Spiritual Struggles in Coping with Marital Problems: Having Spiritual Conflict with God, Self, or Others

Overview on Spiritual Struggles in Coping  

  • In the past 30 years, psychological research has been conducted on a variety of spiritual problems. One spiritual problem that has received considerable attention is spiritual struggles.  
  • Major life stressors affect people not only psychologically, socially, and physically, but spiritually as well.  Natural disasters, accidents, illnesses, and other stressful events can threaten or harm people spiritually, triggering spiritual struggles.
  • Spiritual struggles in coping represent efforts to protect or transform peoples’ relationships with whatever they hold sacred, including their connection to God/Higher Power, their spiritual identity, and their connections to a religious community.
  • Terminology. Much of the research on spiritual struggle is referred to as “negative religious coping” but we and other researchers have begun to use the term “spiritual/religious struggles.”  Why?
    • Spiritual struggles may be pivotal points in the time or “forks in the road” in human development.  Some studies suggest that people who are able to resolve spiritual struggles over time benefit and grow from those struggles.  Others may choose to disengage from spiritual struggles temporarily or permanently.  Still others who remain stuck in their struggles decline emotionally and physically.
    • Even atheists & people who are not engaged in organized religion may experience spiritual struggles, such as feeling distant, unhappy, angry, cut off from, or abandoned by God.
  • For more general background information on spiritual struggles, see Constructs/Our Measures

How do we define & measure Spiritual Struggles in Coping?

  • Spiritual struggles refer to conflicts over spiritual matters with God/Higher Power, within oneself, and with other people. These conflicts generate distressing emotions and questions about one's spiritual journey in life.
  • This definition points to three types of spiritual struggles:
    • Divine struggles with God/Higher Power - conflict with God/Higher power   
    • Internal/Intrapsychic spiritual struggles-  inner conflict about spirituality or religion
    • Interpersonal/Communal spiritual struggles - conflict with other  family members, friends, clergy, community members, or the larger culture about spirituality or religion
  • Spiritual struggles are most commonly measured by the 7-item Negative Religious Coping subscale from the Brief RCOPE (Pargament, Feuille, & Burdzy, 2011). See Constructs/Our Measures for entire Brief RCOPE & longer scales to more fully assess spiritual struggles. 
  • See Defining Religion & Spirituality for more on our approach to defining these two overlapping concepts.

What systematic empirical research has been done on Spiritual Struggles in Coping with Marital Problems? 

  • Despite extensive research on spiritual struggles on other topics, almost no systematic research has focused directly on spiritual struggles with marital problems. Nevertheless, the Relational Spirituality Framework highlights that serious or chronic marital problems, such as infidelity, may trigger spiritual struggles with God, internally, or a religious community. 
  • Prior studies on spirituality and marital problems has relied on indirect measures, such as frequency of religious attendance or overall importance of religion in daily life, to gauge whether people experience spiritual struggles over marital difficulties. To encourage more in-depth research on spiritual struggles with marital problems, we draw on definitions and measures of spiritual struggles used in prior research on non-marital stressors (e.g., natural diasters, health problems).
  • Practically speaking, our research program on spiritual struggles over marital problems has focused on Divine Spiritual Struggles rather than Internal or Interpersonal Spiritual Struggles.

How do we define Divine Spiritual Struggles in Coping with Marital Problems?

  • We define Divine Spiritual Struggles with Marital Problems as having conflict with God when interpreting and reacting to marital problems. To unpack this definition, it is useful to define conflict. We define conflict as an individual experiencing disagreements within the self or with others about his or her goals in life and/or pathways to reach those goals. Much like people can have conflict internally or with each other, they can be in conflict with God when problems arise. Marital problems can threaten cherished goals in life. An individual may experience conflict with God over why the marital problems have occurred and what should be done to resolve the marital problems. These struggles with God can create distressing emotions and thoughts about one’s relationship with God.  

How do we measure Divine Struggles in Coping with Marital Problems for psychological research?

  • In our transition to parenthood study, we used the following three sub-scales (three items each) from Pargament’s R-COPE to assess divine spiritual struggles with marital problems. These nine items were mixed in with items from other sub-scales from the R-COPE. See Constructs/Our Measures for more information about the history and development of the R-COPE and Spiritual Struggles Sub-scales. 
  • 3 Subscales from the RCOPE on Divine Spiritual Struggles
  • Instructions for coping with marital problems: The following statements describe specific ways people might cope with the inevitable marital difficulties that come up from time to time. As you think of the difficulties you have faced in your marriage, how much do you use each of the following things to cope with these difficulties? When I have marital problems, I…
  • Spiritual discontent subscale
    • Wonder whether God had abandoned me.
    • Voice anger that God didn’t answer my prayers.
    • Question God’s love for me.
  • Punishing God subscale
    • Wonder what I did for God to punish me.
    • Decide that God was punishing me for my sins.
    • Feel punished by God for my lack of devotion.
  • Reappraisal of God’s power’s subscale
    • Question the power of God.
    • Think that some things are beyond God’s control.
    • Realize that God cannot answer all of my prayers.

How do Divine Spiritual Struggles in Coping with Marital Problems help or harm a marriage/couple relationship?

  • To our knowledge, our transition to parenthood study represents an initial effort to examine how much married couples experience spiritual struggles over marital difficulties, and what the impact of divine spiritual struggles are on the marriage and each spouse's psychological or spiritual well-being. We are still conducting analyses and will post findings at a later date.