I was providing a training for counselors recently, and at one point we were discussing the concept of congruence, which I was describing as an end goal in a counseling process I had helped co-develop with Warren Throckmorton (referred to as Sexual Identity Therapy). The thinking is that when you counsel someone who experiences a conflict between their sexual identity and their religious identity, you want to help them resolve that conflict; that resolution can be thought of as congruence. The experience of congruence may look different for different people.
When I think of congruence, I am thinking of helping a person live his/her life and form an identity in keeping with his/her beliefs and values. I came across the idea of congruence among gay Christians when I conducted a series of studies of sexual minority Christians. (“Sexual minority” in the mainstream LGBT literature refers to people who experience same-sex attraction whether or not they identify as LGBT or report same-sex behavior.) In any case, I was comparing those who integrated their attractions with a gay Christian identity and those Christians who dis-identified with a gay identity. If I were to translate this to the SF crowd, I would say that the gay Christian identity was closest to what we might describe as a Side A gay Christian. The group that dis-identified with a gay identity were either closer to what readers here would think of as Side B gay Christians (in terms of not viewing same-sex relationships as morally permissible) but without the “gay” identification, if that makes sense.
Our research group concluded that both groups achieved personal congruence. The one group achieved congruence as (“Side A”) gay and Christian by adjusting their beliefs and values so that they aligned with their behavior and identity as gay persons. They were part of a fellowship that affirmed them as gay Christians and celebrated gay as an expression of God’s creativity. (I saw these findings as comparable in some ways to the results Michele Wolkomir reported in her book, Be Not Deceived, where she reported that the shift for gay Christians was toward the valuing of tolerance in supporting a gay Christian identity.)
The other group achieved congruence by dis-identifying with a gay identity and the gay community, which was in keeping with their sexual ethic; instead, they aligned their behavior and identity with their conservative Christian beliefs and values. (This result, too, was in some ways comparable to but different from Wolkomir’s findings about ex-gays, as she found that they valued personal righteousness in a way that reflected their primary motivation for moving away from a gay identity.)
Completely independent of that research, I saw the concept of congruence discussed in the 2009 American Psychological Association task force report on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation. In my own work, I had not been explicitly naming different kinds of congruence. What I was doing was simply describing different maneuvers (that is, shifting beliefs/values or shifting behavior/identity; Wolkomir’s emphasis on tolerance or righteousness). But I had not thought that much about the motivation to do so or given a name to the various motivations that could be present.
In any case, in the 2009 task force report, the task force recognized that when people who adhere to traditional faith commitments experience a tension with their sexual identity, they may prefer one type of congruence over another. Much of psychology is steeped in what they referred to as organismic congruence, which they defined as “living with a sense of wholeness in one’s experiential self” (APA, 2009, p 18). I think of this as essentially recognizing one’s impulses as important data, in some cases as a reliable moral guide for making decisions about one’s life. Congruence is then achieved by making changes in beliefs and values that will align well with the impulses one experiences in one’s sensate self.
In contrast, the task force reported that telic congruence refers to “living consistently within one’s valuative goals” (APA, 2009, p. 18). I think of this as essentially connecting life here to transcendent reality and purposes, and making decisions based on one’s ideals.
Many gay Christians who experience a tension between their same-sex sexuality and their Christian faith experience their sexual drives and desires as instructive for how they should best meet their needs for intimacy. Other gay Christians who feel that same tension turn to sources of authority outside of their sensate self and choose to live in a way that corresponds with that ethic.
Where do Side B gay Christians fit into this discussion of congruence? I’ll invite them to chime in for themselves, but I would wonder if they wouldn’t find the telic congruence as more of a reflection of how they align their behavior to correspond with their beliefs and values as traditionally believing Christians. They don’t appear to me to be making a shift that is obviously a reflection of organismic congruence. Where does identity fit in? I imagine there is great variability among Side B gay Christians, but the identity piece is not found in denying a gay identity in the same way people did in the research I noted above; rather, identity seems more nuanced and multifaceted, framed in many ways in positive terms (by use of the word “gay” at least as an adjective).
Let me take this one step further. In the context of this training, we were discussing the appeal of both types of congruence. As we discussed organismic congruence, the draw that most everyone recognized is the role of impulses in decision-making. We reference our sensate self as we decide about when and how much to eat, about the importance of regular exercise, ample sleep, and so on. It’s not as though we want to distrust these impulses, although we might feel impulses that we need to curb in one way or another.
When we turn to sexual ethics, however, can we as readily turn to our impulses as reliable moral guides? As we extend the discussion to sexual impulses, how does the discussion change? Should it? You could imagine scenarios in which impulses may not provide particularly helpful guidance that should in all cases by followed. In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis challenges the appeal to instincts: “Telling us to obey instinct is like telling us to obey ‘people.’ People say different things: so do instincts. Our instincts are at war.” I think of Christians I’ve met in counseling who will talk about God releasing them from their commitment to their spouse in order to pursue another person who they have fallen in love with. I think of men who have justified affairs because their wife was not as responsive to sexual intimacy as they wanted.
Other gay Christians who experience a tension between their same-sex sexuality and their Christian faith look to ideals they wish to live by. They see these as transcendent purposes that they trust will provide a way of living and an identity.
What is the appeal of telic congruence? Telic congruence can give a person a sense of peace or security or worth if they believe they are doing something or making choices that are tied to transcendent purposes and structures of meaning. While this may be part of the appeal, there may be potential dangers as well. We discussed whether a person could connect striving toward telic congruence as a reflection of their worth or believe failure to make sufficient strides as placing them at risk of salvation or something along those lines.
As the task force report observed, telic congruence may prioritize values, but it “can be aware of sexual stigma and respectful of sexual orientation.” Likewise, organismic congruence, while it prioritizes “self-awareness and identity,” it can “be congruent with and respectful of religion” (p. 18).
It was a thought-provoking discussion that introduces not just the value of personal congruence but the motivations and appeal of different types of congruence. Perhaps there are yet more ways to conceptualize congruence that can add to our discussion as well.
Mark Yarhouse is Professor of Psychology and the Hughes Endowed Chair at Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA, where he directs the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity. He can be found on Twitter@markyarhouse.