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Generally, in the course of my writing, I have focused on the secular and psychological aspects of romantic relationships. Nevertheless, on two occasions, I discussed topics that touched upon relationships from a more special, sacred, and spiritual perspective. On one hand, I looked at the relationship literature on the belief in soul mates — and how the construction of such beliefs can sometimes lead people to expect perfection and effortless romantic relationships. On the other hand, I also found literature regarding how prayer and shared sacred beliefs about a relationship increased commitment between partners too.

This apparent disagreement in the literature made me curious to learn more about the possible role such sacred, spiritual, and religious beliefs play in our romantic relationships. Furthermore, in my own life, I noticed how the love-life dynamics of friends who considered their relationships sacred sometimes differed from more exclusively worldly focused peers. For example, one of the most loving and successful married couples I know, who share a spiritually based relationship, were high-school sweethearts — and are still going strong more than 20 years later.

Given that, I wondered whether such sacred beliefs were simply an unrelated trait — or whether they were contributing to the success of such romantic relationships. As a result, I did some digging into what else the psychological literature might have to say on the topic.

Research on Relationships as Sacred

My research first led to an article by Mahoney and associates (1999) titled "Marriage and the Spiritual Realm." In it, the authors shared their research devising different questionnaires, with the goal of evaluating whether romantic partners viewed their relationships through various religious or spiritual perspectives. One of those questionnaires measured relationship sanctification (the perception of the relationship is sacred) through an individual's rating of their relationship on nine dimensions: holy, inspiring, blessed, everlasting, awesome, heavenly, spiritual, religious, and mysterious.

Through further inquiry, Mahoney and colleagues (1999) found that such perceptions of sanctity/sacredness were associated with positive relationship outcomes as well. Specifically, within a sample of married couples, a higher sanctification of marriage was correlated with greater marital satisfaction. Furthermore, such perceptions also appeared to lead to husbands being less avoidant, wives being more collaborative, and couples, in general, getting stuck in fewer argumentative stalemates.

Subsequent research with married couples has also shown a positive relationship between spouses perceiving their relationship as sacred and feeling more satisfied with it too. These studies have also explored the effect further and added the following explanations:

  • Sanctification/sacredness helps to buffer against both financial and general stress in relationships — and helps with fostering more positive outcomes, like bonding and commitment (Ellison, Henderson, Glenn, & Harkrider, 2011).
  • Specifically, such perceptions of sanctity/sacredness motivate a partner to help find solutions to problems, reframe situations, and offer emotional support (Rusu, Hilpert, Beach, Turliuc, & Bodenmann, 2015).
  • Thus, individuals who perceive their marriage as sacred are more likely to be motivated to perform behaviors that help maintain that relationship (Stafford, 2016).

Making Your Relationship Sacred and Special

Given the research above, it appears that relationship sanctity/sacredness perceptions do indeed help to buffer against stress, promote positive behaviors between partners, and result in greater bonding, commitment, and satisfaction too. Thus, taking a break with your partner from a strictly secular, worldly, and everyday focus — to perceive each other as more blessed, inspiring, and spiritual — might help strengthen a relationship overall. As one might expect, this can be aided by sharing established religious or spiritual beliefs with your partner. Beyond that, though, some additional steps might help you both see the relationship as more sacred and special too...

1. Build rapport. Work to build an overall situation where you can more openly and deeply connect with your relationship partner. Specifically, interact in a way that is genuine, empathetic, and warm. Present your genuine and positive emotions, be open to their feelings, and accept each other. This not only creates a situation where you can share special and sacred aspects of the relationship with each other, but it also helps improve communication, problem-solving, and emotional support.

2. Share intimacy. Once you have worked to create an open and honest connection, share more deeply with your partner to create greater intimacy. Tell them about you, your thoughts, and your inner feelings. As studies show, such self-disclosure can increase positive feelings between individuals. Specifically, as we share personal things with a partner, they tend to like us more — and we tend to like them more too. This sets up a positive feedback loop in a relationship, where disclosure leads to liking, which leads to more disclosure, etc.

3. Focus on uniqueness. To help grow the sacred or special feelings in your relationship, focus on sharing unique and special things with your partner. Particularly, share and focus on the special values that you might hold together, or the distinctive characteristics you find particularly satisfying in each other. Sharing such unique features can make you more attractive over time to your relationship partner overall too.

4. Show gratitude. When you share these special things with each other or help each other, remember to express your appreciation as well. Individuals feel gratitude for a partner when they perceive that partner's behavior as being responsive to their needs. That feeling of gratitude then motivates behavior in return that is responsive back to the needs of the partner. Overall, then, such gratitude motivates future positive relationship behaviors — and makes your relationship better in the long run as well.

5. Work toward forgiveness. Finally, if and when things go wrong in a relationship, then (when possible) work together to help make them right. Keep in mind, however, there may be different rules and needs for forgiveness in various situations. Specifically, while letting go of minor issues to focus on the bigger picture is often a good idea, it may be necessary for a partner to make amends for larger transgressions in order to restore the relationship. Nevertheless, even in those instances, focusing on the special and sacred aspects of the connection can help to guide you both and see you through.

© 2019 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.

References

Ellison, C. G., Henderson, A. K., Glenn, N. D., & Harkrider, K. E. (2011). Sanctification, stress, and marital quality. Family Relations, 60, 404-420.

Mahoney, A., Pargament, K. I., Jewell, T., Swank, A. B., Scott, E., Emory, E., & Rye, M. (1999). Marriage and the spiritual realm: The role of proximal and distal religious constructs in marital functioning. Journal of Family Psychology, 13, 321-338.

Rusu, P. P., Hilpert, P., Beach, S. R. H., Turliuc, M. N., & Bodenmann, G. (2015). Dyadic coping mediates the association of sanctification wit marital satisfaction and well-being. Journal of Family Psychology, 29, 843-849.

Stafford, L. (2016). Marital sanctity, relationship maintenance, and marital quality. Journal of Family Issues, 37, 119-131.