"Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way... Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends." -- I Corinthians 13
The words of the apostle Paul are a familiar text at weddings, a time when hope is least tempered by experience.
But several new studies suggest the biblical text with its emphasis on consideration for others also may provide the foundation of a spiritual blueprint for lasting, satisfying unions.
Four studies published in the Journal of Family Psychology indicate that cultivating practices such as selfless prayer, spiritual intimacy and compassionate love can help keep couples happily together through the challenges of marriage, from becoming parents to caring for one another amid the infirmities of old age.
And another study in the fall issue of Sociology of Religion finds that individuals who attached great importance to their faith and entered into marriage for religious reasons are less likely to commit adultery.
The latest findings are part of a developing effort to delve deeper into the connection between religion and marriage to identify specific practices and beliefs that predict stronger unions.
Here are five ways faith may help lead to a lifetime of wedded bliss:
Praying for your partner: Asking God for help with one's own needs did not predict stronger romantic relationships, one study of 316 college students found. What did matter in the study of college students, and a separate study of 205 married couples, were divine appeals praying for the welfare of their partner and asking God to watch over her or him. Praying for others was associated with increased commitment and more satisfying relationships, researchers from Florida State University and the University of Georgia found.
Being spiritually open and honest: New parents who were able to share their beliefs with their spouses in a way that enabled them to see each other as "soul mates" were more likely to work through conflicts in a positive manner. "Our findings suggest that greater spiritual intimacy offers couples a spiritual resource to motivate them to remain kind and resist the urge to 'go negative' when they discuss their core conflicts," researchers from Bowling Green State University reported. "Spiritual intimacy appears to be one unique resource that motivates some spouses to preserve and protect their marriage when they become first-time parents together."
Loving with compassion: On the other end of the generational scale, a study of 64 married older couples found that the belief that marriage has a sacred character was related to both increased marital satisfaction and compassionate love. Sacred beliefs regarding a marriage may inspire "the type of love that provides motivation, encouragement and context to prioritize the needs of the spouse over the self," said researchers from Auburn University and East Carolina University.
Deepening relationship with God: The ability to turn to spiritual and religious resources for support and forgiveness may help improve marital quality in cases where spouses struggle with being able to share their feelings with one another, suggests a study of 86 couples with at least one child between the ages of 8 and 11. "Positive religious coping may increase feelings of calm and hopefulness, which may allow them to be more forgiving, optimistic and altruistic during marital conflicts," researchers from the University of North Texas found.
Walking the walk of faith: In the case of one of the biggest marriage killers, infidelity, individuals are more likely to be faithful when they are influenced by their religious beliefs in deciding when and whom to marry. But only if they also have a strong degree of personal religiosity, according to a study analyzing data from the Portraits of American Life Study. Cheating "is likely to be especially taboo when religion is a central foundation of behavior in daily life," said researchers from the University of Calgary.
The new studies do not mean faith is always positive in relationships.
While multiple studies have shown people who attend religious services frequently are less likely to perpetrate or be the victims of domestic violence, placing too high a value on marriage has contributed to some people staying in abusive relationships.
And those religious individuals who pull God on their side against their spouses are likely to experience more conflict, psychology professor Annette Mahoney of Bowling Green has noted.
Nor does it mean increased faith practices would work for everyone.
In the prayer study, the researchers said, "We are not endorsing wholesale use of prayer with all couples: It would only be appropriate for religious-spiritually oriented couples who already engage in prayer."
But the latest research is offering important insights for many couples, and the medical counselors, clergy and others who try to help them through periods of conflict, into the religious resources that may promote happier marriages.
If the spirit is willing, the flesh may not be so weak.