Spiritual One-upmanship: Openly Align with God and Spirituality Against Spouse

How do couples talk about Spiritual One-upmanship?

  • In a first session of marriage therapy, the wife - unprompted by any contextual cues or direct inquiry from the therapist -  demanded that “God and/or religion be left out of therapy.” The therapist wondered if the request hinted that ''God had been used in a punishing, manipulative, or destructive way.'' The wife affirmed that “God has been just a club to hit me over the head with.” (Gardner, Butler & Seedall, 2008).

How we define Spiritual One-upmanship for psychological research?

  • We define spiritual one-upmanship as openly aligning with God or drawing upon religion or spirituality to reinforce one’s position in conflicts with another person(s). Spiritual one-upmanship within family relationships is just beginning to be systematically studied by social scientists.
  • We distinguish two types of spiritual one-upmanship
    • Theistic (God-centered) triangulation - We define theistic triangulation as openly aligning with a Higher Power against another person(s) to reinforce one’s own position in conflicts with another person(s).
    • Non-theistic one-upmanship - We define non-theistic one-upmanship as openly drawing upon religion or spirituality to reinforce one’s position in conflicts with another person(s).
  • Conceptual issues in defining spiritual one-upmanship
    • People can engage in non-theistic one-upmanship when they do or don't believe in a personal God figure. In contrast, theistic triangulation involves drawing God into a human conflict as a third "person." In prior studies (e.g., Brelsford & Mahoney, 2009), we used the term "theistic triangulation" to refer the total scores on questionnaire that we created that included items assessing both types of spiritual one-upmanship. We have since decided that the term "spiritual one-upmanship" is a more accurate and inclusive term for all of the items on this scale.
  • Practical issues
    • In our studies, theistic triangulation and non-theistic one-upmanship each occur fairly infrequently. Rating on the two concepts are also highly correlated with each other, probably because our samples involve mostly people with a monotheistic religious background. Thus, for data analyses, we have combined the two types of items to obtain a total score of spiritual one-upmanship. 

How do we measure Spiritual One-upmanship for psychological research? 

  • Spiritual intimacy is just beginning to be studied by social scientists. In an initial study, college students and their mother answered questions about how often they and the other person engaged in spiritual one-upmanship behavior when the pair had a conflict. See 3 sample items below. Similarly, in our transition to parenthood study, husbands and wives answers questions about themselves and each other. See 3 sample items below.
  • Next to each sample item are the percentage of respondents who said they or the other person "sometimes" or "often" did the behavior.
  • In an initial study of college students & their mothers  
  • Spiritual one-upmanship by self
    • I imply or say that other person is not practicing what he/she “preaches” from a spiritual perspective - 15% (undergrads) & 22% (moms) 
    • I point out that God would be disappointed in the other person’s point of view - 3% (undergrads) & 14% (moms) 
    • I argue that my mother/child’s opinions oppose important religious or spiritual principles - 4% (undergrads) & 12% (moms) 
  • Spiritual one-upmanship by the other person  
    • He/she thinks that my views on certain issues are hypocritical from a spiritual angle - 14% (undergrads about mom) & 17% (mom about undergrads)
    • He/she seems to believe that God backs up her/his side of the disagreement - 10% (undergrads about mom) & 13% (mom about undergrads)
    • He/she believes she/he is spiritually obliged to hold firm to her/his position - 11% (undergrads about mom) & 18% (mom about undergrads)
  • Source: Brelsford & Mahoney (2009). Coefficient alphas: Self-report  measure -  .86 & .89. Partner-report measure - .94 & .85.
  • In our transition to parenthood study of married couples 
  • Spiritual one-upmanship by self  
    • Suggest own view is spiritually superior to other's - 6% (wives) & 7% (husbands)
    • Suggest that own view is more spiritually mature than other's - 7% (wives) & 6% (husbands)
    • Suggest that God is on own side, not other's - 4% (wives) & 2% (husbands)
  • Spiritual one-upmanship by spouse
    • Suggest own view is spiritually superior to other's - 6% (wives about husbands) & 5% (husbands about wives)
    • Suggest other is arguing or acting against God's will - 3% (wives about husbands) & 3% (husbands about wives)
    • Suggest that God is unhappy with other's opinion - 3% (wives about husbands) & 3% (husbands about wives)
  • Source: Unpublished data from our Transition to Parenthood Project.

How does Spiritual One-upmanship harm a marriage or family relationship?

  • Although spiritual one-upmanship is relatively rare, openly aligning with God or religion or spirituality against a family member during conflicts has been associated with
    • Greater verbal hostility and stonewalling or withdrawal during disputes (self-reports & direct observation)
    • Less satisfaction with the relationship (self-report)

How is Spiritual One-upmanship different and similar to private spiritual activity to handle conflict in a relationship? 

  • Different 
    • An individual privately engaging in Prayer for Partner's Well-being appears to help the relationship. In contrast, spiritual one-upmanship damages the relationship. 
    • Spiritual one-upmanship involves an individual engaging transparent and overt attempts during conflicts with another person to change the other person’s opinions or behaviors by aligning openly with God\Higher Power or spirituality against the other party. This is different from a family member privately turning to God\Higher Power in prayer or turning to spiritual beliefs or practices without the other family member’s involvement or knowledge.
  • Similar  
    • An individual privately engaging in prayer about a relationship could be harmful if the private prayer serves the purpose of maladaptive avoidance. Private prayer could be used by an individual to align in a spiritually superior manner with a Higher Power or religion and spirituality without the other family member's awareness. For example, a family member might pray for God to change the other family member's mind, or complain to God about the other person, or prematurely turn to God to forgive the other party when the individual needs to directly talk to their partner about chronic or serious conflict instead.

How is Spiritual One-upmanship different and similar to Spiritual Intimacy?

  • Different
    • Spiritual one-upmanship appear to harm relationships. In contrast, spiritual intimacy appears to help relationships.
  • Similar 
    • Spiritual one-upmanship and spiritual intimacy both involve people in a relationship openly discussing and drawing spirituality into their relationship. Each person in the relationship can observe and is aware of these behaviors.

For more information on Spiritual One-upmanship , go to link For Researchers, go to Constructs/Our Measures page.

Suggested Readings 

  • Brelsford, G. M. (2011). Divine alliances to handle family conflict: Theistic mediation and triangulation in father–child relationships. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 3 285–297.
  • Brelsford, G. M., & Mahoney, A. (2009). Relying on God to resolve conflict: Theistic mediation and triangulation in relationships between college students and mothers. The Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 28, 291-301.
  • Brandt C. Gardner, B. C., Mark H. Butler, M. H., & Ryan B. Seedall, R. B. (2008). En-Gendering the couple-Deity relationship: Clinical implications of power and process. Contemp Fam Therapy, 30,152-166.