Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Christianity

Relying on God to Resolve Conflict: Theistic Mediation and Triangulation in Relationships between College Students and Mothers

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Christianity

Relying on God to Resolve Conflict: Theistic Mediation and Triangulation in Relationships between College Students and Mothers

Article excerpt

This study examines reliance on God to resolve conflict within mother-adult child relationships in a Christian sample. College students and their mothers (JV = 116) reported on each party's reliance on theistic mediation (God/faith invoked constructively to mediate conflict) and theistic triangulation (God/faith positioned as an ally against other party). Both parties' reports of theistic mediation by college students positively related to students' self-reported relationship satisfaction and use of collaboration. According to both parties, theistic triangulation by mothers positively correlated with stonewalling and verbal aggression by both parties. College students' use of theistic triangulation correlated with their use of verbal aggression and stonewalling, although these links varied based on reporter. Global religiousness and demographics were controlled in all analyses.

Although sociologists have clearly demonstrated that higher general religiousness on the part of a given family member (e.g., religious affiliation and attendance, private prayer) is linked to better marital and parent-offspring relationships (Mahoney et al., 2001), relatively little is known about how religion or spirituality may operate within family relationships. A few recent psychological studies show that family relationships often do possess a spiritual dimension. For example, individuals often view their marriage and parenting as having divine significance and meaning (Mahoney, Pargament, & DeMaris, 2009; Murray-Swank, Mahoney, & Pargament, 2006), and family members routinely engage in religious rituals together (Fiese & Tomcho, 2001; Smith, 2005) or talk about their faith journeys (Brelsford & Mahoney, 2008). These types of integration of religion and spirituality into family dynamics correlate with better relationship functioning. We take this line of research further by examining how mother-adult child dyads can draw God/faith into their conflicts in potentially harmful and helpful ways.

Conflict Resolution via Theistic Triangulation and Mediation

When conflicts emerge between two individuals, each party faces choices in how to resolve their differences (Kerig, 1996). Ample research with marital and parent-child pairs indicates that collaborative conflict resolution methods (e.g., listening openly, sharing ideas calmly) facilitate relationship functioning (Easterbrooks, Cummings, & Emde, 1994). However, maladaptive methods, such as verbal aggression (e.g., yelling, insulting) or stonewalling (e.g., refusal to discuss conflict), tend to undermine relationship quality (Grotevant & Cooper, 1986). In addition to these types of well-studied conflict resolution communication strategies, individuals can draw God and faith into dyadic conflict to try to resolve differences (Mahoney, 2005). Further, as Butler and colleagues (Butler & Harper, 1994; Gardner, Butler, & Seedall, 2008) point out, turning a human dyad into a divine triad (God-self-other) can be done in ways that either hinder or help peoples' relationships. In this study, we examine both types of spiritually-based conflict resolution strategies.

In the former case, God and religion/spirituality may be overtly called upon by one or both parties to back up their own position and coerce the partner to change, a process we label here as "theistic triangulation." Based on clinical observations of distressed couples, Butler and Harper (1994) referred to this as a "coalition triangle" because each party attempts to draw God into an alliance against the other partner. Individuals engaged in a theistic coalition triangle would suggest God is on their side of the conflict, God will punish the other person, or they could imply that their own position is correct because it is what God wants. In this triangle, efforts to ally with God against a partner would presumably be overt, and intensify conflict between the partners. This pattern differs from two other unhealthy, but covert, divine triangles that Butler and Harper (1994) suggest may diffuse tension between the couples: a) partner(s) displaces marital distress onto God, or b) turns to God as a substitute for an unhappy marriage, without openly addressing marital conflict. …

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