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, Couples Therapy, marriage

How Your Home is Your Sandcastle When Healing any Betrayal: Ten Tips for Exercising Care

20793588 - sand castle on the beachAny time I am helping a couple rebuild after a betrayal, I’m reminded of how alike couples are in the healing process, with predictable hiccups along the way. Here’s a typical example:

“Why can’t you just forgive me and move on?!” The husband sitting in front of me gesticulating with his hands and shouting his frustration at his wife clearly felt helpless about successfully repairing his relationship. Saying nothing, she folded her arms and just stared, and based on my history with this couple, I could tell he was microseconds from an angrier outburst, protesting her withdrawal and demanding that she heal from his betrayal.

I immediately moved closer to him and put my hand out, “Hold on. Let me help you. Can you look at me?” I asked quietly. He turned his head and I held eye contact with him. “I know you’re hurting and in pain, right?” He nodded. I continued, “It looks like you’re becoming desperate and afraid you will never be able to repair this relationship with her, yeah?” He signaled a “yes.”

“Can we track what just happened?” I asked. “She started talking about how some days she thinks she can move on and trust you, but on days like today, she starts getting worried that if she does lean into you and trust you, she will fall and get hurt again, metaphorically speaking.” “Yeah,” he immediately flared, raising his voice, “So what’s the point? If she’ll never trust me again, even after all I’ve done to be trustworthy, why are we even here?”

Before I could speak, she fired back, arms folded tighter, “I never said I’ll never trust you again,” and he quickly cut her off, louder, “That’s exactly what you’ve been saying ever since this whole thing happened.” In a split second, he had gone from 0 to 100 again. I quickly reached out again, “Hold on. This feels really important, but did you see how fast that same cycle took over? Let’s slow it down and help you get unstuck.” At this point, they both looked at me like I’m nuts, because they’re uncertain about what I just psychobabbled and where I’m going. It’s ok. I’m used to it.

“I think your wife has been saying that because she cares so much about you, she has been trying to find ways to trust you, did you hear that?” “No,” he smoldered, turning slightly away from her, “All I heard is that she doesn’t trust me and will never trust me.” “I know,” I supported, “That’s part of how you get disconnected so quickly.”

I turned to his wife, “Did I get that right?” I asked. She nodded, “That’s right. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t trying to fix our relationship. I just don’t know how to control the triggers.” “Right,” I validated, “So you start feeling safer, and a trigger happens and you get scared again and uncertain about how to reach out to him, so it’s easier to withdraw. Sometimes, I’ll bet that when you start trusting him, you get even more afraid that you can’t really trust him, so you have to be really careful, right?” She confirmed, “That’s exactly what happens.”

At this point I turned back to him, “You see, the paradox is that as she starts to trust you more, there is a part of her that gets afraid that she’s wrong, that she really can’t trust you, and she hasn’t had enough safe experiences with you yet to know for sure that your change is durable, so there might be moments when she seems to shut you out more. On your end, you start feeling hopeful that she is trusting you, and you want to connect more, and when she pulls back because she gets scared, it’s as if she’s shutting a door in your face, or something like that, right?” “That’s absolutely what it’s like,” he confirmed, “Slamming the door in my face, actually.”

“Right. Slamming the door in your face,” I repeated, “Of course it feels like that. That’s why it gets so painful and desperate for you so fast, and that’s when you start protesting by yelling and threatening to leave…you’re trying to reach her through the slammed door. Unfortunately, all this time, all she can see is your rage, which makes her retreat further, and the sad part is that she never gets to see all the tender feelings you really have for her, because they are so hard to see through the anger. She has no idea how very sorry you are that you hurt her and can’t seem to fix it, and how afraid you get that you won’t be able to heal the relationship that matters the most to you. Am I right?”

He’s starting to tear up and nods. I go on, “This is hard for you. You’re a very accomplished and competent person. You’re respected in your profession and you feel confident there, right?” He nodded again and I continued, “It must be so difficult for you to be so highly competent in so many areas of your life and feel so helpless in this important relationship. You love her so much and you’re so desperate for her to see that, that it makes you want to try harder, right?” He indicated agreement, wiping his eyes.

I asked, “I can see that you have learned that if something isn’t working, you keep trying harder to figure it out, and eventually it works, right?” He agreed, so I continued, “A lot of times, working harder means applying more pressure, working faster and stronger, right?” He’s still signaling that I’m getting it, so I go on, “Except sometimes that approach might ruin what you are trying to accomplish, like for instance building a sandcastle. If you were going to build a sandcastle, you would have to be very careful to not bring in too much pressure too quickly or you would destroy it. Can you see how this relationship is kind of like that?”

“Yeah,” he fretted, “I can, but I still don’t know what to do.” “It’s ok,” I comforted, “I’ll help you. I just want to make sure I’m getting this right. Is anything I said off a little bit?” “No,” he replied, “That sounds about right.”

I looked at her, “Would you change anything about what I said?” She jumped in, “No. I do have a hard time seeing that he loves me and doesn’t just want to control me when he gets mad. I really am trying to feel safe with him.” “Does that sandcastle analogy fit for you?” I questioned. “Yes,” she confirmed, “Because when he is really gentle with me and acts like he wants to comfort me and apologizes, that’s how I know he really means it…that he really is sorry, and will let me heal at my pace. That’s when I feel closer to him…so the sandcastle part fits, because it’s his carefulness and gentleness that I can trust.”

I turned back to him, “What’s happening for you while you listen to her.” He was considerably calmer, “I can see what she means, and it is like building a sandcastle, because you have to be really careful to do that. There are times when I’m more careful and I can be comforting, but sometimes, I’ve done that and if she’s still sad or withdrawing, I don’t know what else to do.” “Exactly,” I confirmed, “Because that’s when you go in and demolish the sandcastle, right?” “Yeah,” he recognized.

I added, “So another way you can manage that and be careful at the same time is let her know that you are at one of those sandcastle moments when you are starting to feel a little helpless because you don’t know what the next step is. Attuning to her and asking for guidance is another way to treat the relationship like a sandcastle.”

I know this was a long exchange, but I use the sandcastle analogy a lot because people relate to it so well. Everyone understands that sandcastle success is dependent upon an element of care. The foundation in this instance is curiosity about your partner’s betrayal experience and repetition of safe, reassuring interactions. Here are some ways to rebuild and treat a relationship more like a sandcastle instead of a brick house:

  1. Move in close enough to attune to your partner—make eye contact, reach your hand out to offer safe touch if it is allowed by your partner and slow the heck down.
  2. Ask what has been the hardest part about healing so far.
  3. Ask when your partner has felt safer with you.
  4. Ask what your partner is afraid you might not understand.
  5. Remind your partner about how sorry you really are, but only if you really mean it. By the way, you are going to have to do this many times.
  6. Ask your partner if he/she would like you to explain how you feel differently about the relationship now.
  7. Ask your partner what he/she still fears in general about the relationship.
  8. Ask your partner what can help and if he/she says nothing, then just reassure your partner you are there for when he/she does know.
  9. Reassure your partner that you are there because you are wanting to help make it better in any way you can.
  10. Do NOT impatiently demand that your partner get over it.

I have had several clients report that thinking of the relationship like a sandcastle has helped them slow down, breathe and approach their spouses differently.

In the end, a man’s (or woman’s) home really is his/her sandcastle.

Photo credit: Copyright: subbotina / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples Therapy

Marital Betrayal: Forgiveness 101

Uniting Couples to Strengthen Families

couple turned toward each other

Who is this person I thought I knew and what else are they lying about?

This is one of the most common questions a partner has after finding out they have been betrayed by someone in a committed relationship.  It is a disorienting experience that is regularly described as “having the rug pulled out from under me,” “having my entire world fall apart,” “having the wind knocked out of me,” “having my whole world collapse around me,” “falling into a dark pit,” and other catastrophic scenarios illustrating the subsequent emotional devastation.

One of the biggest challenges couples face is how to attain forgiveness in the relationship when a serious betrayal has occurred.  Finding out your partner has been hiding behavior from you feels dangerous, whether it is an affair, an addiction, or spending all the money in the 401K.  Suddenly, you are living with someone who is supposed to have…

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Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

Marital Betrayal: Forgiveness 101

couple turned toward each other

Who is this person I thought I knew and what else are they lying about?

This is one of the most common questions a partner has after finding out they have been betrayed by someone in a committed relationship.  It is a disorienting experience that is regularly described as “having the rug pulled out from under me,” “having my entire world fall apart,” “having the wind knocked out of me,” “having my whole world collapse around me,” “falling into a dark pit,” and other catastrophic scenarios illustrating the subsequent emotional devastation.

One of the biggest challenges couples face is how to attain forgiveness in the relationship when a serious betrayal has occurred.  Finding out your partner has been hiding behavior from you feels dangerous, whether it is an affair, an addiction, or spending all the money in the 401K.  Suddenly, you are living with someone who is supposed to have your back, and you have the sense that you don’t even know who this person is or what else they might be hiding.  It is devastating and dark, and comes with a lot of emotion which is constantly shifting in intensity.  There are no hard and fast rules for how emotion is expressed after a betrayal has been uncovered.  Betrayed partners commonly swing between anxious clinging responses and angry detaching responses.  It is terrifying to be betrayed by someone previously thought to be trustworthy.  Emotional roller-coaster is not an understatement.

Studies show that forgiveness is a critical component to heal major transgressions, and that it is one of the most important things in a marriage contributing to marital stability and quality.  How then, does a spouse go about the work of forgiving with a partner who has betrayed trust and suddenly feels dangerous?

2 Parts of Forgiveness:

There are two facets of forgiveness: intrapsychic and interpersonal.  The intrapsychic part describes the inner peace a person can attain individually; it’s not uncommon to see clients who feel a sense of peace and calm, and an absence of malice towards a partner after exercising individual forgiveness.  However, they can feel forgiving and still not want to get close to the person who caused harm.

The interpersonal part of forgiveness can be more challenging because it requires trusting a partner enough to want to engage with them again.  When a spouse has been dangerous and unpredictable, it is necessary to have new trust-building experiences with the individual who caused the betrayal in order to feel safe enough to move forward again with that person.  The safe experiences also must happen over time.  A year after a betrayal is short in the life of a committed relationship, and many partners need longer than that to really feel like they can trust again.  Some partners take that long just to be able to even begin risking with an offending partner again.

Markers of Forgiveness

There are two main markers of forgiveness, which denote some kind of change: 1) a decrease in negative emotion toward the partner and 2) an increase in positive, conciliatory behavior.  Many people will take a while to decrease negative emotion toward a spouse, because they need time to make sure that the spouse really understands how painful the experience has been so the betrayal isn’t repeated.  Then, it usually takes quite a bit longer to start trusting the person enough to continue moving forward with any connection.

Some Important Things to Remember After a Betrayal has Happened:

  1. Offending partners should expect lots of unpredictable emotion and their partners can be triggered at any time.  Triggers happen unexpectedly and can cause explosive reactions.  It’s impossible to completely control triggering events but you can learn what to do with emotion when it happens.
  2. Transparency, transparency, transparency!
  3. Offending partners must seek to understand their spouse’s pain by asking questions about how hurt they are rather than becoming defensive or withdrawing.
  4. Healing is non-linear, so everything can seem okay one day and terrible the next.
  5. It’s normal for a wounded partner to feel ambivalent about continuing the marriage until they have had time to process emotion and make sense out of the betrayal.
  6. Repetition in discussing details helps wounded partners gain some kind of predictability over time—the couple can set boundaries for times the betrayal isn’t discussed, since it can fatigue the offending partner, but telling the wounded partner to just not ask questions isn’t fair. If they are going to move forward with someone, they need to know what they are dealing with to make sense out of it.  Repetition can actually help because if they get the same answers over time, they can start feeling safer because the person feels reliable in responding.
  7. Even though anger (and rage) are common, expressing the hurt and fear to a partner helps them understand the pain in a way that they can help heal it more effectively. Unfortunately, even though anger protects the person expressing it, it tends to push away the person at whom it is aimed, and that is why even though a person may be entitled to their anger and rage, it ends up impeding healing if the softer feelings aren’t expressed.
  8. Because of the unpredictable nature of healing, patience is more important than ever!

Questions for an offending partner to ask:

A huge problem with betrayal is that the offending partner can get defensive quickly because they don’t like to be reminded of their own treacherous behaviors, and in the face of overwhelming emotion from the hurt partner, they feel helpless about fixing it and want to withdraw.  Sometimes they end up reinjuring their partners in the process because by withdrawing from an emotional partner, that partner often ends up feeling abandoned.  Here are a few ideas for offending partners to ask:

  1. Can you tell me more about how hurt you are? (It seems counter-intuitive because you may not want to “stir the pot,” but if your spouse thinks you really want to know how much you hurt them, they are more likely to trust that you understand enough that they can start trusting again).
  2. What do you think I still might not understand about how you feel?
  3. What can I do in this moment—I wasn’t there for you then—I am here now so what can I do right now?
  4. Even though I don’t know what to do with all the emotion, I want to fix it—does it help for me to be here listening to you now?
  5. Is there anything else you need to know?

I’m not going to lie—this is very rough.  Words just don’t capture the pain.  I have had betraying husbands call me and ask me what to expect for a trajectory of healing after they revealed extra-marital affairs, and this is what I said in essence:

  1. Roller coaster emotion is the norm.
  2. Trying to heal can be disorienting for your spouse because she has to heal this with someone who created the pain—that is a confusing, dark place for a spouse to be, and yet, building trust with the person who caused the betrayal is the only way to move forward.
  3. You are going to be fatigued from talking about the betrayal WAY before she is done talking about the betrayal, and a year is not long in betrayal time.
  4. Asking questions from you and getting predictable responses over time is one of the ways she can start trusting again.
  5. In order to heal, the betrayed partner has to make sense out of how this could have happened and has to feel some kind of shift in the relationship to have reassurance that it won’t happen again—something has to feel better and more secure than it did before the betrayal.
  6. Transparency is one of the only ways she can start trusting again.

These aren’t gender specific.  Both genders betray partners, and both genders are similar in trajectories of healing.  I don’t think one blog post does this justice because it is so hard, so reading a book about healing betrayals may be indicated as well as seeking professional help in therapy.

On the bright side, some of my best cases have involved healing from serious betrayals.  Couples are forced to scrutinize their marriages and rebuild new foundations of trust.  They really can build up closer, better marriage than before.  They figure out where they went wrong and they fix it and appreciate each other more in the process.  It’s important to know that the last sentence usually describes years of rebuilding.

Lastly, if you have been betrayed by your partner, please know that you are not alone, and that marriages do recover from this tragedy.

Reference:

Fincham, F. D., Hall, J. & Beach, S. R. H. (2006).  Forgiveness in marriage: Current status and future directions. Family Relations, 55(4), 415-427.