conflict emerges (Butler & Harper, 1994). That is, God could be drawn into three types of counterproductive theistic triangles that block resolution of conflict between family dyads: coalition (i.e., God takes one party’s side), displacement (i.e., adversity is God’s fault), or substitutive (i.e., each party seeks God’s support but avoids dealing directly with the conflict). In a study of theistic triangulation, Yanni (2003) found that a higher rate of theistic triangulation between college students and their parents was related to more relationship conflict and distance between the parties. Divorcing couples in which one or both spouses attempt to take a “spiritually one-up” position may likewise have more conflict and difficulty establishing effective coparenting relationships postdivorce.
In sum, in addition to typical postdivorce readjustment challenges, family members who perceive a divorce in negative spiritual terms may experience additional personal difficulties and greater interpersonal conflict between family members (e.g., heightened coparenting conflicts). Parents may engage in negative forms of religious coping that undermines their personal recovery from divorce, parenting skills, and coparenting relationship. Such problems may affect children’s postdivorce adjustment. Children may also directly experience spiritual struggles and personal distress in coming to terms with the dissolution of their parents’ marriage.
Religious Resources to Recover from Family Crises
Theory and prior research in the psychology of religion has identified a variety of spiritual mechanisms that families could access to recover from family difficulties. Considerable research has focused on individual-level resources, especially within the framework of religious coping as individuals cope with difficulties related to the self (e.g., Pargament, 1997). However, empirical research on how “family” members may employ religious coping strategies specifically with “family” difficulties appears limited (Mahoney et al., 2001). The following section discusses existing evidence and highlight areas for exploration along these lines.
Family-Based Religious Practices and Rituals
A recent descriptive study found that long-married, religious couples say they engage in religious practices as a couple (e.g., praying together) to resolve marital conflict (Butler, Stout, & Gardner, 2002). Though it seems unlikely that divorcing couples would pray together, some religious communities have created religious rituals to provide a concrete ceremony for families to mark the dissolution of a marriage (Paquette, n.d.). Further habitual engagement in family prayer and attendance at religious services might also offer parents a structured mechanism when a divorce does occur to communicate apologies, hopes, and shared goals to their children within a context overseen by an authority whose power supersedes even that of parents. This may help prevent resentment and hostility from escalating out of control. Controlled studies about the effectiveness and general pervasiveness of such family-based religious activities to cope with divorce, or other family crises, need to be conducted.
In contrast to “theistic triangulation,” religion also offers family members constructive strategies to resolve interpersonal conflict (Mahoney, 2005). In theistic mediation, for instance, God (or other supernatural forces) is pulled into a dyadic relationship as a third party who mediates conflict. In this case, God would be perceived as (1) being interested in maintaining a compassionate relationship with each person, (2) taking a neutral stance about each person’s “side” of the story, and (3) insisting that each person take responsibility for change in the relationship. Divorcing couples who view God this way may more readily disengage from destructive communication patterns and explore options for compromise or healthy acceptance of one another. Case examples of marriage (e.g., Butler & Harper, 1994) highlight the power of these processes. A recent study indicates that college students and parents who incorporate God into their relationship as a spiritual mediator experience fewer conflicts, higher levels of relationship satisfaction, and more adaptive communication styles (Yanni, 2003).
In conclusion, available empirical research indicates that greater religiousness is linked to more positive marital and parental functioning. However, much work is needed to create theoretical models and appropriate measurement tools that would lead to a more finegrained understanding of how religion functions in family systems during significant family events. As was illustrated in this chapter, the type of influence that religion has for families is likely to depend on the specific types of religiously-based beliefs and behaviors that family members use to deal with normative family transitions and crises. Psychologists are especially equipped and encouraged to pursue these questions. When found, the answers will help inform policymakers, clergy, clinicians, and the millions of families who participate in religion about the helpful and harmful roles that religion can play in family dynamics.
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