The Psychology of Spirituality & Family Relationships
What is Relational Spirituality? What do people say about the spirituality of us?
“I found my soul mate.” "A match made in heaven.” “We made a sacred vow.”
“My child's birth was a miracle." “A family that prays together stays together.”
- These familiar quotes illustrate the deep historical ties that exist between faith and family life. But modern social scientists have been far more curious about the “spirituality of me” rather than the“spirituality of us.” For example, psychologists who study religion and spirituality have focused mostly on how faith may help or harm individuals, not intimate relationships. Our website, in contrast, focuses on the “spirituality of us,” or Relational Spirituality, especially in families.
How do we define Relational Spirituality?
- In our research, Relational Spirituality refers to when people rely on spirituality, for better or worse, to help them create, maintain, and transform their intimate relationships. Alternatively stated, Relational Spirituality refers to when the search for the sacred (spirituality) is united with the search for intimate relationships.
- Our approach to defining Relational Spirituality extends the definition we use for spirituality into the realm of intimate relationships. Our approach is rooted in Dr. Mahoney's comprehensive reviews of empirical studies on the role of religion and spirituality, for better and worse, for family relationships (see suggested readings). Dr. Mahoney relied on support from the Templeton Foundation to publish a review paper in 2010 on 184 peer-reviewed studies on faith and family life that had been published from 1999-2009. For the 2010 review, she created a Relational Spirituality Framework to organize the available findings on faith and family life, and to provide a map for more in-depth research. In the process, she drew on prior work in the psychology of religion and spirituality to define relational spirituality. She especially relied on Dr. Pargament's work on defining religion and spirituality.
- For more about our definition of Relational Spirituality, please see suggested readings at the bottom of this page and Relational Spirituality Framework under For Researchers.
- For more about our definition of spirituality, see Defining Religion and Spirituality
What general findings have social scientists uncovered about Relational Spirituality in family life?
- Much of what social scientists know about how spirituality and religion shapes family bonds is based on very general questions about peoples' involvement in organized religion. To get perspective what social scientists have learned, please answer the following questions:
- What is your religious affiliation or denomination? (None, Buddhism, Catholic, Protestant, Islam, Judaism, Islam, Other)?
- How often do you attend religious services?
- How important is religion in your daily life?
- What would your answers to these three general questions reveal about how spirituality and religion shape your family relationships, for better or worse? Probably not much. But about 75- 80% of studies using surveys of faith and family life rely on general and vague questions about religion, like these three basic questions.
- One general bottom line from research using these questions is that higher involvement in organized religion tends to help families headed by married couples and by single mothers.
- For more General Findings, see suggested readings below and click on Marriage/Couples, Sexuality, Parenting, and Divorce in this website.
- For more about research on Relational Spirituality, see Relational Spirituality Framework.
What have social scientists done to take a closer look at Relational Spirituality in family life for better and for worse?
- Most research on Relational Spirituality offers broad generalizations about the role of faith in family life. However, studies using open-ended interviews suggests that a lot is going under the surface of the general findings. Some researchers have begun to take closer look at specific spiritual beliefs and practices about family relationships that make a difference, for better or worse. We are especially interested in untangling both the ways that faith can be helpful or harmful. In this website, we highlight specific examples of ways that religion and spirituality operate for better or worse in family relationships.
Why are we so passionate about delving deeper into the helpful and harmful roles that Relational Spirituality can play for families?
- We hope to spur more thinking and research that brings to light unique ways that religion and spirituality can help or harm family relationships. For example, a therapist who learns that a client attends a Methodist church twice a month would have few clues about specific spiritual beliefs the client holds about family life that could be part of the problem or the solution in the client’s marital and parental difficulties. And even though studies show that higher attendance at any place of worship in the US is statistically, but weakly, linked to lower rates of divorce or child physical abuse, we don’t know much about WHY or HOW these links exist.
- Here are are few of the important and unexplored questions about faith why and how faith operates within family relationships:
- Does more frequent public worship promote certain spiritual beliefs or behaviors about family life that people can draw for strength to form and sustain family bonds?
- What happens if family members do not live up to their spiritual ideals or have spiritually-based disagreements with others about marriage, sexuality, parenting, or divorce?
- Can certain spiritual beliefs create distance or conflict between family members, and make coping with some family problems harder?
- In short, we believe that people across the globe would benefit from a deeper appreciation of the specific ways that spirituality, pursued within and outside of different religious institutions, can help bind families together or tear them apart.
What is our goal with our web site?
- Our goal is to help you to learn what we and other research groups are uncovering as we dig more deeply into faith and family life. This includes ways that spirituality
- Can be a resource to create and sustain loving relationships
- Can sometimes be an added source of strain
- Hopefully, by delving more deeply into these questions, we may come to better understand ways that people weave spirituality into their family relationships, for better and worse, and be better prepared to help them use spirituality as a resource and overcome spiritual struggles when trouble strikes home.
For more information on Relational Spirituality Framework, see:
- Mahoney, A. (2010). Religion in families 1999-2009: A relational spirituality framework. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 805 – 827.
- Mahoney, A. (in press). The spirituality of us: Relational spirituality in the context of family relationships. K. I., Pargament, J. J. Exline, & J. W. Jones, (Eds.), APA handbook of psychology, religion, and spirituality: Vol. I. American Psychological Association.
- Mahoney, A., Pargament, K. I., Swank, A., & Tarakeshwar, N. (2001). Religion in the home in the 1980s and 90s: A meta-analytic review and conceptual analysis of religion, marriage, and parenting. Journal of Family Psychology, 15, 559-596.
For related readings, see:
- Hernandez, K. M., & Mahoney, A. (2012). Balancing sacred callings in career and family life. P. Hill & B. Dik (Eds.), Advances in workplace spirituality: theory, research and application (pp. 135-155). Information Age Publishing.
- Mahoney, A., & Krumrei, E. J. (2012). Questions left unaddressed by religious familism: Is spirituality relevant to non-traditional families? L. Miller (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of the psychology of spirituality, pp. 165-181.. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press:
- 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 (Eds.), Spiritually oriented interventions in child and adolescent psychotherapy, pp. 65-88. American Psychological Association.