A sacred union

New research examines spiritual dimensions of marriage

Photo by Jennifer LaPlante

By David Yonke

Each year, millions of U.S. couples walk down aisles in churches, temples and mosques to get married. Many only occasionally, if ever, again set foot together inside a place of worship. Does that mean their marriage is devoid of spirituality? Not according to studies showing most people view their marriage as a sacred union. But, does what couples say about the spiritual nature of their marriage predict how they actually act toward one another?

A recent study by researchers at Bowling Green State University sheds light on this question and on two spiritual dimensions of marriage that predict better behavior in marriage. The study was led by Dr. Annette Mahoney, a professor of psychology and member of BGSU’s Spirituality and Psychology Research Team. It was funded by a $1.2 million grant from the Templeton Foundation, which later gave an additional $100,000 grant to the project.

First, couples rated the depth of their “spiritual intimacy”— how often they reveal their spiritual beliefs, questions and doubts to their spouse, and listen supportively to their spouse’s spiritual disclosures without judgment. What spouses said about their spiritual intimacy predicted how well both husbands and wives treated each other when researchers evaluated videotapes of couples discussing their top three conflicts. Couples with higher spirituality intimacy managed their conflicts in a more kind and collaborative way. 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 higher the positivity and the lower the negativity couples exhibited when discussing high-conflict topics.

“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 under observation. This finding reinforces numerous studies where the perceived sanctity of one’s marriage has been correlated with self-reports of healthier marriages.                                                           

It is rare for what people say about their relationship to predict how they behave when their interactions are directly observed by researchers, Mahoney said, which is why the findings were remarkable.

The results, published in the October 2014 issue of the Journal of Family Psychology in a special section with three other studies on faith and marriage, were stunning, according to Mahoney. 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, “Sanctification of Marriage and Spiritual Intimacy Predicting Observed Marital Interactions Across the Transition to Parenthood,” 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.

Mahoney said about 70 to 80 percent of psychological studies on faith and family conducted in the last 30 years have relied on one or two general questions on involvement  in organized religion — typically how often the couple attended worship services, and/or how important religion is to them.

These kinds of questions, taken at one point in time, do not tackle why marital spirituality could make a difference, for better or for worse, or identify specific spiritual beliefs or behaviors about marriage that couple could cultivate to strengthen their unions, Mahoney said.

“General markers of religious participation offer little insight into why higher religiousness is tied to better marital functioning,” according to Mahoney. “For this reason, the authors employed measures of marital sanctification and spiritual intimacy to delve more deeply into whether certain spiritual factors could motivate couples to manage their conflicts in a kind and collaborative way.”

The bulk of the research on religion and marriage also has been limited because of reliance on self-reports from one spouse at one time. The BGSU study, by contrast, involved reports from both husband and wife taken four different times over more than a year. These extensive data enabled rigorous statistical analyses that produced “compelling evidence that a given spiritual construct may be causally related to a given marital construct,” Mahoney said.

After recruiting couples for the study, research assistants went to their homes and prompted a discussion on topics the couple had identified as their high-conflict areas, such as finances, the division of household chores, in-laws and child care. The interviewer then left the room while the video camera continued recording for at least 10 minutes.

The couple’s verbal and nonverbal behaviors were later measured and coded, noting such things as domineering behavior, verbal hostility, hurtful humor and angry body postures on the negative side, and collaborative problem solving, eliciting the partner’s viewpoint, affection, and shared humor on the positive scale.

Because researchers had four waves of data to study, they were able to apply advanced statistical analyses that eliminated unchanging, non-spiritual factors such as intelligence, personal history, education and personality traits as competing influences on marital functioning.

It was surprising, Mahoney said, that the level of spiritual intimacy reported by the husbands and wives predicted how they interacted during the observed videotaped discussions. And the 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.

While each of the individual reports and interviews represents a snapshot of the couple’s relationship, the four data points combined gave researchers a big-picture look at the impact of spiritual intimacy and sanctification of marriage on the relationships.

“By using longitudinal data to remove the effects of things that do not change, you can isolate specific factors such as spiritual intimacy. This is as close as you can get to causal data without it being an experiment,” Mahoney said.

Northwest Ohio is an ideal place for such a study, according to Mahoney, for many of the same reasons that Ohio has been at the center of recent national elections. “Ohio is a terrific snapshot of the United States,” she said. “It’s balanced and reflective of the characteristics of married heterosexual couples in the country having their first child.”

The couples who were studied are part of a shrinking demographic in the U.S., she noted, as the number of heterosexual couples having their first biological child together after marriage is on the decline.

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.