Hope-focused marriage: recommendations for researchers, clinicians, and church workers.
Can you briefly describe what kind of work you're currently doing in support of Christian marriages?
In 1996, God gave me a clear mission statement for the foreseeable future: to promote forgiveness in every willing heart, home, and homeland. I have had many research interests over the years. But I now believe that God wants me to focus on forgiveness. Since 1996, I have pursued this purpose. I have done other research (such as studying marriage and Christian values) in service of my prime mission.
I recently completed a six-year longitudinal study funded by the John Templeton Foundation on interventions in early marriage (ended July 31, 2003). In the 1980's, I created an approach that has evolved into what is now call hope-focused marriage counseling (Worthington, 1989, 1999), or hope-focused relationship enhancement (Worthington et al., 1997). That approach has guided my practice, training, and research into marriage intervention. Colleagues and I demonstrated that a five-hour enrichment intervention could be effective (Worthington et al., 1997). I have done component analyses of that method over the years to find out which parts are most effective (Hammonds & Worthington, 1985; Ripley & Worthington, 2002; Worthington, Buston, & Hammonds, 1989; Worthington et al., 1995; Worthington & Ripley, 2002).
The Templeton-funded research is another of those component analyses. A 9-hour intervention is delivered by a consultant to a couple. In one intervention, I use the parts of hope-focused marriage enrichment that concentrate on communication training and conflict-resolution training. Only brief mentions of intimacy and forgiveness are made. In the second intervention, consultants teach FREE (Forgiveness and Reconciliation through Experiencing Empathy). FREE is a 9-hour intervention that is framed as a way of creating more intimacy and maintaining intimacy if transgressions interrupt the marital flow. FREE includes training in both forgiveness and reconciliation. I described these principles in a recent book that was aimed at a mass-market audience (Worthington, 2001; see also Worthington & Drinkard, 2000) and another Christian version (Worthington, 2003).
I have been blessed to continue to collaborate with excellent colleagues. We are studying how people forgive, reconcile, talk about transgressions, and experience forgiveness. We have also continued to study how to help people forgive more quickly and efficiently. I have become particularly interested in other ways besides forgiveness whereby Christians can deal with transgressions. These ways include forbearing, letting go of the transgression, turning judgment over to God, telling a different story about the transgression, or seeking justice through mutual apology, restitution, and repentance.
Each of those alternatives is useful in marriage. Forgiveness frequently is a major issue. To succeed in marriage, partners must have hope for the future, learn and use communication, conflict resolution, closeness, and commitment skills in the present, and be able to deal with hurts, wounds, and offenses from the past. So forgiveness is a crucial part of marriage.
In recent years, much of my research directly on marriage or marriage interventions has been in collaboration with Jennifer Ripley, Les Parrott, and Leslie Parrott. We have examined how couples construe their marriage as a contract or a covenant (Ripley, Worthington, & Bromley, 2003); we have also examined the Parrotts' SYMBIS program (Ripley, Parrott, Parrott, & Worthington, 2000), and the Parrotts' marriage mentoring program (Ripley, Parrott, Worthington, Parrott, & Smith, 2001). Ripley and I have examined Christians' preferences for marital counseling as well (Ripley, Worthington, & Berry, 2001).
Finally, I have been blessed to have been able to travel around the United States and to countries like Brazil, the Philippines, Singapore (twice), and Malaysia (twice), South Africa, England, and Canada. I have been invited to talk about Christian marriages, forgiveness, and helping Christians with marriage problems, and I hope to be able to continue to minister as the Lord gives me strength to do so.
A number of dangers to the institution of marriage have been proposed including cohabitation, increased religious heterogeneity, dual career issues, modern mobility, increases in the length of life and others. Over the next decade, what do you believe will be the greatest risks to the institution of marriage?
Over 25 to 50 years, a huge threat to marriage will probably be the lengthening of the life span. Longer lives will mean that happy marriages must last longer than they now last. Simply because there will be more time spent in marriage, more problems are likely to occur. Over the next decade, however, the biggest threat to the institution of marriage will likely be the shift in social understanding of (a) the development of relationships in young adults and (b) the onset of adulthood.
First, young adults now understand romantic relationships differently from previous generations. The gender-equality movement has virtually eliminated dating among college students. Men are reluctant to ask for dates because they might be perceived as sexist. Women are reluctant to ask for dates because they might be perceived as showing too much interest in a serious relationship. Dating has been transformed into a signal that a relationship is serious. Instead, in college, most people tend to "hang out" with peers of both genders. Many go to parties, and it is common for people to "hook up," which often means having oral sex or sexual intercourse with a person--who is usually an acquaintance or stranger. When relationships become more serious, cohabitation or regular sexual intercourse have become common. Today's young adults talk explicitly about sexual issues--much more so than any previous generation. Relationships are sexually charged. Within Christianity, there are counter-cultural movements, such as True Love Waits, and books that advocate not dating (e.g., Harris, 1997). However, only a small minority of Christians seem to follow these principles.
Second, young middle socio-economic status (SES) adults understand the onset of full adulthood to occur later than in previous generations. In previous generations, graduation from high school signaled that the person had become an adult and needed to make his or her way in the world. Now, almost 60 percent of all graduating high school seniors attend some form of college immediately after graduation. College has virtually become public education. Almost anyone who wishes to have a decent job must go to college. Those who wish to advance must get at least a master's degree. Typically, young adults graduate from college, take a year or more off to work, then pursue in a master's degree. Parents often support the young adult until graduation with a master's degree. This has moved the age of independence from about age 23 to about 27 or 28.
Synergistically, with the increase of communication technologies--such as the web, email, cell phones, etc.--the pressure to meet a mate and establish a lasting relationship during the college years has decreased. Therefore, young middle-SES adults might not seriously look for a mate until the late 20s or early 30s. By that age, adults have had much experience living on their own while (paradoxically) being supported by parents. Cohabitation often delays marriage further. If marriage does occur, the patterns of independent living are harder to break than for the average 23 year old in previous generations.
At the same time, adulthood for lower-SES people is, on the average, being defined progressively earlier. Obviously, any generalization will not be true in some families or communities; however, in many lower-SES communities, the age of emancipation of children (especially boys) has become around age 12 or 13. Marriage has virtually disappeared in many lower-SES communities. Young girls are protected, but pregnancies often meet with immediate emotional turmoil followed by acceptance. Relationships with biological fathers often are short-lived and serial cohabitation becomes common. Thus, whereas there is pressure on marriage in middle- and lower-SES communities, the pressures are different and the economic gap between the classes seems to be widening due to the different patterns.
Although there is no space to explore the topic of remarriage, that also provides a threat to the institution of marriage. Remarriages have long been known to be less stable and often less satisfying than first marriages (Brody, Neubaum, & Forehand, 1988). The number of remarriages has increased. This has occurred because (a) of the divorce revolution of the 1970s, and (b) improvements in the medical field that have lengthened life for women more than for men.
Follow up: What do you believe is the cause of high levels of divorce in the Christian community today?
The church has bought into the American cultural belief that personal experience is the ultimate value. In the church, experience eclipses scriptural truth. I'm glad we are emphasizing experiences because Christians can freely worship and express their love for God. But the down-side is that experiencing sexual and emotional happiness has become the litmus test for continuing marriage. Theologically liberal Christians have long since abandoned a strict understanding of the Bible as the inerrant word of God. As they got away from that standard (like conservatives are now doing), divorce became more probable. Conservatives, to me, now seem headed down a similar road.
The solution to the problem of increased divorce is not to downplay personal experience. We should encourage worship structures and theologies that promote personal experience to its rightful high position (as we see from reading the Psalms). But we must not lose the strengths that the Evangelical movement worked hard to gain-namely, a sense of objective truth, a knowledge of the Bible, and a belief that Scripture is God's inerrant word. Opposing God's truth against personal experience is a false dichotomy We must strive to maintain a high value of both truth and Christian experience.
David Blankenhorn recently suggested that a shift in how partners see marriage has occurred. He noted that couples today often see the partners as bigger than the marriage. In the past, partners saw the marriage, and faith or community-based commitments to marriage, as bigger than themselves. What are the consequences of this shift in values away from faith or community-based covenants?
Blankenhorn believes that most couples now create individually tailored marriages. This is congruent with my beliefs that (a) experience has become the primary value in modern culture, including the church, and (b) the church has lost a sense of God's word as being absolute.
I see two major consequence of this shift. First, most couples understand marriage as a contract or agreement rather than as a permanent covenant (Bromley & Busching, 1988; Bromley & Cress, 1998; Ripley et al., 2003), making divorce more probable. Contracts are easier to break than are covenants, which suggests that divorce will continue to be frequent. Cohabitation without marriage will also increase because it is typically based more on contract than on covenant. Second, partners will focus less on their children and more on the relationship of the couple. I expect to see day-care use go up, number of children go down, and home-schooling to decline.
The Bush administration, under Wade Horn, is searching for ways to support marriages in America today. Marriage interventionists have tried to assist marriages in a variety of ways including church-based marriage enrichment, pastoral counseling, professional counseling, marriage mentoring, and pre-marital counseling. If you could make a recommendation to Wade Horn today, what would you recommend his office attempt to make a difference in marriages?
I do not believe the salvation of marriage will come about from increased professional or pastoral counseling. By the time many people are ready to come to counseling, they are looking more for an excuse to divorce than for a solution to their marital problems. Counseling is often merely a doorway to divorce. This is why so many people who come to counselors for couples counseling eventually divorce.
As we all know, there is no magic silver bullet that will heal our country's marital ills. Rather a strategic campaign must be undertaken. Four guidelines should govern the campaign:
1. Rebuild hope. The population (outside of a few bastions of conservatism) has given up on marriage.
2. We must do new things and do them well. If the people value marriage, government must support new and empirically supported programs.
3. Attack on many fronts at once. Searching for a magic bullet won't work.
4. Engage many community partners. Traditionally, marriage preservation efforts by government have been minimal (e.g., a few thousand-dollar tax-breaks for those who marry). Efforts have not involved communities. The most widespread pro-marriage community--the churches--were seen as off limits to government intervention, which has begun to change.
Partners must be able to communicate, resolve their differences, and repair harms. Hope consists of the willpower to change plus the waypower to change plus the waypower when we are not seeing change (Worthington, 1999). Partners must have (a) the will to make their marriage better, (b) access to the ways to make their marriage betters, and (c) the faith to wait for their marriage to improve while they are actively trying to improve it. In short, couples need hope. We need national strategies in each area.
Willpower to change. At the present time, there is little public sense that marriage is worth maintaining. When partners have problems, one obvious way to stop those problems is to divorce the problem. They see the partner as the problem. This attitude should be systematically combated in school and work settings. People must be educated as to why they should maintain a marriage. There is an enormous amount of information known about divorce's mostly negative consequences, for divorcing partners and their children. We also know much about the benefits of marriage to adults and their children. Better dissemination of information to the population is needed (a) in public and private schools in grades K-12, (b) in colleges, and (c) in employment settings.
We must create structures (a) at the public-policy level and (b) at the level of preventive interventions that could disseminate the knowledge of the benefits of marriage. For example, the USA might undertake a public-health campaign to disseminate information. This might be done directly through initiatives from the National Institutes for Health or the Department for Health and Human Services. I suggest several targets:
1. Media could receive grants. Dissemination-grant programs might be created, especially involving innovative technology, such as creation of news spots or cable television shows for dissemination nationwide, or use of the web to disseminate information.
2. Seed-grant or block grant money could be awarded to state departments of health to fund innovative training for primary care physicians (in practice or in training) to deliver pro-marriage brief interventions.
3. Public-private partnerships to disseminate information are needed. Better dissemination of information would build hope in marriage through affecting willpower to make marriages last longer and function better.
Waypower to change. Similarly, schools, colleges, workplaces, media, primary care physicians, and public-private partnerships could be targeted for grants direct or block grants to states. Training in ways to improve marriages could thus be disseminated. The legislative branch could also be involved. State legislatures could pass laws that affect the ways marriages operate. This might involve laws permitting engaged parties to marry under covenant or contract options. Conditions under which divorce can occur are more stringent for covenant marriages. Several states currently have such options.
Traditional remedies for marital ills tend to focus on repair rather than prevention of problems. We need to know which preventive strategies work and for whom. This requires research, not merely program dissemination. Although we know a lot about good marriages and possibly even more about poor marriages, we do not know enough. For example, we know that a ratio of positive to negative interactions of 5 to 1 or more predicts marital satisfaction and duration (Gottman, 1994). But we do not know whether (a) improving the ratio will actually improve marital satisfaction and duration, or (b) whether people who have lower ratios (say 1 to 1 or less) can improve them without counseling. Importantly, if a preventive assault is made on divorce, we must find much more about how couples can change themselves without therapist or professional intervention.
Waitpower for change. We know little about how troubled couples maintain their marriages. In particular, a systematic research program that compares couples who have problems yet do not divorce with those who do divorce might yield interesting and helpful advice for troubled couples (Stanley et al., 2002). Furthermore, research on troubled couples who improve versus those who do not would also be instructive.
Do New Things and Do Them Well
A caveat is in order. People are extraordinarily creative and frequently come up with exciting programs. These programs often attract ardent adherents because the proponents are charismatic in their writing or their personal presentation. Evidence of effectiveness of the program is usually relegated to a few glowing public testimonials, numerous people who were entertained by the presentation, and word-of-mouth contagion of enthusiasm. Tragically, people often get excited about ideas that sound good but at best do not make a positive difference and at worst distract people from effective action.
I believe high quality research is absolutely necessary to improving Christian marriages. Today, high quality research involves: (a) large, expensive studies that follow participants for years; (b) measures of self-report, partner-report, other-report, physiology, and actual behavior; and (c) collaborations across sites and investigators that cannot be attributed to a leader with charisma or a loyal personal following.
This requires that Christian philanthropists who have a vision for really helping marriages fund excellent researchers to conduct high quality research. It also requires excellent researchers who devote themselves to studying Christian marriages.
Recently, new ideas have surfaced. Few have much research support. I consider some of the better ideas to be (a) lay counseling and lay dissemination of psychoeducation, (b) marriage mentoring, (c) pre- and early marriage intervention, (d) Promise Keepers, (e) rising interest in forgiveness and reconciliation, (f) innovative use of technology to improve relationships, and (g) Oklahoma's strategic attack on divorce and campaign for improving marriages. Who is doing controlled research on these ideas? These need to be studied in dissertations, and post-doctoral researchers need to devote their early careers to finding which of these actually help people.
Attack on Many Fronts
Government in itself can never change marriages directly. Government is often a better catalyst than it is a reactant. Catalysts provide sites for chemical reaction. Government can orchestrate a strategic multi-front assault that might result in individual partners and individual couples staying together longer and living together better. To facilitate that, structures must change that bring people daily into contact with marriage-saving help. Government should target change at places where people spend their time: their homes, jobs, schools, churches, and communities.
Homes. Information aimed at increasing willpower, waypower, and waitpower can be disseminated through (a) the internet, (b) television, and (c) video or DVD.
Jobs. I would create a government-funded research initiative to show how businesses benefit from intact marriages (e.g., fewer missed days, happier, more productive workers, etc.) and how businesses are harmed by divorce (e.g., emotional problems, child-care issues). I would appoint a high level panel of business leaders to advise agencies in the Executive Branch (or federal, and state governments) on solving problems that negatively affect businesses through troubled marriage. Furthermore, the advisors should plan how to involve businesses nationwide in disseminating hope-inspiring information about marriage within business settings.
Schools. I would give block grants to states for creative in-school programming to promote positive marital attitudes and skills at (a) K-12, and (b) college levels.
Churches. I would make a separate marriage-strengthening initiative within the faith-based initiative. Middle-SES as well as lower-SES faith-based organizations should receive funding.
Communities. I would offer block grants to states for creative public-private community-based programming to strengthen marriages.
Engage Non-traditional Allies
Besides these targets of intervention, I would devote special attention to how to stimulate the involvement of important players who have not typically been involved en masse in promoting positive marriage attitudes and skills. These include (a) nongovernmental organizations, (b) philanthropists, and (c) business leaders.
Follow up: What should churches be doing to support marriages in their congregations and community?
Churches also cannot take a silver bullet approach to strengthening marriages. Marriages can be strengthened by good sermons. Church leaders can provide for helpful programs, workshops, Sunday school classes, or seminars. Churches can provide premarital, early-marriage, and marital enrichment as well as seminars and workshops. Groups of couples with common interests-such as couples with young children, couples with teenagers, couples without children--can meet for mutual support. Bigger congregations can provide programs for professional, pastoral, or lay marriage counseling programs. A congregation develops a culture that either truly values marriage or endorses marriage but takes a laissez-faire attitude toward action. Church communities can thus aid their members by establishing a marriage-valuing culture that commits resources to marriage.
John Gottman has proposed that training couples in communication skills is not as effective as marriage interventionists have believed. For example, he found that "master" couples who have demonstrated the ability to create a strong marriage only use the skill 4% of the time. Consequently, there is a debate among marriage interventionists about the utility and efficacy of communication skills training. Where do you fall on the current issue?
The research is clear. If we give couples systematic training on how to communicate better and then test them, they will be able to communicate better than before we tested them. This suggests that people can build better communication skills.
The problem is that people do not employ their skills when the skills are needed. If people always employed their good communication skills, then marriage therapists would never divorce. They have all the skills. Yet marriage therapists do divorce. Communication skill training is important in good marriage relationships, but there must be more to creating good marriages than training people in skills.
People do not employ the communication and conflict resolution skills that they possess because they do not think to employ the skills during their "hot" interactions with their partner. Instead, they focus on the immediate interactions, issues, or hurts. Some skills can become well ingrained in people's behavioral repertoire, such as reflective listening. Those skills can improve marriages if their use becomes habitual.
But when people get in the midst of a conflict, they often fail to employ their skills. They might become involved in their reasoning about an issue (and don't listen to their partner). They might also respond to the past hurts they have experienced. For example, some hurts are inflicted by their parents, previous romantic partners, children, work colleagues, friends, or spouse. These wounds make people vulnerable, fearful, or angry. Emotional distress focuses attention internally. Anger and fear suppress prefrontal-cortex reasoning and trigger limbic system activity, especially in the amygdala, which is activated by both fear and anger. When the amygdala fires up, the prefrontal cortex shuts down (Pietrini, Guazzelli, Basso, Jaffe, & Grafman, 2000).
People need ways to calm themselves if they are to employ good communication skills. Gottman (1999) teaches couples self-soothing strategies such as deep breathing. Of course, to benefit, people must recognize that they are losing control of their thinking and then respond by employing self-soothing strategies. Making that recognition-response link is one key to helping couples deal with hurts.
A second, more proactive key is to forgive hurts (Worthington, 2001, 2003) and reconcile with the partner and with others besides the partner (Worthington & Drinkard, 2000). Relational repair can reduce woundedness and therefore vulnerability. Forgiveness can sometimes prevent a person from moving to limbic system activity in conflict.
New programs are needed to help people enrich their marriage and prevent problems. Such programs would supplement traditional marital interventions by teaching (a) cues to promote use of traditional skills during the heat of conflict, (b) self-soothing strategies, (c) forgiveness and reconciliation skills, and (d) alternative strategies for dealing positively with transgressions. These strategies might include forbearance, turning things over to God, seeking just solutions, and being quick to apologize and make restitution for wrongdoing (Worthington, 2003).
Explain to the readers how you integrate your faith/theology with your approach to marital intervention. How do you approach marital interventions and marital research in respect to your faith?
Marital Interventions and My Faith My approach to marital interventions is based on promoting hope. Hope is the core of marriage. To succeed at marriage, a person needs a strategy, which is outlined in Galatians 5:26 (RSV)--promoting "faith working through love." I teach couples how to promote love, which is the essence of Christianity. Love is being willing to value, and not willing to devalue your partner (Worthington, 1999; Worthington & McMurry, 1994). Work is necessary to maintain a good marriage. In addition, couples need faith in a variety of objects-including faith in God's work and presence, faith in God's salvation through Jesus, faith in the partner, faith in the future, and even faith in counseling. As we know from Hebrews 11:1 (RSV), "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things unseen." Things hoped for precede faith. Hope is a fundamental characteristic of a good relationship.
My Christian faith, then, is integrated into my marriage interventions by guiding the overall strategy (faith, work, love) and focus (hope) of marriage interventions. Individual areas of intervention within the marriage, such as the core values, central beliefs about marriage, confession and forgiveness, communication, conflict management, and covenantal commitment are targets for change. I try thoroughly to integrate Christianity within my approach to Christian couples.
I apply the same interventions with couples who are not Christian, but I am less explicit about drawing biblical justifications for the interventions. Instead, I justify the approach as being good for the marriage. I can deduce evidence from secular marriage research to show that biblically-derived principles are empirically, not just theologically, validated. As we who integrate our faith with practice often say, all truth is God's truth. It is not surprising that Scripture and much of psychology line up parallel to each other.
Marital Research and My Faith
I do research on things that are scripturally approved, such as forgiveness and reconciliation. Scripture is not a marriage counseling manual. Research helps us to flesh out the principles that Scripture advocates.
I also pray about my research career and reflect prayerfully on it. Often people who are doing research in marital issues will have an active prayer life about their own relationships, the sins in their lives, and other life decisions. Yet they may rarely seek God's guidance about how God wants their research careers to progress. Our research direction can influence our entire life, not just the work that we do from 8 to 5. Surely something this important deserves prayer and listening for God's direction.
My life mission throughout the late 80s and early 90s was guided by a mission statement: "Lord, let me live a life of faith working through love and teach others, especially married partners, to operate according to that fundamental principle of discipleship." In the mid-90s, God reoriented my mission: "to promote forgiveness in every willing heart, home, and homeland." It is important that we each have a mission statement that captures our purpose, passions, and power. I prefer to write mine and tell it to others as often as possible to keep me focused on what God wants me to do in my teaching, speaking, administration, and personal life.
Empirical study of Christian marriage and religious marital interventions is seriously lacking. In your opinion, what are the most important studies that need to be conducted to advance our understanding of Christian marriages and Christian marriage interventions?
Most Christians who want better marriages receive information through only a few sources. These include (a) radio programs such as Focus on the Family, (b) Christian marriage seminars, (c) Christian books, (d) audiotape series, (e) preparation-for-marriage programs that are conducted in local congregations, (f) Sunday morning sermons, (g) videotape series, and (h) (an emerging candidate) web-based information. Bluntly, we have no idea whether receiving such information actually helps people have better marriages. If any research is done, it is usually just satisfaction surveys.
We need research on those interventions that employ the same standards as do psychologists who conduct outcome research in psychotherapy. That is, we need to demonstrate the efficacy, or lack of efficacy, of each of these interventions. This means we must randomly assign people to different interventions, rather than testing samples of convenience who have already pre-selected to attend a seminar or watch a videotape. We need to follow up the couples using longitudinal research to determine whether any long-term benefits occur from these practical interventions. Finally, we need to move beyond mere outcome research. We soon must ask, for which people are which types of interventions effective under what circumstances?
If you were to give advice to someone who is training to work with marriages, what is the key piece of advice you would like to share?
Stay hopeful despite setbacks. In counseling marriages, or pouring your life into prevention or enrichment interventions, it is easy to become discouraged. Many people either will not take your counsel, or cannot use it. Keep your spirits high. Study and work hard to find effective ways to help marriages. Realize that Jesus Christ walks with us through both our successes and our failures. It is upon him that we depend. Without him, we can do nothing. Not surprisingly, I would advise a marriage helper to remain hopeful. Keep up the willpower to change. Work hard to build waypower to help people change. Maintain your own waitpower while you don't see as many changes as you would like.
Acknowledgement: Much of the research on which this article is based is funded by a grant (#239) from the John Templeton Foundation. Virginia Commonwealth University's General Clinical Research Center, under NIH M01 RR00065, also supports that research. I am grateful to both for supporting the empirical research on which many of my opinions are based. Correspondence concerning this article may be addressed to Everett L. Worthington, Jr., PhD, Department of Psychology, Virginia Commonwealth University, Box 842018, 808 West Franklin Street, Richmond, VA 23284-2018.
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WORTHINGTON, EVERETT L., JR. Address: Department of Psychology, Virginia Commonwealth University, Box 842018, 808 West Franklin Street, Richmond, VA 73284-2018. Title: Professor and Chair. Degrees: BSNE (Nuclear Engineering), University of Tennessee-Knoxville, SMNE, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; MA, PhD, University of Missouri-Columbia (Psychology-Counseling). Specializations: Forgiveness, Marriage dynamics and interventions; religious values in family and counseling.
Center for Marital and Family Studies
University of Denver
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|Author:||Worthington, Everett L., Jr.|
|Publication:||Journal of Psychology and Theology|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2003|
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