**Note: This post is an update from one originally written almost two years ago, coinciding with the national release of a film related to prayer and marriage. I edited it to be relevant in the current context, and added what I think is a critical component of spiritual practices in couple relationships.
What is “sanctification of marriage?”
Most Americans still report a belief in Deity and a belief in a set of religious practices. Sanctification of marriage is a term in the research literature referring to the belief for some people that marriages contain spiritual meaning. In general, people who report that there is spiritual meaning behind their marriages, report higher marital quality.
What does the research indicate about couple spirituality?
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.
The vulnerable nature of spiritual practices
In my experience as a clinician, people’s beliefs and practices related to religious and/or spiritual belief are often held as sacred and special, and therefore an area of potential vulnerability. They can be a safe, bounded place for the individual and/or the couple. Keeping this space safe is vital.
In marriage, it’s not uncommon for some couples to consider these practices to be almost as or more intimate than sex. In other words, participating with a spouse in these practices is one way of revealing a part of oneself not revealed to everyone else. Again, the salience people assign to these practices increases a level of vulnerability.
Because spiritual practices can be so intimate, it’s not uncommon for partners who feel unsafe in their marriages to avoid jointly engaging in these behaviors, at least for a time. For example, praying with a partner who just had an affair, or who is abusive or dishonest can almost feel like the spiritual engagement is a mockery of a sacred practice. Some spouses can be negatively triggered by engaging in a religious practice with a dangerous spouse.
Sometimes people want to push partners into religious practices before they feel safe enough to do so. In my opinion, it’s very important for a betrayed or abused partner to have control over whether he/she participates in sacred spiritual practices with that partner. Sometimes, for religious people, participating individually for a time can be effective until they feel safe enough and choose to risk being spiritually intimate.
It’s also important to note that because of the vulnerability of spiritual practices, sometimes partners are more comfortable transitioning into them with lower levels of risk. For example, reading and discussing a religious and/or spiritual article may feel less risky than praying with that partner. If they want to move toward spiritual intimacy, partners can identify and order religious practices from least risky to most risky and move toward that goal. Again, I want to emphasize, “if they want to.”
Forcing or coercing someone into a religious practice is abusive and harmful.
And counterproductive. Got it? Always.
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.
Beach, S. R., Fincham, F. D., Hurt, T. R., McNair, L. M., & Stanley, S. M. (2008). Prayer and marital intervention: A conceptual framework. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 27(7), 641-669.
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.
David, P. & Stafford, L. (2015). A relational approach to religion and spirituality in marriage: The role of couples’ religious communication in marital satisfaction. Journal of Family Issues, 36(2), 232-249.
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Lambert, N. M., Fincham, F. D., LaVallee, D. C., & Brantley, C. W. (2012). Praying together and staying together: Couple prayer and trust. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 4(1), 1-9.
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.
Mahoney, A. (2010). Religion in families, 1999-2009: A relational spirituality framework. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72(4), 805-827.
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