Does Religion Help Or Hurt Divorce Adjustment?

08/02/2012 12:26 pm ET | Updated Oct 02, 2012
  • Robert Hughes, Jr. Professor of Human Development, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Most people who divorce report considerable distress and unhappiness in the short term, but over time, there is considerable variation in adjustment. There have been many studies of the factors that contribute to divorce adjustment, but in general, most scientists have overlooked the religious aspects of divorce. This is surprising considering that most Americans report believing in God and many regularly attend religious services. Elizabeth J. Krumrei and her colleagues recently corrected that oversight and came out with a study that explores the spiritual stress and coping experiences of divorcing individuals.

The scientists tested a theoretical model of how religious ideas and spiritual strategies may influence divorce outcomes. Based on previous theories of stress and coping, the researchers began with the idea that divorcing individuals' views of divorce may be viewed from a religious perspective. In particular, divorce may be interpreted as a sacred loss and desecration. Krumrei and colleagues suggest that when people view divorce initially in negative terms, this belief is likely to lead to more divorce adjustment problems. Additionally, the scientists suggest that there are both positive and negative forms of religious coping with divorce. The positive forms such as relying on prayer, private religious rituals or worship to overcome feelings of anger, hurt and fear will lead to better adjustment. On the other hand, negative forms of religious coping such as viewing divorce as a punishment from God, experiencing tension with one's religious community or spiritual guilt would contribute to more difficulties in adjusting to divorce.

To test these ideas, the scientists recruited 89 recently divorced people and collected data about their adjustment and religious coping strategies and then followed up with them one year later to see how they were fairing. The sample was 59 percent female with an average age of 40 years. About two-thirds of the sample had children. Most of the sample indicated that they were Christian (51 percent Protestant; 27 percent Catholic). About 18 percent of the sample did not identify any particular religion.

As might be expected, those individuals who viewed divorce as a sacred loss were more depressed and were more likely to use poor conflict resolution strategies. The more negative religious coping strategies a person used, the more likely they were to be depressed one year following divorce. The more positive religious coping strategies others used predicted more growth one year later. These findings remained important even when other forms of non-religious positive coping such as problem-solving, use of humor, planning and acceptance were taken into account.

The researchers went on to explore more fully the role of negative and positive religious coping in the process of divorce adjustment. They write, "negative religious coping exacerbated depressive symptoms to a greater extent" among those individuals who had more extreme feelings that divorce was a sacred loss. It is almost as if the divorce triggers the feeling that there is a sacred loss, which led to more harmful religious coping strategies and depression. This is clearly an alarming cascade of events.

On the other hand, for those who have a more moderate view of divorce as a sacred loss, the triggering of positive religious strategies to deal with issues led to positive growth and adjustment.

In short, the role of religious views and coping strategies is not simple. It is important to examine both the positive and negative ways that religious factors can influence divorce adjustment. Likewise, most people in this study showed evidence of both types of religious coping strategies. These results emphasize the importance of considering the religious or spiritual dimensions in the assistance offered to divorcing families through educational and therapeutic programs.