In moments of personal crisis and distress, like a cancer diagnosis, research has shown that people turn to God. And though people don't interact in the same way with God as they do with other humans, the divine is often characterized in the same terms as interpersonal relationships.
But does God actually act as a sort of stand-in for an intimate partner when religious people are having romance trouble?
In a new study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, researchers recently tested how threats to romantic relationships affected people's intimacy with God. The results suggest that the divine can act as a sort of rebound during moments of romantic desperation or trouble.
"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."
The researchers exposed mostly religious subjects to psychological exercises that "threatened their romantic relationship" and then asked them about their connection to God. A control group just answered the God questions.
Across three experiments, those in the experimental group reported stronger connections or a greater interest in God. The experiments also showed that those under the threatened relationship condition were "more willing to accommodate God’s transgression," like not answering prayers. The researchers write that the results indicate that there is "considerable overlap between people’s divine and interpersonal relationships."
"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," says lead author Kristin Laurin of the Stanford Graduate School of Business in a press release. "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."
The differences held for subjects who subscribed to religions outside the Western Christian paradigm, including Hinduism. "In other words, the tendency to reconnect with God in response to threatened human relationships has appeal beyond strictly monotheistic traditions," the researchers write in the paper.
When the experimenters introduced the subjects to a similar manipulation that threatened their relationship with God, they reported feeling closer to their romantic partners. Though this obviously doesn't imply people are conducting romances with God, it would be interesting to test, especially with clergy.
"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.