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Praying together to stay together? The role prayer plays in relationship conflict
Thirty-five percent of couples pray together, outside of meals, at least once a month, according to the American Family Survey. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
Experts on religion and relationships say praying with or for your partner is one way to minimize romantic tensions.

Strong individual and joint prayer practices can lay the groundwork for relatively conflict-free companionship because praying helps put arguments into perspective, said Mark Butler, a professor of marriage and family therapy at Brigham Young University.

"When people pray (about tensions in their relationship) they are helped to see their part in the problem. They're helped to see what they can do themselves to make a difference. And they are helped to soften," he said. "All these things help with conflict resolution."

However, few couples take advantage of these benefits, according to the American Family Survey. Fifty percent of couples said they never pray together outside of meals.

Every couple will need to do some soul-searching to determine which prayer habits work best for them, Butler and others said. In order to take advantage of prayer's benefits, couples need to be on the same spiritual page, sharing a belief in God and a similar sense of the purpose and power of prayer.

Appealing to a higher power

Prayer is an important part of most religions. For example, it's one of the five pillars of Islam. Committed Muslims prostrate themselves before God at dawn, noon, midafternoon, sunset and nightfall.

Similarly, Orthodox Jews have three prayers they're meant to recite each day, and members of this faith are also taught, like many Christians, to reach out to God whenever the spirit moves them, said Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, executive editor of Intermountain Jewish News, who offers advice on prayer and other religious practices in his regular column.

Prayer rituals like these strengthen an individual's and a faith community's relationship to God, keeping participants focused on how their religious beliefs should shape their daily activities.

For people in romantic relationships, prayer can serve a protective function, according to Frank Fincham, director of the Florida State University Family Institute.

"People who pray are more likely to forgive partners for wrongdoings," he said. "It's also associated with more gratitude in life."

Fincham's research has highlighted many of prayer's benefits, including how individual prayer practices build trust in relationships. A study he co-authored, "Praying Together and Staying Together," which was published in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality in 2012, reported that prayer encourages "spouses to shift their focus from their own individual needs to the needs of the relationship and behaviors beneficial to their partner."

Joint prayer, when a couple reaches out to God together, can also lead to positive emotional benefits, but it has the potential to cause spiritual damage, Fincham said.

"People can manipulate their partners in joint prayer, just like they can manipulate them in other contexts," he noted.

Manipulation generally occurs when one partner prays about the other partner, Butler said, offering the example of a person who prays something like, "My partner is being really ornery right now. Can't you fix them, God?"

Joint prayer is at its best when two people come together to offer what researchers call "intercessory prayers," or prayers used to build up a romantic partner, Butler said.

"Praying for your partner would involve saying something like, 'I want my partner to feel loved. Please help me to be an instrument of your love in their life. Please help them to grow in the ways that they want to grow,'" he added.

Prayer patterns

Prayer can be a conflict resolution tool when members of a couple conceive of God as a deity who hopes for their relationship to be a success, Butler said.

"It's sort of like taking your problem to the ultimate therapist whom you know is not interested in taking sides," he said.

Beyond avoiding prayer-based manipulation, couples who use joint prayer to avoid conflict need to think critically about the way in which they implement it in order to experience the most benefits, Butler said.

In his research, which has involved interviewing couples about their prayer habits, Butler has concluded that there are three different conflict-related styles of joint prayer, only one of which actually leads to fewer arguments.

The first style, which Butler calls the "Band-Aid pattern of prayer," involves incorporating joint prayer into the healing process.

After a bitter argument, the couple is "exhausted and bruised, realizing the hurt they've done to their relationship," he said. "(Then) they are willing to kneel down and pray to repair the damage done."

The next prayer pattern is practiced by couples who cut themselves off mid-argument in order to invite God in to quell their anger. Butler calls this style "Stop. Drop. And pray."

"These are the couples who are actively inviting God into their conflict resolution," he said. "It helps them regain a perspective that the relationship is the most important thing here."

The third and most successful joint prayer pattern involves couples who pray in good times and bad. In other words, they don't wait for conflict to arise to reach out to God for guidance, Butler said.

"This couple has an active prayer life. They kneel down together or individually every morning, inviting God's presence into their lives," he said, noting that he refers to this style as the "Prevention or pre-emption approach."

Best practices

According to the American Family Survey, 35 percent of couples pray together, outside of meals, at least once a month.

Here's a summary of the best prayer habits these couples can nurture:

1. Pray for each other's well-being

As Fincham and Butler said, joint prayer becomes manipulative when a member of a couple uses it as an opportunity to share their pet peeves.

Beneficial prayer "is not prayer that's complaining to God about your partner or prayer in which you ask God to change your partner. That's counterproductive," Fincham said.

Instead, couples should use their prayer time as an opportunity to ask God to look out for each other's well-being, he said, noting that "a man might ask God to guide his wife to see things the way she should see them."

2. Maintain strong individual prayer practices

Rabbi Goldberg, who isn't a fan of joint prayer, said that if a couple wishes to add this habit to their routine, they should be careful not to let their individual prayer practices suffer. This tip is especially helpful for interfaith couples, or spouses who don't share the same prayer style.

"Each person, including husband and wife, needs to retain the integrity of his or her unique relationship with the Creator," he said.

In Judaism, offering well wishes for one's loved ones is an important part of an individual's relationship to God, Rabbi Goldberg added, noting that it's routine for someone to pray for their spouse's health, success and sanity.

3. Follow the 'Prevention approach'

One of the best ways to use prayer to avoid relationship conflict is to pray early and often, following the prevention approach, Butler said.

"In the moment that (a couple) encounters triggering situations, these blessings they've already sought in prayer a softening towards their partner, speaking in a kind voice and all that helps the conflict" end before it starts, he said.
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