So for a long time I thought praying together was just a nice thing to do. It was one of those optional, lets-do-this-if-we-remember kind of things. But with time, my perspective on this has shifted. A lot.
Regular readers of the blog will know that we offer sound, research-based advice, as well as speaking from a Christian worldview. Even today when we’re looking at the effect of prayer on your marriage we’re referring to what we can learn from Scripture and from secular research, because we believe that God also reveals truth in creation.
When I was coming to the research that had been prepared for this post I had in my head that we would only be looking at praying together, but there’s also some great info about praying for your marriage that I want to share as well. The research shows that both praying for your marriage and praying with your partner have some incredibly beneficial effects on your marriage.
Prayer Increases Long-Term Marriage Satisfaction
I wasn’t expecting this but it does make sense. It turns out that praying for blessings for your spouse predicts marriage satisfaction later in life[i]. So this study showed that who praying for the wellbeing of your spouse predicted relationship satisfaction at a later point in time.
The opposite was not true! Relationship satisfaction did not lead to an increase in prayer. So it was apparent that prayer is a catalyst to increase relationship satisfaction.
As the researchers considered this, they speculated that prayer encouraged spouses to think about the long-term aspects of the relationship. Here’s a quote: “Praying to an eternal and unchanging being and asking for positive things for my partner, may prime me to use a longer time frame in thinking about my relationship to my partner as well.[ii]”
That might be the case. I have a different idea. In 1 Peter 3:7, Peter is instructing husbands and he says, “Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered.” (NKJV).
Notice here that there is a prescriptive and behavior that Peter requires of husbands so that their prayers are not hindered. In other words, you have to behave a certain way, giving honor to your wife and understanding her, in order for your prayer to be effective.
I think this is also one of the ways that prayer impacts marriage. It puts back-pressure on your behavior. I know if I get to the end of the day and if I’ve been crusty with Verlynda or disrespectful towards her or have just been a jerk: I can’t pray. It just feels so fraudulent.
So one of the things I’ve noticed is that having a daily time of prayer together forces me to confront myself with my care for my wife and how I’ve related to her that day. I think that has a regulatory effect that challenges us to live— in both behaviour and attitude— in a way that allows us to arrive at the end of the day in a way that we can pray with authenticity. So of course that is going to have a positive effect on marriage.
There’s another part that this researcher noted: praying for your spouse also involves God in the marriage. Because of this, there’s a sense of accountability towards God which means both that I’m watching my behavior again, but also that I’m checking in on my commitment levels. And, as we discussed in episode 45, a top 5 predictor of marital success is commitment. So if praying for your spouse and your marriage increases commitment, that’s definitely something we want to be doing as well.
I’d like to issue a challenge on that note: do you pray for your spouse? And I mean, more than just “Father I pray for Verlynda and I pray for our dog etc etc”. Like you’re actually praying about stuff that matters to her and to you.
Further, these same researchers noted that praying FOR your spouse and praying WITH your spouse were highly correlated. So I know we’re talking about praying together but this is why praying for your spouse also matters: the two go hand in hand.
But I do think it’s useful to just underscore the point that prayer can alter the goals of your relationship by prompting you to focus your attention on the long term commitment and specifically on each other’s needs[iii]. This shift in goals then directs both spouses to choose behaviors that support the relationship rather than undermine it. Makes sense, right? You can’t pray for something and then sabotage it. It has to help.
Specific Benefits of Prayer
Let’s look at some specific benefits of prayer: why we need to pray together.
I want to start with a personal observation about why it’s hard to pray together, because I think that we need to talk about this. Because ‘why’ it is hard, in my mind, directly relates to ‘why’ we need to.
For the first several years of our marriage I found it hard to pray. And I know from talking to other couples we weren’t alone in this. Typically, it seemed like the wife always wanted to but the husband wasn’t nearly as interested.
I’d be lying in bed hoping Verlynda would fall asleep and just be thinking “I’ll just pray in my head after she falls asleep.”
So I started trying to really observe myself and figure out what the reluctance was. Why was it so hard to pray together?
After a while I concluded that it all really just boiled down to one thing: vulnerability. It was like either I pray and keep it superficial and feel like it’s pointless ‘cause it’s not getting to the real issues. And then I’m not being authentic. Or, I skip praying then I don’t feel unauthentic. Or, if we are going to pray sincerely together then I need to be vulnerable and openly vocalize my fears, anxieties, doubts and uncertainties in front of my wife before God, and admit my powerlessness to meet these needs. All in all, this means being very unmanly, per cultural expectations.
On the other hand you can see precisely why wives want their husbands to pray: they get an open window into their husband’s heart, probably in ways that he possibly isn’t otherwise opening to her.
I eventually figured out that the reasons why I didn’t want to pray were the reasons why I should. That sense of vulnerability, while difficult to open yourself to, is a very powerful thing in marriage. Acknowledging that enabled me to commit to it and now I see it as a good thing. I still don’t always look forward to it, but it’s a good thing and I appreciate the inherent goodness of it.
If you want to start or restart praying together this will help you nail down some specifics in terms of what to pray about. Think of it as an excellent springboard to get things kick-started if you want to pray together.
Forgiveness and Selfless Concern
An interesting study from 2010[iv] asked 52 spouses to prayer either their spouse or to simply imaging describing their spouse to their parent (this was the control group).
Participants who prayed for the well-being of their spouse reported greater willingness to forgive their spouse, and also reported higher levels of “selfless concern” for their spouse. This was shown to be true after just a single prayer for the other person, and continued to be shown over longer periods.
Why does this work or help? Well, selflessness was thought to be the mediating variable here: praying to God, who is strongly associated with love, primes couples to think un-selfishly about loving each other. This therefore leads to higher levels of forgiveness.
There might also be a back-pressure or self-monitoring effect here too, like we described above. Spending time as a couple praying to God, who has already forgiven literally everything you have done and ever will do wrong, makes it harder to justify holding onto those little grudges and gripes we have with our spouse.
Trust and Unity
In another study, Lambert et al[v] asked couples how often they pray together and then were observed talking about their relationship. Observers then rated how highly the couple appeared to trust each other.
Higher rates of praying together were linked to higher ratings of trust. A follow up study found that unity was a mediating variable in this. Praying together creates a sense of unity and togetherness as you pray for the same things and connect with God together. This leads to increased trust.
Of course, this fits well with what I said about vulnerability: if we see into each other’s hearts, nothing is hidden, there is more trust and more of a sense of being together.
Commitment and Reduced Chance of Infidelity
Fincham et al[vi] found that praying for blessings on your spouse predicted lower levels of infidelity in a longitudinal study.
This effect is over and above what would be expected by measures of relationship satisfaction. Spouses asked to pray for each other once a day for 4 weeks were rated by observers as appearing to be more committed to each other at the end of the 4 week period. A moderating variable is this effect is the belief that the relationship is sacred: prayer is linked to stronger belief that your relationship is sacred, which alters the goals of your relationship and naturally results in less infidelity. So there is value in prayer there too.
How NOT to Pray Together
I think it’s worth noting too that there can actually be destructive ways of praying together.
Prayer that is focused on the negative qualities of your spouse or prayer that is trying to change your spouse’s behavior may decrease rather than increase relationship satisfaction (always a ‘duh’ moment when researchers point out the obvious!)
Fincham et al[vii] noted that “joint couple prayer could be used by one partner as a tool to manipulate or coerce the other, accentuating rather than ameliorating problematic relationship dynamics”
The message from this is: don’t be a dork when you’re praying. We looked in a previous post at healthy ways to approach conflict and not bottling things up in your marriage, and praying pointed prayers that your spouse would change some part of their behavior you find annoying does not form part of this. Same rules here that apply to all of marriage: take ownership of your own junk and pray about that. Don’t pray sideways. Pray from your heart, about your own heart and trust God to take care of the rest.
Final Thoughts on Praying as a Couple
The research shows that praying for or with your partner was linked to three qualities:
- Selfless concern[viii],
- Sense of unity with your partner[ix] and
- Belief that the relationship is sacred[x].
These three traits then predict higher levels of forgiveness, trust and commitment in your relationship, which create overall higher satisfaction with your relationship. Praying together also ensures you have the same goals from your relationship, which enables both spouses to choose behavior that supports the relationship.
Finally, it really prods us towards vulnerability which can only serve to help deepen the intimacy in your marriage.
Prayer and petition to God with and for your spouse invites his blessings into your lives and your marriage. Any Christian couple can testify to the power of prayer. But it’s interesting to see that, even from a purely secular and scientific background, the benefits of a prayerful marriage are abundantly clear.
References:[i] Frank D. Fincham and others, ‘Spiritual Behaviors and Relationship Satisfaction: A Critical Analysis of the Role of Prayer’, Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 27.4 (2008), 362–88 <https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2008.27.4.362>. [ii] Fincham and others. [iii] Frank D. Fincham, Nathaniel M. Lambert, and R. H, ‘Faith and Unfaithfulness: Can Praying for Your Partner Reduce Infidelity?’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99.4 (2010), 649–59 <https://doi.org/10.1037/a0019628>. [iv] Nathaniel M. Lambert and others, ‘Benefits of Expressing Gratitude: Expressing Gratitude to a Partner Changes One’s View of the Relationship’, Psychological Science, 21.4 (2010), 574. [v] Nathaniel M. Lambert, Frank D. Fincham, and Scott Stanley, ‘Prayer and Satisfaction with Sacrifice in Close Relationships’, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29.8 (2012), 1058. [vi] Fincham, Lambert, and H. [vii] Fincham and others. [viii] Lambert and others. [ix] Nathaniel M. Lambert, Frank D. Fincham, and Scott Stanley, ‘Prayer and Satisfaction with Sacrifice in Close Relationships’, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29.8 (2012), 1058. [x] Fincham, Lambert, and H.