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Disappointment with God and well-being: the mediating influence of relationship quality and dispositional forgiveness.

This study examined the extent to which disappointment with God influenced the psychological and spiritual well-being of 160 churchgoers, and the potential mediating influences of relationship quality (spiritual maturity and relationship commitment) and dispositional forgiveness, Disappointment with God was positively related to depression and stress and negatively related to spiritual well-being, dispositional forgiveness, spiritual maturity, and relationship commitment. The latter 3 were negatively related to depression and stress and positively associated with spiritual well-being. The results suggest an explanation for why religious individuals disappointed with God tend to experience reduced well-being outcomes, Counseling implications are discussed.

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Psychological research on forgiveness has expanded substantially in the past 15 years. The psychological and health benefits of forgiveness are now well established (Strelan & Covic, 2006), and interventions designed to promote forgiveness have been successfully developed (Baskin & Enright, 2004; Wade & Worthington, 2005). Many personality characteristics and correlates of forgiveness (Berry, Worthington, O'Connor, Parrott, & Wade, 2005) and its social-cognitive predictors (McCullough & Hoyt, 2002) have been identified. The focus of forgiveness, meanwhile, has been enlarged beyond intimate others to include the self (Strelan, 2007); strangers in the justice system (Worthington, 2000); coworkers in organizational settings (Aquino, Tripp, & Bies, 2001); religious, cultural, and political groups (e.g., Allan & Allan, 2000); and even situations (Thompson et al., 2005). Curiously, especially given forgiveness's theological roots and religious connotations, there is a paucity of research on forgiveness of God. (This study was conducted with Christians, and therefore we refer to the deity as God.) Only one previous empirical study (Exline, Yali, & Lobel, 1999) has addressed forgiveness of God, albeit measuring aspects of forgiveness (e.g., God, self, others) with single items.

The lack of research on forgiveness of God is surprising considering that religion continues to be a major force in society, directly and indirectly influencing the lives of billions of people around the world. For many adherents, their religious beliefs involve far more than outward rituals and actions. Many people believe that God plays a central role in their lives, as real as one's relationship with a family member. Just as in any human relationship, when tragic, unfair, or deeply disappointing events occur to an individual and these events cannot be easily explained or the person has little control over them, people may attribute those events to God (Pargament, 1997). Furthermore, although many Christians may be reluctant to singularly hold God responsible for all of the calamities that occur in the world, they may, from time to time, experience a degree of dissonance and distress, believing that God was more than capable of intervening but for some reason failed to do so. Anger at God may not be limited to those who profess a religious belief. Agnostics and atheists may also choose to blame God for natural disasters, the state of the world, and personal tragedies.

What happens when an individual's relationship with God is fractured? More specifically, what happens when a person feels unable or unwilling to forgive God for disappointing or hurtful events they consider to be attributable to God? A large literature base indicates that in human relationships, hurt and disappointment resulting from a transgression can translate into a state of unforgiveness (Worthington, 2001); this in turn has been related to decreased psychological and physical well-being, including reduced hope and self-esteem and increased anger, bitterness, depression, dysfunction, distress, physiological stress, and coronary heart disease (see Strelan & Covic, 2006, for a review). Is it possible that disappointment with God has the same negative effects for religious individuals?

At first glance, related research on the psychological benefits of religious beliefs suggests that it does not. A considerable number of studies indicate a positive relationship between religious beliefs and psychological outcomes (see Larson, Swyers, & McCullough, 1997; McCullough, Hoyt, Larson, Koenig, & Thoresen, 2000, for reviews). For example, religious people are more likely to report higher levels of self-esteem, life satisfaction, hopefulness (Ayele, Mulligan, Gheorghiu, & Reyes-Ortiz, 1999), and physical health (George, Ellison, & Larson, 2002) and are less likely to experience periods of psychological distress (Larson et al., 1992).

However, the link between religious beliefs and well-being becomes less clear when one considers the nature of an individual's relationship with God. For example, anger with God (Pargament, 1997; Pargament, Smith, Koenig, & Perez, 1998) and an unwillingness to forgive God (Exline et al., 1999) have been found to be related to poorer mental health outcomes such as depression and anxiety. There is also evidence that some hospitalized religious people may inadvertently subvert their recovery by either becoming upset with God or believing that God has abandoned them, cognitions that have a negative impact on mortality, morbidity, and disability (Powell, Shahabi, & Thoresen, 2003).

These disparate findings suggest that disappointment with God may result in deleterious psychological outcomes consistent with those observed when individuals are hurt by, and consequently unwilling to forgive, significant human others. The present study sought to confirm that relationship; however, its primary aim was to address some of the individual difference and social-cognitive factors that might help to explain why religious individuals who feel disappointed or hurt by events attributable to God may experience reduced psychological and spiritual well-being. If religious beliefs are usually associated with enhanced well-being, why does disappointment with God apparently reduce the efficacy of those beliefs? The study focused on the roles that affect the quality of one's relationship with God; specifically, we explored spiritual maturity, relationship commitment, and dispositional forgiveness and their potential role in explaining the relationship between disappointment with God and well-being.

The degree of one's spiritual maturity may help to explain why some religious people are better able to cope with being disappointed and hurt by experiences that they attribute to God (Hall & Edwards, 1996). Individuals with a more mature faith understand that a relationship with God is like any human relationship in that it is never perfect. Disappointments and hurts occur and must be negotiated and resolved. To work, a relationship with God requires reciprocity. Furthermore, individuals with a more mature spirituality are able to be constructively critical of the nature of their relationship with God. Conversely, individuals with an immature spirituality tend to have an uncritical, black-and-white, and fairly simplistic understanding of God's role in their relationship. Such individuals have difficulty reconciling ambiguity in their spiritual lives and, therefore, tend not to trust God or view God as loving. As a result, they are less likely to cope when they experience disappointing and hurtful events attributable to God (Hall & Edwards, 1996). Thus, we predicted that increased disappointment with God would be negatively related to spiritual maturity, which would in turn be positively related to psychological and spiritual well-being. That is, individuals with a more mature spirituality would be better able to cope with being disappointed with God and, consequently, more likely to experience enhanced well-being.

Research on the social-cognitive predictors of forgiveness indicates that the more committed individuals are to a relationship, the more likely they will forgive a partner's transgression (Finkel, Rusbult, Kumashiro, & Hannon, 2002; Karremans, Van Lange, Ouwerkerk, & Kluwer, 2003). Such a finding should generalize to people with religious faith who are in relationships with God. Thus, we hypothesized that disappointment with God would be negatively related to relationship commitment, which would be positively related to psychological and spiritual well-being. That is, the more committed individuals are to a relationship with God, the more able they should be to overcome disappointment with God and consequently experience enhanced well-being.

Finally, we took into account the fact that some individuals are more predisposed to forgive than others are (Berry et al., 2005). A forgiving disposition has been found to be related to better psychological well-being (Thompson et al., 2005), including increased hope; improved self-esteem (McCullough, 2001); greater life satisfaction (Brown & Phillips, 2005); and decreased anger, hostility, neuroticism, anxiety, and depression (Berry et al., 2005). On the basis that individuals with a forgiving disposition are better able to overcome anger and disappointment and therefore more likely to forgive others, and the evidence that such a disposition is related to improved well-being outcomes, it was further hypothesized that disappointment with God would be negatively related to dispositional forgiveness, which would be positively related to psychological and spiritual well-being. That is, the more predisposed an individual is to forgive, the less likely his or her disappointment with God would translate into negative well-being outcomes.

Method

Participants and Sampling

Participants were solicited through the various church networks of approximately 20 Australian Defence Force Chaplains and civilian clergy in five Australian cities. Three hundred surveys were distributed with 160 returned (a response rate of 53%; there was no follow-up of nonrespondents). A stamped self-addressed envelope accompanied the survey, which was to be returned to the second author. All responses were anonymous. There were 77 male and 82 female participants, with 1 participant declining to indicate a gender. The mean age of the participants was 49 years (SD = 17.65), with ages ranging from 17 to 88 years. Ethnicity data were not collected, although it may be presumed that the majority of the sample was White. Forty-eight percent of the convenience sample was Anglican, 15% Baptist, 6.5% Lutheran, 11% other Christian denomination, 7% Pentecostal, 6% Uniting Church, and 4% Presbyterian/Reformed; 2.5% of participants did not indicate denominational affiliation.

Materials and Procedure

Participants completed a packet of questionnaires that were administered in multiple, random orders. For descriptive purposes, in all questionnaires, participants were first asked to indicate the number of occasions in their lives when they had trouble forgiving God, what the most salient incident was, the extent to which they had forgiven God for it ("not at all," "somewhat," or "completely"), and the extent to which their relationship with God had subsequently changed ("closer, .... more distant," or "no change").

Four 7-point items (1 = disagree completely, 7 = agree completely) were developed to measure disappointment with God ("I sometimes find it difficult to forgive God for things that happen to me," "At times I feel frustrated or disappointed with God for the things that have occurred in my life," "I have felt disappointed with God for some of the things that have happened to people I care about," and "I have been angry with God for some of the things that have happened to me"). The items were piloted with an expert panel including two academic psychologists and three clergy. Scores on the four items were summed. Total scores range from 4 to 28, with higher scores reflecting increased disappointment with God ([alpha] = .88).

Spiritual maturity was measured using the nine-item Instability subscale of the Spiritual Assessment Inventory (Hall & Edwards, 1996). The subscale has shown good internal reliability and construct and convergent validity in previous research (Hall & Edwards, 2002). Items are measured on 5-point scales (1 = not at all true, 5 = very true), summed, and reverse coded, with total scores ranging from 9 to 45 and higher scores reflecting greater spiritual maturity ([alpha] = .84).

Relationship commitment was measured using five items adapted from Exline et al. (1999). An example item is "I have been feeling that God is far away." For each item, participants responded on 7-point scales (1 = disagree completely, 7 = agree completely). The five items were summed and reverse scored, with total scores ranging from 5 to 35 and higher scores indicative of increased commitment to a relationship with God ([alpha] = .82).

Dispositional forgiveness was assessed using the Heartland Forgiveness Scale (HFS; Thompson et al., 2005). Previous research (Strelan, 2007; Thompson et al., 2005) reveals the HFS possesses adequate internal reliability and validity. The HFS consists of 18 items, measured on 7-point Likert scales (1 = almost always false of me, 7 = almost always true of me) and summed, with total scores ranging from 18 to 126 and higher scores indicative of a more forgiving disposition ([alpha] = .86).

Psychological well-being was measured using the Depression and Stress subscales of the Depression Anxiety Stress Scales (DASS; Lovibond & Lovibond, 1995). The psychometric properties of the DASS are well established (e.g., Antony, Bieling, & Cox, 1998; Crawford & Henry, 2003). Using 4-point scales (0 = did not apply to me at all, 3 = applied to me very much or most of the time), respondents rate the extent to which they have experienced each of seven depression and seven stress symptoms over the past week. Items are summed, with total scores for each subscale ranging from 0 to 21 and higher scores on each subscale reflecting higher levels of depressive symptoms ([alpha] = .89) and stress ([alpha] = .85).

Spiritual well-being was measured using the Spiritual Well-Being Scale (SWBS; Ellison, 1983). The SWBS has been shown to possess good reliability and construct and convergent validity in numerous studies (e.g., Bufford, Paloutzian, & Ellison, 1991; Scott, Agresti, & Fitchett, 1998). The SWBS consists of twenty 6-point items (1 = strongly agree, 6 = strongly disagree), with items reverse coded where appropriate. Items are summed, with total scores ranging between 20 and 120 and higher scores representing higher levels of spiritual well-being ([alpha] = .93).

For the inferential analyses, predictor variables were disappointment with God, spiritual maturity, relationship commitment, and dispositional forgiveness, and criterion variables were psychological well-being (depression, stress) and spiritual well-being. Pearson product-moment correlations were used to establish relationships between variables, and hierarchical multiple regressions were conducted to test the mediation hypotheses.

Results

To gain an indication of the relevance of forgiving God, we had participants respond to the following item: "In my life I have experienced occasions where I have had difficulty forgiving God for some of the things that have happened." Thirty-six percent of participants had experienced difficulty forgiving God on one or two occasions, 11% had difficulty on three to five occasions, 6% responded they had difficulty on more than six occasions, and 47% indicated they had experienced no difficulty forgiving God. Of the participants who had experienced difficulty forgiving God, the most powerful incidents concerned the death of a child, parent, or friend (41.5%); marriage and/or family relationship breakdown (22.5%); chronic illness and disease (14%); vocational and financial difficulties (12%); sexual abuse (5%); and feeling let down by God (5%). Of these respondents, 6% claimed not to have forgiven God for the specific incident, 32% had forgiven God somewhat, and 62% had forgiven God completely. As a consequence of the difficulty in forgiving God, 8% of respondents felt that their relationship with God was more distant, whereas 52% felt that the relationship was much closer. In short, the majority of participants attributed some degree of responsibility to God for tragic events in their lives, felt the need to forgive God for these events, and as a consequence experienced changed cognitions about the nature of their relationship with God. Clearly, the notion of forgiving God resonated with the sample.

Table 1 provides the means and standard deviations for all variables. As seen in Table 1, on balance, participants tended toward not being disappointed with God and were reasonably well adjusted, with the means for depression and stress low and the mean for spiritual well-being high. Participants also tended to be fairly mature in their faith, indicated a relatively committed relationship with God, and possessed a strong forgiving disposition.

Table 2 largely shows low-moderate to moderate correlations among the variables. As predicted, disappointment with God was positively related to depression (r = .38, p < .001) and stress (r = .33, p < .001) and negatively associated with spiritual well-being (r = -.50, p < .001). Also consistent with predictions, spiritual maturity and relationship commitment were moderately and negatively associated with depression and positively related to spiritual well-being. Dispositional forgiveness was negatively correlated with depression and stress and positively associated with spiritual well-being. Finally, and again in accordance with our hypotheses, disappointment with God was negatively associated with spiritual maturity, relationship commitment, and dispositional forgiveness (rs ranged from -.38 for dispositional forgiveness to -.55 for relationship commitment).

To reiterate, the central aim of the study was to test the hypothesis that spiritual maturity, relationship commitment, and dispositional forgiveness would mediate the relationship between disappointment with God and psychological and spiritual well-being. The preconditions for a test of mediation require significant relationships between the predictor, outcome, and mediating variables (Baron & Kenny, 1986). Table 2 indicates that the correlations between the predictor (disappointment with God) and outcome variables (depression, stress, and spiritual well-being) and the potential mediators (dispositional forgiveness, spiritual maturity, and relationship commitment) were all significant. With these initial requirements met, mediation was assessed using three separate hierarchical multiple regression analyses, one each for depression, stress, and spiritual well-being. For each analysis, disappointment with God was entered at Step 1 and the potential mediators at Step 2. Mediation is demonstrated when the partial regression coefficient ([beta]) for the predictor variable at Step I is substantially reduced at Step 2 after the potential mediators have been included in the regression equation (Baron & Kenny, 1986).

Table 3 shows the results of the hierarchical multiple regression analyses for each of the hypotheses. As seen in Table 3, for depression, the significant standardized beta ([beta] = .38, p < .001) weight for disappointment with God became nonsignificant ([beta] = .11, p > .05) once the potential mediators were included in the equation, with spiritual maturity (8%) and dispositional forgiveness (6%) retaining unique effects. The percentages (the partial [beta] coefficients squared) in the parentheses are the proportion of unique variance explained by depression. Sobel's (1982) test indicated that the decrease in beta values was significant for spiritual maturity, z(2,157) = 3.25, p < .05, and dispositional forgiveness, z(2,157) = 2.71, p < .05, but not for relationship commitment, z(2, 157) = 0.92, p > .05.

For stress, the initial significant standardized beta value ([beta] = .33, p < .001) for disappointment with God became nonsignificant ([beta] = .13, p > .05) when the potential mediators were entered at Step 2, with spiritual maturity contributing a significant amount of unique variance (5%). The decrease was significant for spiritual maturity, z(2, 157) = 2.65, p < .05, but not for dispositional forgiveness, z(2, 157) = 1.02, p > .05, or relationship commitment, z(2, 157) = 1.10, p > .05.

For spiritual well-being, the significant standardized beta value ([beta]= -.50, p < .001) for disappointment with God became nonsignificant at Step 2 ([beta] = -.08, p > .05). This change was significant for dispositional forgiveness, contributing 22% of unique variance, z(2, 157) = -3.99, p < .05, and for relationship commitment (25%), z(2, 157) = -5.37, p < .05, but not for spiritual maturity, z(2, 157) = -0.75, p > .05. In short, as predicted, a combination of participants' spiritual maturity, their commitment to a relationship with God, and their disposition to forgive mediated the relationship between disappointment with God and depression, stress, and spiritual well-being.

Discussion

As anticipated, the more religious individuals are disappointed with God, the more likely they are to experience depressive symptoms and stress and the less likely they are to experience spiritual well-being. People disappointed with God are also less likely to feel committed to a relationship with God, more likely to have an immature faith, and less likely to possess a forgiving disposition. Also, as hypothesized, the relationships between disappointment with God and psychological and spiritual well-being may be better explained, to varying degrees, by one's commitment to a relationship with God, the level of one's spiritual maturity, and the extent to which one has a forgiving disposition. Specifically, a religious person may be disappointed with God, but the greater his or her level of spiritual maturity and the more predisposed he or she is to forgive, the less likely he or she is to report depressive symptoms; people disappointed with God are less likely to experience stress if they are spiritually mature. Furthermore, a commitment to a relationship with God and a predisposition to forgive suggests an explanation for why individuals disappointed with God are still able to experience spiritual well-being.

Taken together, these findings are in accordance with those observed in previous studies that have examined the relationship between dispositional forgiveness of human others and well-being (Berry et al., 2005; Brown & Phillips, 2005; McCullough, 2001; Thompson et al., 2005) and the effects of relationship commitment on forgiveness (Finkel et al., 2002; Karremans et al., 2003). That is, individuals who are predisposed to forgive, despite being hurt and disappointed, and who are committed to their relationship are more likely to experience enhanced psychological and physiological well-being. The findings may also provide some explanation for the studies that have shown that, although religious beliefs have been related to better psychological well-being (Larson et al., 1997; McCullough et al., 2000), such benefits are less likely to be experienced by those religious individuals who are disappointed with God (Exline et al., 1999; Pargament, 1997; Pargament et al., 1998; Powell et al., 2003). It appears that the quality of one's relationship with God and a forgiving disposition are important ingredients for eliciting positive psychological and spiritual outcomes when a religious person has been hurt or disappointed by events attributable to God.

Regarding the study, some qualifications should be noted. First, the correlational nature of the study is such that we cannot say with any certainty that disappointment with God causes depression, stress, or low levels of spiritual well-being. It is possible that the opposite could be the case. That is, depressive symptoms, stress, and low levels of spiritual well-being may lead to disappointment with God. Longitudinal research is required to delineate the direction of the relationship. Second, although we have shown that disappointment with God is related to depressive symptoms and stress and reduced spiritual well-being, mean scores for depressive symptoms and stress were relatively low and the sample scored fairly high on spiritual well-being. This suggests that for this sample, the effects of disappointment with God may be relative rather than absolute. Third, because one's relationship with God is often closely linked to one's association with a church organization and one's relationship with other Christians (Exline, 2002), it is possible that participants did not differentiate between disappointment and anger with God and that which they may direct at the church or other Christians. The distinction is important, especially if negative input from a church or other Christians has precipitated a crisis of faith, which in turn may lead to anger and disappointment with God. Finally, given the convenience sample, generalizability of the results to a similar population and religious populations of differing cultural backgrounds is limited.

Nonetheless, the results have implications for how religious individuals may be counseled when they are dealing with being disappointed with God. First, when religious individuals present with angry or frustrated attitudes toward God, it may be useful to focus on addressing the nature of their relationship with God. Specifically, clients may be encouraged to strive for a more mature level of faith, for example, by examining in greater depth their expectations of God and what it means to make a commitment to God and by accepting that even a relationship with God cannot always be perfect and that the pitfalls must be negotiated and reconciled as in any human relationship. Second, counselors and those involved in a counseling capacity need to be aware that people with an inclination to forgive cope better when others hurt them, and this includes perceiving that one has been hurt in some way or at least let down by God. A deeper understanding of what it means to forgive, and the psychological and spiritual benefits, may help to facilitate forgivingness among those for whom forgiveness comes less easily (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000).

This study has focused on applying well-established personality and social-cognitive predictors of forgiveness in human relationships to forgiveness of God. A further unique contribution can be made by speculating on how the results for spiritual maturity may be applied back to human relationships. Individuals with an immature faith do not cope well with ambiguity and uncertainty in their relationship with God (Hall & Edwards, 1996). Consequently, as this study has shown, these individuals do not respond well to being disappointed or hurt by God. Given that religious people perceive themselves to be in a very real relationship with God, it is possible that the notion of spiritual maturity could be transposed to human relationships. That is, measuring relationships on the basis of the maturity of each person's perception of the relationship, for example by referring to attachment theory (Bowlby, 1973), could provide a new and useful mechanism by which researchers may understand forgiveness and commitment in human relationships.

This study has extended the focus of forgiveness by addressing forgiveness of God. Given the extent to which religion is a dominant force in societies around the world and the ability of forgiveness to enhance well-being, the notion of forgiving God is highly relevant. The study also makes a unique contribution by examining the extent to which spiritual maturity, relationship commitment, and dispositional forgiveness can facilitate the relationship between disappointment with God and improved well-being. Understanding the extent to which these factors operate will in turn assist counselors and other professionals to better minister to those religious individuals who may be angry with God or disillusioned with their faith.

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Peter Strelan, School of Psychology, The University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia; Coffin Acton and Kent Patrick, both at School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Peter Strelan, School of Psychology, The University of Adelaide, SA 5005, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia (e-mail: peter.strelan@adelaide.edu.au).
TABLE 1

Means, Standard Deviations, and Ranges for Disappointment With
God, Well-Being, and Mediating Variables (N = 160)

Variable                           M          SD       Possible Range

Disappointment with God          13.18       7.55          4-28
Depression                        3.45       4.04          0-21
Stress                            5.76       4.00          0-21
Spiritual well-being            100.84      17.11         20-120
Spiritual maturity               37.58       6.49          9-45
Relationship commitment          27.49       7.03          5-35
Dispositional forgiveness        96.53       15.36        18-126

TABLE 2

Pearson Product-Moment Correlations Between Disappointment
With God, Well-Being, and Mediating Variables

Variable                         1      2     3     4     5     6     7

1. Disappointment with God      --
2. Depression (a)               .38    --
3. Stress                       .33    .61    --
4. Spiritual well-being (a)    -.50   -.47   -.33   --
5. Dispositional forgiveness   -.38   -.43   -.28   .66   --
6. Spiritual maturity          -.46   -.46   -.38   .41   .35   --
7. Relationship commitment     -.55   -.39   -.33   .72   .51   .42  --

Note. All correlations are significant (p < .001).

(a) Square root transformations used.

TABLE 3

Results of Hierarchical Multiple Regression Analyses
(Beta Values) for the Prediction of Depression, Stress,
and Spiritual Well-Being

                                 Depression (a)            Stress

                                [DELTA]               [DELTA]
Step and Variable              [R.sup.2]   [beta]    [R.sup.2]   [beta]

Step 1
  Disappointment with God       .14 **     .38 **     .11 **     .33 **
Step 2
  Disappointment with God       .17 **     .11        .08 *      .13
  Spiritual maturity                      -.29 **               -.24 *
  Relationship commitment                 -.08                  -.11
  Dispositional forgiveness               -.25 *                -.09

Total [R.sup.2]                      .31 **               .20 **
Adjusted [R.sup.2]                   .30 **               .18 **

                               Spiritual Well-
                                  Being (a)

                                [DELTA]
Step and Variable              [R.sup.2]   [beta]

Step 1
  Disappointment with God       .25 **     -.50 **
Step 2
  Disappointment with God       .39 **     -.08
  Spiritual maturity                        .04
  Relationship commitment                   .46 **
  Dispositional forgiveness                 .38 **

Total [R.sup.2]                       .64 **
Adjusted [R.sup.2]                    .63 **

(a) Square root transformations used.

* p<.01. ** p<.001.
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Title Annotation:Research and Theory
Author:Strelan, Peter; Acton, Collin; Patrick, Kent
Publication:Counseling and Values
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2009
Words:5473
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