A news headline caught my attention a few weeks ago which highlighted the surprising national success of a low budget film. The movie is entitled, The War Room, and is essentially about a couple in a troubled marriage using prayer as a strategy to save the marriage from disconnection, conflict, and infidelity. As I listened to the report, I thought of some of the academic research related to spiritual practices and romantic relationships, and how those studies often don’t make the headlines as do other studies which may seem less controversial. There is, however, a body of research related to spiritual practices and various aspects of relationship quality.
Most Americans still report a belief in Deity and a belief in a set of religious practices. In general, people who report that there is spiritual meaning behind their marriages (called “sanctification of marriage,” in the research literature), report higher marital quality. There are various pathways for how individual and joint couple spirituality are linked with higher relationship quality. I’m not offering a comprehensive review, but here are some highlights:
- Couples who pray about relationship conflict demonstrate more self-responsibility for change, reduced emotional negativity, better perspective taking, gentler confrontation, and increased empathy and problem-solving skills.
- Individuals who prayed for a partner’s well-being demonstrated more effective communication dynamics.
- In general, higher religious attendance is associated with lower risk for domestic violence, although disagreement about spiritual matters may increase conflict with potential aggression.
- Couples who perceive their relationship as having spiritual significance and report feeling closer to God and attending services regularly have more sexual fidelity.
- Married couples who report a belief that their sexual relationship has Divine purpose and meaning have higher marital quality, higher sexual quality, higher sexual intimacy, and deeper spiritual intimacy.
- In one study, praying daily for a partner’s well-being led to fewer unfaithful thoughts and behaviors and increased feelings of sanctification of marriage, which leads to greater commitment. General prayer not specifically addressing the partner did not have the same effects. Higher commitment between couples was found when they prayed for their spouses significantly more than when they were asked to just think positive thoughts about their spouses.
- Couples who prayed together developed significantly more feelings of unity and trust after a month than their counterparts who were just asked to have positive interactions with one another.
- Joint religious communication (prayer and talking about importance of Deity in marriage) is linked with higher marital satisfaction, and might be more important for mixed-faith couples.
- Partners who prayed after hurtful interactions were more cooperative in tasks after prayer.
- Partners who prayed had more forgiveness toward partners than those who were assigned to think positive thoughts about partners.
- Praying for a partner has been associated with decreased alcohol use over a period of time significantly more than in relationships in which partners were asked to just write positive things about their relationships or think positive thoughts.
- Praying for a partner increased forgiveness and selfless concern toward a partner.
- Scholars have suggested that prayer can be effective in a marital context by helping couples gain a long-term perspective on their relationships, interrupting negative thought processes, accessing a relaxation response, and engaging in a dialogue with a supportive other (Deity) when a time-out is needed from a spouse in the case of escalating conflict.
I want to point out that each study has a limited sample of individuals, as in all research, and many measures are self-report measures, which don’t necessarily capture phenomena accurately. However, much of the research includes an experimental design with control groups to test effects, and outside observation was included in some of the studies.
As a whole, there is growing evidence that praying for one’s partner in a relationship is associated with many potential positive effects. This is not to suggest that prayer is an instantaneous and magical power one can access at will; to do so would trivialize a process that most people consider sacred, meditative and personal.
While spiritual practices in romantic relationships seem to be a potential boon for relationship quality, it’s important to note that spiritual practices can also be used in deleterious ways. For example, one study reported that when partners align with Deity against each other to win a verbal disagreement, it is destructive to the relationship.
Overall, the research is incredibly validating for those who choose to incorporate spiritual practices in their romantic relationships. Maybe the “war room,” isn’t such a bad idea after all.
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Butler, M. H., Stout, J. A., & Gardner, B. C. (2002). Prayer as a conflict resolution ritual: Clinical implications of religious couples’ report of relationship softening, healing perspective, and change responsibility. American Journal of Family Therapy, 30, 19-37.
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Lambert, N. M., Fincham, F. D., Stillman, T. F., Graham, S. M. & Beach, S. R. H. (2010). Motivating change in relationships: Can prayer increase forgiveness? Psychological Science, 12(1), 126-132.
Lambert, N. M., Fincham, F. D., Marks, L. D., &Stillman, T. F. (2010). Invocations and intoxication: Does prayer decrease alcohol consumption? Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 24,(2), 209-219.
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