Religion in Families, 1999-2009: A Relational Spirituality Framework

By Mahoney, Annette | Journal of Marriage and Family, August 2010 | Go to article overview

Religion in Families, 1999-2009: A Relational Spirituality Framework


Mahoney, Annette, Journal of Marriage and Family


This review examines the role of religion, for better and worse, in marital and parent - child relationships according to peer-reviewed studies from 1999 to 2009. A conceptual framework of relational spirituality is used (a) to organize the breadth of findings into the 3 stages of formation, maintenance, and transformation of family relationships and (b) to illustrate 3 indepth sets of mechanisms to delve into the ways religion shapes family bonds. Topics include union formation, fertility, spousal roles, marital satisfaction and conflict, divorce, domestic violence, infidelity, pregnancy, parenting children, parenting adolescents, and coping with family distress. Conclusions emphasize moving beyond markers of general religiousness and identifying specific spiritual beliefs and practices that prevent or intensify problems in traditional and nontraditional families.

Key Words: couples, family, marriage, parenting, religion, spirituality.

Since the 1990s, scientific research has skyrocketed on how religion affects the well-being of individuals (Beckford & Demerath, 2007; Paloutzian & Parke, 2005) but not family relationships. This article aims to stimulate the breadth and depth of research on the interface of religion and family life. To that end, I located studies published in peer-reviewed journals from 1999 to 2009 in which religious variables were the primary predictors of family relationship criteria. I first sketch the contours and key conceptual limitations of this wide-ranging literature. There is ample room for diverse topics, theories, samples, and methods, but researchers interested in enriching knowledge about religion and family life may benefit from a broader, integrated perspective. Thus, I offer a relational spirituality framework to organize evidence that higher general religiousness of a given family member (e.g., attendance, importance) is tied to the formation and maintenance of family relationships and to highlight emerging research on specific spiritual mechanisms that help illuminate ways religion may shape family relationships, including those in distress. I hope to unite and mobilize social scientists to delve more deeply into the potentially helpful and harmful roles of religion in family relationships.

General Contours of Peer-Reviewed Studies in the Past Decade

Following an earlier meta-analysis spanning 1980 to 1999 (Mahoney, Pargament, Swank, & Tarakeshwar, 2001), I combined religion or spirituality with marriage, parenting, or family (six searches with pairs of key words) to locate empirical studies on religion and family life published in peer-reviewed journals from 1999 to 2009 and listed in the ISI and PsycINFO databases. I also examined the citation and reference lists of many studies. Here, I focus on studies that treated the functioning of family relationships as the outcome and religion as the predictor. I also discuss studies on spiritual coping with stressful family events (e.g., domestic violence, divorce). I do not discuss research on the intergenerational transmission or familial socialization of youth religiousness. Nor do I discuss how family members' religiousness affects nonfamilial relationships (e.g., peers) or their own and other family members' individual functioning (e.g., substance abuse, delinquency). Finally, because of space constraints, I do not cover spiritual coping with a relative's death or illness; related studies emphasize individual adjustment (e.g., physical health, depression), not familial outcomes.

Given these parameters, I located 184 studies (a list of all studies is located at my Web site at http: // www.bgsu.edu/departments/psych/page 33118.html). A table that describes the type and number of studies I located across various topics is posted in Appendix A, located at the Journal of Marriage and Family (JMF) Web site. I also posted Appendix B on the JMF Web site, which I cite in this essay for findings based on attitudinal measures or respondents who were not necessarily married or parents and for similar findings from two or more studies that used single-item measures of respondents' general religiousness. …

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