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Relational Struggles in Religious American Families
Religion both helps and harms individuals and families as illustrated in history, contemporary events, and the personal experience of those who engage in lived religion. One phenomenon we have recently identified and explored in our interviews with 200+ American Families of Faith is that religion both generates and helps with what we call relational struggles in families. Although the majority of our work focuses on how religious often helps, in this article, we investigate what the 200 religiously and racially diverse families we have interviewed have taught us about the first half of this duality—that religion is associated with (and may even create) several relational struggles and problems when we do not live our faith out wisely.
Relational Struggle 1: Burdens
Our participants frequently discussed religious burdens that reflected feelings of failure and inadequacy in fulfilling religious expectations pertaining to relationships, and the pressures of being obligated with religious responsibilities concerning relationships. Thus, they included both an intrapersonal and an interpersonal dimension. Burdens included two sub-categories: inadequacies and obligations, addressed and illustrated next.
Inadequacies: “We fall short all the time.” The inadequacies struggles reflected expressions by the participants regarding worry about failure, or actual failure, to fulfill religious responsibilities and expectations—or failure to be a good example to family members. Included were expressions of parents talking about their children not living up to religious standards or about making unduly high demands of their children. Also included were expressions about accountability to God regarding family relationships. Religious requirements of relationships included how family members were expected to interact with and/or teach other family members, especially children. Pati, a Pentecostal Native American, expressed difficulty in living up to expectations to raise her children with religious teachings:
The Bible says to “train up a child in the way he should go and when he is older he will not depart from it.” We try to make sure that we show . . . our children the principles of God and the way that God would handle things. We fail constantly. We fall short all the time and we’re just like any other parents. Sometimes . . . we don’t know if we’re doing the right thing or not. We struggle with this, what we should or shouldn’t do. It’s hard, ‘cause especially if they’re getting older, they’re wanting to go . . . their own way. . . . Trying to keep them under God’s word and the way that He would have you to do it, it’s pretty essential [but it’s hard].
Elsu (husband) and Wachiwi (wife), Christian Native Americans, similarly explain how they are accountable for whether or not their children are Christian:
Elsu: Our biggest challenge, our biggest commission on earth, is to ensure the salvation . . . . [to] ensure that our children are Christians.
Wachiwi: Because we [will be] held accountable for that, when it is all said and done.
Meng (husband) and Mei-Fen (wife), Chinese Christians, give another example of inadequacy, but instead of parenting, they refer to their marriage:
Mei-Fen (wife): In God’s eye, our sin [is] . . . pride and jealous[y]. The marriage which God wants us to [have] is complete love and submission [to God].
Meng (husband): We are insufficient.
The above accounts of feeling inadequate are among the 106 relating to being burdened (often by feelings of guilt or inadequacy). Next, we discuss the burdens-related struggle of obligations.
Obligations: “A heavy responsibility.” The accounts in this sub-theme differed slightly because their focus was not on an inability to live up to expectations, but seemed to be on the burdens felt because of the obligations religion placed on families. Many of the participants’ accounts associated with this struggle used language including “difficult” or “heavy responsibilities.” For example, Ali, an Arab American, Muslim father, explained, “Islam taught me that my children are not ‘my’ children. They are a gift from God, and He loaned them to me. And that’s a heavy responsibility.”
Candace, an Episcopalian mother, discussed how the burden of teaching religion to her children exerted pressure on her:
I have put a lot of pressure on myself to try to teach [religion]. . . . The mistake that I have made in the past is trying to teach something that has to be experienced. . . . [I]n some ways, [doing so] created a counter to that, . . . a rebelliousness to that.
Some of those we interviewed sometimes felt that the religious teaching required of them was either unpleasant or difficult. Gabriella, a Conservative Jewish mother, said,
[One] challenge is that I have to teach our children about our history and [the] history of persecution. . . . That’s not something that I look forward to. I have talked to them about the Holocaust and those discussions will go on for a lifetime at different levels.
In addition to the obligation to teach, the “obligations” struggle often involved religion causing a family member to neglect the needs of another, such as when church assignments took time away from family. Yuan, a Chinese Christian husband, said, “Sometimes we have too much service . . . . It becomes a big burden, which may be harmful to a family. To be a good person . . . outside, but to do nothing at home may be harmful to a marriage.”
Aaron, a Lutheran husband and father, explained how a poor balance between church and family sometimes happened in their family:
We struggle sometimes with being over-committed in the church—where we’re spending more time there or devoting our time there, rather than to each other and home life, at times. . . . We find ourselves getting so wrapped up into that. It’s like a drug.
Having discussed the burdens struggle (with the concepts of inadequacies and obligations), we now move on to another frequently reported struggle: disunities.
Relational Struggle 2: Disunities
Disunities involved feeling in conflict with others or separated from others. We have divided the disunities accounts into two concepts: conflict and separation. Conflict will be discussed first.
Conflict: “Religion was the cause of these conflicts.” Expressed struggles ranged from minor conflicts to divorce, and many of these conflicts seemed to stem from differing beliefs or religious opinions. For example, Fadilah, an Arab American, Shia Muslim, expressed how conflict arose due to differing beliefs in her own marriage:
In our . . . 10 years of marriage, the most tumultuous years were the first . . . two and a half, and religion actually was the cause of these conflicts, because we have, in certain areas, quite different religious interpretations.
Others told about experiences of other family members. For example, Kordell, an African American Christian husband, explained,
My dad was not a believer. He pretended to be one ‘till he married my mother and then he didn’t go to church for the next 50 years. They were married for 50 years. So it was real difficult ‘cause my mom was a preacher’s kid. So she did everything she could [faith wise] and was successful to a certain degree [but] it was chaos. It was crazy.
Some participants mentioned religion-related conflict being a current issue. An Episcopal father and son expressed how differing opinions about the importance of going to church versus participating in sports had generated conflict in their family:
Dustin (Dad): We would have a conflict there in this family.
Ryan (Son): My mom wants me to go to church, and my dad, depending on the sport, would want me to go to the sport. . . . We’d be split and there’d be a brawl between them.
Having briefly explored the struggles about within family conflicts associated with religion, we now turn to a slightly different disunities struggle, which is a feeling of separation.
Separation: “We weren’t on the same path.” Another type of disunity was feeling separated from others. These accounts resemble the conflict accounts in that many of the challenges stem from having differing beliefs. However, these struggles do not seem to produce conflict. Rather, the main focus of this struggle is the difference itself. Miriam, a convert to Judaism, gave an example of separation between herself and her sister and brother-in-law because of differing religious beliefs:
My [sister] will think that I’ve given up going to heaven. . . . [She] is very religious, married to a very odd fanatical. I’m not sure what you would call his religion, but they would say that I have given up . . . salvation or going to heaven, because I don’t believe Jesus is the Messiah. [They think] I’ve given up all hope of getting to heaven.
Religion-based conflict was not limited to extended family, it was often marital. Many couples stated that if a wife and husband had differing beliefs or levels of commitment, this can generate distance and disunity in the marriage. One husband expressed how different levels of commitment “caused marriage stress [and] disagreements.” Even so, in one interesting interchange, Hannah, speaking to her Jewish husband, Eli, stated,
But wasn’t this actually, without our knowing it, all part of Hashem’s [God’s] plan? . . . You know, we didn’t like it. We suffered, because we were unhappy, because we weren’t on the same path, right? But obviously this was how it was intended to work itself out so that instead of you and me going divergent roads over it, we had to work together and find a place where we could be comfortable with each other and build a Jewish home together.
Having discussed the two sub-themes of the disunities struggle (conflict and separation), we now move on to discuss the third struggle that emerged: abuses.
Relational Struggle 3: Abuses
Feelings captured and reflected in the abuses accounts included: inferiority, force, domination, abuse, threat, teasing, and persecution. We present the abuses accounts in connection with two concepts: domination and persecution.
Domination: “I was the king.” Domination struggles included reports of feeling dominated, forced, inferior, or required to submit. The focus in these accounts seemed to be on issues of power, and mainly pertained to parent-child relationships or husband-wife relationships. The parent-child struggles primarily revolved around parents forcing their children to participate in religious activities. Abaan, an Arab-American Muslim father, explained how they avoided this because of other poor examples they have seen:
You don’t want to force people to accept what you think is true. . . . Hopefully, we [present our faith] in a way that she [our daughter] enjoys it and she accepts it by heart. . . . We have seen, in some settings, that the parents are very harsh, in terms of how they teach religion to children. . . . That environment is not accommodating towards children’s needs and we don’t believe that is how it is supposed to be done. . . . Nobody can ‘keep’ their children in a religion.
Other accounts in the domination sub-theme focused on husband-wife relationships. One example was given by Darrian, an African American Christian:
I didn’t see it. I guess initially I found myself at some point getting into a religious movement where it was becoming more ritualistic versus spiritual. [I believed] that this was God-ordained, that I was the leader, the priest, the king of the house, that I was called up to raise my children. I was the king [and I thought, “As] for me, and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
In this case, the father suggested that he allowed his religious beliefs to motivate him to think that he held a position of sovereign authority. In retrospect, he regretted his previously overzealous and dominating attitude and behavior involving his approach to religion and family. With these examples offered, we now move from domination to persecution.
Persecution: “Be ready for the verbal attack.” The persecution accounts focused on feeling attacked, harassed, teased, and/or manipulated. While persecution may often come from outside the family, here we focus on inside-family examples in which family members attacked or harassed other family members because of religion. For example, Malinda, a Charismatic Episcopalian, said, “There’s so many questions from so many family members . . . [We have to] be ready for the verbal attack.”
Other examples involved using religion as manipulation, such as the following from Jewish parents Zachary and Ruth. Zachary alluded to how this appeared in his childhood, and Ruth, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, revealed how this has appeared and does appear in her own parenting:
Zachary: Well, I know one for me, a really specific one. I purposely don’t use guilt as a motivator, and that probably comes from a reaction to my religious upbringing.
Ruth: Well, that’s okay, because I’m filling in that void for you.
Having discussed the domination and persecution aspects) of the abuses struggle, we now move to the fourth and final struggle: offenses.
Relational Struggle 4 – Offenses: “It hurt my parents.”
Reports of relational offenses, often associated with misunderstandings, typically involved extended family members outside the faith or with divergent beliefs and practices from the interviewed participants. Accounts coded as offenses varied but often reflected emotional pain resulting from insensitivity, misunderstanding, judgment, or perceived violations—including sharp differences in religious belief or practice. Seth, a Jewish husband, reported:
(Two of my brothers) married persons out of the faith and I don’t think they’ll have much religion of any sort now. . . . I mean, my parents love them very much but it hurt my parents.
Seth later explained, “When we are all sitting around at the [ritual-filled] holidays. . . . There’s a certain framework for life and marriage in Judaism . . . they [non-Jewish family members] just don’t get it.” These accounts indicate that offense, or at least emotional pain, likely was experienced by multiple members of the extended family in such contexts—including not only Seth and his parents, but also his brothers and their wives. Whether intended or incidental, the struggles of pain and offense can be associated with religion within families.
The average number of relational struggles mentioned by the families we interviewed was 8.3 per family. Interestingly, these families had all chosen to be highly involved in their faith communities, devoting significant time, energy, and money to their religion. Thus, these families confirm the proposition that even many relatively happy and functional families of faith (i.e., exemplars) experience relational struggles—and some of these struggles are generated or exacerbated by religion.
Most people would understandably try to avoid the struggles we have studied. Yet our data indicate that the vast majority of the families in our sample (89%) have experienced and/or do experience them. Why do these families choose to remain actively religious if doing so is associated with relational struggles? One explanation is that religion both generates and addresses (and may even resolve) a variety of struggles, including relational ones. Religious beliefs, practices, and communities offer various ways for adherents to frame and understand trials and afflictions: a punishment for sin, a crucible that purges baser motives, a way to learn humility, a path to holiness, a way to show love to God, or a way to develop moral virtues, among other possibilities and interpretations (Prothero, 2010).
In conclusion, living and loving a religious faith is not without myriad challenges, costs, and struggles. Those who strive hardest to live and love their faith are not exempt from these struggles. Struggles, however, can build personal, marital, familial, and spiritual strength. As we consider these exemplary families who still experience difficulties associated with their respective walks of faith, we are reminded of the wisdom of the Jewish luminary Viktor Frankl’s perspective, rooted in a life of profound religious and existential struggles, including surviving Nazi concentration camps:
What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. . . . If architects want to strengthen a decrepit arch, they increase the load which is laid upon it, for thereby the parts are joined more firmly together.
Our friend and colleague, Jonathan Sandberg, has observed that our Heavenly Father seems to be far more concerned with our growth than He is with our comfort. Although most of us would choose to avoid struggles, perhaps learning how to unite and draw strength from each other and our shared Father as these struggles arise is an essential part of our eternal growth.
 This article is based on: Dollahite, D. C., Marks, L. D., & Young, K. P. (2017). Relational struggles and experiential immediacy in religious American families. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. https://dx.doi.org/10.1037/rel0000135
 All participant names are pseudonyms.
 Frankl, V. (1984). Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Washington Square Press. (Quotation from (pp. 127-128).