Shared spiritual values
For many couples, marriage is a spiritual event as well as a romantic one. Thousands of couples get married each year in churches or temples by various members of the clergy. While some of these weddings can be attributed to tradition rather than spiritual devotion, research has shown that shared spiritual values is one of the top three indicators for a successful marriage.
What is it about a common belief in a higher power that benefits the marriage relationship? In an informal survey of married couples, spouses overwhelmingly reported that their faith helps to set the standards by which they live, it keeps them together in times of trouble, and helps them overcome difficulties in the relationship. Their shared faith also reportedly helps them to better understand their roles within the marriage, and it enhances and strengthens the closeness of their relationship.
According to Bob Lepine, co-host of the Christian radio broadcast Family Life Today, the core values a spiritual faith offers are something that should be present at the heart of every marriage relationship. Says Lepine, "When we share these core values, it helps with intimacy. It is hard to be connected at the deepest level when you don't share these deepest values."
Setting the standard
The core values that Lepine refers to are basic standards that have a natural impact on the way we choose to live our lives. Leslie Parrott, Ed.D., Co-Director for the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University, agrees. "There are so many things that revolve around our spiritual values," says Parrott, such as the decisions we make, how we deal with crises, the values we impart to our children and how we relate to extended family. "They reach every area of our lives."
Mary and Hank Walker, both practicing Roman Catholics, have been married for 11 years. Their faith has influenced their decision that marriage is not something to opt out of. "Our religious beliefs form the basis for how we make many of our decisions," says Mary. "For us, divorce is not an option, so we approach all our differences with the attitude that we have to work them out." As with many couples, their faith also guides them in raising their children and in choosing to take part in activities that will enrich their relationship.
Overcoming life's hurdles
Couples with a shared faith often fare better when it comes to navigating through times of trouble. Having struggled through ten years of infertility, Richard and Kathryn Lay recognized the difference in their relationship compared to others they knew who did not have a faith to rely on. "I believe our faith kept us together and close," shares Kathryn, "whereas others we knew struggled and some divorced."
Later, when Richard was laid off from work and had to undergo surgery for heart problems, the couple depended upon their faith to see them through the illness, the worry and their related financial issues. Says Kathryn, "I can't imagine God not being a part of our lives. Our close marriage is a result of our faith and our desire to have a Godly marriage."
Parrott lists prayer as one of three primary ways couples can enact their shared spiritual values, and sharing prayer in times of crisis can be especially important. However, even spouses who share the same faith may choose to practice prayer differently. One might be comfortable praying out loud, while the other may prefer to be alone and pray in silence. This does not need to become an area of tension in the relationship. Says Parrott, "Even if the spiritual values are the same, the personalities differ. We need to work to see the value in how our spouse chooses [to pray]."
The roles in marriage
Sometimes who is responsible for what in the marriage relationship can be a point of friction. Some couples, however, rely on their religious beliefs to help govern that part of their relationship. For Rachel and Eli Gurevich, their Jewish faith is what guides them in this area. Says Rachel, "Our faith keeps us together and helps us understand what our roles are and how we should communicate with each other."
As Rachel illustrates them, the roles set forth for husband and wife under Jewish law allow for the two to complement each other. For instance, she bakes Challot for Shabbat and Eli says the blessing over them on Shabbat. They do not have the same role, yet the two roles work together. Another example Rachel gives is that only Jewish men are commanded to have children. "Women are not obligated," she explains, "Yet, he obviously can't fulfill this mitzvah (law) without me!"
Strengthening the relationship
For so many, it seems that the most important aspect of a shared spirituality is the facilitation of an enhanced and strengthened relationship. According to Lepine, when spouses who share a common faith grow in that faith, their relationship also deepens. Executive vice-president of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein puts it this way, "The shared faith makes it more likely that the couple will be enriched by sharing an agenda that will guide their lives and help them clarify values and goals." Since marriage is meant for intimacy and closeness, it follows that a couple will be more closely engaged with one another as they grow in this important area of common ground.
Dr. Ehud and Vatsala Sperling share a successful "interfaith, intercultural and international" marriage. Coming together through an arranged marriage, Ehud, who is Jewish, and Vatsala, who is Hindu, have been married for four years. While this might seem like an impossible situation for spiritual closeness to thrive, the Sperlings have experienced quite the opposite. "We find that our lives are based on sharing all of ourselves with each other," says Vatsala, "and that includes our faith and our spiritual beliefs. This total sharing brings a kind of completeness to our relationship that perhaps would have been lacking if we practiced our religious faiths independent of each other."
Thus the Sperlings actively practice both faiths in their household, and they have found that willingness to bend is key to making their dual faith relationship work. "In interfaith marriages, the attitudes of self-righteousness and inflexibility do not work," asserts Vatsala. "Mutual respect and acceptance is the only ground where the hard-shelled seeds of peace can germinate and thrive." The Sperlings have practiced give and take on several issues, including the exemption of beef from their home menu as per the kosher laws of Vatsala's Hindu faith, and the circumcision of their son as prescribed by Ehud's Jewish tradition.
The role of faith in the marriage relationship is one that each couple must work through for themselves. As Parrott notes, "Spiritual intimacy is easy to value, but hard to work out in daily life." Coming to decisions about faith requires a couple to examine what is important in their lives. Often affected by past experiences and the expectations of family and friends, it might not always be a smooth road. However, once a couple finds themselves on the path to spiritual oneness, the long-term benefits they enjoy will most likely outweigh any short-term questions and concerns.
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