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.

“Just Repent”

A Guest Post from Dave at
Gay and Evangelical

There seems to be an assumption that attraction is the same as lust. Feeling attraction for someone of the same gender must be lust, right? In fact, some of these comments from others seem to indicate that they themselves feel that if they (as a straight man, for example) were to feel attraction to a woman that it would undoubtedly be classified as “lust.”

Really? Is that really the sort of men and women which populate the Church? Have we created men and women who have no idea how to understand love apart from sex, affection apart from marriage, and attraction apart from dating?

Close friends in one of my favorite films: David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) Jack Powell (Buddy Rogers) as World War I pilots in WINGS, 1927.

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Gay Men and Falling in Love – Part II

In the last half century, no psychological theory has had as much impact on our knowledge of adult love and relationships as attachment theory. By looking at a person’s relationship with her or his parents and how he or she handles stress within the relationship, attachment theory brings insight to some of the unconscious ways that humans relate to other humans and helps to explain ruptures and disconnections.

At the end of 2016, Christine Baker published a study on celibate gay Christians revealing this population’s common attachment styles — how a person handles stress within their closest relationships. Using the four categories of attachment styles including secure, ambivalent/preoccupied, avoidant/dismissive, and fearful/avoidant, her findings show that celibate, gay Christians experience far more anxiety in their relationships than the general population. This anxiety often leads to poor views of one’s self and contributes to a lot of insecurity within relationships.

In this blog series on gay men and falling in love (see Part 1 here), understanding attachment theory and the insecure ways that people tend to relate to their attachment figures will greatly help us think about the ways that we approach falling in love.

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Gay Men and Falling in Love – Part I

One of the paralyzing fears and deep dreads for a gay man pursuing celibacy is falling in love with his male best friend. It is a phenomenon that is often spoken about implicitly in gay Christian circles, it’s often given the quick theological answer of suffering for the sake of the Kingdom, and it’s one that is shared across the theological spectrum.

Matthew Vines, in a lecture on the Bible and homosexuality, remarked,

Falling in love is one of the worst things that could happen to a gay person because you will necessarily be heartbroken. You will have to run away, and that will happen every single time that you come to care about someone else too much.

And Wes Hill, after confiding in his pastor about his heart break over his best friend, writes

I didn’t want to say that was right [that I had been in love with him], because if I did, then wouldn’t that mean I would have to give up the relationship? If I admitted, “Yes, I’ve been in love with him all this time, even though I’ve tried to hide that fact, even – or especially – from myself,” then didn’t that mean I was also admitting that the friendship was all wrong? That it had to end?

For Side-A gay Christians, it is often this reason (coupled with several others) that they find celibacy unlivable choosing then to pursue deep relationality in romantic same-sex relationships. For Side-B gay Christians, they identify this as part of God’s call to bear one’s cross and deny one’s flesh, and they look to the resurrection of the body as that time when they will finally be able to connect interpersonally like their heterosexual peers. Until then, they remain in this state of brokenness and distress.

What a terrible choice to choose between a moral violation against one’s deeply-held convictions or a life of deeply searing pain and isolation. Yet thankfully this is mostly a false dilemma.

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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.

True and False Friendship

Suzzallo Library - University of Washington

I saw the Graduate Reading Room in the Suzzallo Library for the first time during freshman orientation at the University of Washington—just a few hours before the fateful party where Jason and I discovered our mutual love of planes. As it turned out, the reading room has proven a happier and longer-lived companion.

The reading room has always been a kind of academic cloister for me. As an undergraduate in the mid nineties, I had no cell phone, no laptop, no WiFi internet access. Once I settled into one of the comfortable armchairs at the end of the reading room, I was almost cut off from the outside world, left alone with my thoughts and my books.

The architecture called to mind the great halls of Europe’s castles and sanctuaries of Europe’s cathedrals. It was easier to conjure up the past there than it was in the more utilitarian modern spaces of the libraries at Saint Louis University and the University of Notre Dame. I could feel people, places, and events come alive as I read there, in a way that they did not in my dorm room or a coffee shop or in the the fluorescent glare of the Hesburgh Library.

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The Heart: Condemned or Called?

The Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila

In After Virtue, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote that as humans are a “story-telling animal,” and goes on to say, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”

Over the last week, I’ve written a lot about my experiences and the experiences of my friends. In different ways, each of those stories grappled with its relation to the larger Christian story. Through those stories, I’ve tried to sketch some part of the range of gay experience, from anonymous hook-ups to highly idealized unrequited love.

Many Christians are suspicious of experience. They think that in our present fallen state, we are far too likely to be misled by our sinful desires, and that the only reliable source of moral judgment is found in the Bible or (for Catholics) in the Church’s teaching.

Pope John Paul II offered a more nuanced view. The Theology of the Body is a collection of addresses given by Pope John Paul II in the late 1970s and early 1980s and addressed to understanding the body and human sexuality in light of the Gospel.

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ISSI Celibate Gay Christian Study: A Thank You and an Update

Guest post by the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity and Dr. Christine Baker.

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In January of this past year, the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity (ISSI), under the leadership of Dr. Olya Zaporozhets and Dr. Mark Yarhouse, conducted a study concerning psychological factors and the spirituality of celibate gay Christians that relate to the wellbeing of “Side” B gay Christians. One of the student members of ISSI, Christine Baker, recently completed the analysis and write-up of the collected data in her dissertation, which is entitled, “Attachment, Well-Being, Distress, and Spirituality in Celibate Gay Christians”. We would like to first begin by expressing our gratitude to everyone who participated in the study. We are thankful for your time as it is very valuable, especially in such a busy world. We, therefore, truly want to thank you all for taking the time to complete the survey. We would also like to provide you all with a short summary of the results, as part of the debriefing process and in appreciation for the contribution to the research you all provided through your participation.

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Mark Yarhouse: Request for Study Participants

This is a request for participants from Mark Yarhouse, a psychologist at Regent University and occasional contributor to this blog. If you are in the target demographic and feel comfortable participating, please check it out.

We are in the process of conducting a research study that investigates the relationship between some psychological factors and spirituality of gay Christians. We specifically investigate the relationships between the attitudes and beliefs about same-sex attraction, milestone events in sexual identity development, social support, emotional and psychological well-being, quality of life, level of distress, attachment styles, and spiritual experience and practices. Remarkably, it will only take about 20-30 minutes to complete the survey, which you can go to here.

The study is conducted completely online through the Survey Monkey program and will protect the confidentiality of participants as no identifying information (other than basic demographic information) will be requested. Our hope is that, through this study, we can begin to provide a better understanding of the experience of gay Christians so that both church bodies and mental health practitioners can provide more effective support.