Close friends and romantic partners praying for each other's well-being can lead to stronger relationships with more cooperation and forgiveness, a study by researchers at Brigham Young University and three other schools found.
The five-part study publichsed in the academic journal Personal Relationships broke new ground by coming up with objective measures — instead of self-reported results — of behavior by those who pray for others. In one study, the partners, who were unaware they were the subject of prayer, noticed their partners who prayed for them were more forgiving.
"People can think that what they are doing doesn't really affect others, whether they pray or not isn’t really going to have much of an impact on others," said BYU assistant professor Nathan Lambert. "But this study shows it really does. In your own personal prayers, the effect it has on your behavior can be noticed by those closest to you."
Sociologists like Lambert, who teaches in BYU's School of Family Life, have long been curious about prayer and its impact on behavior. Indeed, the practice of prayer is pervasive in society. A 2009 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey showed 58 percent of Americans pray daily, and a 1993 Gallup poll found 90 percent said they prayed at least occasionally. Much of the research on prayer is based on self-reported results, while Lambert and his colleagues designed their study so objective observers determined behavioral changes in those that prayed.
"The results are among the first to go beyond the limitations of self-report data and to demonstrate that partner-focused prayer increases cooperative and forgiving tendencies in the immediate aftermath of a hurtful behavior by the partner," the study stated. "They are also the first to document that the effect of partner-focused prayer on forgiveness is visible to close relationship partners."
Researchers recruited students in dating relationships at Florida State University to participate in five separate studies for extra credit. In all of the studies, research assistants, who didn't know the purpose of the studies, graded written and verbal responses of the participants to determine levels of vengefulness, anger, forgiveness and cooperation.
The exercise that stood out for Lambert was one in which couples were asked to keep a journal of their relationship during a period in which one partner was asked to pray for the well-being of his or her partner. The other participant was asked to think positive thoughts about his or her partner.
As the couples recorded the interactions of their relationships over a four-week period, including times of conflict, the partners who prayed were noticeably more forgiving in their behavior, according to partners who didn't know their well-being was the subject of their partners' prayer.
"This finding is significant because it is the first to obtain partner report(s) of changes in behavior as a consequence of partner-focused prayer, suggesting forgiveness may serve as a relationship maintenance process with implications for long-term commitment and relationship satisfaction," the study stated.
Another exercise had couples draw a picture of an object they were told their partner would grade. In fact, a research assistant gave the picture a poor grade to intentionally make the partner who drew it "red-hot" angry at the other, the study stated. Partners were then randomly asked to either pray for their partner or to think about God, justice and religious rules. They were then brought together to play a game that required participants to choose to cooperate with their partner or be antagonistic. The observers found those who prayed were more likely to choose to be cooperative with their partner.
"Often when we are upset with someone we go into this win-lose mentality. We found prayer shifted that goal into a win-win mentality," Lambert said. "I think that’s why it helps people to forgive because if you are working on the same team together, why would you want to continue to hold something against your partner?"
The study, which also included scholars from the universities of Kentucky and Georgia, noted the young adult sample limits how the findings would apply to other groups of older married couples or ethnically diverse partners.
In an interview with the Christian Post, Frank Fincham, director of Florida State's Family Institute and co-author of the study, also explained the study's findings "do not occur for prayer in general," or when someone prays about something other than the well-being of a partner.
"In prior research, when participants were asked to pray as they usually do their relationship behavior did not differ from those asked to think positive thoughts about their partner," Fincham said. "If there was any surprise, it was in relation to this finding."
Lambert, who explained he pursued the study because of the impact prayer has had in his own marriage, said the research could prove helpful to therapists who have religious clients.
"The message there is that prayer can be a tool for those couples to use in times of conflict to restore the love and unity they have for each other," he said.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company