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, Family

Navigating the Transition to a Mixed Faith Marriage

12915846 - hand giving the bible to another personA fair amount of my therapy practice is with couples who started their marriages with the same religious orientation and are disrupted when one spouse experiences a considerable shift in religious belief.  This faith transition is a major event in a marital relationship, requiring many adjustments to the family system.  In my observation, it is very painful for both parties involved.  Here are some of the commonly expressed emotions:

  1.  Fear. Individuals who shift their beliefs describe it as a scary experience to feel doubt about previously held theological assumptions.  Both partners experience intense fear about what the shift means for the future of the marriage and family.  Both often develop a deep-seated fear that he or she will never fully be understood and accepted by the spouse.  Both can feel unsafe about expressing real thoughts and feelings.
  2. Hurt and Betrayal. Marrying someone with the expectation for a long-term religious commitment and having him or her change directions can feel like an enormous betrayal, and is often traumatic and disorienting.  The partner who shifted sometimes feels betrayed and misunderstood by a religious institution or by gossip and exclusion by extended family, friends or neighbors.  Since both partners are hurting, it can be hard for either of them to hold the pain of the other person.
  3. Rejection.  Both partners can feel rejected by each other, or at least fear rejection.  Sometimes spouses have a hard time separating the rejection of religious beliefs from personal rejection.  The inability to accept a partner’s new belief system can also be a felt rejection.
  4. Loneliness.  A faith transition can be isolating for both partners who previously shared social ties in a religious community.  They can also feel isolated from each other.
  5. Shame and embarrassment. The partner who changed belief systems commonly experiences shame about causing disappointment for a spouse, and the partner whose spouse changed can feel shame and embarrassment about having a partner who has left the religion, particularly if that religion defines expectations for marriage and family life.
  6. Grief.  Both partners will feel the loss of having unified doctrinal beliefs.  The grief is dark, intense, deep, and scary.  Grieving the theologically unified marriage can last for a long time.
  7. Ambivalence.  It’s not uncommon for spouses to equivocate and feel uncertain about how they want to move forward.  This state can seem interminable.  Often, people feel conflicted because they doubt their own abilities to navigate a mixed faith marriage.
  8. Sadness.  The need for rebalancing a family’s dynamics with a religious shift can just feel plain sad for both partners.  They will often avoid having conversations about the elephant in the room, which is the disconnection of ecclesiastical beliefs, because it creates such heavy feelings.

Routinely, couples will come into therapy after one spouse has a faith crisis culminating in disengagement from a religious system.  Normally, they are stuck in a pattern of withdrawing from discussions about the differences because it is just too painful for both parties.  Most of the time, however, the topic is difficult to avoid because it affects issues about how to parent the children, participation in future family religious rituals, and the addition of elements which may have previously been absent, e.g. alcohol, individuals who actively oppose religious beliefs, etc.

Religious belief is at the core a manifestation of intensely personal experiences.  It’s never a good idea to try to force or coerce someone back into a particular set of beliefs, either for the believer or the non-believer.  Lecturing a partner with religious dogma will elicit defensiveness and bitterness.  Most people who announce a faith transition have spent a lot of time internally struggling with the implications for their marriages and families, and can anticipate the arguments they will receive.  It’s rarely a flippant decision.

This is always a uniquely challenging set of circumstances to navigate, but I know many couples who have found ways to retain marital stability despite religious differences.  Once they learn to safely express emotions and reaffirm their commitment to each other despite religious differences, they can create a respectful space to negotiate the details of family life pertaining to specific religious practices.  These negotiations are ongoing and different for every couple.

Here are some basic tips for navigating these types of conversations for couples who want to preserve their marriages after a faith transition:

  1. Spend a LOT of time validating the emotions of your partner.  Take a curious stance about what the faith transition has been like for each of you.  What has been the hardest part of this for each of you?  What is the scariest part?  Both people are hurting.  It helps if the partner who shifted can first be curious about the pain and betrayal and fear experienced by the partner who didn’t shift.  Then, it is helpful if that partner can understand the deep fears and yearnings of the partner who has changed.  Sometimes partners who shifted will hold back in expressing their emotions because the pain of betrayed partners is so big that they don’t want to add more stress to the system.  However, if these fears and ambivalence with a mix of other emotions aren’t heard and validated, they will still take up space and become a barrier to resolution and connection.
  1. Actively identify what you have in common besides the religion.  This isn’t a trivial matter, especially in situations in which the religion was the main identifying feature for the couple previous to the faith transition.  You can, however, actively create a new joint identity.  Usually, people can start with their joint desires for raising well-adjusted children.  Sometimes, they will develop a new hobby together.  I don’t mean for this to sound trite, because this negotiation often occurs against a backdrop of grief for the couple’s lost joint religious identity.  In my anecdotal opinion, however, couples who proactively look for ways to be together outside of the religion experience smoother adjustment.
  1. Create a pattern of reassuring one another. Couples can learn to reach out for reassurance and comfort about the marriage.  For example, a partner might ask, “What do you still love about me?  Why are you still with me?” and a partner can give a reassuring response.  Tip:  A reassuring response doesn’t sound like, “I’m only here because of the kids.”  If that’s the case, the conversation might need to be about whether or not to continue the marriage.
  1. Seek external support. As mentioned, many couples in this situation feel embarrassed and need to have a group of safe people with which they can process the new development.  Since support communities can be polarized in beliefs, try to find moderate support systems that can be affirming for both parties.  Sometimes disengaging from a rigid system creates the need for a period of polarization.  If you don’t have family or friends who can be supportive without arguing, a therapist can be helpful in processing difficult circumstances.
  1. Perpetuate family rituals. Since children are so sensitive to the emotional environment in a family, it’s important to reassure them that they are safe.  One way children experience safety is in predictable rituals.  This includes daily rituals, like bedtime, and annual traditions, like birthdays.
  1. Perpetuate couple connection rituals. It’s more important than ever to have ways to reinforce a joint identity with shared patterns, like a goodbye kiss or daily texts, etc.  Even having a regular discussion about how to keep connection is intrinsically connecting.
  1. Find ways to reach out to others in the same situation. Once you have negotiated a safe space to move forward with different religious beliefs, look for ways to support other couples facing the same challenge.  As mentioned, this can be very isolating, and both partners can benefit from guidance by people who are in the process of making it work.

Sometimes the choice after a faith transition is to end the marriage.  If this is the case, the couple can still maintain a respectful tone and negotiate a low-conflict separation or divorce and find ways to mitigate the stress for children involved.  Seek resources.

This is never easy, and is always painful at some level.  However, I see many couples who truly love each other at the core and want to continue a life together despite religious disconnection.  The couples who are successful at mixed faith marriages are generally able to feel compassion for each other and allow their partners to hold their own beliefs without ongoing aggression.  Theological differences don’t need to signal the end of a marriage and family. 

Photo credit: Copyright: balazschristina / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, marriage

Evidence for Establishing a War Room: Prayer and Spiritual Practices in Romantic Relationships

couple prayer in front of window

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:

  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.

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.

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.