Religious and Spiritual Values and Moral Commitment in Marriage: Untapped Resources in Couples Counseling?

By Nelson, Judith A.; Kirk, Amy Manning et al. | Counseling and Values, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Religious and Spiritual Values and Moral Commitment in Marriage: Untapped Resources in Couples Counseling?


Nelson, Judith A., Kirk, Amy Manning, Ane, Pedra, Serres, Sheryl A., Counseling and Values


The authors investigated the relationship between religious and spiritual values and moral commitment in marriage to further inform marriage and family counselors about the nature of committed relationships. Using a qualitative research design, they examined individuals' perceptions of moral commitment in their marriage and how their religious and spiritual values influence those perceptions. Narrative text was analyzed through an iterative process, involving constant comparison of emerging themes, and 6 categories materialized. Findings build on existing knowledge regarding the importance of moral commitment to marital health specifically as it relates to the counseling profession.

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Our study examined the nature of commitment in marital relationships, particularly commitment associated with religion and spirituality. Commitment is most typically defined as feelings of permanency that are founded in attractions and constraints (Dean & Spanier, 1974; M. P. Johnson, Caughlin, & Huston, 1999; Leik & Leik, 1977). Moral commitment speaks to constraints. M. P. Johnson et al. (1999) defined moral commitment as "the sense that one is morally obligated to continue in a relationship" (p. 161). They suggest that there are three dimensions of moral commitment. First, there is moral commitment to one's relationship. This is the idea that the relationship should be permanent and that a long-lasting marriage involves following the rules. This dimension is reflected in many religious wedding affirmations, including life-oriented vows such as "as long as we both shall live" (Dollahite & Lambert, 2007). The second dimension of moral commitment involves obligation to a particular person. For example, spouses might say that they made a promise to their partner that a marriage would last forever, and thus, they will do all that is possible to honor this promise. The final dimension of moral commitment reflects a desire to be generally consistent and finish what one has begun. This dimension entails thoughts about the general acceptability of divorce.

According to Richards and Bergin (1997), religion tends to be "denominational, external, cognitive, behavioral, ritualistic, and public" (p. 31); spirituality tends to be "universal, ecumenical, internal, affective, spontaneous, and private" (p. 31). Spirituality and religion in couples counseling have been neglected resources until recently (Corey, Corey, & Callanan, 2003; Myers & Williard, 2003; Polanski, 2003; Richards & Bergin, 1997; Wolf & Stevens, 2001). According to Esau (1998), the therapeutic community and clients who are considered religious have experienced mutual suspicions toward one another. Counselors and psychologists lack training in the inclusion of religious and spiritual issues in therapy (Carlson, Kirkpatrick, Hecker, & Killmer, 2002; Richards & Bergin, 1997), which may account for this neglect. Esau used the term passively prejudicial to describe therapists' behavior when they ignore faith issues of their clients. Fear of imposing personal values on clients may hinder counselors from tapping into religion and spirituality in counseling (Corey et al., 2003; McClure & Livingston, 2000; Myers & Williard, 2003; Watts, 2001). However, just as practicing counselors are challenged to obtain the necessary competence in understanding the role of culture, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, they must also demonstrate the ability to understand the role of religion and spirituality in client worldviews (see the American Counseling Association [ACA], 2005, ACA Code of Ethics, Standard C.5.).

Recently, the counseling profession has experienced a renewed interest in religion and spirituality (Clinton & Ohlschalager, 2002; Palmer, White, Chung, 2008). Rose, Westefeld, and Ansley (2001) found that

   many clients, especially the highly spiritual, believe that
   religious and spiritual issues not only are acceptable and
   preferable for discussion in therapy but also are important
   therapeutic factors, central to the formation of worldview and
   personality and impacting human behavior. … 

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