02 How are Relationships Under Pressure?

How are Relationships Under Pressure?


When we’re not suffering, it can be easier to recognize the important role suffering plays in preparing us and our relationships to receive God’s grace—but it’s much harder when we’re in the midst of hardship and pain. This chapter explores “the midst,” the places where people say they are feeling acute relational pressure. The question underlying all these data points is this: How can churches help people receive grace where their relationships need it most?


Researchers compiled a list of common problems and asked respondents to evaluate the impact of each on their relationships. Roughly one in four among U.S. adults (25%) and practicing Christians (28%) reports no relational impact from any of the problems—which means three out of four people are feeling pressure of some kind in their relationships.

Two in five U.S. adults and one-third of practicing Christians report they are dealing with anxiety or depression that has an impact on their significant relationships. Research participants were asked to indicate the degree to which pressures such as marriage problems, parenting problems, issues with sexual intimacy, addiction, pornography, anxiety, depression, loneliness and grief affect their relationships. Most do not perceive these as issues that make an impact. However, significant minorities indicate that anxiety (42% all U.S. adults), depression (39%), loneliness (32%), issues with sexual intimacy (29%), marriage problems (25%) and grief (25%) do have an effect. Parenting problems (21%) are present but less widespread, while addiction (13%) and pornography (8%) are the least frequently reported relational issues.

Issues that make an impact on my relationships

As the chart shows, similar proportions of practicing Christians report relational difficulties in these areas. Notably, Christians are more likely than the general population to consider pornography a problem. This may be because porn, until very recently, has been less taboo in the wider culture than in the Christian community; among Christians, as we’ll see below, it’s still considered quite serious.

Researchers asked senior pastors what issues they believe their parishioners often deal with. On the whole, their assessments indicate deep pastoral concern.

Issues that make an impact on congregants relationships


Relationship pressures are rarely isolated and, in fact, tend to compound. As we might expect, the relational issues explored above emerge in greater proportions among U.S. adults and practicing Christians who have experienced relational trauma of some kind, including cheating / infidelity, depression / anxiety, addiction, pornography or sexual addiction, or another traumatic event (health problems, abuse, incarceration, miscarriage and so on), compared to those who have no experience with each type of trauma. In fact, overall relationship satisfaction is highest (89%) among those who have never personally experienced or had a loved one who has experienced relational trauma— and satisfaction is lower (66%) for those who report some kind of trauma either directly or through a loved one.

Feelings inventory by experience of trauma

Depression / Anxiety

As noted above, anxiety and depression are the most widely reported relational issues—due at least in part to the increasing ease people feel with discussing mental health—and these are most likely to surface among those who have direct experience of trauma. For example, just seven percent of U.S. adults with no personal experience of depression / anxiety indicate that depression affects their relationships, compared to two-thirds of those who have experienced depression / anxiety themselves (65%). Similarly, only one in nine of those with no personal experience (11%) says anxiety affects their relationships, while two-thirds of those who have experienced depression / anxiety (67%) say so. Depression / anxiety is also linked to higher reports of loneliness (49% vs. 10% of those with no experience) and grief (38% vs. 8%) as relational issues.

Trauma need not be personally experienced for its effects to be felt in a relationship. The effects of trauma ripple outward. Having a spouse, child or other loved one who has suffered the experience has at least as much of an effect, and sometimes even more. For instance, just eight percent of adults with no experience of depression / anxiety report marital problems, compared to one-third (37%) of those who have personally experienced depression / anxiety and one-third (35%) of those whose loved one has experienced depression / anxiety.

Pornography & Sexual Addiction

Although pornography and sexual addiction are the least reported of the traumas considered in the study, their effect on relationships appears to be among the most damaging. (Keep in mind that researchers asked survey respondents to assess porn’s impact on their relationships, not to report use or viewing of porn. Most sources, including previous Barna studies, agree that overall use is much more widespread than responses to this narrowly focused question might suggest. For example, 41% of practicing Christian men ages 13 to 24 report seeking out porn at least once a month.8) Those who have personally struggled with pornography or other sexual addictions are overwhelmingly more likely to report pornography as an issue in their relationships (43% vs. 3% of those with no experience). They are four times as likely (40% vs. 10%) to say addiction affects their most important relationships and at least twice as likely to say sexual intimacy (56% vs. 25%) and loneliness (57% vs. 28%) are relational issues for them.

This pattern is even more pronounced among practicing Christians. Every relational issue surfaces at a considerably higher rate among those with a spouse or child with pornography or other sexual addictions than among those who have personally experienced such struggles. This includes anxiety (84% vs. 55%), marriage problems (72% vs. 28%), depression (70% vs. 52%), sexual intimacy (69% vs. 41%), grief (66% vs. 37%), parenting problems (66% vs. 29%) and loneliness (62% vs. 50%).

Nearly half of those with direct experience of sexual addiction (49%) report that addiction affects their important relationships (vs. 5% among those with no experience). Those who have personal experience are also twice as likely as those with no experience to name anxiety (70% vs. 34%), depression (65% vs. 31%), loneliness (55% vs. 25%) and sexual intimacy (48% vs. 24%) as issues.

Cheating / Infidelity

Unsurprisingly, experiencing infidelity in a romantic relationship contributes to anxiety and / or depression. Those who have been cheated on are more likely than not to say anxiety (59% vs. 31% those without direct or indirect experience) and depression (57% vs. 27%), affect their relationships. Also more prevalent compared to those who have no experience of cheating are relational issues such as sexual intimacy (40% vs. 22%), grief (36% vs. 19%), marital problems (38% vs. 14%) and parenting problems (32% vs. 14%).


Experiencing a divorce consistently shows the weakest correlation to increased relational issues. Although the correlation exists, it is notably smaller than other traumas investigated in the study. For some people, divorce may be a welcome solution to other types of trauma. But even when that’s not the case, there is a rising trend of wanting to stay friends with one’s ex.9 In comparison to those with no experience of divorce, the increase in frequency of relational issues is significant. Among the general population, divorced people are more likely to experience problems with sexual intimacy (36% among ever divorced vs. 26% never divorced) and addiction (17% vs. 11%). For practicing Christians, the effects of divorce are more evident than in the general population in almost every area tested.

Helping Young People Into Healthy Relationships

A Q&A with Michael Cox

Michael Cox is a Level 2 Certified Restoration Therapist. Together with his wife, Coloma, he conducts marriage seminars, coaches couples in preparation for marriage and walks with families seeking to live healthy lives. Additionally, Michael utilizes his 20+ years of working with young people to inform and drive his work with adolescent development and emotional regulation. He is a trainer in Mental Health First Aid for the National Council for Behavioral Health, and he lives in Texas with his wife and three children.


So how do people morally assess their relational issues? Researchers asked participants about their current beliefs with regard to the morality of divorce and pornography, two issues with a history of moral freight in the Christian community. According to sociologist Samuel Perry, for example:

Whereas many other Americans seem to be able to view porn without it causing significant mental health problems, for conservative Christians it’s different. The church’s zero-tolerance policy for porn means those who consume it only occasionally might see themselves as addicts from the first viewing. So even though conservative Christians use porn less than other Americans, they are statistically twice as likely to consider themselves “addicted” to it. Their shame can be soul-crushing.10

The responses inside and outside the Church are similar, as the chart shows, with the general population leaning further toward the view that divorce is morally acceptable. Among practicing Christians, Millennials exhibit the most polarization; their generation is least inclined to give the middle response that divorce is “sometimes” permissible for Christians, and most likely to respond with the extremes “never” and “always.”

The morality of divorce

Our perceptions are inevitably shaped by life experience. Often, difficult situations can increase compassion and empathy and diminish moralistic judgment. Yet the human desire to preserve our opinion of ourselves can also lead us to downplay problems or give moral priority to the lens of our own experience. For those who have directly or indirectly experienced relational trauma such as divorce, infidelity, depression or anxiety, addiction, pornography or sexual addiction, a number of differences emerge compared with those who have no such experiences. For example, having been through a divorce correlates with one’s attitude toward divorce. Those who have divorced are much more likely than those who have not been to view divorce as permissible. In the general population, there is a gap between the proportions of Gen X (38%) and Boomers (57%) who view divorce as morally acceptable, correlating with a spike in divorce rates commonly seen in these years.

the morality of divorce, married vs divorced adults

In contrast to the relative similarity inside and outside the Church with respect to divorce, practicing Christians’ and the general population’s views on the morality of pornography diverge sharply. Younger generations are more accepting of pornography use, but the majority of practicing Christian Millennials and Gen Z still says it is morally wrong.

This is not the case outside the Church at all. According to Barna’s study on views and use of porn, U.S. teens and young adults are more likely to say “not recycling” (56%) is immoral than to say so about “viewing pornographic images” (32%).11

the morality of porn use, us adults vs practicing christians

Anxiety, Depression & Avoiding Pastoral Burnout

A Q&A with Rhett Smith

Rhett Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Executive Coach in Plano, Texas. He is the author of The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? and works with churches and organizations to help improve their relationships, wellness and performance. Currently he is part of a collaborative effort to equip pastors and ministry leaders to help bring healing to those in their ministries suffering from anxiety and depression. He lives in Texas with his wife and two kids. You can check out his work at www.rhettsmith.com.


As we’ve seen, mental health issues such as anxiety and depression can deeply affect relationships. Reciprocally, a relational issue such as infidelity can bear heavily on one’s mental health, increasing anxiety and depression. Additionally, each person’s worldview forms a lens through which these issues are perceived. More specifically, a Christian worldview seems to make a difference in how people think about mental health. In order to assess to what extent this is true, researchers presented a series of commonly held views and ideas about mental health and mental illness. (See graphs on pages 66-67.)

Practicing Christians express high confidence that, in a fallen world, anyone or everyone might face a relationship crisis. Their distribution of responses is similar to that of the general population, with slightly more saying it is “always true” that a relationship crisis could happen to anyone.

Practicing Christians, along with all U.S. adults, are supportive of the notion that physical, mental, sexual and spiritual health increase together. Christians, however, are more inclined to view them as interconnected, with more than half saying so (54% vs. 39%).

In line with such a view, practicing Christians also express higher degrees of openness to a range of possible helps for relational and mental difficulties. For example, they are more likely than the general population to say that counseling should be a part of any restoration or healing of relationship issues.

Practicing Christians are also slightly more likely to believe medication for anxiety or depression should always be taken, compared to the general population.

Only practicing Christians were asked about Bible reading and prayer as a solution to mental health problems, and their responses fall in a similar bell curve: “Sometimes” emerges as the most frequent response (42%) but, as with counseling and medication, attitudes lean toward the affirmative.

They also generally tend to agree that Christians should stick exclusively to things the Bible says or recommends when receiving counseling.

Practicing Christians’ views on the spiritual aspect of mental well-being diverges from the views of the culture at large. Close to half of practicing Christians (47%) believe a closer walk with God is “always” or “often” the solution to mental health problems. Among the general population, respondents were asked to rate the degree to which they believe the solution to mental health problems is faith—and their responses tilt in the opposite direction. A plurality believes faith is “seldom” or “never” the solution (40%).

Since the earliest days of psychology, some Christians haven’t been sure how to think about science-based mental health research and therapies. It has not always been clear how the findings and theories of psychology fit comfortably into a Christian worldview—and for a small minority of believers, that’s still the case today. One in six practicing Christians would say evil spirits are often (10%) or always (8%) the cause of mental illness. Another one in four (27%) says this is sometimes the case. There is uncertainty here, which means there’s room for pastors and trained counselors to help educate Christians about both mental illness and spiritual warfare.

perceptions about mental and emotional health

Generational Trends

Overall, practicing Christian Millennials are more open than older believers to a variety of ideas about and treatments for mental health problems. They are more likely to say that anyone could encounter a relationship crisis; that physical, mental, sexual and spiritual health increase together; that counseling should be a part of relational restoration and healing; and that both Bible reading and prayer and a closer walk with God are effective solutions.

In fact, agreement with these statements is more common among younger generations. Culturally speaking, this is not at all surprising. For many 20- and 30-somethings, emotional and mental health is on par with physical health: All are essential to a holistic sense of wellbeing. In Christian circles, as well, many writers and ministry practitioners of the past few decades have begun to connect spiritual growth with emotional and mental health, arguing that fruitful discipleship must entail growth in all these areas.

This is good news for anyone who is passionate about making young disciples. As young adults seek emotional well-being, Christians who can speak the language of mental and emotional health can help them connect to their spiritual lives, as well.


It is one thing to acknowledge the benefits of counseling and another to actually seek out professional help. One barrier may be community stigma. Practicing Christians were asked whether they thought their pastor, priest and / or other people in their church community would want them to seek out professional counseling for a relationship crisis, and half of respondents (52%) feel a low degree of stigma, anticipating a high degree of support. A small minority (8%) feels a high degree of stigma, expecting that their church community would most likely not want them to pursue such assistance. There could be a range of underlying attitudes fueling such high stigma, such as “The problem isn’t really a problem, so there is nothing to fix” and “The problem can be solved without a professional counselor.”

A fair number (40%) falls in between, predicting some stigma if they were to seek professional help. This latter group, practicing Christians who perceive some degree of stigma toward seeking professional counseling, is the most likely among the three groups to respond “sometimes” when asked to evaluate each of the statements about mental and relational health. By contrast, the high stigma group is the most polarized, with a smaller percentage of respondents choosing the middle ground. They are not in lockstep agreement with each other, but they share strong feelings about these issues.

Personal Experience & Solutions

Both inside and outside the Church, those with firsthand experience of trauma respond with stronger conviction that anyone may face a relationship crisis (39% vs. 28% “always true” practicing Christians with no experience; 36% vs. 18% all adults with no experience). Practicing Christians with trauma experience are also more likely than those without to affirm that physical, mental, sexual and spiritual health increase together (55% vs. 43%) and that counseling should be a part of healing relationship issues (59% vs. 45%).

When comparing those who have battled depression / anxiety with those who have not, the latter are more likely to feel that taking medication is not the solution. Both inside and outside the Church, one in nine (11%) feels that medication is “never” the solution, compared to one in 20 of those who have experienced depression / anxiety themselves (5%) and just three percent of those who have a loved one who has struggled in this area. Among practicing Christians, this trend strengthens in the “always” responses: Those who have indirectly experienced the effects of anxiety and depression via their loved ones are most likely to advocate medication (16%), compared to those who have no experience (11%).

Now that we know where people are feeling relational pressures, let’s find out where they look for help.

Healing Addiction in the Church

A Q&A with Tal Prince

TAL PRINCE earned his masters of divinity from Beeson Divinity School and a masters in clinical mental health from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He uses both degrees to preach and counsel regularly, and is in demand as a speaker on addictions, trauma and couples. He is director of Insights Counseling Center and lives with his wife and two daughters in Birmingham, Alabama.

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