Monday, September 29, 2014


Sexual Orientation
Sexual Identity
Sexual Attraction

Christians in the United States continue to write and speak about sexual orientation and same-sex relationships as if condoning or condemning same-sex relationships were the keys to Christian identity.
The terms referring to human sexuality can interfere with communication when people use the terms inconsistently or imprecisely. In addition, new research changes our understanding of human sexuality such that older terms may carry meanings that are no longer substantiated by evidence.

I take a look at some terms and cite a study to illustrate the complexity of sexuality. Given the confusion and misinformation, I hope to return to the topic.

 In the context of identity, sex refers to a person’s biological status as male, female, or intersex. Intersex is a biological state that includes an infrequent set of features linked to being male or female. The common indicators of biological sex include external genitalia, internal reproductive organs, sex chromosomes, and gonads.

People commonly use the words sex and gender as if they were interchangeable. Scientists use gender to refer to a culturally defined set of attitudes, feelings, and behavior linked to biological sex. Thus there are expectations about what it means to be a girl or boy, woman or man. Clearly, in some cases, it will be important to clarify if a person is referring to sex or gender.

Gender Identity
Gender Identity is the personal sense of being male, female, or transgender. A person’s gender identity may or may not match their biological sex.

Sexual Orientation
A consensus has developed that the construct, sexual orientation, is multidimensional. Scientists argue about the dimensions that compose the construct.

Three dimensions were proposed by Laumann, Gagnon, Michael and Michaels (1994). Each of the three can be viewed in terms of a range of values rather than in terms of categories. The three dimensions are Sexual Identity, Sexual Attraction, and Sexual Behavior.

Some people speak about sexual orientation as if there are firm categories. Kinsey, Pomeroy, Martin, and Gebhard (1953) referred to four types of sexual orientation. These terms are in common use (homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, and asexual), although our understanding of sexuality has advanced in the last few decades.

Sexual orientation can develop overtime
As youth gain an understanding of their sexuality, they respond to questions suggesting that some of them change their appraisal of their sexuality. Recent findings from a longitudinal study by Rosaro, Schrimshaw, Hunter, and Braun (2006) are helpful.

  • 90% of students identifying as gay or lesbian continued to report that identity
  • The identification rate was lower for bisexual identity- 60 to 70% continued with that identity.
Transgender is a term that refers to people who experience a sense of gender identity that is different from other aspects of their sexuality such as their biological sex. Psychologists estimate about .5% of persons identify as transgender. People with the biological sex characteristics of a woman or man at birth may identify as transsexual if they identify as being of the opposite gender. A woman may use a recent term of transwoman and a man may use the term transman. Those who have sexual reassignment surgery usually just refer to themselves as a man or woman after the surgery.

Transgender includes people who cross-dress. Some persons prefer to cross-dress but do not report a desire to change their biological sex.

Transgender can include people who do not completely identify as male or female. Those who do not see themselves as fitting a category may call themselves, "genderqueer."

Sexual orientation and sexual variation is complex. People who identify as transgender may vary in their sexual orientation as straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or asexual. (APA resource) by author Eve Glicksman.

Research problems that affect our understanding of sexuality

The way questions are phrased can make a difference in how youth respond.

Youth respond based on their personal experience and understanding, which can vary.

Some youth are unable or unwilling to respond for different reasons including a lack of being sure about their identity.

Some researchers include only limited aspects of sexuality e.g., identity as gay or lesbian, which may not yield accurate data when other relevant aspects of sexuality such as attraction and sexual activity or behavior are ignored.
A Survey of Three Dimensions

2013 by Gisela Priebe and Carl Goran Svedin

I included this survey because the researchers looked at three dimensions of sexual identity in a large sample of 3,432 Swedish High School seniors. The measurements help identify current thinking about sexual orientation and related concepts.

1. Sexual identity. The available choices included heterosexual, homosexual (lesbian, gay) bisexual, unsure and None of these.

2. Sexual attraction was assessed in two ways. Emotional Attraction was assessed by asking students to use a 5-point scale rating their attraction to other and same sex persons from No attraction = 1 to Strong attraction = 5.

The other aspect of sexual attraction was Romantic Attraction. This was phrased by asking if the students had ever been in love with a man/boy or woman/girl.

3. Sexual behavior. The researchers asked 6 questions to identify actual behavior of the students. They were asked about oral and anal sex and vaginal intercourse. As you can see, the researchers were able to classify type of sexual experience and relate that to other aspects of sexuality.

Selected Survey Results

Most students responded to the items.

The results are complex because many options were available to understand human sexuality. Overall, 24 categories could be formed.

Those who identified as biologically male or female were different in their responses. As in previous studies, female sexuality was more complex. They varied more on the three dimensions than did male students.

The researchers note that a number of the students had not yet been in love (8%) or had sex (26%). This can influence how students answer questions about sexuality.

Heterosexual identity was most closely linked to romantic attraction and sexual behavior.

Homosexual or bisexual identity was mostly closely linked to emotional attraction.

An unsure identity was linked to different types of emotional attraction. Most of those reporting unsure reported bisexual emotional attraction.

Those reporting an asexual identity were 1.4 % of the sample. As the authors note, the number may not be stable given the life experience of the youth.

See the article if you are interested in more details.

Thinking about Sexual Orientation, Sexual Identity
 and Sexual Attraction

People who work with youth and have a reason or occasion to discuss sexuality will do well to better understand the complexity of human sexuality.

How people ask questions about sexuality can make a difference in the answers given.

Youth may answer the same question in different ways over time because experience and understanding can make a difference.

There are variations in sexuality among those we perceive to be in the majority-- that is, those with a heterosexual identity.

Sexual minorities are a diverse group of persons. Relying on stereotypes will interfere with understanding a person’s sexual identity.

People refer to sexual orientation, sexual attraction, and sexual behavior in different ways. It’s important to clarify what people mean.

As the study authors note, they did not ask about kissing and sexual touch as a part of sexual behavior. These sexual activities are a part of sexual identity formation.

Sexual abuse is common and it is also linked to sexual identity formation. But sexual abuse cannot be identified as a cause in a strict cause-effect relationship.

The way in which people express their sexuality and gender identity depends on a complex interplay between genetic factors, biological status, and life experiences. Research does not offer sufficient evidence to explain the variations in human sexuality. The extant evidence does not support an exclusive role for biology or environmental factors, or personal choice when it comes to variations in human sexuality.


Priebe, G., & Svedin, C. (2013). Operationalization of Three Dimensions of Sexual Orientation in a National Survey of Late Adolescents. Journal Of Sex Research, 50(8), 727-738. 

Rosario, M., Schrimshaw, E. W., Hunter, J., & Braun, L. (2006). Sexual identity development among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths: Consistency and change over time. Journal Of Sex Research, 43(1), 46-58. doi:10.1080/00224490609552298

Click on intext links for other references

Read more about sexuality, morality, and Christian cultures in A House Divided available from the publisher PICKWICK and other stores e.g.,  AMAZON

LGBT Issues
Transgender Identity
Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity

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Friday, September 26, 2014

The Psychology of Forgiveness

Psychology of Forgiveness and
 Christian Spirituality

Forgiveness has become faddish in recent years as numerous mental health clinicians became aware of the benefits of forgiveness to mental and general health. Books and seminars promise pathways to help people forgive and reap the benefits in better health. Adding to the interest is the fit of forgiveness with Christian teaching—still the dominant faith in the US where much of the forgiveness research has been conducted. The research findings are indeed encouraging but an eagerness to apply a new discovery can often lead to misapplications and exaggerated expectations. Forgiveness is not a panacea.

I recently (September, 2014) summarized research on the psychology of forgiveness and Christian spirituality for the journal, Encounter. In this post I will summarize some key points. Here’s the link to a copy of the complete article, Psychology of Forgiveness, where you will find more details and complete references. You will find other publications on the Academia page.

If you are new to the study of forgiveness or haven’t looked at the history, I recommend two books. Simon Wiesenthal’s book, The Sunflower, is a classic. Simon tells the emotion laden story of a Nazi soldier’s request for forgiveness (Link to Sunflower Project Page). He then includes numerous responses from many persons so we learn how people view the concept of forgiveness. The link to the recent focus of Christian forgiveness can be traced to Lewis Smedes of Fuller Theological Seminary. Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve (1984) is a must read.

What is forgiveness?

Like most people, psychological scientists disagree over definitions. Even when they reach a consensus, they can end up with ideas that are different from the public perception. Forgiveness is a relational concept. Here's a definition from an article that distinguishes between a state and a process (Sutton & Thomas, 2005, pp. 33-34).

Forgiveness is a multidimensional intrapersonal relational concept. It is a reasonably stable, motivational state that exists when a person experiences positive cognitive, affective, and/or physiological responses toward offenders and/or their transgressions. The state of forgiveness follows a choice to forgive that occurs sometime during the forgiving process. 

Forgiving is a multidimensional, motivational process that reflects overall increasing positive changes in cognitive, affective, and/or physiological responses toward offenders and/or their transgressions. The process has a starting point following a transgression. The process may be interrupted or reversed. The process may or may not result in a stable state of forgiveness.

We can also think of forgiveness as a personality trait or disposition. Some writers refer to this as forgivingness. The idea is that some people routinely forgive more than others-- as if it were part of their character. Here's a quote from Sutton & Thomas (2005, p.34).

Dispositional forgiveness is a personality trait that reflects a tendency to respond to many transgressions with positive cognitions, affects, and/or physiological states within a short time

Speaking of forgiveness only make sense if a person has been deeply hurt and the bad feelings connected to that hurt persist. Forgiveness is one way of dealing with the hurt feelings and the sense of injustice surrounding a hurtful event.

When someone lies about you, beats you, or commits any of number of horrible acts, it is not easy to get past the hurt. Forgiveness is one way to let a hurt go. Other ways to address the injustice is through a justice system where penalties can be applied to the offender or by way of revenge. Many find the justice system and revenge unsatisfying in terms of reversing the harm done. Many live with the hurt feelings but this inside burial does not work well. Bad feelings flare up from time to time. This holding on to a range of bad feelings has been called unforgiveness by Enright (2001) and Worthington (2006).

Unforgiveness is about the past.

Unforgiveness traps people in the past.

Psychologists mostly view forgiveness as an intrapersonal process. From a psychological perspective, the focus of forgiveness is on the internal process required to let go of the damaging emotions, thoughts, and behavior patterns associated with the complex of unforgiveness. But to most people, forgiveness is something that happens between persons. Following a hurt, the offender is supposed to apologize and the victim is expected to forgive. Of course that often does not happen. And to make matters worse, in times of conflict, any two people can be both victim and offender as each person may say or do things that hurt the other. In real life, forgiveness is complex.


As you will see in the article, I cite studies that show health benefits for young, middle aged and older adults. Forgiveness has been linked to levels of stress, well-being, and depression. Forgiveness can promote successful aging, better relationships, purpose in life and personal growth. Forgiveness may also be a risk factor in mortality.
Unconditional forgivers had lower mortality risk 
(Toussaint, Owen, & Cheadle, 2012).

Forgiveness Interventions

There are two models that appear helpful for a number of people. Both models are friendly to people of the Christian faith. I briefly reviewed the  four phase model by Robert D. Enright and the five-step REACH model developed by Ev Worthington. These scientists and their colleagues have published studied providing evidence supporting the helpfulness of the procedures in helping people forgive specific offenses. Keep in mind that working through the steps of these models is designed to help victims let go of the inner problem of unforgiveness.

YouTube video of Ev Worthington and his REACH model.


Researchers are well aware of the problem of interpersonal relationships. Forgiveness within a marriage or close relationship is more complex. Success will require reconciliation as well. At some level, many people need to get along with others who have hurt them. The issues of safety and trust are key to understanding reconciliation. Worthington offers a model to work through reconciliation as well. In this context, research on effective apologies and confession has been helpful. Also, the work of John Gottman on relationship repair is applicable (See Healthy Marriages). Finally, Christians will find the work of Gary Chapman useful as they improve interactions based on an awareness of different modes of relating he calls love languages.


I cover the topic of self-forgiveness, which has gained a lot of attention. Self-forgiveness is clearly different because each person is both the offender and the forgiver. Worthington believes you can work through his REACH model and has written a book to show how this can be done. Research is under way and looks promising. I hypothesize that Christians may find it useful to focus on receiving God’s forgiveness rather than forgiving oneself. It may be more straightforward to focus on letting go of self-blame for one’s mistakes than to do whatever is required to take on dual roles of offering inner forgiveness to oneself.


I cover a few other topics, which you can read about in the Psychology of Forgiveness article.
Forgiveness between groups- expressing forgiveness as when groups have been in conflict
Forgivingness- meaning a pattern of forgiving
Restoration- restoring offenders to positions they held before an offense was committed- e.g., criminals, fallen leaders

You will find more references to the research studies at the end of the article. Click the link for the full article with references.
Sutton, G. W. (2014). Psychology of forgiveness: An overview of recent research linking psychological science and Christian spirituality. Encounter, 11Academia Link

Sutton, G. W. (2010). The Psychology of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Restoration: Integrating Traditional and Pentecostal Theological Perspectives with Psychology. In M. Mittelstadt & G. W. Sutton (eds). Forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration: Multidisciplinary studies from a Pentecostal perspective. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications. 

Sutton, G. W., & Thomas, E. K. (2005). Restoring Christian leaders: How conceptualizations of forgiveness and restoration can influence practice and research. American Journal of Pastoral Counseling, 8, 29-44. (The journal has been renamed, Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health.) Academia Link

Friday, September 19, 2014

Wedding Four Values that make a Difference

Values that Can Lead to a
 Successful Marriage

Two young people I know plan to marry this Sunday. My wife and I have known the groom and his parents for years. I came to know the bride when she was a college student worker. To all appearances, they are a beautiful couple in a loving and committed relationship. They met in college, dated, obtained master’s degrees from the same university, and attend the same church. Theirs will be a Christian wedding.

Weddings and Culture

Like a long flowing gown, or a brides' aisle walk to meet her bridegroom, weddings retain a cultural trail of values. Cultural traditions are often integrated with religious ceremony. Royal ceremonies encourage fantasies in children’s books suggest enchantment in romantic novels and movies for girls and women (and some men) of all ages.  Religious stories illustrate blessed relationships and joyful celebrations.

Weddings used to mark the beginning of a new life together. They still do for some. But in free societies, more and more couples opt for living together instead of marriage or before a marriage ceremony. In the U.S., couples still marry -- 90% of couples marry by age 50. The freedom from bargaining with fathers,  affording dowries, setting bride prices, locating matchmakers, avoiding meddling parent-relative wedding planners, and rejecting obscure religious ceremonies can all be ditched in favor of enjoying each other before a complicated and expensive wedding leads to a risky marriage relationship. The barriers of life together have been surmounted.

Materialism has inflated the cost of weddings. Expensive weddings may be a barrier to formally tying the knot. Even church use fees are not cheap. Marketing psychology skillfully plays on the emotions and egos of couples and families to extract great sums of borrowed wealth to create a special day. And the ads suggest that a lifetime of happiness will follow if families will invest a little bit more in this or that. Lurking in the background is the fear that some 40 to 50% or first marriages end in divorce with even higher rates for remarried couples.

In Western cultures, bridal magazines not only inflate the expectations of young women but they create a new focus on the bride as queen for a day. To be sure, in church weddings, the bride always commandeered attention when all rose to watch her slow melodious walk down a flower and candle decorated aisle in the finest dress she or her family could afford. But in recent years the bride-focus has been magnified. The wedding is all about the woman. It is her day. “It’s all about you,” some say. See the Bridezillas article in Newsweek for an interesting commentary on this phenomenon.

Weddings and Four Values

1. Commitment. Commitment remains a primary key to a happy relationship. There will always be stories of whirlwind romances that last a lifetime. But the data continue to indicate that a deep commitment is a good predictor of lower divorce rates and fewer problems in a marriage. That deep commitment is marked by couples who were willing to sacrifice for each other. A useful quote from researcher, Benjamin Karney explains this commitment, “It means do what it takes to make the relationship successful.” You can find a summary of the study reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology on the UCLA website.

2. Maturity. Age is no guarantee of maturity. Most of us know middle-aged folks who “never grew up.” But when it comes to long-lasting marriages in societies where couples make the decision to marry or not marry, the data indicate that couples who wait to wed can expect much better chances of a successful marriage. It turns out the high divorce rate is an age-related factor. Those who commit to a relationship at age 18 divorce at about 60% but those who wait until age 23 have a divorce rate of 30%. These rates were regardless of cohabitation or marriage. Kuperberg’s research was summarized in The Atlantic.

3. Materialism. Materialism was dealt a serious blow in a study of 1,734 couples published in 2011. Couples who were low in materialistic values had better relationships. The scientists reported: “We found that materialism had a negative association with marital quality, even when spouses were unified in their materialistic values (287).” See the study in the Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy.

4. Faith. Faith matters. Of course, for those committed to their faith, the idea that faith could make a difference is hardly news. But from a research perspective, it is important to note a caveat to a long-held belief that the divorce rates are the same for religious and nonreligious persons in the U.S. where Christianity is the dominant religion. Researcher Shaunti Feldhahn found the divorce rates were much lower for couples who attend church together.

Wedding Thoughts

Commitment. It just makes sense that a deep commitment to a relationship can lead to a happier marriage. And I suspect weddings are much happier when couples are highly committed to each other. Other commitments are important as well. Parents, grandparents, and friends need to be committed to support the newlyweds and the usual trials that come with building a new life, including those couples who have children. Signs of the level of commitment should be evident before the wedding. And evidence of the capacity to commit should be evident in other relationships as well. I suspect people who have strong friendships, good relationships with relatives, and co-workers know what commitment means. Loyalty is a related moral virtue.

Maturity. Maturity is a fuzzy concept. I quip about the immature middle-aged adult. Some people never grow up. And childlike impulsivity is sometimes lifted up as a virtue. Maturity is hard to define. Age is a useful index of maturity. Culturally we use age as a marker for driving privileges, voting, employment and marriage. Age is not a perfect marker but it is a place to start exploring readiness for a committed relationship.

Materialism. The research supports the notion that an undue focus on materialism is a barrier to marriage. Stereotypes abound when it comes to how men and women value money and ostentatious wealth. To some degree it makes sense to value evidence that the couple has sufficient resources to begin a new life together. Sufficient is of course quite variable. And people do in fact argue about money and they often have different priorities when it comes to spending their soon to be joint income. In today’s world, materialism is not an all or nothing value. Rather, individuals place higher or lower values on different possessions and experiences for themselves, their spouses, and their children. Finding common ground on valuing requires a deeper commitment to the relationship compared to valuing possessions and experiences. Most people need to review their priorities from time to time.

Faith. My knowledge of weddings and marriages in non-Christian traditions is limited. I’ve been to a lot of Christian weddings over the years. Wedding ceremonies have changed. But Christian weddings continue to draw attention to the importance of the faith family standing with the couple and their extended family. And in text, song, or prayer there are ancient images of God committed in relationship to people. Weddings are not just about brides or even couples. Weddings offer families and communities a time to come together and celebrate many relationships—both earthly and divine. Ancient symbols and scriptures offer a welcome context to frame the beginning of a divinely inspired relationship.

I wish my young friends well!

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Research Links on

Monday, September 15, 2014

Perfectionism and Spirituality- A Dangerous Combination

Perfectionism: Maladaptive and Adaptive
   and Spirituality

As a clinician, specializing in the treatment of persons with spiritual issues in addition to general mental health conditions, it was not uncommon to see persons struggling with imperfection and feeling like a failure. This was especially true among clients associated with fundamentalist beliefs and those faiths with strict behavioral expectations. And from time to time I saw people with religious obsessions and compulsions.
A recent study in Psychology ofReligion and Spirituality examines adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism in a sample of Latter Day Saints.

What Can We Learn About the Spirituality of Latter Day Saints (LDS, Mormons)?
The Latter Day Saints (LDS) is an example of an American religion, which began in the 1800s. Religions specify beliefs and values as well as expected behavior patterns. In short, many religions define morality for their adherents. Failure to comply with the behavioral expectations is often classified a sin. Righteous people are recognized by their conformity to the moral teachings of their faith tradition. This is true for the broad tradition of Christianity, which dominates the United States, as well as related groups such as the LDS.

A Recent Study

Who studied what?
Two scientists investigated factors related to LDS spirituality and wellbeing. G. E. Kawika Allen of Brigham Young University and Kenneth T. Wang of the University of Missouri studied 267 women (60%) and men in the Southwestern U.S. Most (97%) were White and young (Mean age 23.6).

They studied several factors.
Religious commitment- a commitment to personal and group religious activities
Perfectionism- a measure about personal performance expectations.
Scrupulosity- the questions assess obsessive-compulsive spirituality using two scales Fear of Sin and Fear of Punishment from God.
Depression and Anxiety
Satisfaction with Life

What did they discover?
The researchers conducted a number of analyses. In one aspect of their analysis they classified participants in terms of perfectionism using three categories: Nonperfectionists, Adaptive perfectionists and, Maladaptive perfectionists. Maladaptive perfectionists were very high on scrupulosity. Adaptive perfectionists were higher in religious commitment compared to nonperfectionists. 
How were maladaptive and adaptive perfectionists different? The adaptive participants were lower in anxiety and depression, higher in self-esteem, and higher in life satisfaction than were either the maladaptive perfectionists or the nonperfectionists.

Some implications
The authors suggest several implications. Here's two.
1. Perfectionism can have both positive and negative aspects. Thus, the high standards may not be the problem.
2. It may be important to help LDS persons with a more accurate perspective on God and faith. They expand a little on this idea – suggesting people may be led to healing and experience forgiveness.

The authors offer the usual cautions about the limited age group and limited research. See the article for more details.
Obsessive-compulsive patterns can be extremely annoying and difficult to resolve. An imperfect act viewed as a sin against a punishing God leads to considerable inner distress for those who struggle to be perfect as expected.

In my experience, the problem of maladaptive perfectionism is not limited to members of the LDS community. The problem deserves further study.

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