Even in a world with a high divorce rate, we all know couples that seem to have wonderful marriages. They treat each other with love and kindness, their interactions are devoid of tension and disrespect, and their complementary existence seems almost effortless. But is it?
True, part of having a healthy marriage involves never taking each other for granted. But according to research, there is often apparently a proactive component as well: prayers of thankfulness, in terms of expressed gratitude.
Happy Marriage? Thanks Be to God
When spending time with people who have solid, healthy marriages, we sometimes hear them exclaim how thankful they are to have such a wonderful partner. But what distinguishes these people from so many others who just consider themselves fortunate to have ended up with a decent spouse is that they are not only expressing gratitude to each other, but to God. According to research, prayers of gratitude in marriage may actually contribute to the happiness of the marriage.
Frank D. Fincham and Ross W. May explored this issue in “Generalized Gratitude and Prayers of Gratitude in Marriage” (2020).[i] Studying 95 married couples, predominantly Christian, they compared the impact of generalized gratitude and prayers of gratitude to see if the two concepts were independently related to relationship satisfaction.
They begin their analysis by noting that according to the Pew Research Center (2012), over 80% of the population globally claims religious affiliation, most aligning themselves with one of the three monotheistic Abrahamic faiths—Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. They recognize gratitude as a desirable attribute of religion, often manifest through gratitude to God, which is important because for religious people, faith often motivates behavior.
Fincham and May also note that research indicates that gratitude to God impacts well-being to an extent that surpasses generalized gratitude. Specifically, it has been positively linked to both emotional and physical wellness, and inversely related to symptoms of depression.
They note that while researchers have examined the link between gratitude and prayer, no prior research has examined this issue specifically in a relationship context. Their study therefore examined 95 couples between ages 20 and 60 who had been married for at least one year. Participants were recruited from various places within the community, from libraries to laundromats, stores to churches.
The authors note that we might expect to see a link between general gratitude and relationship satisfaction because of the positive life view prompted by being grateful, and that within a relationship, we might expect grateful spouses to perceive their partners as good, and to view their behavior as benevolent—which enhances relationships. But they found more than that.
The Power of Prayer: Not-So-Secret Admiration
Using the Actor Partner Interdependence Model, Fincham and May found intrapersonal associations between both forms of gratitude and satisfaction in marriage. Interestingly, however, they found specifically that while wives’ prayers of gratitude predicted the expressed marital satisfaction of their husbands, the reverse was not found. They attribute the different findings to gender differences in religiosity and gratitude, as well as emotional awareness and expressiveness.
They note that in light of the gender differences they found, arguably wives would be more likely to overtly express their gratitude within their relationship, which would have a positive impact on the relationship satisfaction of husbands. They cite prior research finding that this type of expressed gratitude psychologically impacts the target, which in turn, enhances the target’s relational satisfaction, as well as the satisfaction of the overtly grateful partner.
Recognizing a Match Made in Heaven
Apparently, many happy partners do not merely consider themselves “lucky in love"; they thank God for their marriages. Regarding why they found a partner effect only for prayers of gratitude, Fincham and May suggest that giving thanks to God for a partner recognizes God as the source of one's good fortune, and likely enhances the positive emotions experienced through gratitude. They also note that this type of gratefulness acknowledges that a good marriage is not an accident, but a product of divine design. With this mindset, couples may view failure to honor their marriage as an act of divine disrespect. As an added benefit, Fincham and May note that prayers of gratitude can potentially strengthen relationships both with spouses and with God.
Feeling thankful and proactively thanking God for blessing you with a great marriage is apparently a continually self-fulfilling prophecy. Many happy couples can say “Amen” to that.
[i] Fincham, Frank D., and Ross W. May. 2020. “Generalized Gratitude and Prayers of Gratitude in Marriage.” The Journal of Positive Psychology, January. doi:10.1080/17439760.2020.1716053.