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Fam Proc 37:451-478, 1998

Not Just a Time-Out: Change Dynamics of Prayer for Religious

Couples in Conflict Situations
aAssistant Professor, School of Family Life, Marriage and Family Therapy Graduate Programs, 262 John Taylor Building, Brigham
Young University, Provo UT 84602-8601; e-mail: Mark_Butler@BYU.Edu.

C. Gardner is an undergraduate student, and Mark H. Bird a graduate student in the School of Family Life, BYU.

For religious couples, the spiritual domain stands alongside biological, psychological, and systemic domains as an
influence upon interaction and mechanism for change. A qualitative methodology consisting of structured interviews of
religious spouses was used to investigate effects of prayer on couple interaction during conflict. A reliable description of
the dynamics of prayer across spouse interviews was extracted by four analysts using a group interpretive procedure.
Findings suggest that prayer invokes a couple-God system, which significantly influences couple interaction during
conflict. Overall, prayer appears to be a significant "softening" event for religious couples, facilitating reconciliation
and problem solving. Prayer 1) invokes an experience of relationship with Deity; 2) deescalates hostile emotions and
reduces emotional reactivity; 3) enhances relationship and partner orientation and behavior; 4) facilitates empathy and
unbiased perspective; 5) increases self-change focus; and 6) encourages couple responsibility for reconciliation and
problem solving. Therapists' support of religious couples' use of prayer as a change mechanism is considered.
For religious couples and families, the spiritual/metaphysical domain of human experience stands alongside the
biological, psychological, and systemic domains as a potentially powerful influence upon couple and family interaction
processes, and as a significant mechanism for change. In recent years, researchers have documented a strong resurgence of
public interest in the spiritual/metaphysical domain of human experience (Richards & Bergin, 1997), and a large
proportion of the public report the importance of spirituality and religion in their lives (Gallup & Castelli, 1989; Greeley,
1989; Hoge, 1996; Princeton Religious Research Center, 1990; Report on Trends, 1993).
Together with other human service professionals, family scholars and marriage and family therapists have begun to
payincreasing attention to the role of spiritual beliefs and practices in relationships and in therapy (Jensen & Bergin, 1988).
Sensitive to the influence of clients' world views and narrative patterns upon couple and family interaction, "a majority of
mainstream psychotherapists now consider . . . [religious] beliefs and behaviors to be resources for promoting therapeutic
change" (Richards & Bergin, 1997, p. 42). The influence of couple/family beliefsspecifically religious faithand
religious practices upon family interaction processes is potentially significant. Yet, in spite of the large numbers of couples
and families reporting the personal and relationship significance of spirituality and its subsequent clinical significance, for
various reasons the spiritual domain has been comparatively neglected in marriage, family, and clinical research, much of
which consists of opinion, attitude, and practice surveys (see Bergin & Jensen, 1990; Carlson, 1997) that document this
significance and interest but do not systematically examine and explore the spiritual phenomena themselves.

While numerous conceptual models have been proposed for integrating spirituality in the unique context of marriage and
family therapy (Anderson & Worthen, 1997; Berenson, 1990; Butler & Harper, 1994; Frame, 1996; Griffith, 1986;
Joanides, 1996; Prest & Keller, 1993; Rotz, Russell, & Wright, 1993; Stewart & Gale, 1994), supporting empirical
literature relative to the effectiveness of these spiritual models, or to specific spiritual interventions such as prayer, is almost
nonexistent. Implementing an effective spiritual strategy (see Richards & Bergin, 1997) or component in therapy requires
an empirical as well as conceptual effort and development. Research examining religious practices and their effects in
relationship systems is needed, and can illuminate potentially helpful spiritual interventions that can be ethically employed
in therapy with religious clients.

Empirical Investigation of Spirituality

Research on spirituality has tended to focus on narrow, overt manifestations of religiosity. Religiosity research, in turn,
has emphasized the variable of religious affiliation and church attendance and its relation to physical and mental health (see
Markides, 1983; Payne, Bergin, Bielema, et al., 1991; Steketee, Quay, & White, 1991; for reviews of this literature see


Bergin, 1983; Richards & Bergin, 1997). Research relating spiritual/religious variables to marital and family functioning
has tended to focus on global correlations between religiosity and marital satisfaction, adjustment, and stability (see Booth,
Johnson, Branaman, & Sica, 1995; Filsinger & Wilson, 1984; Hansen, 1987, 1992; Heaton, 1984; Wilson & Filsinger,
Examining the influences of religiosity on more specific elements of marital functioning, Robinson (1994) found that a
religious influence in marriage, which included prayer, enhances intimacy, commitment, and communication. Dudley and
Kosinski (1990) identified religion as a factor facilitating conflict resolution. These studies, however, fail to identify the
specific components or factors of "religiosity" that are the active ingredients in yielding observed effects. Clinical relevance
of spirituality research requires determination of 1) comparative contributions and 2) mechanisms by which specific
spiritual/religious practices, such as prayer, may contribute to relationship effects. Such studies can enable discriminating
inclusion of spiritual/metaphysical practices in enrichment, prevention, and therapy with religious couples and families.
Specific religious practices, includingprayer, though, have received negligible research attention. Research on prayer has
primarily focused on prayer as a mechanism for individual coping relative to physical and mental health conditions,
traumas, and crises, (see Dossey, 1993; Harvey, Stein, Olsen, & Roberts, 1995; McCullough, 1995; McIntosh, Silver,
& Wortman, 1993; Ohaeri, Shokunbi, Akinlade, & Dare, 1995; Poloma & Pendleton, 1991; Potts, 1996; Shams
& Jackson, 1993). However, prayer was not investigated systematically or carefully, except as one of the numerous
practices associated with religiosity. A published review of more historical empirical literature on prayer (Finney
& Malony, 1985) concludes that the effects of prayer are primarily positive. Nevertheless, an individualistic, psychological
emphasis has prevailed in earlier studies of prayer as well. Systems studies of prayer, which are relationship- and
interaction-focused, are needed.
Only one study (Gruner, 1985) was found that included prayer as a factor relating to marital adjustment and problem
resolution. Gruner compared private prayer to Bible reading and found that prayer had a more positive influence on marital
adjustment. Gruner also found that 53% of the sample relied on prayer in addressing marital problems, and that all of these
couples reported high marital adjustment. Methodological problems in the Gruner studylack of a control sample, a
nonrepresentative and potentially biased participant sample, and generalizability concerns because of geographical
locationpostponed placing more complete confidence in the conclusions reached. Furthermore, while some benefits of
prayer for religious couples were documented by Gruner's study, specifically, that those couples who used prayer when
faced with problems had high marital adjustment scores, the research failed to describe how prayer led to these reported
effects. Gruner's findings need replication and triangulation, and elaboration in terms of the actual dynamics of prayer.
Aside from the Gruner study, no others were found that investigated prayer as a systemic phenomenon with potential
relationship effects for religious couples and families. Further, the Gruner study, together with all other empirical studies
reviewed, have failed to uncover the complex dynamics of prayer leading to observed effects. Thus, our understanding of
the phenomenon of prayera spiritual practice so significant to religious couples and familiesremains very limited, as is
our ability to conceive of and develop other practices that are similar to prayer in their key dynamics and might yield similar
effects. Thus, clinical application and intervention with such spiritual practices remains limited, foreclosing potentially
powerful resources for couple and family change. What is needed is research that can begin to make the spiritual domain
and spiritual practices both more intelligible and more accessible to therapists working with religious couples and families.
Marriage and family scholars and clinicians are uniquely positioned to conceptualize and investigate the systemic
dynamics and interactional processes associated with spiritual phenomena and practices. Currently, holistic descriptive and
exploratory research is needed. This research can offer preliminary explanation of the significance and dynamics of
spiritual/metaphysical phenomena, practices, and experience in the lives of couples and families, including many marital
and family therapy clients.

Systemic Dynamics of Prayer

Butler and Harper, (1994) suggest that married couples may involve their Deity in the marital relationship by invoking a
couple-God triangle. Through their shared belief system concerning their deity, includingGod's interest and involvement in
the marriage, God becomes a functional member of the marital system. Butler and Harper hypothesize that this triadic
relationship allows God to operate more intimately and frequently within the couple relationship than do many other
persons, including family members. The potential effects on marital interaction of such triadic interaction between the
couple and the metaphysical merit scholarly attention.
Couples may use various methods to establish, maintain, and interpret their triadic relationship with their Deity. Butler
and Harper identify prayer as one such method. Spouse or marital prayer "invokes God's participation and guidance in the
day's forthcoming marital interactions, and provides opportunity for accountability . . . at its close" (p. 279). Prayer may thus
be a mechanism for invoking or activating a couple-God triangle, changing the interactional system, and potentially leading
to meaningful shifts in couple interaction.


Our study investigated religious couples' use of prayer to invoke God's participation in marital process, and particularly
the perceived effects of prayer on conflict and conflict resolution processes within the marriage. Consistent with Butler and
Harper's model, we hypothesized that, for religious couples, prayer may be an active change ingredient facilitating conflict
resolution. Specifically, we hypothesized that prayer would facilitate couples in attaining "God's perspective of their
relationship" (Butler and Harper, 1994, p. 281), thus fostering systemic and cooperative as opposed to linear and blaming
perspectives and interaction. Further, we hypothesized that prayer, or conversation with God, would renew couples'
commitment to their partner and to their marital relationship.
Nevertheless, based again on the Butler and Harper's (1994) model, which envisions multiple possible constructions and
multiple possible outcomes of the couple-God triangle, we were open to alternative possibilities that religious couples
embroiled in conflict and emotionally reactive to one another might "exploit" the couple-God system for individual
advantage, "interpreting" God for themselves and in their relationship in ways that perpetuated and fixated conflict (for
example, through invoking spouse-God alliances, or other dysfunctional triangulation) rather than helping to resolve it.
Thus, the Butler and Harper (1994) model served as a conceptual overlay, providing a triadic process framework to model
the couple-God system, and highlighting certain interactional/systemic possibilities without prematurely foreclosing upon

In this study, we used a qualitative methodology consisting of a structured interview with open-ended questions and a
group hermeneutic or interpretive approach to analysis of the interview data. Qualitative research, and in particular the
group hermeneutic/interpretive approach to qualitative data analysis, has been established as an effective methodology for
collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data concerning marital, family, and other interpersonal relationships (Benner, 1994;
Chesla, 1995; Gale, Chenail, Watson, et al., 1996; Odman, 1988; Packer & Addison, 1991; Wright, Watson & Bell, 1996).
Qualitative methods are particularly suited to developing a holistic and processual view of complex phenomena such as
prayer (Gale et al., 1996). "[Qualitative] methodology allows extensive probing in areas that have not been well
studied . . . " (Rosenblatt & Fischer, 1993, p. 173), and it can "uncover . . . what lies behind any phenomenon about
whichlittle is yet known and can give the intricate details of phenomena that are difficult to convey with quantitative
methods" (Strauss & Corbin, 1990, p. 19).
Qualitative methods are thus uniquely suited to study of metaphysical/spiritual phenomena, such as prayer. Holistic and
processual qualitative investigations provide clinically relevant and applicable data; they are theoretically fruitful and
potentially useful for guiding future quantitative investigations. In addition to these advantages, a qualitative design avoids
prematurely foreclosing any possible perspective and details relating to the dynamics being investigated. Given the absence
of any empirical profile of prayer's dynamics, a qualitative approach was judged most desirable for our study.

Participants were 26 spouses (13 couples) who had been married at least 7 years and who were characterized as
"religious" by a close acquaintance. Each of the 26 spouses were Christians, and were affiliated denominationally with The
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Post hoc definition of "religiosity" was derived from demographic data
provided by the spouses. All of the spouses professed belief in God and attended church 4 or more times per month. The
median response for individual prayer was 4 times per week, for couple prayer was 3 times per week, and for spouses'
study of scriptures was 3 times per week. All spouses reported that church worship, scripture study, and prayer were a part
of their faith's tradition.
In terms of frequency, spouses reported average (31%), less than average (46%), and much less than average (23%)
conflict in their marriage. In terms of the clinical quality of this conflict, it was apparent that some couples experienced mild
bouts of conflict while others had engaged in intense conflict surrounding serious issues. Examples of these latter, serious
conflict situations include: an extended dispute between a husband and wife about how to discipline their children; a wife
who felt that she was repeatedly neglected because her husband spent large amounts of time raising and training falcons; a
husband whose career required extended overseas travel, which placed the entire burden of raising their young children on
his wife; a wife being overly critical of her husband as she dealt with depression and serious medical difficulties; and a wife
who discovered that their young daughter had been sexually abused by her husband's father, but received very little support
from her husband in the matter.
Conflict surrounding issues such as these arguably attains clinical status or quality. Consequently, effects of prayer
observed for this participant sample may be reasonably generalizable to a clinical population of religious spouses, for
whom prayer might be suggested as a potential change intervention. Parenthetically, given the social undesirability of
reporting such conflicts, which may be more acute for religious couples, it is possible that the frequency of conflict,


assessed by survey question, was underreported. Couples may be more reactive to a survey question, but inadvertently
become more disclosing as they use descriptions of intense conflict experiences to exemplify perceived effects of prayer.
Thus, informal assessment of participants' experience of relationship conflict during the interview may more accurately
reflect its clinical quality than survey assessment of frequency alone.
Spouses had been married on average 21.2 years. All were in their first marriage. Spouses' ages ranged from 26-35
(39%), to 36-45 (15%), 46-55 (27%), and 56+ (19%). Participants were white (92%), Hispanic (4%), and Pacific Islander
(4%). Participants' education ranged from noformal education (4%) to some college (35%), college degree (38%), and
graduate education (23%). Yearly income (in thousands of dollars) ranged from 0-9 (8%), to 10-29 (15%), 30-49 (27%),
50-69 (35%), and 70+ (15%). Spouses all lived in the Western United States: 20 were from Utah, 4 from Washington, and
2 from Arizona. The majority of spouses had 3-4 children (62%), while a few had 1-2 (15%), and a larger minority had 5-6
(8%) or 7+ (15%). The sampling strategy was based primarily on accessibility to our research assistants, and secondarily
on achieving representativeness. Consequently, the participant sample is likely not entirely representative of the population
of North American married couples. The generalizability of the findings is thus somewhat uncertain.

Thirteen research assistants each contacted an acquaintance to solicit the referral of a religious, married couple who had
been married at least 7 years. Each couple referred was unknown to the researcher requesting the referral. Participants were
informed that the purpose of the study was to investigate conflict resolution among married couples and that they would be
asked about previous experiences with conflict resolution. Referring persons and referred couples were blind to the
research question.
Referring acquaintances were asked to identify a religious couple; participant couples, however, were not informed that
religiosity was a selection criterion. Participants were told that they were enlisted because they met the criteria of being
married at least 7 years, and being unknown to those conducting the research. All of the couples referred for participation in
the study agreed to participate. This high response rate is probably an artifact of the sampling strategy, where acquaintances
of the research assistants contacted religious couples they knew personally and solicited their involvement. Interviews were
conducted separately with each spouse, tape-recorded, and later transcribed. Following the interview, a brief demographic
questionnaire was administered.

The structured interview consisted of open-ended questions. Spouses were first asked to name any general couple
practices they perceived were related to conflict resolution in their marriage. Spouses not mentioning prayer at this point
were more specifically asked whether there were any religious practices related to conflict resolution in their marriage.
Spouses not mentioning prayer at this point were more specifically asked what relation, if any, they perceived between
prayer and conflict or conflict resolution in their marriage. These hierarchically organized questionsdelivered prior to
conducting the balance of the interview, which specifically focused on prayerwere used to provide a rough indicator of
the relative prominence of prayer within spouses' repertoire of conflict resolution strategies.
Once the topic of prayer had been introduced at some point in the series of initial questions, open-ended questions were
used to obtain a rich profile of the interactional dynamics of prayer. Exemplary questions include: "How would you
describe the connection between prayer, individually or as a couple, and conflict resolution in marriage?"; "Can you
describe how prayer may be related to the thoughts you experience in a conflict situation, or during conflict resolution?";
and "Can you describe how prayer may be related to the feelings you experience in a conflict situation, or during conflict
Interviewers were undergraduate students enrolled in a family science research methods course. A portion of their
educationconsisted of training in qualitative interviewing methodology, and interviewers were specifically trained to state
questions in such a manner as to avoidinsofar as possiblecreating demand effects. Where restating questions was
necessary, interviewers were trained not to adjust the context or tone of the question. While this does not preclude the
possibility for subtle effects, which can occur as a result of the interviewing process, it does constitute a reasonable attempt
to protect against the same. A complete copy of the interview questions is located in the Appendix.

Analysis of spouse interview data consisted of a qualitative hermeneutic/interpretive approach to the interview data,
conforming to guiding principles described by Gale et al. (1996) and specific procedures outlined by Wright et al. (1996).
A team of four analysts (one female, three males) examined the spouse interviews. The inclusion of multiple analysts in the
hermeneutic process is for the purpose of triangulation, helping assure stable, reliable results consistent with the data
through the consensus and holistic picture arising from the contributions of multiple perspectives.


Of the four analysts, one male was 24 years old and single; another male was 24 years old, had been married for 2 years,
and had recently become a father; another male was 37, married for 11 years and a father of 5 children; and one female was
39, divorced, and a mother of 2 children. Two of the analysts were family science students, one was a marriage and family
therapy master's student, and one was a marriage and family therapy Assistant Professor. Each of the four analysts was an
active member of their respective Christian denomination and congregation.
Several relevant forestructures were brought to the interpretive process by the members of the analysis team.
Specifically, all four analysts were of a Christian faith and believed that there would be a positive relation between the use
of prayer and conflict resolution. All four analysts were systems-oriented. One analyst is the first author of this article and of
the triadic process model (Butler & Harper, 1994), which was used as a theoretical framework for this study. Two of the
other analysts had only an introductory awareness of the model. The fourth analyst, by design, had no knowledge of the
Thus, significant world views and theoretical forestructures were brought to the interpretive process. Some control
against premature foreclosure of interpretive possibilities arising from these forestructures was sought through the inclusion
of a fourth researcher who had not been previously associated with the project in any way, was unfamiliar with the
theoretical model, was female, and of a different religious background than the other analysts.
Phase 1: Analysis began on a Monday. Each analyst received and independently read the transcripts completely through
one time in order to obtain an overall picture of how the participants responded to the interview questions. A second
independent reading of the transcripts was then conducted during which each analyst extracted and highlighted highly
recurring themes. Following the second pass, each analyst prepared an individual summary of the major themes she or he
had extracted from the transcripts. Individual summaries were distributed to all other members of the team on Wednesday.
No discussion of the data among the analysts occurred prior to this time.
Phase 2: On Thursday, Phase 2 began. The analysts met together to share their individual summaries, and through a
group hermeneutic/interpretive process they reached a consensus regarding themajor themes represented in the spouse
interviews. In an order established by random lot, each analyst represented to the group the themes that she or he felt were
most prominent. During the previous independent reading phase, transcript data supportive of observed themes had been
carefully "coded" or highlighted by each researcher. Once the analyst had described an observed theme, she or he defended
it by reference to this supportive material in the interview transcripts. Cross-sectional support was emphasized in order to
establish a theme. Other analysts interjected for clarification or to detract. Following completion of the entire data analysis,
the first author returned later to the interview data and "coded" or highlighted all 26 transcripts in terms of the consensus
findings. Copies of the annotated transcriptions are available for review from the first author.
Whenever a consensus seemed to have developed regarding a particular theme and its articulation, it was put to a vote.
In order to be considered a major theme, result, or "finding," three of the four researchers had to concur; otherwise it was
discarded and no longer under consideration.
Phase 3: Phase 3 began on Friday. Once consensus was attained regarding the major themes, each analyst conducted a
third reading of the transcripts, individually searching for further information and clarification of consensus themes.
Elaborations, refinements, and clarifications of these themes were again recorded in individual summaries.
Phase 4: Phase 4 began on Saturday. Phase 3 individual summaries were shared, and the group hermeneutic/interpretive
process was repeated. Again, analysts were required to substantiate and defend their clarifications and refinements by
reference to the interview data, emphasizing cross-sectional support.
In this manner, the major themes from the couple interview transcripts were identified, elaborated, refined, and clarified.
This process of repeated triangulation helps to enhance consistency of the findings. Both the Phase 2 and Phase 4 group
hermeneutic discussions were audio-recorded and later transcribed.

Findings of this study consist of consensus themes and elaborative subthemes extracted from the interview transcripts by
the researcher-analysts. All themes and subthemes represent a consensus of at least three of the four analysts; almost all
were unanimously supported. Significantly, the individual findings presented by each of the four analysts at the beginning of
the first group hermeneutic meeting were highly consistent with one another. The bulk of the consensus-building work
centered on the elaboration and refinement of the major themes, and on the best articulation of themes and subthemes.
These findings are organized processually, so as to illuminate the couple-God sequential interactional profile stereotypic to
participant couples. Findings are summarized in the Table 1.
Major Themes, Descriptions, and Corresponding Couple-God Triadic Process Theoretical Constructs
Major Theme
Corresponding Couple-God Triadic Process


Personification of Deity
Experience of
Mindfulness and

Prayer invokes a metaphysical relationship with a Personification of Deity Invoking a Couple-God

personified Deity, with whom spouses and couples Triadic System through Prayer
experience close relationship and perceive
meaningful interaction.
God is experienced as fundamentally interested,
profoundly committed, and helpfully involved in the
Through prayer, spouses experience mindfulness of
God throughout the day and accountability to God at
each day's close.

Emotional Calming and

Experience of the
Incompatibility of Prayer
and Anger
Choosing to Pray
Experience of Being
Heard and Validated
Calming of Emotions

Emotional Reactivity
Spouses experienced hostility, contempt, and
negativity toward their partner as incompatible with
God's care for their partner and for their relationship.
Comfortably or confidently coming into the
"presence of God" through prayer required spouses to
bring themselves into some measure of perceived
conformity with God and his divine nature. Thus, a
choice to pray necessitated surrender of hostility,
contempt, and negativity.
Disclosing feelings of offense, hurt, and frustration
in prayer, spouses felt heard, understood, and
validated. This was associated with "calming."

Enhancement of
Relationship Focus

Spouses' experience of God's care of their partner Relationship

and for their relationship renewed their own partner
and relationship caring, over and above purely
individual interests.

Shift in Perspective
Focus on Self-Change

Prayer invoked "humility" and conveyed God's

"metaperspective" on the relationship. The
operational outcome was spouses' renewed or
heightened sensitivity to and validation of their
partner's experience and perspective.
Spouses began to perceive or conceive their own
contribution to conflict and began to focus on
self-change more than partner-change.


Experience of
Spouses experienced divine intervention through Responsibility
Step-by-Step Coaching of prayer as step-by-step, or incremental "coaching," not
Interaction Process
comprehensive counsel, and as a coaching of
interactional processes rather than an offering of
"answers" or "solutions."

Couples' Conception of Prayer

Conforming to the qualitative, inductive method of this study, a post hoc conceptualization of prayer was extracted from
the transcripts by two of the four analysts. Spouses' descriptions were categorized and frequency counts recorded. While
not a product of the hermeneutic analysis, and thus not a formal finding of this study, spouses' collective definition of prayer
is presented here as a framework within which to consider the findings.
Spouses defined prayer as two-way personal communication between an individual or couple and God. Communication
with God invoked through prayer waslooked to as a source of help and answers. Prayer also attuned spouses to a divine
standard by which to gauge their behavior. Associated with this, prayer involved "reporting in"an experience of
accountability whereby the person reviewed with God their daily choices, activities, and experiences in the light of Divine
ideals. A less frequent characterization of prayer was that it represents reliance on a supreme being and is indistinguishable
from a condition of humility.
Spouses were moderately aware of prayer as a mechanism for problem resolution in their marriage. As explained
previously, a series of hierarchical questions were used to determine the relative prominence or sequencing of prayer as a
conflict intervention within couples' entire repertoire of conflict interventions. In response to the "general practices"


question, 3 spouses named prayer as a resolution strategy; 20 spouses named prayer in response to the more specific
"religious practices" question; and 3 spouses acknowledged or addressed the relevance of prayer only upon specific inquiry.
Thus, prayer was not among the most prominent or first set of conflict interventions typically attempted by participant
couples. The moderate conspicuousness of prayer in connection with conflict resolution suggests that it fell typically among
the second or third set of conflict interventions to which couples would resort. An important caveat, however, is that
prayer's position in the hierarchy of interventions does not automatically imply a lesser degree of perceived utility or
potency. It is possible that the opposite may be true. This apparent anomaly is considered further in the Discussion section.

Personification of Deity
Spouses' reports of their prayer experiences suggested a sophisticated, complex conceptualization of Deity and of their
relationship with Deity. Sophisticated, detailed interactional descriptions suggest experience of meaningful relationship
with a Being who is experienced as actively participating in a couple-God relationship system as well as with the spouses
individually. One husband said communication with God was "the same as my children . . . discussing and talking with
me. . . . I envision the same process between me and my Heavenly Father . . . providing the comfort and security that . . . I
need in order for me to make righteous decisions." This quote highlights a parent-child aspect of the relationship as well as
feelings of a close, personal relationship with Deity. A wife said, "To me, prayer is talking to someone that can help you,
who has been through it before. He loves you and knows how to make you happy." Another husband said, "It's through
prayer . . . [that] I know God lives and that He hears and answers prayers. I know that He's real and that He knows us
personally. He knows our names, and He knows our family." These excerpts are representative of spouses' emphasis of
personal and shared couple relationships with God as well as God's specific interest in and knowledge of them and their
Many of the spouses also viewed God as a third party whose participation in the marital system could be invoked through
prayer. One man said that prayer makes you aware of "the fact . . . that God is part of that partnership." Other spouses called
prayer "a three-way channel," "a triangle relationship," and considered God "a third party in the marriage." One wife spoke
of her feelings about prayer in the following way: "[Prayer] gives Heavenly Father the opportunity to work in our lives. We
invite Him. We open ourselves up to His power and His influence." Overall, spouses' reports suggested a very real
phenomenological and/or metaphysical couple-God relationship system.
Experience of mindfulness and accountability: For some couples, a personal relationship with Deity invoked through
regular prayer produced mindfulness of God throughout the day. One husband said that "when you start having bad feelings
in conflict the Spirit helps you to remember the commitment you have made . . . through prayer . . . so [when in conflict]
immediately I think that I have committed not to do these things. You know it kind of tempers your spirit." Another husband
said, "It's pretty tough for me if I'm saying in my prayers 'Bless that I'll be a better husband to my wife, and a better father to
my children', to not get up from that on a regular basis and not try to be a better husband." Spouses highlighted the constant
impression or influence prayer had upon their thoughts and actions throughout the day, which appeared to result in more
positive marital interaction.
Another husband said that "prayer is a way of kind of getting a reality check to recognize that we're not on our own, that
we are accountable to our Heavenly Father, not only for our own personal behavior, but on . . . what kind of relationships
we have with our family." One wife commented in the following way: "It's hard to use language that . . . may hurt or insult
and then . . . turn around and . . . have to speak to your Heavenly Father. It just keeps you from getting off track always, even
when you're not on your knees twenty-four hours a day. You know that you're going to be checking in." In this manner,
couples expressed feelings of accountability toward their God, enacted in prayer. Together, mindfulness and accountability
appeared to produce a "tempering of the spirit" that led to quicker conflict resolution and, in some cases, prevention of
conflict altogether.

Relationship Softening
Experience of the incompatibility of prayer with hostility, contempt, and negativity: Spouses described that during
conflict their communication was emotionally charged, and they were hostile toward one another and emotionally reactive.
They perceived or believed hostility, contempt, and negativity toward their spouse to be inconsistent with God's divine
being and desires. Thus, the intense psychosocial arousal and conditions of conflict were experienced as incompatible with
prayer and conscious contact with Deity. Succinct statements of one husband and another wife were representative of
thoughts expressed by many. The husband said, "I don't feel like praying when I'm in a conflict," while a wife said, "When
I'm ticked at [my husband], I don't feel like praying." Spouses experienced a profound and inescapable incompatibility
between the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors associated with spousal conflict and those associated with prayer.
Consequently, spouses experienced that it was impossible to pray while holding on to hostile or contemptuous feelings
toward their partner. One wife said, "You can't hold your anger and say a heartfelt prayer . . . you gotta get rid of one to


make the other work." Therefore, the choice to pray and/or the act of prayer was associated with a calming of emotion and a
softening toward one's partner. As one husband said, "I would say that it's very hard to maintain a conflict or stay mad at
somebody if you're praying for them." Another husband hinted at the attitudinal and interactional shift that could be brought
about by prayer, noting that making himself pray sincerely facilitated conflict resolution. "[It] takes a considerable amount
of effort to pray when you don't feel like it," he said, ". . . but if I just make myself do it sincerely then the conflict can be
Calming of emotions: Spouses reported that after making an initial choice to let go of hostility, contempt, and/or
negativity toward their partner, the act of prayer confirmed and strengthened their resolve and magnified their own efforts at
surrendering destructive feelings. Spouses indicated that prayer produced a "calming" effect that led to an increased ability
to resolve their conflicts. One wife described her feelings in this way: "After I've had prayer, I'm calmed down . . . .[and] that
helps to better communciate and handle the situation maybe differently than if I had not had prayer. . . . I'm calmer . . . able
to communicate. . . . [and] more reasonable." Another wife said, "Prayer helps my thoughts to get away from the anger and
start resolving [the conflict]." One wife said that when you pray, "you just can't argue with your [husband] . . . so it changes
me. It calms me down so I'm not so upset." Others noted that prayer "brings back peace," "lessens the tension," and
produces a "soothing" and a "calming feeling." This calming effect clearly appeared to be a catalyst for the resolution of
Choosing to pray, the act of prayer, and calming and softening: One spouse said, "After I've had a prayer I'm calmed
down." A wife said, "We've knelt down and prayed and it's amazing . . . what it does in softening our hearts." Reports such
as these suggested a pattern where the actual act of praying contributed to calming and "softening," which is identified as a
positive couple outcome by family therapists (Greenberg et al., 1988). Another husband said, "If you get yourself ready to
pray, that's the first step in resolving conflict." Another husband said that if you "think to pray to help you . . . [resolve the
conflict, it] helps speeds things along." Thus, other reports suggested that the decision to pray itself was a significant if not
primary factor contributing to calming and softening.
Viewed holistically across all participant interviews, spouses' descriptions suggested a complex systemic relation
between genuine desire and choice to pray, the act of prayer itself, and the experience of calming and softening. As reported
above, some spouses described "not feeling like praying," but sensing that they must do so or needed to do so. When they
did pray, calming and softening followed, and a genuine desire to pray may have also emerged. Other spouses described
first a sincere desire and choice to pray, which itself was followed by initial calming and softening. Then, when they did
pray, calming and softening was magnified. Thus, in some cases, it appeared that a genuine desire to pray itself led to
calming and softening, and was followed by prayer; while in others, it appeared that the felt imperative to pray led to prayer
itself, which then facilitated calming and softening.
On the one hand, spouses who experienced the "imperative" to pray appeared to carry significant emotional arousal into
the prayer experience, but combined with a willingness to yield these emotions to others, which is more consistent with the
spouse-God or couple-God interactional system. They experienced that the act of prayer did in fact calm and soften them.
On the other hand, spouses who reported that a strong desire to pray preceded prayer, appeared to experience significant
calming and softening even before prayer. This enabled them from the outset to invoke comfortably the spouse-God or
couple-God relationship system in prayer. Regardless of the spouse's particular pattern, it seemed evident to the analysts
that the catalyst for the calming and softening effect was the belief of the incompatibility of prayer with hostility, contempt,
and negativity toward one's spouse.
The four analysts found it difficult to fit this complex dynamic within a sequential, linear model without losing a sense of
the reciprocal influences and circular relations evident in spouses' descriptions. Consequently, a definitive temporal
sequencing of a genuine desire to pray, the act of prayer, and calming and softening was deemed inconsistent with the
data. As has been described, the temporal punctuation of these three phenomena varied across couples, and it was apparent
that they might vary situationally as well. It is possible that the two patterns are dependent upon the relative intensity of the
conflict, with the "imperative-aroused" prayer pattern associated with more intense conflict. The presence of all three
phenomena, however, and the outcome of calming and softening, was consistent across participant spouses' descriptions
regardless of the particular punctuation or sequencing of events evident in their description.
Experience of being heard and validated: Spouses noted that through prayer with God they felt heard and understood.
Consequently, they were calmed and conflicts were resolved more quickly. One wife spoke of this need: "Probably the most
important thing is . . . we both want to feel listened to. . . . Even if we're not right, we want to feel listened toso that we
both have this feeling of being valid." One wife shared her feelings on the comfort she felt by addressing God: "Even when
the conflict isn't resolved, at least I have the comfort of knowing that I have shared . . . my feelings and my problems with
someone else and that someone else knows how to resolve [it]." Another wife said, "I had to learn how to get rid of . . . bad
feelings, hurt feelings. And the only person that I could really communicate [with was] my Father in Heaven."
Communication with God helped to calm aroused emotions. One wife said, "I really like to pray when we're mad at each
other because I can vocalize to Heavenly Father and say what I'm feeling when I can't say it to my husband. And he knows


then what I'm feeling, and somehow that kind of helps . . . resolve the problem a little bit." Having felt heard, understood,
and validated in their feelings, most, but not all participant spouses, experienced a renewed determination to return to their
partner, resolve the conflict, and reconcile their relationship. Some few treated the issue as "tabled" once they had
unburdened themselves through prayer.

Enhancement of Relationship Focus

Flowing from renewed desire to resolve the conflict, spouses began to focus more broadly on their partner's feelings and
on relationship needs rather than narrowly and exclusively on their own individual desires. One husband observed that
"when you feel hurt you're thinking egocentrically, you're thinking of yourself only. But if you pray about the person, about
what's right, then we forget ourselves." Another woman said, "If we're praying as a couple it makes me feel a lot better,
especially if we're in an argument, to know that he is trying to understand how I feel even if he doesn't agree with me. He's
trying to come up with a common ground. That makes me feel a lot better." One husband noted how prayer helped him to
remember his relationship: "[Prayer is] a mechanism in terms of the relationship . . . it provides the means for realizing . . .
that you've got to be forgiving."

Shift in Perspective
Closely coincident with or subsequent to a calming of emotions and a change of focus toward the relationship, couples
also noted that a change in perspective came through prayer. One man said, "When I pray about the situation, I again would
often look at . . . how Heavenly Father, ifHe were in my situation, [would] handle it. So I think it puts me on a little higher
level." A shift to God's metaperspective on the couple relationship gave spouses the ability to begin to see all sides of the
conflict clearly. One wife said that prayer "sometimes helps me to realize that there are other ways of thinking, that my way
isn't always right, and my feelings aren't always the [only] ones getting hurt. And so it makes me realize that I need to be
more sensitive to his thoughts and opinions . . . [to] see the other person's side of view . . . to put myself in the other person's
shoes." Another woman said, "[I] rely on the Spirit and prayer . . . to help me maintain my objectivity and be prayerful that
he was maintaining his objectivity . . . that we could work things through together better than separate[ly]." A husband
remarked that "prayer is a molder. It helps us blend our different perspectives into one single whole focused on God." As
the couple invoked through prayer a couple-God relationship system, which included God's metaperspective on their
relationship, the differing perspectives of each spouse came together to form a more unified perspective. Through prayer,
then, couples began to see their partner's experience of their interaction and of the conflict, rather than focusing on only
their own experience, and a more couple-congruent perspective emerged.
Focus on self-change: Change in focus from self to the relationship also heightened spouses' awareness of the need for
self-change. One husband noted that "just the act itself [of prayer] brings about humility . . . and trying to do what's right and
improve ourselves and not so much try to change the other person." Another woman said, "I just think it facilitates more
forgiveness towards each other. . . . Actually, you start recognizing your own faults a little bit more . . . than your partner's
faults." One man called prayer a time of "self-assessment . . . [of thinking] maybe my wife is right; you know, maybe I really
do need to change this." One husband noted that prayer brought "understanding . . . [and] forgiving. . . . If I'm the one that's
probably out of line, it [prayer] helps me to have humility and recognize that I need to do something better or change." As
couples begin to move their focus toward the relationship, each spouse becomes aware of individual responsibility that each
has toward the relationship's success and the resolution of the conflict.

Step-by-Step "Coaching"
The method of divine intervention perceived by spouses during couple conflict constituted the final theme extracted from
spouses' interviews by the analysts. Spouses appeared to experience Divine intervention more in terms of step-by-step
coaching of their interactionthe immediate thing to say, or do, to improve the situationthan in terms of receiving
comprehensive (content-oriented) "answers" or solutions to the problems themselves.
One husband said, "As I have approached my Heavenly Father and asked for guidance to resolve a problem . . . the ways
have been open to mewhere I should go." Another husband stated that "prayer has a tendency to . . . decipher or discern
what is needed in the resolution [of] conflict." A wife stated that through prayer "the Spirit prompts us. Thoughts will come
to your mind that help you in particular situations. Maybe to tell you, 'Now, you've said enough' or 'This is something that
you may need to do.' " Another wife related that "when I get down on my knees and pray about it [conflict], . . . even before
you get up you can sometimes feel, you know an answer to what you should do or what's the next step you should make."
Finally, another husband stated that "when we are on bended knee and we approach our Heavenly Father, we getdirection,
but more often than not that direction is promoting us or provoking us to good works." Thus, step-by-step coaching rather
than comprehensive counsel, and a focus on interaction process rather than answers, appeared typical of spouses'
experience of divine help received through prayer.


Constructing a Theoretical Framework
Butler and Harper's (1994) model of triadic process applied to the couple-God relationship offers one possible
theoretical framework for organizing the findings of this study. According to Butler and Harper, metaphysical perception
and/or social construction of a couple-God triangle, characterized by an experience of healing interaction with Deity, will
promote healing dynamics in couples' interaction as well. Consequently, reconciliation and problem resolution in the
marital relationship will be facilitated.
The character of this healing interaction is framed in terms of attributes of relationship, neutrality, and responsibility.
Relationship consists of ongoing regard for each person in the dyadic relationship as well as regard for their relationship as
a whole (Butler & Harper, 1994; Kerr & Bowen, 1988). Neutrality consists of an unbiased, systemic perspective on couple
interaction and problems; neutrality is also reflected in a focus on solutions rather than on blame. Finally, neutrality also
derives in part from the quality of relationship, which is unbiased toward either individual but interested in the relationship,
and thus has no disposition toward formation of an alliance, condemning, or blaming. The interactional dynamic of
responsibility consists of behavior that encourages healing interaction and problem resolution within and through couple
interaction rather than through interaction of each partner with an outsider. In a healing triangle, the third person
encourages, promotes, and coaches this healing interaction between the couple. She or he promotes the dyadic relationship
first and foremost, not the triangle. Couples' interactional experience with Deity appeared consistent with these dynamics
and, as predicted by the model, appeared subsequently to enhance these same interactional qualities in the marital
According to the triadic process model as applied to the couple-God relationship system, in the absence of these three
healing dynamics, couples' conflict interaction will be characterized by destructive emotional reactivity, by a diverse
individual rather than relationship focus, including biased, non-neutral perspective and actions, and by projection of
responsibility for change both onto their partner and into harmful triadic structures. In this study, themes and subthemes
observed in religious couples' reports of their experience of prayer were consistent with the theoretical constructs of
relationship, neutrality, and responsibility, as well as the overall model of triadic process. (See Table on p. 459 for
correspondence of findings in this study to constructs of the triadic process model.)

Personification of Deity
Invoking a couple-God triadic system through prayer: Religious couples' sophisticated personification of deity allowed
for the metaphysical experience or social construction of a triadic, couple-God relationship system. Couples' experience of
a living, vital relationship with Deity can be viewed as the hingepin to the observed effects of prayer. When these religious
couples prayed, they invoked a different relationship system, in terms of membership, interaction process, and structure.
Significantly, this metaphysical or phenomenological reality exists for the coupleirrespective of the view of outside
Religious couples' complex personification and intimate relationship with Deity suggests the possibility for significant
subsequent interactional shifts, in addition to structural differences. From a systemic perspective, it was found that when
religious couples invoke a triadic relationship system with God, the context or "presence" of God elicited an altogether
different constellation of couple behaviors and interaction processes.
Given religious couples' beliefs about God as a divine, perfected being, and their loving Creator, combined with their
worship of God through emulation of His perfection, the potential for contact with Deity to be a powerful, eliciting
influence is easily understood. Further, consistent with couples' divine personification of God, and emulative worship, the
types of dynamics elicited by their experience of God's presence would tend to be both individual and relationship thoughts,
feelings, and behavior that are perceived as consistent with or conforming to God's divine nature. For most couples,
personification of Deity is thus likely to be consistent with the interactional patterns of relationship, neutrality, and
responsibility. Spouse-God or couple-God interaction, invoked through prayer, may elicit enhanced couple relationship,
neutrality, and responsibility. The findings here were consistent with these predictions of systems and triadic process theory
(Butler & Harper, 1994), and the discussion below is organized in terms of that model.

Emotional Reactivity
Conflictual couple interaction is characterized by emotional reactivity (Butler & Harper, 1994). A prayer effect reported
by spouses that is perhaps associated with both perceptions of God's care for the spouses as individuals and perceptions of
God's care for the couple relationship was the deescalation of negative affect and emotional reactivity. Relative to
deescalation of negative emotions, spouses expressed that the private, intimate communication of prayer led to feelings of
being heard, validated, and supported. This experience appeared to deescalate emotional arousal and reactivity. Thus, an


effect of spouses' sense of being individually cared for and attended to by God was a "calming," or a decrease in emotional
reactivity. Couples also reported this effect in terms of being able to see things more clearly, or have a clear mind.

Subduing of emotional reactivity or "calming"both prerequisite to and an outcome of prayerwas closely associated
with an enhancement of couples' relationship as opposed to an individual orientation and perspective on the conflict at
hand. Relationship orientation is an emotional process that has been associated with positive marital attachment (Burr,
Couple members' sensitivity to God's care for them as a couple, and for the welfare of their relationship, made it
impossible for them to invoke the couple-God triadic system or to contact the Deity through prayer while still ruminating
upon feelings of hostility and enmity toward the partner. Comfortably or confidently invoking interaction with Deity seemed
to require that spouses bring themselves into some measure of perceived conformity with the Divine nature. So powerful
were couples' beliefs about and/or metaphysical experiences of God that a choice to pray and sincere prayer necessitated
and precipitated surrender of hostility, contempt, and negativityfeelings perceived as incompatible with the couple-God
Thus, in addition to individual "calming," through prayer, spouses also experienced a relationship "softening."
Spousesreported being softened in their feelings and attitudes toward their partner, and taking upon themselves attributes of
relationship and neutrality they associated with God. This softening, and its antecedent behaviors, bear striking resemblance
to the "softening" effect and process identified as a meaningful change-related outcome in emotionally focused therapy
(Greenberg & Johnson, 1988).
The process and outcome of softening is captured by the triadic process construct of relationship, denoting fundamental
commitment to one's partner and to their shared relationship. As predicted by triadic process theory (Butler & Harper,
1994; Kerr & Bowen, 1988), spouses' experience of God's relationship perspective renewed their own relationship
attributesspecifically, their primary orientation to the success of their relationship over purely individual interests,
together with renewed care for the welfare and experience of their partner. Sensing Divine desire that they each care for and
take care of one another, couples tended to respond with their own increased other-oriented attitude, behavior, and
perspective. Together with "calming" associated with being heard, "softening" and enhanced relationship also appeared to
decrease emotional reactivity. These attitudinal and behavioral changes typically seemed to precede and precipitate
perspective change. Calming, softening, and enhanced relationship tended to lead to renewed neutrality.

The triadic process model's construct of perspectival neutrality (Butler & Harper, 1994; Kerr & Bowen, 1988) appears
to express the operational outcome of increased "humility," which couples identified as a primary attitudinal effect of
prayer. Couples' use of the term "humility" appeared to describe the subduing of strong self-oriented, individualistic, and
self-righteous feelings. As with relationship effects, humility was evoked by spouses' and couples' experience of the
"person of God" in prayer. Additionally, through prayer, couples may attain God's metaperspective on their relationship,
and in doing so, "[step] out of their emotionally reactive position to become more detached, neutral observers of their
system" (Butler & Harper, 1994, p. 281).
Couples reports were consistent with this theoretical interpretation. Feelings of humility were associated with shifts in
cognitive perspective. As partners' humility increased, combined with renewed orientation to the success of the
relationship, so did their receptiveness to the partner's perspective and experience, as well as their willingness to consider
their own contribution(s) to problems, healing, and solutions. Partners thus appeared to achieve a less individually biased
and more relationally or systemically oriented perspective. Proportionally, partners began focusing more on self-change
than on partner change. Thus, the partners once again achieved a neutral position in their interaction, more conducive to
mutual understanding, reconciliation, compromise, and problem resolution.

Relative to problem resolution efforts, many couples noted their experience in prayer of step-by-step, incremental help,
which was oriented more toward coaching their interaction than toward dispensing solutions. Spouses and couples related
that associated with prayer was the experience of impressions that prompted microbehavioral steps toward problem
resolution. As spouses or couples heeded or acted upon these cues, progress toward healing occurred and the next step
would become clear to them. Thus, "answers" to problems, per se, did not appear to be forthcoming in consequence of
prayer, or not nearly as often as was "processcoaching," which facilitated and enabled the couple in constructing and
working toward their own solutions. Thus, the help was critical, but focused on helping the interaction process, while
leaving responsibility with the couple to create their own solutions. In this manner, spouses' and couples' experience of


prayer appears consistent with the triadic process construct of promotion of responsibility, whereby the third party to the
relationship focuses on facilitating interaction process that is healing, constructive, and which moves toward problem
resolution, while leaving the determination and development of solutions to the couple themselves.
Primary couple self-reliance or prominence of prayer as a means of conflict resolution: As reported above, spouses'
descriptions of general patterns of conflict resolution in their marriage revealed that prayer was moderately prominent in
their hierarchy or sequencing of conflict interventions. Typically, prayer was not the couples' first resort during conflict.
Numerous couples first named various communication strategies and other relationship patterns developed over the course
of their marriages, which they typically used and attempted first in their efforts to work out problems.
Thus, couple reports presented an interactional, structural profile characterized by primary couple self-reliance and
secondary resort to Divine mediation through prayer when volatility or reactivity was high. The triadic process model
suggests such a pattern as a processual and structural ideal. Normative couple self-reliance is consistent with the triadic
process model and the specific construct of couple responsibility (Butler & Harper, 1994). The couple relationship is
strengthened when couples first apply their own skills and exhaust their own resources in handling conflict. The dyadic
relationship is thus maintained as primary, and triangulation, when necessary, is a temporary processual and structural
accommodation to presently unstable, emotionally reactive couple interaction.
Generally speaking, couples' patterns were consistent with this theoretical ideal. It appeared that couples first applied
their own resources and skills to the problem. Consequently, prayer was only moderately prominent in couples' hierarchies
or sequencing of conflict interventions. Yet, spouses' descriptions of perceived prayer effects indicated its association with
significant cognitive, emotional, and behavioral change events. Thus, in terms of sequencing (and cognitive prominence)
prayer was further down on couples' list of conflict interventions; yet when resorted to, it was reported to yield significant
One possible resolution of this "lack of prominence but significant perceived effects" anomaly is methodological.
Perhaps couples failed to list prayer as a prominent conflict intervention because it is neither a typical nor useful resort.
Later descriptions of perceived effects of prayer may have constituted a demand effectthe socially desirable response
from a religious person once it was understood that prayer was the subject of investigation. This explanation, while
parsimonious, is inconsistent with the fact that couples' reports of perceived prayer effects were not mere "endorsements,"
but replete with real-life examples and extremely detailed descriptions of prayer dynamics. Spouses' prayer descriptions
gave every indication of being genuine reports of their personal spiritual and/or phenomenological experiences of prayer.
A rival explanation of this anomaly was suggested by couples' descriptions of the kinds of conflict associated with prayer
as an intervention. Couples' descriptions suggested that prayer was more often resortedto after they became overwhelmed
with emotional reactivity and quite volatile. As reported earlier under the Participants section, couples related using prayer
in conjunction with some serious issues of clinical proportions. Thus, prayer's moderate conspicuousness may be due to its
being most often used as a "higher-order" intervention, resorted to only after couples' own efforts had failed, and critically
effective when it is used. Only a few participant couples described more preemptive or even preventive prayer patterns.
This possible interpretation resolves the "moderately conspicuous yet significant perceived effects" anomaly in a way that
leaves both findings intact.
In summary, couples' indications regarding the sequencing of prayer in their repertoire of conflict interventions supports
a recommendation of prayer for religious couples as an intervention when navigating serious, clinical conflict. We speculate
that increasing religious couples' use of prayer as a first-order intervention, or even on a regular, ritualistic basis, might
yield preemptive or even preventive effects conducive to the further development of stable, successful couple relationships,
which is consistent with triadic process objectives. For religious couples, family life educators, and therapists, this is an
important possibility. What proportion and types of conflict couples choose to address through prayer, and how these
couples perceive different types of conflict being influenced by prayer, are questions that deserve further research.

Taken as a whole, the various dynamic, perceived effects associated with religious couples' experience of prayer in
conflict situations suggest a powerfully evocative spiritual/metaphysical and/or phenomenological context. Spouses' and
couples' experience of a couple-God triadic relationship system, invoked by prayer, evoked and elicited healing attitudinal
shifts and interactional processes. Butler and Harper's (1994) triadic process model provides one possible theoretical
framework, organizing these dynamics into a coherent, systemic whole.
Significantly, it is upon the singular dynamic of religious couples' personification of Deity and subsequent
spiritual/metaphysical relationship with Deity that significant, positive personal and relationship effects hinged. Thus, faith,
signifying religious couples' objective attribution upon a subjective experience, is the prerequisite or catalyst to observed
positive effects of prayer, as perceived by religious spouses. These dynamic effects can be understood in terms of a triadic
process model and can be seen as flowing directly from the substance of religious couples' individual and shared
spiritual/metaphysical beliefs and experience of God. This condition suggests the clinical relevance of religious couples'



faith to clinical process and outcome, as well as to their well-being generally, both of which are theoretical as well as
empirical conclusions supported elsewhere in the literature (Bergin, 1983, 1991; Kelly, 1995; Richards & Bergin, 1997;
Shafranske, 1996; Worthington, Kurusu, McCullough, & Sanders, 1996). This condition also confirms the potential
influence and clinical relevance of beliefs generallywhether religious or otherto process and outcome in relationships
and in therapy. Beliefs may indeed be at the heart of healing (Wright et al., 1996) in many circumstances.
From an interpretive perspective, alternative social constructions can be put forward to account for the effects of prayer
observed in this study. A parsimonious, naturalistic approach can account for the effects in terms of the psychological and
systemic potency of religious couples'shared and individual beliefs alone: because their faith in God is real for them, it is
real in its effects. A purely metaphysical approach would account for the change dynamics of prayer in terms of an actual,
albeit empirically unascertainable, spiritual influence. A combined psychological-metaphysical perspective might validate
the existence and significance of both forms of influence.
In the end, the phenomenon of prayer, like the fundamental wave-particle duality of the universe (Doherty, 1986), may
be unknowable in any conclusive, definitive sense, but may conform itself to the perspectival biases, measurement devices,
and epistemological allegiances of its observers. We may be fated to see only what we already believe. Regardless of
ultimate explanation, however, utilitarian implementation and use of prayer as a change dynamic for religious couples in
conflict situations deserves serious consideration and further empirical investigation in light of the apparent positive
experience of prayer reported by religious couples.

Implications and Recommendations

Therapists working with couples whose narrative implicitly or explicitly identifies the relevance of spirituality in their
relationship, need not retreat from solution-oriented explorations that enter into the spiritual/metaphysical domain and
identify dynamics, such as prayer, which facilitate reconciliation, healing, and problem resolution (de Shazer, 1985;
O'Hanlon & Weiner-Davis, 1989). While research specifically targeting a clinical population is needed, conflict of clinical
stature reported by the participants in this study still suggest the possibility for prayer's perceived effects to be generalizable
to a clinical population. Nevertheless, determination of the potential usefulness of prayer, particularly when there have been
serious relationship violations, requires careful clinical discernment. There may be discontinuity between prayer's spiritual
and/or phenomenological dynamics in stable-successful, acutely conflictual, chronically significantly conflictual, and
severely conflictual relationships. A cautious recommendation for consideration of prayer as a viable clinical intervention,
however, seems appropriate. In each case, its use as a change intervention should rest on sound clinical judgment applied to
the specifics of the case. Further, couple-identified spiritual solutions such as prayer have the potential for elaboration into
domains beyond the spiritual as well. Couples can enumerate perceived positive effects of prayer and consider other
relationships, contexts, and dynamics potentially yielding similar effects.

Limitations associated with the qualitative methodology of the current study make the conclusions suggestive rather than
definitive, and warrant the recommendation for a complementary application of quantitative methodologies to the ongoing
investigation of prayer. Nevertheless, a qualitative approach is uniquely suited to obtaining a complex, processual or
sequential interactional profile of the dynamics of prayer and its perceived effects. The current study suggests the potential
general usefulness of prayer for religious couples in conflict situations, including serious conflict that attains clinical status.
Other limitations relate to the characteristics of the sample. Participant spouses' reports of their personification of and
relationship with Deity were fairly homogenous. It is possible that this is an artifact of the denominational homogeneity of
the participants, which may raise questions concerning the external validity/generalizability of the findings to Christian
couples of other denominations. Doctrinal differences among Christian denominations are significant. However, we feel
that whilethere is not complete correspondence, there is significant overlap among Christians of different denominations in
terms of their psychological functioning, relationship functioning, and enactment of their relationship with God.
Intra- rather than interdenominational variability may pose a more significant limitation to generalizability of the findings
here. Spouses whose formative family of origin, church, and personal spiritual experiences have fostered the intrapsychic
construction of an affiliative, accepting, and embracing Deity (as appeared to be the consistent case here) may have
personal and relationship prayer experiences and effects systematically different than spouses whose Deity is detached,
disinterested, and abandoning, or critical, judgmental, and punitive (Rizzuto, 1979). For these and other reasons,
replication of the findings here with a greater diversity of Christian couples will help to increase confidence in the utility of
prayer as a significant and positive intervention with religious couples.
In addition to addressing these limitations, extension of our understanding of prayer patterns and prayer effects among
religious couples should include the identification of relevant contextual conditions and nuances in the practice of prayer:



The findings from this [current] study are likely to apply best to Christian couples in which both partners have a
long-standing, dynamic relationship with a transcendent God. It is not clear how applicable they may be to couples
who are religious yet do not experience a personal relationship with God as central to their religious life as with
religious faiths that center more on liturgy, ritual, and ceremony, of those like Buddhism that are not God-centered.
[J.L. Griffith, personal communication, April 8, 1998]
The current investigation also did not take into account such prayer variables as the form of prayer: couple versus personal,
ritualistic versus personal, silent versus vocal; the level of religiosity and faith of the praying person; the perceived
objective quality of the belief system; the length of marriage; religious affiliation; or other potential mediating factors.
Future research needs to determine whether the effects of prayer are discriminated on the basis of such factors. This
deficit is a limitation in the current study, particularly as it relates to informing therapists about the prescriptive use of
prayer as a clinical intervention. Situational indications and contraindications to the use of prayer, and couples for whom
prayer is more or less successful, also need to be identified. While general practice guidelines (Richards & Bergin, 1997;
Shafranske, 1996) have been proposed for incorporating spiritual interventions in therapy, these have yet to be empirically
supported. Overall, a qualitative study of prayer alone is inadequate to yield the kind of applied understanding needed by
couples, families, clinicians, and family educators. Methodological triangulation through a combined
qualitative-quantitative approach and different measurement perspectives is recommended for the development of a
complete and rigorous understanding of the phenomenon of prayer.
It is also notable that several spouse interviews in the current study stood out in their description of potentially harmful
triadic dynamics attending the practice of prayer, namely substitution triangulation (Butler & Harper, 1994). Several
spouses, for example, described using prayer as a sounding board for feelings and thoughts that they couldn't share with
their partner. As one wife expressed, "I really like to pray when we're mad at each other because I can . . . say what I'm
feeling when I can't say it to my husband." This spouse's husband's remarks detailed the complementary systemic fit that
existed between himself, his wife, and their Deity: "Mywife has the tendency to want to discuss things in depth. Whereas I
would . . . just give a short quick answer. . . . She would have a tendency to carry it on and on and on. . . . It really causes a
conflict." Together, the partners' descriptions suggest a couple relationship where conflict is managed and their relationship
stabilized through diversion of the wife's emotional needs and/or tension to the spouse-God relationship. While in one sense
this may not be problematic in terms of relationship survival, it can be viewed as problematic for the couple's emotional
closeness, bonding, and intimacy. Prayer and couple interaction patterns similar to this were reported by two couples.
Another spouse reported abdicating problems to Deity in order to sidestep their potential for fomenting conflict. The
explanation for the success of this mechanism was that Deity's answer couldn't be disputed, and so there could be no
argument once a problem was surrendered to Deity. This spouse related that, "in order to avoid an argument I'll say, 'Well,
. . . we'll just pray about it.' And that helps a lot, because then we can't argue about that! . . . I guess that someone that doesn't
belong to the same religion, they could use it as a cop-out. . . . To me it's not a cop-out. . . . I would say that it's divine
revelation and so we totally avoid conflict." Such a pattern suggests a couple relationship where conflict is managed by
abdication of responsibility. If there's anyone to be upset at a failed solution, it will not be either of them, which is the
objective of this avoidant pattern.
In the first instances, spouses seem to be substituting caring relationship and emotional intimacy with Deity for the deficit
relationship and interaction with their partner. In the latter instance, the spouse abdicates responsibility and substitutes
Deity's power and authority to obtain an answer and sidestep conflict. In both instances, what may also be sidestepped are
meaningful opportunities for couple growth, intimacy, and relationship enhancement as they struggle through and reach
solutions to their problems together. Characteristic of potentially problematic prayer patterns is the successful diversion of
problems away from the couple relationship, such that the couple relationship stagnates rather than grows. The potential for
spouse-God or couple-God interaction that could be viewed as harmful to the marital relationship has been documented by
others (Butler & Harper, 1994; Fox, Blanton, & Morris, 1997). The possibilities for spiritual practices such as prayer to be
socially constructed by the couple in such a way that produces negative relationship outcomes, deserve further
investigation. It also recommends caution and careful, respectful assessment of spiritual dynamics in the couple relationship
before suggesting prayer as a clinical intervention.
Bearing in mind these limitations and the desirability of future research, the current study nonetheless makes a valuable
contribution to the focus of such future efforts. Further, the preliminary findings here offer a sufficient indication of positive
phenomenological experience of prayer to warrant its inclusion in therapy's narrative search for change mechanisms (or
change relationships) that are potentially available and meaningful to the religious couple. Nevertheless, some cautions are
also warranted: 1) therapists and educators should be careful not to recommend prayer as a panacea to couple conflict; 2)
therapists should approach consideration of prayer with an open mind as to each couple's unique experience with prayer; 3)
therapists should never frame the success or degree of success of prayer in terms of couples' degree of faith or spirituality;
4) therapists should approach consideration of prayer bearing in mindthe potential unknowability of all the relevant
preconditions to the success of prayer (as a metaphysical phenomenon) for any given couple; and 5) therapists should



remember that some preconditions to the success of such metaphysical phenomena as prayer may be beyond clinical
influence. Exercising this clinical caution and respect for each couple and their unique spiritual experience, therapists may
integrate couples' spiritual beliefs and practices with the rest of their clinical practice and support religious couples' use of
prayer as one alternative with the potential for significant and positive relationship effects.





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Manuscript received December 15, 1997; Revisions submitted December 15, 1997; Accepted August 10, 1998.