Couples, marriage

The Potential Impact of Prayer and Spiritual Practices in Romantic Relationships

7209372 - couple praying together**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:

  1. 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.
  1. Individuals who prayed for a partner’s well-being demonstrated more effective communication dynamics.
  1. In general, higher religious attendance is associated with lower risk for domestic violence, although disagreement about spiritual matters may increase conflict with potential aggression.
  1. Couples who perceive their relationship as having spiritual significance and report feeling closer to God and attending services regularly have more sexual fidelity.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. Partners who prayed after hurtful interactions were more cooperative in tasks after prayer.
  1. Partners who prayed had more forgiveness toward partners than those who were assigned to think positive thoughts about partners.
  1. 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.
  1. Praying for a partner increased forgiveness and selfless concern toward a partner.
  1. 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.

Research Limitations

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.

Important Caveats

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.  

References:

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.

Fincham, F. D. & Beach, S. R. (2014). Say a little prayer for you: praying for partner increases commitment in romantic relationship. Journal of Family Psychology, 28(5), 587-593.

Fincham, F. D., Beach, S. R. H., Lambert, N. M., Stillman, T., & Braithwaite, S. (2008). Spiritual behaviors and relationship satisfaction: A critical analysis of the role of prayer. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 27(4), 362-388.

Fincham, F. D., Lambert, N. M. & Beach, S. R. H. (2010). Faith and unfaithfulness: Can praying for your partner reduce infidelity? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(4), 649-659.

Gardner, B. C., Butler, M. H., & Seedall, R. B. (2008). En-gendering the couple-deity relationship: clinical implications of power and process.  Contemporary Family Therapy, 30, 152-166.

Hernandez, K. M & Mahoney, A. (2011). Sanctification of sexuality: Implications for newlyweds’ marital and sexual quality. Journal of Family Psychology, 25(5), 775-780.

Lambert, N. M., Fincham, F. D., Dewall, N. C., Pond, R., & Beach, S. R. (2013). Shifting toward cooperative tendencies and forgiveness: How partner-focused prayer transforms motivation. Personal Relationships, 20(2013), 184-197.

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.

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_designpics’>designpics / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

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Couples, marriage

The Main Aspects of Commitment in Marriage and Why it Matters More Than a Decade Ago

commitmentLove or Commitment?

Researchers have confirmed that the single most important quality in keeping a marriage stable over the long-term is commitment. Commitment is an intention to maintain a relationship over time. In the words of commitment researcher, Dr. Scott Stanley, it is “We with a future.”

People generally commit to someone in long-term relationships in western cultures because they are “in love.” While that’s a difficult construct to define, there is general agreement that it is associated with positive feelings toward someone and a desire to be with them on a more permanent basis.

Love is a general term, tends to shift meaning in long-term relationships, and is highly subjective. Beginning stages of romantic relationships elicit physiological responses people associate with “love,” like higher motivation and energy, and a desire to seek out the love connection. Over time, physiology tends to return to baseline, and love can feel very different. In part, commitment is the constant in the shifting dynamic of long-term love.

Two Parts of Commitment

Commitment in marriage is commonly considered to have two parts, which are sometimes referred to as the “want to” and “have to” aspects:

  1. Personal dedication: This is the motivation to prioritize the relationship and link personal goals with another. It fuels putting forth best efforts for the marriage, and increases willingness to sacrifice personal interest for your partner’s welfare (in a non-abusive relationship).
  1. Constraint: This is what keeps people together during low points in the relationship. Dr. Stanley uses the metaphor of falling in love with a puppy to illustrate the need for constraint commitment. He explains that we fall in love with the “front end,” of the puppy, meaning its cuteness factor, but “every puppy has a back end,” that represents the work required to maintain the pet over the long-term. Examples of constraints that keep people together when the going gets rough are children, shared finances, shared households, legal contracts, religious imperatives, or the accumulation of investment one has put into a relationship over a long period of time.

Functions of Commitment 

In summary, it’s unreasonable to expect that long-term relationships will always provide high individual satisfaction. Commitment is the glue that keeps it secured when individual satisfaction is waning. Here are some specific functions:

  1. Commitment influences behaviors. It keeps people thinking of ways to protect and preserve the relationship over the long-term. It fuels constructive responses to negative partner behavior.
  1. Commitment keeps people from thinking of other options they could have chosen. Making a decision to commit to someone is a decision to not commit to someone else. The root of the word decide is associated with “cutting off,” implying cutting ties to an alternative decision.
  1. Commitment feeds a desire to persist on the chosen relationship path even when something is difficult. In every relationship, people have moments of boredom, frustration, hurt and other unpleasant emotions. That’s expected—the “back end,” of the puppy.
  1. Commitment provides a backdrop for secure attachment, reducing attachment anxiety. Attachment security is at the heart of relationship satisfaction and commitment can help when it has been damaged and couples are trying to rebuild.

Why Does Understanding Commitment Matter More Than a Decade Ago? 

This is my anecdotal opinion as a clinician, but there are important cultural shifts impacting long-term relationships which I have witnessed. Understanding commitment can help maintain marital stability in the face of these changes: 

  1. Easier access to previous romantic and alternative partners. This creates a risk for increased alternative monitoring, or considering other partners, which threatens relationship stability. I can still remember the moment when a couple’s presenting concern was that the wife was texting her old boyfriend six months after the wedding. I thought, “This opens up a whole new challenge for marriage.” I never had a cell phone in which to keep my old boyfriend’s number, and he wasn’t a text away. I didn’t have the option of reaching out so easily so quickly.
  1. The trend in thinking that cohabitation is a better substitute for marriage, and delaying marriage. Stanley refers to this as “Sliding vs. Deciding.” When people start living together to “try out,” their relationship, the problem is that they start the process of creating constraints without realizing it. They start sharing mortgages, car payments, may have children together, and slowly generate the type of investment which keeps people in a relationship when it’s hard. For example, when people move in together, it becomes harder to break up with someone you really don’t want to be with long-term, now that you’re sharing living quarters, so you’re more likely to just end up allowing the long-term relationship to be decided for you (sliding) instead of really choosing for yourself (deciding). This is likely why marital stability is actually lower for people who cohabitate first. When research claims otherwise, it is for a very select demographic of people, not the population at large. People need to realize that they are creating constraint commitment without realizing it and they may be doing it without the chosen “dedication” part of commitment.

How to Maximize Commitment 

  1. Look for ways to Sacrifice. Sacrifice is a huge signal for commitment. Seeing a partner sacrifice for you builds trust in the relationship. In good marriages, sacrifice also increase good feelings in the partner who is sacrificing. I went to a training of Dr. Stanley’s a few decades ago and still remember his pointing out that small sacrifices can be more helpful than large ones, because when people go all out, they tend to keep score about whether the spouse is matching the sacrificial behavior. Right now, write down three small things you know you can do that your partner would appreciate.
  1. Manage alternative monitoring. Alternative monitoring is what happens when people see other potential partners and begin imagining what life would be like with those people instead. Sometimes people think if they are attracted to other people, it means they should pursue a relationship elsewhere. We are all built to potentially be attracted to many different people—otherwise, how would we regenerate our species? Someone exercising commitment might notice another person who is attractive, but he/she will self-talk in a way to reinvigorate commitment to the relationship. For example, “She’s cute, but she probably isn’t as good a mother as my wife—I’m glad I’m married to her,” or “He’s cute, but he’s probably not as kind as my husband.” People who are managing alternative monitoring refocus on the qualities they enjoy about their partners as a whole. Unfortunately, people low in marital satisfaction but high in constraint commitment will feel trapped, and people who feel trapped tend to alternatively monitor more frequently.
  2. Consider signaling commitment. Engaged and recently married people were asked to identify the “ultimate signal,” of commitment. There is a cool infographic about this on the Science of Relationships website. First on the list was wearing wedding rings. See my blog post about wedding rings here.
  3. Continue to dream and make future plans. Remember—commitment is “us with a future.” Write out what you want to be doing in 2, 5, 10 or 20 years to keep focused on the long-term.

It’s my perception that in our individualistic society, commitment in marriage is diminishing, which is unfortunate, because, the types of stable relationships fostered by commitment are ideal for raising children. If people understood it better, they might be more intentional in their long-term relationships.

References:

Assessing Commitment in Personal Relationships by Stanley, S. & Markman, H. J. (1992) in Journal of Marriage and the Family, 54 (3), 595-697. DOI: 10.2307/35324.x

Communication, Conflict and Commitment: Insights on the Foundations of Relationship Success from a National Survey by Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J. & Whitton, S. W. (2002) in Family Process, 41(4) 659-675 DOI: 10.1111/j.1545-5300.2002.00659.x

Commitment: Functions, Formation, and the Securing of Romantic Attachment by Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K. & Whitton, S. W. (2010) in Journal of Family Theory and Review, 2(4), 243-257 DOI: 10.1111/j.1756-2589.2010.00060.x

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Couples, Love, Romance

Should I be Worried if my Spouse Doesn’t Wear a Wedding Ring?

50325480 - sad wife hands dropping her wedding ring marriage problems conceptWhile my husband was getting dressed this morning, I noticed something glinting off his finger.  “Hey, you’re wearing a wedding ring,” I observed. “I always do,” he nonchalantly replied.  “Since when?” I prodded, wondering if he remembered that he has spent 99% of our marriage not wearing a ring.  “Since a few months ago,” he replied, confirming that I wasn’t crazy for thinking this was a relatively new development.

My husband is not  a jewelry person.  Not long after we got married, he stopped wearing his wedding ring for various reasons:  It was “bugging,” him, It was too big, It was too small, It interfered with basketball, it got in the way while exercising, it made his finger too heavy to write code on the computer (OK I made that one up, but you get my drift).  I wasn’t about to engage in that power struggle with him–if he didn’t want to wear a ring, who was I to tell him he had to wear one?  I didn’t want to make an issue out of it, but I have wondered about the importance of wedding rings and their relationship to marital quality.

Wedding rings are a subtle signaling device.  Before I got married, my husband used to joke with me that every time he saw me on our college campus, I was surrounded by males.  I protested his assumption that they were trying to move in on me, and pointed out that we were always talking about school work.  “I’m a guy and I can tell you they aren’t interested in your study guide,” he admonished.  “Oh, whatever,” I repeatedly dismissed.  However, right after I got married, I noticed that I was completely invisible to males while walking around campus.  It had never occurred to me before that when they were friendly to me, they were testing the waters to start a relationship.  I just thought they were being nice.  I hadn’t even realized that the change was in my ring finger until one day a few months after I got married.

I went to the library to study for a few hours and sat myself at a table in the corner when two young men sat down across from me to study.  After a few minutes, one of them struck up a conversation.  I remember thinking, “Oh, this feels normal, these guys are talking to me instead of totally ignoring me.”  I engaged in the light conversation and realized I needed to leave.  As I stood up, I said, “Well, I have to go meet my husband.  Nice to talk to you.”  His countenance turned ashen.  “Wait—you’re married?”  he asked.  “Yes,” I answered, wondering why he was being so suddenly weird.  “Can I give you some advice?” he continued.  I haltingly said yes, still wondering what was going on.  “Don’t walk around on campus without your wedding ring on,” he offered.  I didn’t even know what to say; I had forgotten I wasn’t wearing it.  I glanced down at my ringless finger, thinking, “You were trying to hit on me?” because I was genuinely confused.  I was also annoyed.  I wanted to say, “Really?  Because the last time I checked, this was a library, not a singles bar, and by the way, you’re not even my type,” which he wasn’t.  I finally put two and two together and realized that I had become invisible on campus because I was “taken.”   The ring had power.

I’m not much of a jewelry person either, but I got into the habit of wearing my ring everywhere after that, largely because I didn’t want to be in any other awkward situations.  Now, if I accidentally leave the house without it, I have an unsettling feeling and a habit of touching the place on my finger where it is supposed to be.  It might as well be welded to my skin.

So, should you be concerned if your spouse doesn’t want to wear a ring?

Like most things in social science, it depends.

Research on wedding rings is sparse, but there is some interesting data.  In one study by law firm  Slater & Gordon, one-fifth of the 2,000 participants admitted that they took their wedding rings off after fighting with a spouse, or before going out, to attract more attention from potential alternative partners.  Interestingly, males were more likely to take it off before socializing and females after a fight.  Some people admitted that they didn’t want to be perceived as “boring,” so they took off their rings to shape perceptions.  One-fifth of the participants also said they perceived married men without wedding rings as not taking their marriages as seriously.

While wedding ring use can be indicative of relationship problems, the correlation isn’t strong enough to be compelling.  Each individual case is different.  Rings can be symbolic in certain situations, however, and are commonly viewed as a symbol of commitment.  Recently I asked a couple in a therapy appointment how they were doing, and in response, the wife held up her finger, displaying her wedding ring to indicate that they were going well enough that she had put her ring back on and recommitted to the relationship.

Will wearing a wedding ring keep someone from hitting on my spouse?

In the above study, one-third of participants reported that they would feel more confident about spouse fidelity if their spouses wore wedding rings.  About ten years into my marriage, my husband put his ring back on (for at least 5 minutes) after he took a new job and one of the female co-workers saw his ringless finger and thought he was single, in an incident not unlike my library fiasco years earlier.  He didn’t want to give the wrong impression.

However, 10% of participants in the above study also said that they perceived their own wedding rings to be a “challenge,” to members of the opposite sex.  Men reported getting more attention from females after wearing a wedding ring, while women reported getting less.  There is a theory that for some women, a male with a wedding ring symbolizes a family man who is capable of committing, which can be an inviting possibility.  Unfortunately, in most affair cases, people aren’t considering how their actions will negatively impact the spouse and children in the family, and I can see how that theory could be true for some people. `

A wedding ring might keep some individuals away from your partner, but it’s just not enough to prevent affairs.

Questions to Ask

While there is no clear data on wedding ring adornment and relationship outcome, here are some questions to ask yourself as it applies to your marriage:

  1. Is it a new pattern?  If your spouse has never really liked wearing a ring, or has a job or a hobby or a medical condition that doesn’t allow for a wedding ring, then it’s unlikely to mean anything if they don’t wear one.  If, however, your spouse is suddenly not wearing a ring along with other unusual behavior (more trips to the gym all gussied up, increased trips to the tanning bed, long unexplained absences, hiding one’s phone), you might want to look deeper.  Keep in mind that a strategic partner trying to perpetuate an affair might wear a ring in the spouse’s presence to throw them off.  I can affirm that there are people in distressed marriages who will purposely take off their rings as part of testing the waters for attracting a different mate.
  1. Does my spouse take it off after we had a fight? This could just be a sign of reactive, immature behavior, but it’s also symbolic and could be a harbinger of more reactivity down the road.
  1. Does my spouse’s social media reflect marital status? People who are open to having affairs often don’t display their married status on social media.  That doesn’t mean that if your spouse has posted their marital status that he/she is immune to an affair, but it is a positive indicator that he/she isn’t trying to advertise for a new partner.

Bottom Line

Ultimately, a wedding ring is completely independent of partner infidelity.  If your partner wants to have an affair, or is naively developing an extramarital relationship that becomes an affair, a ring is not going to prevent it.  Many people have affairs with people they know are married, and unfortunately, for some people it can be added competition.

I’ve heard some psychologists say that not wearing a wedding ring is indicative of deeper problems in the relationship.  Maybe I should be more worried that my husband only occasionally and sporadically wears his ring?  No….That’s complete nonsense.  There just isn’t evidence to support that assertion, and plenty of people wearing wedding rings have distressed relationships.

If you’re really worried, you can look into the “anti-cheating ring,” which was manufactured with the ability to leave an indentation of, “I’m married,” in the wearer’s skin.  If that’s not enough, there are always cattle brands.  If you’re thinking, “That’s not a bad idea,” please get help.

In all seriousness, if you find yourself obsessing about your spouse’s ring use, however, you might be setting up a pattern to drive your spouse right out of the relationship. People who start to get anxious and try to control the details of partner behavior mistakenly believe that they can coerce loyalty from a spouse.  Most spouses will react to that kind of control by becoming more secretive or openly oppositional.  You can’t make anyone loyal to you.  Period.

My husband reminded me that he started wearing his ring because I said I liked it when he wore it.  I didn’t recall the conversation.  “Don’t you remember?” he asked, “I asked you if it bothered you that I didn’t wear my wedding ring and you said, ‘It doesn’t bother me, but I do like it when your wear it.'”  I vaguely remembered it.  “Plus,” he continued, “I’m basically risking my life for you because remember Jimmy Fallon had that wedding ring accident and ended up in intensive care?  It’s a feat of daring.”  “Wow, I actually had an impact on your behavior,” I marveled, enjoying the rare moment.  Ultimately, though, it was his choice.  And that’s how it should be.

References:

Human mate choice and the wedding ring effect: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12110-003-1006-0

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