Our relationship with God changes when faced with potential romantic rejection


April 18, 2014
Brain & Behavior

Easter is a time when many people in the world think about their relationships with God. New research explores a little-understood role of God in people’s lives: helping them cope with the threat of romantic rejection. In this way, God stands in for other relationships in our lives when times are tough.

Most psychological research to date has looked at people’s relationship with God as similar to a parent-child bond, says Kristin Laurin of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “We wanted to push further the idea that people have a relationship with God in the same sense as they have relationships with other humans,” she says. “The idea is certainly not new in terms of cultural discourse, but it’s not something that psychologists have done a lot of empirical work to study.”

Specifically, Laurin and colleagues wanted to see how our relationship with God changes as our other relationships change. So the researchers designed a series of studies, published today in Social Psychological and Personality Science, that experimentally induced people to believe their romantic relationship was under threat and then tested their feelings of closeness to God. They also wanted to examine the opposite idea – how people’s romantic relationships take on different meaning when their relationship with God is threatened – and tested how this dynamic changed based on the individual’s self-esteem.

In one of the studies, they recruited 187 participants who were primarily Christian and Hindu but also Muslim, nonreligious, or unaffiliated. To manipulate relationship threat, the researchers told some of the participants that everyone hides certain aspects of themselves from their partners. “Then we hit them with the idea that these ‘secret selves’ always end up coming out, and ruining relationships,” Laurin says. “And just in case that’s not enough to make them nervous that their relationship could be in danger, we force them to think more specifically about things that they themselves might be hiding from their partners.”

They then asked the participants to rate their closeness to God. Another group of participants simply rated their closeness with God without first reading the threat scenario. The researchers also assessed the participants’ self-esteem.

Laurin’s team found that participants sought to enhance their relationship with God when under threat of romantic rejection – but only if they had high self-esteem. This fits with past work showing that people high in self-esteem seek social connection when their relationships are threatened.

It’s a sobering finding, Laurin says: “We find that high self-esteem people, who already are the ones who take constructive steps to repair their relationships when they are under threat, have yet another resource they can turn to: their relationship with God,” she explains. “Low self-esteem people, who are the ones who retreat and protect themselves at the expense of the relationship when the relationship is under threat, don’t seem to be able to use this new resource either.”

Interestingly, in one of the studies, researchers looked at how people respond to a threat to their relationship with God, and they found similar trends. They used the exact same scenario – saying that people hide their “secret selves” from God and that it can damage that relationship – and then asked people to rate their closeness to their romantic partners.

“We might have thought that people expect God to already know everything about them, and therefore that the concept of a ‘secret self’ that you try to hide from God wouldn’t really make sense,” Laurin says. “But we found that using that threat on people’s relationship with God worked in much the same way as it did with people’s romantic relationships.”

It’s important, she says, to understand how people’s relationship with God works, to better understand how we manage relationships in general. “In some ways, God is an ideal relationship partner to draw comfort from when feeling down about other relationships – the nice thing about God is that there is never any solid evidence that God has rejected you,” Laurin says.

While the research did not specifically aim to analyze differences in this effect between religions, it did hint at some trends. In the study that included Hindus from India and Christians from the United States, the researchers found no differences when comparing the two groups; they both reacted similarly.

As for the people tested who were non-religious and who may not believe in God, the results were more inconclusive. The data seemed to suggest that people must have some degree of belief in God in order to see this effect. But, Laurin says, psychologists struggle with the challenge of knowing the right questions to ask to identify people who do not believe in God. “Many people who say they don’t believe in God grew up in religious households, so their previous beliefs may still sometimes reemerge,” she explains. “Many people who say they don’t believe in God aren’t 100% sure that God does not exist. And many people who say they do believe in God may feel obligated to answer in that way, even if deep down they have their doubts.”

Laurin herself became interested in studying the psychology of religion because she grew up in a completely non-religious environment. “It was only as a teenager and young adult that I started to realize what a serious role religion plays in the lives of so many people,” she says. “I think that’s the reason that so much of my research has been connected to religion in one way or another – because I’m fascinated by what is obviously a very compelling human experience that I simply have never had.”

Laurin plans to continue testing the parallels between people’s relationship with God and their relationships with others. For example, future work could examine people’s communication styles with God, to see how they match up with what we know about communication styles with human partners.




Our relationship with God changes when faced with potential romantic rejection

16 Responses to Our relationship with God changes when faced with potential romantic rejection

  1. u14035856 May 3, 2014 at 5:42 pm #

    Although this blog was well written and the experiments carried out were extensive, I didn’t find that I learned anything particularly new as the points made in the blog are already widely accepted by the masses.

    What I did notice however, was that many of the comments seemed to miss the point of the blog and focused predominantly on religion and God and not the relationship link, to the extent where the comments came off as “preachy”.

    The content of the blog suggests that human relationships with each other and with God are linked (for religious people). I agree with this statement. The same way you trust, find comfort in, respect and share a bond with your partner, you do with God. For religious people, difficulty and threats are seen as tests in life from God and so when faced with these situations they tend to place their faith in God. This gives them hope as the Divine Being is seen as the almighty and if anyone can help it would be Him. But it is important to understand that although people of religion have a special relationship with their creator, there is no direct connection and God is not the only one they turn to in times of need. A common belief among people of religion is that God helps those who help themselves. This implies that one can’t simply believe that God will solve all their problems.
    As a relationship changes for the better and one feels satisfied and content, one is more likely to show greater gratitude and closeness to the divine being. In my opinion as spirituality, piety and closeness to God depend on the character of a person. The way I see it, a stable relationship gives a person confidence and confidence boosts self esteem- this could be the reason why people with higher self esteem showed more closeness to God according to the results from the experiment. People with a low self esteem are psychologically proven to take on a more defensive rolls and therefore blame God for any difficulties in their life. Regarding a person turning to God when their relationship is threatened: my view on this is that when anything important to you is threatened, your first instinct is to save it. In most religions, a burden is sometimes considered an opportunity for a person to get closer to God which is why we turn to Him in times of difficulty. This was a common point made in most of the comments.

    In reality, humans tend to choose spouses and partners with similar beliefs, morals and values as themselves. This ensures compatibility between the couple. Therefore your partner’s closeness to God will have an impact on your Closeness to God.

    How people’s romantic relationships take on different meaning when their relationship with God is threatened was not discussed very well in the blog. Not enough information was given and it left me rather confused.

  2. u14111404 May 3, 2014 at 12:39 am #

    I completely agree with the fact that people find comfort in times of trouble or rejection by confiding in God. 
    Believing in God is believing that He is your comfort and strength in times of hurt, so the study makes complete sense!

    I also agree with the study as well as with previous comments that, people with high self-esteems will easily confide in God because they will have confidence in Him and hope that the situation will somehow work out. 

    Whereas, people with low self-esteems might begin to doubt God, and start losing hope for future relationships. 
    14111404

  3. u14111404 May 2, 2014 at 2:50 pm #

    I completely agree with the fact that people find comfort in times of trouble or rejection by confiding in God. 
    Believing in God is believing that He is your comfort and strength in times of hurt, so the study makes complete sense!
    I also agree with the study as well as with previous comments that: people with high self-esteems will easily confide in God because they will have confidence in Him and hope that the situation will somehow work out. 
    Whereas, people with low self-esteems might begin to doubt God, and start losing hope for future relationships. 
    14111404

  4. Simone 14095964 May 2, 2014 at 2:21 am #

    I do believe that a person seeks the closeness of God or any other family/friend once their own relationship is at risk as a sort of substitute. A religiously confident person has strong faith and knows that God will never forsakes them. They may experience a feeling of safety and comfort in his presence. While a less confident person may rather turn to themselves for comfort as they may feel like God put this on them and they have no understanding why this would be so. Rather than to seek Him, they question Him.
    Since God is absent in the lives of non-believers, they may turn to friends or families close to them for comfort and answers. This is normal behaviour as one seeks a feeling of being wanted when one is rejected.
    Either way, the relationship between two people is always affected (positively or negatively) as it is influenced by certain circumstances.

  5. 14028663 May 1, 2014 at 10:16 pm #

    I do agree with Laurin that there is no solid evidence that God has rejected you. Many relationships are negatively affected by rejection and the likes but the best thing to do is to always run to God whenever things are good or not. Indeed people tend to run to God whenever they have problems but I don’t think is a good thing because its like people only remember God when things do not go their way. We should come to understand that God is not tablets for main killers. We know that people only take pain killers when they feel pains but its not suppose to be that way with God, we should always consult God even when things are smooth for us. It is advisable to build a good relationship with people around you, whom you can see than turning against all your loved ones and building a relationship with God you don’t even know or have seen.

  6. u13099095 April 30, 2014 at 5:56 am #

    I like most of the other people who have commented on this blog believe that people draw closer to God when their relationships are in danger. Through personal experience I have seen that this happens because we feel the need to belong. We want to feel good enough for someone and want to feel loved by someone. Seeing that God will never reject us we run to Him first. I do however believe that in certain situations a “bad” relationship with God can draw you closer to people. For example if someone you love dies you tend to blame God and you tend to feel like He does not love you because He allowed it to happen. This pain, rejection and sometimes even hate places your relationship with Him in danger. The “lack of love” makes you feel rejected and I believe this causes you to run to people to find love, acceptance and comfort, thus drawing you closer to people.

  7. Leah u14014689 April 29, 2014 at 6:36 am #

    I strongly agree with the idea that people tend to draw closer to God when their relationships are in danger . This is because there is so much comfort in knowing that God loves you so much he is willing to accept you the way you are . This normally makes it easier to accept the rejection that people get from this world. As a christian , I believe there is so much comfort in turning to God , as he has undying love .
    However I donot agree with the facttg that a danger in our relationship with God tends to draw us closre to our romantic partners . There is never any evedence that God has rejected us as stated in the article therefore there is never a reason to belive God has rejected us, or that our relationship with him may be in danger.

  8. u14018901 April 29, 2014 at 1:48 am #

    This is a very interesting study about how your romantic relationship can have an effect with your relationship with God. Well firstly a persons relationship with God cannot not be compared to their romantic relationship with someone else or any other relationship for that matter it just does not make sense. I believe that your spiritual walk with God should not be determined by your surroundings, relationships and adversities, but that it should be based on your personal spiritual walk and personal relationship with God. God is God all by himself and cannot be compared to anything else

  9. 14100038 April 28, 2014 at 8:24 pm #

    I believe that physical, tangible experiments or tests, such as those performed in the above article, cannot define outcomes related to spirituality, as there is no exact ‘measure’ of closeness to God that can be compared from one person to another. What one individual may consider ’being close to God’ may be completely different to another individual.

    In my opinion, the article downplays the sanctity and reverence of relationship between man and God, regardless of faith, belief or religion, to a psychological and emotional whim related to social factors and structure. I do, however, agree with 14069165, that many, unfortunately, tend to turn to God in the face of adversity, yet barely acknowledge Him when all is well. From a Christian perspective, I am of the firm belief that relationship and “closeness” with God is far more in-depth than turning to Him in times of trial, but is in fact something that is worked on daily, and should be maintained regardless the situation, storm or sunshine, calamity or calm.

  10. 14093848 April 28, 2014 at 1:15 pm #

    I find the study and comments posted extremely enlightening. I have been brought up in a family and society in which religion is of utmost importance. It would be hypocritical of me to criticize people who turn to God only under trying situations as I sometimes find myself doing the same thing. There are certain times in life when we do not have loved ones to turn to so it helps knowing that God is always there for us. A good point to take into consideration is that we should not wonder why God does not fulfill all our wishes immediately, but rather we should give thanks that he does not punish us immediately for all our wrongdoings.

  11. 14069165 April 26, 2014 at 8:30 am #

    It is indeed true that most people only remember God when things are tough or not going their way, its not only non-believers who do this but some of the religious people have this tendency. As a christian and a believer i have seen that most of us “christians” still doubt that there is God who is there for us in all our circumstances. When things are rough we tend to blame God but we never thank him when things are going the way we want.

  12. u14008743 April 24, 2014 at 1:51 am #

    As a Christian, I draw comfort in the fact that God is always there for me. During good and bad times in life. Even though it shames me, I must admit that I tend to rely more on God when things are going bad, so the outcome of the study that peoples relationship with God feels stronger when other relationships are in danger, makes sense. I did find it interesting that the people who were not religious or didn’t believe in God, that their result were inconclusive. To me it proves that God is everywhere and with everyone, whether you choose to acknowledge him or not.

  13. Vhulenda Netshapala April 20, 2014 at 7:35 am #

    u14286387
    As a Christian I have seen that a lot of people let circumstances affect their relationship with God but it shouldn’t be like that. We should mature daily in the spirit and allow God spirit to lead us and give us power to endure whatever challenge or heartache we might be facing. God will never leave us nor forsake us, his love is true and unconditional and he showed us sending his only begotten son Jesus Christ to die for us on the cross so that we could be forgiven and given eternal life. One should learn to trust God and love him in good and bad times. People tend to forget God when everything is going well and turn to him when all hope is lost. We should not seek God only in hard times but remember him in good times as well knowing that every good and perfect gift comes from him. For me, Jesus is my everything, he is my father, my best friend, my lover, my comforter, my healer and my protector. I know he is with me through it all. We should love him and put him first above everything else. He should be number one in our lives, above our families, our jobs, friends and everything of this world for without him we are nothing. We should draw nearer to God everyday no matter what we might be going through.

  14. 14019338 April 19, 2014 at 8:53 am #

    This is a very interesting study because it has answered some questions that I had. I grew up in a very religious family and I never understood the role God played in our lives .In addition on the point that people that do not believe in God grew up in religious backgrounds; I have also realised this. I think it is because as children growing up, we are forced to do certain things like belonging in a religious group without understanding why. That is why when we are adults, we want to feel a sense of freedom from our parents and we end up not believing in God. For me however, it is a different situation because not knowing why I had to believe in God has made me want to know more about God. On a Christian point of view however; I also agree that no matter what we go through; God will never reject us because He says nothing will ever separate us from Him. The more we face challenges in life; be it romantic rejection problems or self-esteem problems; we get closer to God. Furthermore, like Laurin said, there is no evidence that shows that God has rejected us so we run towards someone that will never reject us.

  15. Parushka Nardhamuni April 19, 2014 at 2:36 am #

    I was extremely fascinated by the study and outcomes of the study conducted on how people’s relationships with God change under the various circumstances. I would also like to add that under my Christian belief, I was taught that there is no obstacle God cannot help you overcome. The people who are described to have high-self esteem could also possess unconditional faith in their religious deity and find comfort in prayer and asking for help. On the other hand, the people with low self-esteem might not possess this faith and turn to themselves to fix the problem rather than turning to God.This can also be seen in all other religions, as illustrated by the previous comment. In addition, I was also taught that God sometimes puts a person in a difficult situation to test his/her faith, however, God will never give a person more than he/she can bare. When studying religion it is extremely difficult to remain objective as region is a very personal part of a person’s life. However, one should also take into consideration how steadfast and devoted a person is to his/her religion and how knowledgeable a person is about his/her religion, when conducting such a study to further increase the accuracy of the outcomes.

  16. H R REDDY April 18, 2014 at 8:08 am #

    God or no God man lives as a member of a society and he follows the costums of that society. Any deviation from that will have an effect on the behavior which he will attribute for the changes he made in his practice. Those who have faith in GOD feel him to be the rescuer and the strong support in all circumstances . He approaches GOD. Under difficult situations and thank him for the favors. Such a rescue channel is not present in those who don’t beleive in GOD /etheists . Lord KRISHNA in GEETA tells ARJUNA that ‘you do your prescribed duty and surrender it it me without any expectations.’thus complete surrundering to the faith and following the faith one follows will keep the person happy and healthy.

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