Loneliness and the Celibate Gay Christian

Solitary TreeThis is a guest post by Julia Sadusky, a doctoral candidate in the Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology at Regent University, where she previously served as the Research Assistant for the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity and completed clinical rotations in the Sexual and Gender Identity Clinic. Julia recently defended her dissertation, which was a qualitative study of loneliness among celibate gay Christians.


My dissertation, “Loneliness and the Celibate, Gay Christian,” delved into the lives of individuals navigating the intersection of faith and same-sex sexuality, in order to understand their experience of celibacy, loneliness, and coping. I hope to share some of the findings, which may have relevance to some of the Spiritual Friendship readership.

Purpose & Methods:

The aim was to understand the experience of loneliness for Christian sexual minorities who are not involved in sexual relationships. All participants were adult Christians experiencing same-sex sexuality who made a commitment to celibacy five or more years ago. After asking participants open-ended questions, each case was analyzed individually, by constructing themes based on the consensus of a team including the principal investigator, multiple coders, and an external auditor, according to an analysis process called Consensual Qualitative Research (CQR.) Due to the limited research in this area, open-ended prompts allowed participants to describe their experience more vividly.

Research Questions:

Within the study, four research questions were asked: 1) What factors contribute to the decision to choose celibacy for those who do so? 2) Do celibate, gay Christians who commit to celibacy experience loneliness as a result of their decision to forego same-sex sexual relationships? 3) What are the impacts of loneliness for those who report it? 4) What coping skills have celibate, gay Christians used in coping with loneliness and which of these have they found helpful?

Who we interviewed:

We interviewed fourteen participants between the ages of 18 and 60+. There was an even split with regard to gender and denomination (Roman Catholic and Protestant participants). When it came to the use of labels, participants varied. Two did not use any sexual identity label (gay, same-sex attracted, lesbian), although they reported same-sex sexuality. Some individuals privately labeled themselves as “gay” to describe their enduring same-sex attractions, but publicly identified as same-sex attracted or allowed others to assume heterosexuality.  Some individuals previously identified as gay, but at the time of the study no longer used that label.

Relevant Factors in Pursuit of Celibacy:

The most commonly reported factors that impacted the pursuit of celibacy were personal faith, one’s view of celibacy, social influences, and interpretation of scripture around marriage and sexuality. For personal faith, one participant said, “I am abstinent because I know that God loves me.  That is who I am, and I do not have to change anything for God to love me… And my way to love God, you know, my reaction of being loved is in loving God back, and in doing so, I would like to follow his teachings.  And these Christian teachings say that same-sex attraction is okay but the action, using your sexual/genitals, is not the way that God intended it to be.”

When it came to view of celibacy, most participants felt celibacy was a choice they made. For one female participant, “…obviously it’s a requirement for a Christian to live sexually as is prescribed in scripture which is in marriage between a man and a woman…  It’s still my choice whether or not to do it.  I mean I can choose any number of things that are outside of a biblical way of living and this is just one more of those that I have chosen to live without.” Others perceived celibacy as a calling or a spiritual discipline, much like fasting, or the only viable option in light of enduring experiences of same-sex attraction. When it came to social influences, the primary source of this was one’s faith community. Less common supports, although they were integral for those who reported them, included mentors, spiritual directors, ministry groups, and role-models.

Attributions about Experience of Loneliness:

The next research question asked whether or not participants attributed their experiences of loneliness to their state in life as celibate, single Christians. Research describes loneliness as a universal experience, although celibate Christian sexual minorities could be more at risk for loneliness since intimate partners serve as a buffer against loneliness. All but one of the participants attributed their experiences of loneliness to celibacy. The lack of intimate relationships, and the lack of companionship and lack of sexual intimacy that are part of those intimate relationships resulted in loneliness. Another common theme was that, being celibate made forming community much more difficult, in that there is a lack of societal structure for celibacy. They were often not well-accompanied by the church because of their status as single people, as sexual minorities, and as celibate people. One participant said, “…we have got the theological reasoning down pat, in terms of the fact that gay people shouldn’t be getting married and having sex. But the church, we the church have failed because we don’t have the intermediate structures institutionally to make that a plausible, livable, life choice and option for a lot of people.”

At the same time, participants made other attributions for their experience of loneliness, indicating it as a universal experience (“…Loneliness is just a very human feeling.  Everyone will feel [it] in their lifetime in many times.  I think it is a signal or indicator that you desire to be connected to something meaningful,”) as a result of low social support, or as a consequence of marginalization that would exist whether they were celibate or not (“I am no more lonely as a celibate person as I was when I was sexually active.”)

Aspects of Life Impacted By Loneliness:

When identifying aspects of life impacted by loneliness, participants noted: universal impacts, social impacts, psychological impacts, spiritual impacts, and physical impacts (exhaustion, difficulty sleeping). Social impacts included isolation from others, dissatisfaction with friendships or community they do have, a perceived lack of belonging (“…I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere… I wasn’t straight, I wasn’t gay, I wasn’t married, I wasn’t…wasn’t…wasn’t”) and, conversely, perceived closeness with others, in the event that loneliness drove them to reach out for support.

Psychological effects were both cognitive and emotional. When lonely, individuals might reconsider celibacy, be hyperaware of singleness and ruminate on this, and negatively self-evaluate as a result of their feelings of loneliness. Participants described a range of negative affective experiences, such as sadness, feelings of powerlessness, self-pity, hopelessness, lack of motivation, depressed mood, and suicidal thoughts. Conversely, some reported increased motivation to mitigate loneliness through reaching out to God or others, despite the negative state they were in.

When it came to spiritual impacts, some participants spoke of distance from God (“…it’s feeling that you are not capable of facing your problems.  And then, it can sort of spiral so that you also feel really distant from God and that is really painful and distressing.  Because kind of obviously, if you aren’t capable of handling your problems, God is, but if God also feels super far away, then it is hard to know who you can turn to,”) and others reported increased intimacy with God (“… I don’t think that I would have the intimacy with God that I have now. I can definitely see his guiding hand in bringing these difficulties into my life and this difficulty in particular, because it has really pressed me toward him…”) For one person, loneliness led to an acute longing for heaven (“…stuff in this world is not the way it is supposed to be.  And we are yearning forward to a goal that has not yet been completed or achieved, um.  I think I have a more acute longing for heaven than other people I know and encounter, um, because there is something pretty substantial in my life that I don’t have that many other people do have.  And so I do look toward that in that way…”)

Coping with Loneliness:

The final research question explored helpful and unhelpful coping skills to manage loneliness. When it came to helpful coping skills, there were general coping strategies (engaging in enjoyable activities, reading, occupation, volunteering/service, physical activity/exercise, projects/chores, travel, Netflix, and creative expression through art, journaling, and poetry reading), cognitive coping strategies (reframing circumstances, using gratitude to call to mind what they  appreciate about life, focusing on the present moment, focusing on the needs of those around them and serving others, and gaining insight into triggers of loneliness), social coping strategies (investing in friendships or pursuing new friendships, group involvement through ministry groups or, as one person put it, “…find(ing) your people…I interact with people who are also gay/lesbian/transgender/nonbinary and share their struggles…I try to make multiple communities, in different things that I identify myself with. This helps a lot with loneliness.  I don’t really feel lonely.  I have people who care about me.”)

Other strategies included religious/spiritual coping strategies (religious practices, whether communally through worship, prayer and sacraments, or individual through prayer and spiritual readings, faith community involvement, Christian friendships and spiritual direction, experiences of intimacy with God in prayer by way of identifying with Christ’s suffering or seeing their relationship with God as spousal), and coping through self-disclosure of sexual identity: (“the greatest defense against loneliness is giving people the chance to know you…when I feel known, I feel less lonely…it always is really cathartic and really meaningful,”) and psychological interventions, such as therapy and medication.

When it came to unhelpful coping, the most common were compulsive behaviors (overeating, pornography, masturbation, excessive shopping, substance abuse), isolation, and unhelpful thoughts (rumination, negative self-talk). Others included lashing out at others and self-harm behaviors. These are labeled unhelpful in that they ended up, in the long-term, increasing the loneliness participants felt, even if they relieved loneliness temporarily.

Where do we go from here?

The results of the study show that many of the participants lacked a support system where they felt that they belonged fully. Without a nuclear family as they got older, there were fears of the sustainability of singleness, especially in bouts of loneliness. Participants highlighted that, even more than the lack of a romantic partner, it was the lack of access to supports that many married people have, such as avenues for intimacy, companionship, healthy models of celibacy, and a vision for a future they could thrive in, that made celibacy challenging. Participants showed that loneliness often leads to negative thoughts of self and affective experiences that make engaging in meaningful relationships difficult. Participants described this as a domino effect, where their focus on self led to negative beliefs about themselves and negative expectations of their future.  The positive impacts of loneliness included the opportunity for personal growth through painful moments, increased closeness with God and others, and increased motivation to mitigate loneliness.  When it comes to coping, social coping offered the sense that a person uniquely belonged. For Christian sexual minorities, though, there are barriers to social coping, such as the fact that, in Christian circles, there is more emphasis on the value of romantic relationships over singleness and building community hinges on having nuclear family. While self-disclosure facilitates intimacy with community, many participants did not engage in this, for fear of rejection from others.

Addressing Mental Health

It seems that few participants looked to therapy as a means of coping with loneliness. Therapy could be an excellent space to begin to address compulsive behaviors which exacerbate loneliness, incorporate principles such as gratitude and reframing circumstances to challenge negative thoughts that can come with loneliness, identify triggers of loneliness (such as attending weddings), developing a plan for engaging in meaningful connections when lonely, and considering religious practices that are personal and/or communal to engage in.

A Need for Discipleship

Christian churches can play an essential role in helping celibate Christians navigate loneliness, but there is much work to be done in this regard. Pastoral care ought to attend to the whole person, considering both short-term and long-term negative and far-reaching impacts of loneliness, making referrals to mental health professionals when necessary.  It is important to be attentive to the way loneliness can hurt one’s sense of closeness with God and others in their community, making the very strategies that help manage loneliness difficult to access.

It is clear that celibate sexual minorities are hesitant to share their experience of loneliness, for fear of disclosing their sexual orientation to their church family. Few turn to means such as mentoring, spiritual direction, or Christian friendships as they cope with loneliness. Many fear burdening others or expect negative reactions if they share about their same-sex sexuality, and thus suffer their loneliness in isolation. It would be beneficial for sexual minorities to experience faith communities where there is openness to dialogue that normalizes loneliness as a universal experience, without negating the unique challenges they face.  Participants often felt so unique that they could not be offered discipleship, as if they were the only ones struggling to feel like they belong, perpetuating the loneliness they already feel.

Drawing from distinctively Christian themes

There are valuable Christian themes that helped individuals make meaning out of loneliness and cope with it without a loss of faith or purpose. Meaning-making buffered against negative thinking patterns such as “I am defective” or “I will always be alone.” In the face of loneliness, seeing one’s relationship with God as spousal, and identifying with Christ’s own suffering were unifying experiences that helped lessen the effects of loneliness. It was also helpful to normalize the moments of perceived distance from God. This validated that individuals were not deficient or lacking faith when they felt lonely or far from God in their suffering. Some participants found solace in historical Christian reflections on the redemptive value of suffering, even when suffering is unwanted and does not seem to have an expiration date on this side of eternity. Rediscovering the value of celibacy and singleness, seeing these states in life as opportunities to serve Christ and others, and inviting the church to embody a “family” are other essential steps in making celibacy a sustainable and life-giving reality for those who pursue it. Without these, Christian sexual minorities are left to wonder how they could live out the life they believe God has called them to, and thrive within that call.

Limitations:

Limitations of this study include, convenience sampling, which puts constraints on the generalizeability to individuals who do have access to the supports of the ministry organizations. Further, the sample was mostly homogenous in terms of race and educational level. Biases also limit the findings, such as the fact that the data relies on self-report about the experience of loneliness. Much is left to be understood about how to come alongside those integrating their faith and sexuality in this way, and the hope is that future research will help us in this endeavor.

New Resource Published

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Students arrive on campus with various boxes of belongings to unpack, some heavy, some tidy, some more valuable, some more private. For many students, two of these boxes could be labeled ‘My Faith’ and ‘My Sexuality’–and these two can be among the most cumbersome to handle. How to balance them without having to set one down? How to hold them both closely, but still move forward to settle in with new friends in a new environment? How to keep from dropping one or the other, spilling its embarrassing contents for all to see?

This is what we say in our Preface about what we hope the reader will take away from this book:

We hope that readers will listen to the range of voices and experiences of these students. They are not all saying one thing, and so we have to listen carefully. We hope that Christians will also be more intentional as they engage the people represented in this project. We hope that Christian institutions will support a comprehensive and more nuanced view of personhood, including our sexuality and sexual identity, and that our hopes to build one another up will be reflected in the quality of our programming and in our interpersonal relationships.

This book presents findings from the first two years of a longitudinal study of sexual minority students at Christian colleges and universities. We provide information on their experience of sexual identity development, campus climate, psychological distress, emotional well-being, and religiosity.

The book is now available for order from InterVarsity Press Academic.

Friends as Family Perspective

We are looking to enhance our understanding of the experiences of celibate gay Christians and their support system. We would like to interview friends who are close to celibate gay Christians or function as family in the lives of celibate gay Christians and could speak to that friendship. We would like to understand how people have built supportive friendships and to learn about the challenges, approaches, and your shared wisdom in building such relationships.  You don’t have to be living together as family, although a communal life together is an option for being included in the interviews. We are also open to interviewing celibate gay Christians who are in a covenant partnership or related relationship that is intentional in the way we described above.

These interviews are confidential, and we have some funds to support a limited number of interviews.

The interview takes about 40 minutes or so to complete and is typically done by phone or Skype. If you are interested in sharing some of your experience, please email me at markyar@regent.edu.

 

Study of Celibate Gay Christians

This past year I was part of a team that invited celibate gay Christians to participate in a survey. We have reopened the survey to ensure more people have a chance to participate and have their voices heard. If you already completed the survey, THANK YOU – we genuinely appreciate you sharing your experience with us. If you did not complete the survey at that time, would you take about 15-20 minutes to do that? Here is the link:

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/DVFPS8Q

If you know of others who might be interested in participating, please feel free to share the link with them.

Thank you,

Mark A. Yarhouse, PsyD
Professor of Psychology & Hughes Endowed Chair
Director, Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity
School of Psychology and Counseling
Regent University, CRB 161
1000 Regent University Drive
Virginia Beach, VA  23464

What Is Gender Dysphoria?

Here are several talks featured at Q Ideas this week. The first is a talk I gave at Q Denver titled, What is Gender Dysphoria?  I try to explain the phenomenon, as well as provide a little background information on theories of etiology, prevalence, and management strategies.

The second talk is by Melinda Selmys, who shares about her own experiences with gender dyshporia.

After we both spoke, Gabe Lyons invited us to join him for a time to Q & A from the audience. This was a helpful opportunity to reflect further on gender dysphoria:

To give you a little background on Q Ideas, here is a description from their website:

Q was birthed out of Gabe Lyons’ vision to see Christians, especially leaders, recover a vision for their historic responsibility to renew and restore cultures. Inspired by Chuck Colson’s statement, “Christians are called to redeem entire cultures, not just individuals,” Gabe set out to reintroduce Christians to what had seemed missing in recent decades from an American expression of Christian faithfulness; valuing both personal and cultural renewal, not one over the other. Re-educating Christians to this orthodox and unifying concept has become central to the vision of Q.

Together, we explore topics that fall into four broad themes: culture, future, church, and gospel. Q facilitates the investigation of deeper engagement and responsibility in each of these areas. As we continue to work through these ideas on a deeper level, so grows our commitment to equipping innovators, social entrepreneurs, entertainers, artists, church-shapers, futurists, scientists, educators, historians, environmentalists, and everyday people to do extraordinary things. At Q Ideas, you’ll see a broad spectrum of content represented in our small group curriculum, essays, videos, blog articles, and podcasts. These are all contributed and commissioned to shed light on unique areas of culture and the church.

Understanding the Transgender Phenomenon

I have an article up at Christianity Today titled, “Understanding the Transgender Phenomenon,” where I introduce three contrasting lenses through which people see and respond to gender dysphoria and related matters. I also discuss the importance of not equating gender congruence with spiritual maturity:

We can be sensitive, though, not to treat as synonymous management of gender dysphoria and faithfulness. Some may live a gender identity that reflects their biological sex, depending on their discomfort. Others may benefit from space to find ways to identify with aspects of the opposite sex, as a way to manage extreme discomfort. And of course, no matter the level of discomfort someone with gender dysphoria experiences (or the degree to which someone identifies with the opposite sex), the church will always encourage a personal relationship with Christ and faithfulness to grow in Christlikeness.

Those interested in the topics of gender dysphoria and the experiences of transgender persons, including Christian transgender persons, might be interested in the book, Understanding Gender Dysphoria.

Understanding Gender Dysphoria

A primary emphasis at Spiritual Friendship is the experience of navigating sexual identity in light of one’s Christian identity. Another topic that is often a part of cultural discussions of sex and gender is Gender Dysphoria. It is not the same thing as sexual identity, but the topic of Gender Dysphoria and the increased visibility of gender variant persons has raised questions related to how Christians engage a most complex topic and be Christ in a meaningful way to those who are navigating gender identity concerns.

Calvin - Understanding Gender Dysphoria

I was recently invited to speak on the topic of Gender Dysphoria at Calvin College in the context of the Sexuality Series held there. The talk is based on a book that is forthcoming from InterVarsity Press Academic. In this talk I define key terms, discuss prevalence and presentation, as well as some of the discussions surrounding etiology and resolutions. I also introduce three competing frameworks people rely upon in these discussions: the integrity framework, the disability framework, and the diversity framework. These are presented with reference to an integrated framework that may be useful to Christians interested in meaningful engagement and care.

In any case, here is the link to the recent talk, Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture.

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.

On the Expectation of Change

A recent World Magazine article centers on the hiring of Julie Rodgers at Wheaton College. Julie is a self-described celibate gay Christian who works as an associated in the chaplain’s office at the college. I consider Julie a friend, and I am an alumni of Wheaton (’98) and I have served as an adjunct professor there for the past decade. I also blog occasionally at Spiritual Friendship which is mentioned in the article.

Julie RodgersI was surprised to see my research cited in the article about the hiring of Julie. The way the argument was set up was to express concern for Wheaton as the flagship evangelical college hiring a staff member who is known to be gay and who actually uses the word “gay” as an adjective to describe herself to others. Julie had spent about 10 years in Exodus International attempting to change her sexual orientation, and I have spoken with Julie on several occasions about this. She is gracious and positive about her own personal experience with the Exodus member ministries she participated in. However, speaking graciously about involvement in a ministry and declaring that it made her straight are two different things. She, like many other people who have attempted to change, did not experience a dramatic shift in her attractions as a result of ministry.

In my view, the article would serve the Body of Christ better if it were about this reality.

I am co-author of the study cited in the World magazine article about Julie and Wheaton. That study was published in book form in 2007 and then again as a peer-reviewed journal article in 2011, after six years of attempted change. If I were to summarize my view of the findings, I would put it this way: While on average people reported a modest shift along a continuum of attraction, most people did not experience as much of a shift as they would have liked, particularly as people entering ministry envision change as a 180-degree shift from gay to straight.

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Forgiveness in MOCs

The Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity has a new study available online on people in mixed orientation relationships. Recall the mixed orientation couples (MOCs) are relationships in which one partner is straight and the other partner is a sexual minority. By “sexual minority” we mean that the person experiences same-sex attraction independent of identity (that is, they may not self-identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual). That is a definition used by other researchers in this area and it is not unique to us.

Back to the new study. We’ve been conducting a longitudinal study (a study in which data is gathered from the same people over time) of MOCs. This most recent publication examined the experience of disclosure on the part of the sexual minority and the impact of that disclosure on the straight spouse.

Spouses often progress through stages following disclosure and obviously have a lot to navigate. Amity Buxton discusses stages spouses go through following disclosure: 1) Initial shock, denial and relief, 2) Facing, acknowledging, and accepting reality; 3) Letting go, 4) Healing, and 5) Transformation. What we have seen elsewhere is that the impact of disclosure is comparable to what Gordon and Baucom have described in the affair literature. That is, disclosure of same-sex sexuality (which can include disclosure of infidelity) is often experienced as “interpersonal trauma” as it can be experienced as a significant betrayal to the offended spouse.

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The Appeal and Motivation of Types of Congruence

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.

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