Whether we are tough or tender, most of us find break-ups and rejections difficult. Now, a new Stanford study finds that when we feel the possibility of love flying out the door, our relationship with God changes into a bond similar to how we feel with a trusted friend.

Over the last several years, Kristin Laurin, assistant professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, has been conducting research to understand the connection between belief and behavior. It's an important topic since about 82 percent of Americans report some formal religious identity. For the most recent study, Laurin and her colleagues designed a series of four experiments to investigate the hypothesis that people’s relationship with God can serve to compensate for the threat of romantic rejection... and vice versa. Additionally, they tested participants’ self esteem to see how that might influence their religious and romantic relationships.

In one of the experiments, the researchers recruited 187 participants, and told half of them that everyone hides certain aspects of themselves from their partners. "Then we hit them with the idea that these 'secret selves' always end up coming out, and ruining relationships," Laurin explained in a statement to the press. "And just in case that's not enough to make them nervous that their relationship could be in danger, we force them to think more specifically about things that they themselves might be hiding from their partners." Then, the researchers asked all the participants to rate their closeness to God.

High self-esteem participants under threat of romantic rejection sought to enhance their relationship with God. This fits with past work showing that people high in self-esteem seek social connection when their relationships are threatened. "Low self-esteem people, who are the ones who retreat and protect themselves at the expense of the relationship when the relationship is under threat, don't seem to be able to use this new resource either," Laurin noted.

Some of the good news? The researchers found similarities when comparing Hindus from India and Christians from the U.S., thus confirming what many intuitively believe — our higher powers may take dissimilar forms, yet we humans are primarily kin. In her past studies where Laurin tested whether an awareness of God influences how we pursue our goals, she discovered “it doesn’t even matter what someone believes, or even whether they are an atheist. Everyone knows what the idea of God means, so even just thinking of it, even if you don’t believe in it, that affects behavior.”

Going forward, Laurin said she will continue to explore parallels between people's relationship with God and their relationships with others, “to push further the idea that people have a relationship with God in the same sense as they have relationships with other humans."

Source: Laurin K, Schumann K, Holmes JG. A relationship with God? Connecting with the divine to assuage fears of interpersonal rejection. Social Psychological and Personality Science. 2014.