Each year, millions of U.S. couples walk down aisles in churches, temples and mosques to get married. Many only occasionally return to a place of worship together. Does that mean their marriage is devoid of spirituality? Do spiritual dimensions of marriage help or hurt couples’ unions, especially when they become parents?
A recent study by researchers at Bowling Green State University identified two ways that spirituality helps the marriages of new parents fare better. The results were published in the October 2014 issue of the Journal of Family Psychology.
First, the more spiritual intimacy the couples said they shared, the higher the positivity and the lower the negativity the couples exhibited when they discussed high-conflict topics. Second, viewing their marriage as sacred facilitated more positive marital interactions.
“These two spiritual factors motivate couples to manage their conflicts in a kind and collaborative way,” said Dr. Annette Mahoney, a professor of psychology at BGSU, who led the study, which was funded by a $1.3 million grant from the Templeton Foundation. The study included analysis of couples’ videotaped interactions as well as husbands and wives’ responses to survey instruments.
Couples’ ratings of their spiritual intimacy were based on how often they revealed their spiritual beliefs, questions and doubts to each other, and listened supportively to each other’s spiritual disclosures without judgment. It didn’t matter whether the spouses were blue-collar employees with high school educations or wealthy professionals with advanced college degrees—the results were the same. The more spiritual intimacy the couples said they shared, the better they handled their top three conflicts.
“Spiritual intimacy is very, very important and undeniably a construct that matters,” said Mahoney.
Second, couples’ views on the “sanctification of their marriage”—how much they perceived their union as having divine significance and character—was predictive of more positive behavior by the spouses.
It is rare for what people say about the quality of their relationship to predict how they behave when their interactions are directly observed by researchers, Mahoney said, which is why the findings were remarkable.
“Sanctification of Marriage and Spiritual Intimacy Predicting Observed Marital Interactions Across the Transition to Parenthood,” was published in a special issue of the Journal of Family Psychology focused on spirituality and marriage. Joining her in the research were BGSU graduate student Katherine Kusner and Drs. Kenneth Pargament, a professor of psychology, and Alfred DeMaris, a professor of sociology.
The study involved 164 heterosexual married couples having their first biological child together. Previous studies have shown that there is potential for increased marital stress during the transition to parenthood, which makes it a prime time for analyzing the impact of spirituality on a marriage.
The couples’ interactions were videotaped in their homes during late pregnancy and when their child was 3 months, 6 months, and 12 months old. Couples then rated their own and their partner’s spiritually intimate behaviors, as well as their views on the sanctity of their marriage.
A unique feature of the study is that husband’s self-reports on the couple’s spiritual intimacy predicted not only his behavior, but also his wife’s. It was also true of the wife’s self-reports of the husband’s spiritual intimacy, according to study results.
Mahoney and her colleagues would like to see more research conducted on spiritual intimacy and sanctification among same-sex couples. “There’s no reason to believe the concepts are restricted to heterosexual couples. They could apply to same-sex couples as well,” she said.
And while 92 percent of the couples in the study reported they were Christian, Mahoney said she would expect that the two concepts in this study would also apply to couples, married or unmarried, of any religious community, and perhaps to some atheists as well. But more research is needed to confirm such hypotheses.
Mahoney also plans additional studies to identify additional spiritual factors that could harm couples’ marriages.