Personal Relationships, 20 (2013), 184 – 197. Printed in the United States of America.Copyright © 2012 IARR; DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2012.01411.x

Shifting toward cooperative tendenciesand forgiveness: How partner-focused prayertransforms motivation

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RICHARD POND,c AND STEVEN R. BEACHda Brigham Young University; bFlorida State University; cUniversity of Kentucky;d University of Georgia

AbstractSeveral studies tested whether partner-focused prayer shifts individuals toward cooperative tendencies andforgiveness. In Studies 1 and 2, participants who prayed more frequently for their partner were rated by objectivecoders as less vengeful. Study 3 showed that, compared to partners of targets in the positive partner thoughtcondition, the romantic partners of targets assigned to pray reported a positive change in their partner’s forgiveness.In Study 4, participants who prayed following a partner’s “hurtful behavior” were more cooperative with theirpartners in a mixed-motive game compared to participants who engaged in positive thoughts about their partner. InStudy 5, participants who prayed for a close relationship partner reported higher levels of cooperative tendencies andforgiveness.

Forgiveness is associated with a variety ofindicators of positive relationship functioning,including relationship satisfaction (e.g., Fin-cham & Beach, 2007), increased commitment(e.g., Karremans, Van Lange, Ouwerkerk, &Kluwer, 2003; Tsang, McCullough, & Fin-cham, 2006), and effective conflict resolution(Fincham, Beach, & Davila, 2007; see Fin-cham, 2009, for review). Thus, forgiveness isan important facet of relationship well-beingand it is important to examine its correlates.

Prayer is a pervasive phenomenon. Peo-ple pray at home, at the office, and evenat sporting events. People pray for manyreasons, with roughly 90% of Americanspraying at least occasionally (McCullough& Larson, 1999). The overall objective of

Nathaniel Lambert, School of Family Life, BrighamYoung University; Frank D. Fincham, Family and ChildSciences, Florida State University; Nathan C. DeWalland Richard Pond, Psychology Department, Universityof Kentucky; Steven R. Beach, Psychology Department,University of Georgia.

Correspondence should be addressed to NathanielLambert, Brigham Young University, 2065 JFSB, Provo,UT 84602, e-mail:

the current studies is to determine whetherpartner-focused prayer increases cooperativetendencies and forgiveness. The current re-search uses video ratings, narrative ratings,experimental, longitudinal, and daily diarydesigns to test the hypotheses that pray-ing for one’s partner is related to increasedcooperative tendencies and forgiveness. Forthe purposes of the current studies “partner”is defined as a close relationship friend orromantic target.

The primary objective of the current re-search is to investigate whether prayer forone’s partner increases cooperative tendenciesand forgiveness over time and in the imme-diate aftermath of a partner transgression. Wealso address whether praying for one’s part-ner has an impact beyond that revealed byself-report.

Partner-focused prayer, cooperativetendencies, and forgiveness

Some research has demonstrated a positiverelation between partner-focused prayer andrelationship satisfaction, which is mediated by


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commitment (Fincham, Beach, Lambert, Still-man, & Braithwaite, 2008). Other research,using self-report measures, has shown thatprayer increases forgiveness (Lambert, Fin-cham, Stillman, Graham, & Beach, 2010)and reduces infidelity (Fincham, Lambert, &Beach, 2010). Why might partner-focusedprayer relate to forgiveness or other rela-tionship outcomes? We suspect that one keymechanism may involve transformation ofmotivation during key periods such as whencouples experience conflict, making individu-als more cooperative and forgiving.

How might partner-focused prayer enhancecooperation? There is evidence that partner-focused prayer increases selfless concern forothers (Lambert et al., 2010). Being moreconcerned about other people’s welfare shouldmake a person more likely to cooperate withthem. It is also possible that partner-focusedprayer changes the very way that an indi-vidual perceives others. For instance, Fin-cham and colleagues (2010) found that pray-ing for a partner was related to a shift in theperception of the relationship as being holyand sacred. Perceiving one’s relationship inthis way should facilitate cooperation. Oneobjective of the current studies is to examinehow partner-focused prayer may facilitate ashift in motivation during a conflict, enhancecooperative tendencies, and thereby increaseforgiveness.

Fincham and Beach (1999) argue that moti-vational processes are particularly consequen-tial when couples are striving to reduce theirnegative relationship transactions and whenthey are recovering from negative interactionsthat have already occurred. These authorshypothesize that during destructive interac-tions, couples routinely switch from the coop-erative tendencies they profess and believemost of the time to emergent tendenciesthat are adversarial in nature. Partner-focusedprayer creates a disposition to exit adversarial,or “tit-for-tat,” patterns of interaction, whichin turn may shift the interaction toward coop-erative, and away from, adversarial patterns.Thus, we view cooperative tendencies as hav-ing a state-like quality for the present studies.Even small initial shifts in such patterns havethe potential to build over iterations of dyadic

interaction, leading to substantial changes inrelationship outcomes (Fincham, Stanley, &Beach, 2007). Hence, we hypothesize thatpartner-focused prayers (which we view asbeing primarily a dispositional trait variable)will cause individuals to adopt a more coop-erative orientation and be more prone towardforgiveness. We also expect that this transfor-mation of motivation will be manifested inbehavior in both laboratory and naturalisticcontexts, that it will be visible under condi-tions that place a stress on the relationship,and that it will ultimately result in greatercooperation and forgiveness among partici-pants who pray for the well-being of theirpartners.

Study objectives and overview

The primary objective of the current inves-tigation was to examine whether partner-focused prayer may impact cooperative andforgiving tendencies toward close others overtime and in the immediate aftermath of hurt-ful behavior by the partner. The use ofglobal measures of forgiveness instead of for-giveness for a specific act limits theorizingbecause global tendencies may not translateinto forgiving or cooperative actions towardclose others, especially immediately follow-ing a specific partner transgression. Peoplemay report a general tendency to forgive orto cooperate with a partner prior to beingstressed by a relationship event, but theymay experience a change of heart for theworse when actually confronted with a part-ner provocation. Studies 1 and 2 begin toaddress this issue as coders rated partici-pants’ reactions to queries about specific,recent grievances. Using a daily diary method,Study 5 tested whether praying for a part-ner, specifically on days when there was con-flict between the partners, would correspondto more cooperative and forgiving responsestoward a partner.

We hypothesized that participants whoreport praying for their partner would respondin a more forgiving manner when discussingor writing about specific partner transgressions(Studies 1 and 2). Furthermore, we pre-dicted that those who pray for their partner

186 N. Lambert et al.

immediately after being insulted by the part-ner (Study 4) or following a conflict with thatpartner (Study 5) would demonstrate morecooperative and forgiving tendencies.

The importance of this research is empha-sized by the fact that we tested whether pray-ing for one’s partner had behavioral conse-quences. Although some research has showna relation between partner-focused prayer andobserved behavior of commitment (Finchamet al., 2010), the one study that demon-strated the impact of partner-focused prayeron forgiveness relied exclusively on self-report (Lambert et al., 2010). This raisesthe possibility that partner-focused prayer,or similar cognitive processes, may producechange in thoughts and self-perceptions ratherthan producing change in behavior. That is,partner-focused prayer may increase the ten-dency to self-report forgiveness and otherpositive relationship outcomes as a way ofmaintaining cognitive consistency. In prin-ciple, partner-focused prayer could increaseself-reported forgiveness without having anyeffect on actual behavior.

Therefore, the current studies testedwhether partner-focused prayer would corre-spond to observed forgiving behaviors (Study1) or to forgiving themes in written narra-tives (Study 2) as rated by objective codersand a romantic partner over a 4-week period(Study 3). We also tested whether partner-focused prayer influenced cooperative tenden-cies, after a person experiences a hurtful per-ceived insult from the partner (Study 4).

Finally, we note that it is important todemonstrate that relationship constructs donot function as proxies for relationship satis-faction and do more than capture variance incommonly used measures of satisfaction. Oth-erwise, prayer for a partner may simply reflectrelationship quality under a different name. Asa result of such observations, Fincham, Beach,and Davila (2004) have argued for routineuse of a test of “surplus conceptual value” inrelationship research whereby the associationbetween two relationship variables is testedwhile controlling for relationship satisfactionand communal strength. Stated differently, wesought to rule out the alternative explanationthat prayer for partner is simply an indicator

of relationship well-being or having a commu-nal orientation and has no independent effecton cooperative tendencies or forgiveness inone’s relationship.

Study 1

Given reliance on self-report in the forgive-ness literature and the limitations of self-report (e.g., social desirability, demand char-acteristics; Nisbett & Wilson, 1977), Study1 sought to examine whether praying for apartner would relate to more observed forgiv-ing behavior. After reporting the frequencyof their partner-focused prayers, participantsengaged in a discussion with their partnerabout a recent transgression by the partnerand their reaction to this transgression. Par-ticipants were rated on the vengefulness oftheir reaction to the incident by objectivecoders, who were blind to study hypothe-ses. Vengeance is one of two main moti-vational factors that govern forgiveness (theother being avoidance) and is closely relatedto poor relationship well-being (McCulloughet al., 1998). We hypothesized that prayingfor one’s partner at Time 1 would predictlower levels of observed vengefulness towarda romantic partner 3 weeks later.



The study included 29 undergraduates (10female) who received extra credit for theirparticipation. Participants attended with andreported on their relationship with their exclu-sive romantic partner.

Measures and procedure

In addition to several other measures unre-lated to the current study, participants com-pleted two items indicating how often theyprayed for their partner’s well-being (“I prayfor the well being of my partner” and “I praythat good things will happen for my partner”)with scores ranging from never to very fre-quently. These items were highly correlated,r(27) = .89, p < .001, and were thereforeaveraged to form a measure of partner-focused

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prayer. Relationship satisfaction was assessedusing Funk and Rogge’s (2007) four-itemmeasure of relationship satisfaction. Theseitems measured satisfaction with the partici-pant’s romantic partner (e.g., “How reward-ing is your relationship with your partner?”and “I have a warm and comfortable rela-tionship with my partner”). The items weresummed to create an index of relationship sat-isfaction (α = .92). Communal strengths weremeasured using a 10-item measure developedby Mills, Clark, Ford, and Johnson (2004).The α for the current sample was .69. Inthis and all the studies, several hundred addi-tional questions were asked and so the partici-pants would not have suspected that the studyfocused on prayer.

After 3 weeks, participants returned to thelaboratory with their romantic partner andwere directed to a video room. Using cuecards, we asked the romantic partners ofthe participants to: “Please describe some-thing you did in the recent past that youknow bothered, upset, or annoyed your part-ner.” We then asked the participant to dis-cuss his or her reaction to their partner’stransgression. Five trained coders watched thevideo data and rated participants on “Howwould you rate the vengefulness this persondemonstrated to the partner during this inter-action?” (intraclass correlation = .69). Wedefined “vengeful” to coders as “revengeful,spiteful.” We also provided them with someanchors by which to make their judgments:1 = not vengeful: the participant showed nomalicious intent, 3 = a little vengeful: the par-ticipant showed signs of spite or wanting toget back at the partner, but not overwhelm-ingly so, 5 = moderately vengeful: the partic-ipant showed outward signs of revenge or illwill toward the partner, but not to the fullestextent, 7 = extremely vengeful: the partici-pant showed tremendous spiteful actions andwanted revenge.

Results and discussion

As expected, praying for one’s partner atTime 1 was negatively related to later venge-ful ratings 3 weeks later, β = −.48, t (22) =−2.54, p < .05. These results persisted even

when we controlled for self-reported relation-ship satisfaction, β = −.44, t (21) = −2.06,p = .05, or communal strength, β = −.41,t (21) = −2.17, p < .05. In fact, partner-focused prayer was a much stronger predic-tor of observed vengefulness (controlling forrelationship satisfaction), β = −.44, p = .05,than was relationship satisfaction on its own,β = −.09, p = .68, or communal strengthon its own, β = −.00, p = .99. This findingdemonstrates that praying for one’s partnersignificantly corresponds to observable venge-ful behavior toward one’s partner during aninteraction above and beyond relationship sat-isfaction and communal strength. However,the study is somewhat limited in that we didnot control for vengefulness at Time 1.

These findings are less susceptible todemand characteristics or to socially desir-able responding than self-report data becausethe vengefulness ratings were completed byobjective raters, who were blind to studyhypotheses. Although vengeance is only oneimportant aspect of forgiveness (see Finchamet al., 2004), Study 1 focused exclusively onthis one aspect of forgiveness. The remain-ing studies focused exclusively on all aspectsof forgiveness. Study 2 sought to build uponthese findings using another method, namelynarrative ratings.

Study 2

Study 2 sought to provide additional evi-dence for a relation between partner-directedprayer and forgiveness using ratings of nar-ratives. Participants described a recent inci-dent when a close friend did something toupset or annoy them and then wrote abouthow they responded. Objective coders ratedthese narratives on how forgiving the partic-ipants behaved toward their friend. We pre-dicted that partner-focused prayer for a friendwould relate to higher forgiveness ratings.



The study included 60 undergraduates (47female) who received extra credit for their

188 N. Lambert et al.

participation. Participants reported on theirrelationship with a close friend.

Measures and procedure

In addition to several other measures unre-lated to the current study, participants com-pleted the two items from Study 1, indicat-ing how often they prayed for their friend’swell-being (e.g., “I pray for the well-being ofmy friend”). These items were again highlycorrelated, r(58) = .86, p < .001, and wereaveraged to form a composite partner-focusedprayer score. To rule out the alternative expla-nation that prayer for partner is simply anindicator of relationship well-being or hav-ing a communal orientation and has no inde-pendent effect on forgiveness in one’s rela-tionship, we again controlled for relationshipsatisfaction and communal strength. Relation-ship satisfaction was again assessed usingFunk and Rogge’s (2007) four-item measureof relationship satisfaction (α = .91). Com-munal strengths were again measured usingthe 10-item measure developed by Mills et al.(2004; α = .82).

Three weeks later, participants returnedto the laboratory and received the follow-ing instructions: “Please think about some-thing your partner did (large or small) thatwas annoying or upsetting to you over thepast 2 weeks. Please describe what hap-pened.” Once they completed this paragraphparticipants were instructed: “Now write aparagraph about your reaction to what youdescribed above.” Four trained coders (differ-ent from the Study 1 coders) read the nar-ratives and rated them based on the ques-tion: “How forgiving was this person towardhis/her partner?” from 1 (not forgiving ) to 7(extremely forgiving ) (intraclass correlation =.84). Coders were asked to form an impres-sion of the forgiveness based on the overalltone of the essay.

Results and discussion

As expected, praying for one’s partner atTime 1 was positively related to the objec-tive forgiveness ratings 3 weeks later, β =.30, t (56) = 2.37, p < .05. This relation heldeven when controlling for initial self-reported

relationship satisfaction, β = .28, t (55) =2.07, p < .05, or for communal strength, β =.34, t (55) = 2.43, p < .05. In fact, partner-focused prayer was a much stronger predic-tor of forgiveness (controlling for relation-ship satisfaction), β = .28, p < .05, than wasrelationship satisfaction on its own, β = .05,p = .70, or communal strength on its own,β = .00, p = .99. This finding again demon-strated that praying for one’s partner signifi-cantly corresponded to objectively rated writ-ten narratives above and beyond relationshipsatisfaction and communal strength.

Although Studies 1 and 2 provide evi-dence that praying for a partner predictslower vengefulness or higher levels of for-giveness, they do not take into account theratings of the recipient of forgiving behavior,namely, the relationship partner. How a rela-tionship partner rates one’s forgiving behav-ior has important practical implications forrelationship functioning, but no work to datehas examined whether partner-focused prayerincreases partners’ perceptions that their part-ner has become more forgiving. To examinethis possibility, we conducted Study 3.

Study 3

Study 3 sought to examine whether prayingfor a partner increases forgiveness behaviorto a degree that it is detected by the part-ner. An important assumption made in ourearlier arguments, and in the literature on for-giveness and relationships more generally, isthat the forgiver’s behavior impacts the part-ner. If behavioral changes (which triggereddifferential forgiveness scores) were entirelyunnoticed, it is unlikely that partner-focusedprayer would have any long-term benefit onrelationship well-being. To our knowledge,however, no study has ever tested whetherpartner-focused prayer increases partner per-ception of behavioral forgiveness. Study 3tests this hypothesis.

Participants were assigned either to prayfor their partner or to think positive thoughtsabout their romantic partner every day for 4weeks. We predicted that the romantic part-ners of participants who prayed for themwould detect positive changes in forgiveness

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over time compared to the partners ofparticipants who thought positive thoughtsabout them.



Forty-nine couples began the study; however,37 couples completed the study and wereincluded in analyses. One individual fromeach of these 37 couples was the “target” (31females, 6 males) who received extra creditfor participating, and these individuals wererandomly assigned to condition and partici-pated in the partner-focused prayer or positivethoughts control intervention. Meanwhile, theromantic partners of the targets (31 males and6 females), who were blind to participants’experimental condition, reported on the tar-gets’ forgiveness at the beginning and endof the study. All participants reported cur-rent involvement in an exclusive, heterosexualromantic relationship. Only participants whoreported being comfortable with prayer wereinvited to participate. All other potential par-ticipants were given an alternative extra creditopportunity.


Forgiveness. We assessed forgiveness atboth Time 1 and Time 2 with a six-item mea-sure (Fincham et al., 2004), except that wechanged the wording of the items to reflect theintervention target’s forgiveness rather thanthe romantic partner’s own forgiveness (e.g.,“If my partner is treated unfairly by me,he/she gives me the cold shoulder”; Time 1,α = .85; Time 2, α = .93).

Severity of prior hurtful behavior. Trans-gression severity is a robust predictor of for-giveness (Fincham, Jackson, & Beach, 2005),and we therefore attempted to control for it inthe analysis. Because a recent hurtful behav-ior by the participants could affect the part-ners’ views of the participant’s forgiveness,we asked partners to recount something upset-ting or annoying that the participants had donerecently and then to rate the severity of thisact by asking: “How annoying/upsetting was

what your partner did?” ranging from 1 (notat all ) to 7 (extremely ).


Intervention participants were randomlyassigned to one of two conditions: partner-focused prayer and partner-focused positivethought. The experimenter instructed partic-ipants that they would need to complete theirassigned activity every day and keep a logof how many minutes they engaged in theiractivity each day. Intervention participantswere also required to log on to an online jour-nal twice a week to report their log and pro-vide written descriptions about their assignedactivity. At the beginning and conclusion ofthe 4-week period, intervention participants’partners (the respondents) completed the for-giveness measure about the participants.

Partner-focused prayer condition. Partici-pants assigned to this condition were giventhe following instructions: “Over the next 4weeks we would like you to set aside at leastone time each day to pray for the well-beingof your partner. Keep track of how muchtime you spend doing this as we will ask youto report it for each day.” To help partici-pants understand the type of prayer we hadintended them to pray, we provided them withan example prayer and requested that theygenerate their own partner-focused prayer andreport what they prayed about during eachonline session. The example prayer read asfollows: “Dear Lord, thank you for all thethings that are going well in my life and inmy relationship. Please continue to protectand guide my partner, providing strength anddirection every day. I know you are the sourceof all good things. Please bring those goodthings to my partner and make me a bless-ing in my partner’s life. Amen.” These reportswere not shared with the partner.

Partner-focused positive thoughts condition.To rule out the alternative hypothesis thatthinking about the well-being of the partnergenerated more positive couple interactions,participants in the positive thoughts conditionwere given the following instructions: “Over

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the next 4 weeks, please set aside at least onetime each day to think positive thoughts aboutyour partner. Keep track of how much timeyou spend doing this as we will ask you toreport it for each day.” Again, reports werenot shared with the partner.



Twelve couples dropped out of the study. Wetherefore compared Time 1 partner-reportedforgiveness scores of those that dropped outwith those who remained in the study. Therewere no differences between the groups,F (1, 47) = .007, p = .93. Thus, our resultscannot be attributed to differences in partici-pant attrition.

Effect of partner-focused prayer onforgiveness

We predicted that praying for one’s romanticpartner, compared to simply thinking positivethoughts about one’s partner, would generatebehavioral change in forgiveness that wouldbe evident to romantic partners. As expected,an analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) withcondition as a factor and Time 1 forgive-ness ratings and hurtful behavior ratings ascovariates showed that the partners of partic-ipants who had prayed for 4 weeks noticedincreased (marginally) forgiveness in theirpartners (M = 5.52, SD = 1.36) relative tothe partners of participants in the positivethought condition (M = 4.64, SD = 1.53),F (1, 33) = 3.84, p = .059, d = .61.


Study 3 offered additional evidence that pray-ing for one’s partner produced behavioralchanges in forgiveness that were evident topartners. These findings highlight that pray-ing for one’s partner may have implications,not only for the individual, but also for thedynamics of the dyadic relationship.

One limitation of the current study is thatit focused on the global tendency to forgiverather than on a specific hurtful instance when

forgiveness may be most difficult. By exam-ining cooperative tendencies in the contextof specific hurtful instances, Studies 4 and 5address these limitations.

Study 4

Study 4 sought to determine whether prayingfor a close relationship partner would affectcooperative tendencies toward that the part-ner, immediately following a hurtful behav-ior by the partner. The hurtful behavior bythe partner took the form of negative feed-back on a drawing task that could be consid-ered insulting. Following the experimentallymanipulated feedback, participants were ran-domly assigned to engage in partner-focusedprayer that focused on themes of beneficence,or alternatively to think about God, justice,and religious rules. Next, all participants com-pleted a Prisoner’s Dilemma Game (PDG),ostensibly against their partner, which pro-vided them with easily quantifiable oppor-tunities to cooperate with or to antagonizetheir partner. We hypothesized that partici-pants who prayed after being insulted by theirpartner, compared to participants who thoughtphilosophically about God and justice, woulddemonstrate greater cooperative tendencies.



Forty-eight undergraduates completed thestudy for partial course credit with eithera romantic partner or close friend. As inStudy 3, all participants invited to participatereported being comfortable with prayer andwith praying for others.


Cooperative tendencies. We used the PDG(Komorita, Hilty, & Parks, 1991) to measurecooperative tendencies. The experimenter ledparticipants to believe that they would com-plete a computerized, 10-trial version of thePDG with their partner. In actuality, partic-ipants played the game against a computerprogram. Therefore, all “partner” responseswere experimentally controlled, and stimulus

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conditions and contingencies were standard-ized for all participants.

On each trial, participants had the optionto cooperate with or to antagonize their part-ner. Participants were shown the point dis-tributions for each turn, which were as fol-lows: 4 points if each person cooperated, −2points if each person antagonized, and whenpartners made different choices, −5 points tothe person who cooperated and 8 points tothe person who antagonized. Participants wereinstructed to try to earn as many points aspossible during the game. The game was pro-grammed so that the “partner” antagonized theparticipant on trials 1, 7, and 10 and played“tit-for-tat” on the remaining trials. By pro-gramming the task in this manner, we cre-ated a situation that began with antagonismand that remained somewhat antagonistic overthe course of the game, allowing multipleopportunities for cooperative and antagonisticresponses. The 10 trials were summed (1 =antagonize, 2 = cooperate) such that higherscores indicated higher levels of cooperation.

This design also had the added benefit ofthe participant winning the majority of the tri-als, which we expected would decrease thelikelihood of participants antagonizing theirpartner for purely competitive reasons. ThePDG has the benefit of providing a believableframework for interaction of partners whilefully controlling the stimulus field and equat-ing it across conditions and participants withincondition.


Participants arrived at the lab together withtheir partner and were put in separate rooms.They each received a blank piece of paperand colored pencils and were told that theyhad 5 min to draw themselves, a car, a tree,a house, and their partner in a picture. Uponcompletion, participants learned that the pur-pose of the drawing was to test creativity andthat their partners would rate their drawing ona scale of 1 (not at all creative) to 5 (extremelycreative). The research assistant took partici-pants’ drawings as if to give to the partnersto rate.

A few minutes later, the research assistantreturned with an envelope containing the sup-posed feedback rating of their partner, andsaid, “I thought you might be interested to seehow your partner rated your picture, it is herein this envelope. I’ll let you go ahead and lookat your partner’s rating of your drawing, andthen I need you to do a short task for a dif-ferent study.” These instructions were meantto reduce any connection between the feed-back participants received and the partner-focused prayer manipulation. All participantswere then handed the false rating sheet withthe number 1 (not at all creative) ostensiblycircled by their partner. We borrowed thisexperimental manipulation of partner provo-cation used in previously published research(Finkel, DeWall, Slotter, Oaten, & Foshee,2009). They also received instructions for a3-min activity that varied based on their con-dition, which they completed after havinglooked at the rating supposedly from theirpartner. They were then instructed that theactivity they were to participate in was partof a separate, unrelated study.

Partner-focused prayer condition. Partici-pants were instructed to spend 3 min prayingfor the well-being of their romantic partner.They were provided with an example prayer(the same one as in Study 3) to get themstarted and then were asked to say a partner-focused prayer in their own words.

Control condition. Participants were in-structed to think about the philosophical ques-tion: “Does God make rules or break them?”In Study 3, we ruled out the alternative expla-nation that praying for one’s partner couldprime positive interactions with the partner.An additional alternative explanation is thatbeing primed by thinking about God couldmake participants respond in a more forgiv-ing manner, because many believe that Godcondones forgiveness. Thus, the condition wasdesigned to control for the effect of thoughtsfocused on a higher power that conferred amoral framework on cooperative interactivebehavior.

Finally, participants completed the PDGtask against their partner. On each trial, partic-ipants could choose whether to cooperate with

192 N. Lambert et al.

their partner. We were especially interested inhow participants responded when their part-ner behaved in an insulting manner. Wouldthey demonstrate higher cooperative tenden-cies toward their partner and give him or heranother chance or would they refuse to coop-erate? We predicted that compared to partici-pants who contemplated a philosophical ques-tion related to God, participants who prayedfor their partner would cooperate more on thePDG.


As predicted, an analysis of variance(ANOVA) revealed that participants in thepartner-focused prayer condition cooperatedmore on the 10 trials (M = 7.04, SD =2.32) than did control participants (M =5.64, SD = 2.46), F (1, 48) = 4.10, p < .05,d = .59.


Compared to participants who thought abouta religious topic, participants who prayedbehaved more cooperatively immediately fol-lowing partner provocation. This findingoffers additional evidence that partner-focusedprayer can cause actual changes in behav-ior following insult from a close relationshippartner. In addition, this cooperative behaviorwas in response to a specific hurtful actionby the partner, thereby demonstrating the util-ity of partner-focused prayer in affecting in-the-moment behaviors rather than just self-reported behavioral inclinations.

The current study provides evidence con-sistent with goal theory (Fincham & Beach,1999), such that praying for a partner cantransform emergent tendencies to cooperativeones. However, it does not examine whethersuch a transformation results in both greatercooperative tendencies and forgiveness. Study5 examined whether partner-focused prayerenhances both cooperative tendencies and for-giveness.

Study 5

Having already demonstrated experimentaland behavioral links between partner-focused

prayer and forgiveness and partner-focusedprayer and cooperative tendencies, we exam-ined both related outcomes using a daily diarymethod. This method is sensitive to partici-pants’ naturally occurring praying behavior,allowing examination of the way in whichpartner-focused prayer relates to coopera-tion and forgiveness when “real-life” stres-sors occur. In Study 4, we crafted an insultthat would be the same for all participants;however, the advantage of Study 5 was thatthe conflicts reported were real and salient toparticipants, increasing the ecological valid-ity of our findings. Participants in Study 5completed daily measures of prayer focusedon a close other, daily cooperative tenden-cies, and forgiveness toward that close other.To rule out relationship well-being and com-munal orientation as alternative explanations,participants also completed “relationship sat-isfaction” and “willingness to sacrifice forthat close other” (an indicator of communalstrength) items. These daily measures werecollected three times a week for a 25-dayperiod (total of 10 waves).

We hypothesized that on days when a con-flict arose with a close other, praying forthe other person would correspond to morecooperative tendencies and more reports offorgiving, controlling for relationship satisfac-tion and willingness to sacrifice for that closeother.



Two hundred undergraduates (151 women)completed the study for partial course creditand reported on a relationship with a closefriend of the same gender.


Partner-focused prayer. To assess partner-focused prayer, participants reported howmuch they have prayed for the well-being oftheir close friend since their last log, using a9-point scale ranging from 1 (Prayer is some-thing that I never engage in ) to 9 (I prayedfor my friend more than once a day with greatintensity ).

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Cooperative tendencies. Participants com-pleted a one-item measure that assessed howcooperative they were during conflicts withtheir friend (i.e., “Since the last log, I havebeen cooperative in the way I handle dis-agreements with my friend”), using a 7-pointscale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7(strongly agree). If participants did not expe-rience conflict with their friend since their lastlog, they indicated that there were no issuesto address with their friend.

Forgiveness of friend. Participants com-pleted a one-item measure that assessed howforgiving they were during conflicts with theirfriend (i.e., “Since the last log, I have beenpatient and forgiving of my friend”), usinga 7-point scale ranging from 1 (strongly dis-agree) to 7 (strongly agree). If participantsdid not experience conflict with their friendsince their last log, they indicated that therewere no issues to address with their friend.

Relationship satisfaction. Participants com-pleted a one-item measure that assessed howsatisfied they were with their relationship withtheir close friend (i.e., “Overall, how satisfieddo you feel today about your relationship withyour friend?”), using a 7-point scale rangingfrom 1 (not at all ) to 7 (extremely ).

Sacrifice for close other. Sacrifice for part-ner is an indicator of communal strength. Par-ticipants completed a one-item measure thatassessed how much they sacrificed for theirclose friend each day (i.e., “Since the last log,I gave up something for my friend”), usinga 7-point scale ranging from 1 (strongly dis-agree) to 7 (strongly agree).


Participants were given a URL to recordtheir feelings and behaviors three times eachweek for 25 days, which included measuresof partner-focused prayer, cooperative tenden-cies, forgiveness of friend, relationship satis-faction, and daily sacrifice for friend. Partic-ipants completed daily surveys at the end ofeach day. Because of the emphasis on prayer,in times of conflict when forgiveness would

be required, data were only reported for thedays in which conflict occurred (28% of allreports; 522 days).


Analysis strategy

We predicted that on days when a con-flict arose between friends, praying for thefriend would be associated with more cooper-ative tendencies and more reports of forgiv-ing, controlling for relationship satisfactionand willingness to sacrifice for that friend.Because these data are interval contingent(i.e., repeated measures nested within individ-ual participants) their nested structure violatesthe assumption of independence in ordinaryleast squares regression. Therefore, we usedmultilevel modeling techniques to account forstatistical nonindependence, using HLM Ver-sion 6.08 (e.g., Nezlek, 2001; Raudenbush &Bryk, 2002; Raudenbush, Bryk, Cheong, &Congdon, 2000).

To test our hypothesis that praying fora friend was associated with more coopera-tive tendencies during disagreements, we con-structed a multilevel model with daily partner-focused prayer as a Level 1 predictor, dailyrelationship satisfaction, and daily sacrifice asLevel 1 covariates, and daily cooperative ten-dencies as the outcome of interest. In theseanalyses, daily prayer, relationship satisfac-tion, and sacrifice were each group-mean cen-tered (i.e., person centered), thereby elimi-nating the influence of person-level differ-ences on parameter estimates of mean dailyprayer, relationship satisfaction, and sacrifice(Nezlek, 2001). This meant that in within-person analyses, an individual’s coefficient fordaily prayer described the relation betweendeviations from his or her mean level ofprayer and deviations from his or her meandaily level of cooperation (similar interpreta-tions can be made concerning the coefficientsfor daily relationship satisfaction and dailysacrifice). All slopes were treated as randomlyvarying. To test our hypothesis that prayingfor a friend was associated with more forgive-ness during disagreements, we constructed anidentical multilevel model with the exception

194 N. Lambert et al.

of including forgiveness as the outcome ofinterest in place of cooperative tendencies.

Praying for a friend is associated withgreater cooperation and forgiveness

As expected, praying for a friend was asso-ciated with more cooperative tendencies dur-ing disagreements with that friend, controllingfor relationship satisfaction and sacrificingfor that friend, B = 0.12, t (128) = 2.30, p =.02. Partner-focused prayer was also relatedto being more forgiving of that friend dur-ing disagreements, controlling for relation-ship satisfaction and sacrificing for that friend,B = 0.07, t (128) = 2.03, p = .04. Relation-ship satisfaction was positively related toboth cooperative tendencies during disagree-ments, B = 0.33, t (128) = 5.79, p < .001,and forgiving during disagreements, B =0.39, t (128) = 5.87, p < .001. Similarly, sac-rificing for a friend was also positively relatedto both cooperative tendencies during dis-agreements, B = 0.09, t (128) = 2.52, p =.01, and forgiving during disagreements, B =0.07, t (128) = 2.66, p = .009.


Consistent with our hypothesis, praying forone’s partner on days when there was a con-flict corresponded to reports of higher cooper-ative tendencies and forgiveness. The currentresults demonstrate that during the course ofnaturally occurring conflict, partner-focusedprayer played a role in facilitating cooperativetendencies and forgiveness. The daily diarymethod is an ideal way to examine the effectof praying for a partner on cooperation andforgiveness in one’s natural setting, under-scoring the ecological validity of our resultsfound in the experimental studies.

General Discussion

Five studies provided consistent evidence fora relation between partner-focused prayer,cooperative tendencies, and forgiveness. Ourresults suggest that a shift to a more coop-erative and less adversarial orientation with aparticular partner may be a mechanism linking

partner-focused prayer to increased forgive-ness of the partner in the aftermath of negativepartner behavior. The primary objective ofthese studies was to test the impact of partner-focused prayer on cooperative tendencies andforgiveness over time and during the imme-diate aftermath of a partner transgression. Animportant ancillary outcome of investigatingthese issues was to move beyond the limita-tions of self-report data that plague the for-giveness literature, and in the eyes of some,social psychology more generally.

The initial objective of the current stud-ies was to examine whether partner-focusedprayer impacts cooperative and forgiving ten-dencies toward close others in the immedi-ate aftermath of partner provocation. Stud-ies 1 and 2 began to address this objectiveas participants were rated on their responseto a specific, recent transgression. However,Study 4 best demonstrated the effect ofpartner-focused prayer immediately followinga provocation as participants who prayed fora partner who had delivered insulting feed-back increased their cooperative tendenciestoward the partner, compared to control par-ticipants. Study 5 extended the finding ofStudies 1, 2, and 4 across a 25-day periodand demonstrated that on days when conflictarose in the relationship, praying for the part-ner was related to higher levels of cooperationand forgiveness. Thus, when emotions are redhot, partner-focused prayer appears to shiftrelationship goals from adversarial, emergentones to more cooperative ones. This yieldsmore cooperation and forgiveness.

A second important objective was to exam-ine goal theory (Fincham & Beach, 1999)by determining whether cooperative tenden-cies and forgiveness would be enhanced bypartner-focused prayer. We found evidencethat partner-focused prayer transforms rela-tionship goals from emergent to coopera-tive ones. In Study 4, we examined whetherpartner-focused prayer influenced cooperativetendencies. It did. This finding suggests thatpartner-focused prayer can transform emer-gent tendencies. In Study 5, we examinedthe effect of partner-focused prayer on bothcooperative tendencies and forgiveness usingdaily diary data. We found that on days when

Prayer and forgiveness 195

there was conflict in the relationship, partic-ipants who prayed for their partner reportedhigher cooperation with and forgiveness oftheir partner. Thus, consistent with goal the-ory, partner-focused prayer transformed rela-tionship goals, even in the heat of an insultor conflict, and this transformation of goalsfacilitated cooperation and forgiveness.

The importance of the current researchfindings is emphasized by the fact that theywent beyond the limitations of self-report andprovided valuable data to document the effectsof partner-focused prayer. Study 1 found thatreports of praying for one’s partner at Time1 predicted observer ratings of participantvengefulness 3 weeks later. Study 2 indicatedthat praying for a partner at Time 1 posi-tively predicted objective ratings of forgive-ness from narrative reports at Time 2, 3 weekslater.

Next, we tested whether the effects ofpraying for one’s partner caused noticeablebehavioral consequences as perceived by theromantic partner. Behavioral changes are notalways readily observable by a partner. Tothe extent that changes produced by partner-focused prayer did not result in noticeablechange, the implications of such a behavioralimpact of prayer for the relationship might bediminished. Study 3 showed that the romanticpartners of participants who engaged in a4-week partner-focused prayer interventiontended to notice a positive change in theirpartner’s forgiveness behavior.

This finding is significant because it isthe first to obtain partner report of changesin behavior as a consequence of partner-focused prayer, suggesting forgiveness mayserve as a relationship maintenance processwith implications for long-term commitmentand relationship satisfaction. This could oper-ate in several ways. At the simplest level,the forgiver and/or partner observe the for-giving behavior and align their relationshipevaluation accordingly. In addition to notic-ing positive behavior it is possible that fol-lowing the norm of reciprocity, the partneralso makes alterations in his or her behav-ior. Doing so could further benefit the rela-tionship. These findings highlight the poten-tial benefit of using partner-focused prayer,

where culturally appropriate, in clinical set-tings or in relationship education programs.Also, this study, involving noticeable overtbehavior, will advance the forgiveness litera-ture that has hitherto relied almost exclusivelyon self-report.

Study 4 also demonstrated that praying forone’s partner has behavioral consequences,this time for cooperative tendencies. In Study4, we provided participants with false feed-back on a drawing to provide a uniform part-ner transgression and found that participantswho prayed for benefits to the partner follow-ing the partner’s hurtful insult behaved morecooperatively toward their partner in the PDG,despite several standardized provocations pro-vided by the computer program. This studydemonstrates that partner-focused prayer mayhave a rapid effect on cooperative tenden-cies and may be particularly useful in helpingcouples manage an ongoing stream of inter-action when multiple opportunities for addi-tional provocations may arise.

Studies 1 – 4 are the first of which weare aware to go beyond the limitations ofself-report data in documenting the conse-quences of partner-focused prayer on coop-erative tendencies and forgiveness. In doingso, they address limitations of prior self-reportresearch and suggest that partner-focusedprayer that is focused on beneficence towardthe partner can produce more than changein self-reported, general tendencies. This sug-gests that manipulations of beneficence arepossible and consequential.

Furthermore, the current findings suggestthat it is possible to manipulate the frequencyand content of prayers, which affects forgive-ness. This makes it possible to test the causalimpact of partner-focused prayer on interac-tive behaviors with implications for longer-term couple functioning. In this way, the cur-rent results also advance the literature on cou-ple functioning and the role of spirituality inpromoting adaptive couple outcomes.

Limitations and future directions

As in many psychological studies, the youngadult participants in the current studies limitthe generalizability of our findings to other

196 N. Lambert et al.

populations. Further studies need to beconducted with older, more mature or moreethnically diverse couples to ensure that theeffects of partner-focused prayer on for-giveness are not limited to young adultrelationships.

In addition, the analog nature of the hurt-ful behavior by the partner used in Study4, receiving a false low rating on a drawingsupposedly from a partner, may not necessar-ily generalize to “real-world” transgressions(e.g., calling one’s partner fat or ugly). How-ever, we attempted to increase the ecologicalvalidity of our findings with a daily diarytechnique in Study 5, which yielded similarresults. Also, Studies 1 and 2 measured nat-urally occurring partner-focused prayer andasked participants to respond to transgres-sions that actually occurred in their relation-ship. Furthermore, the current studies focusedexclusively on how partner-focused prayerenhances cooperative tendencies, and futurestudies should also examine whether partner-focused prayer similarly diminishes emergenttendencies.

We note that not all prayer is expected tohave the effects observed in our research. Inparticular, prayer focused on other attributesof God such as justice, omniscience, and wis-dom would not be expected to produce thesame effect as prayer focused on beneficence,love, or mercy. In addition, we would predictthat prayers that focus on partner weaknessesor character flaws (e.g., perhaps pleading forGod to help a partner to address such short-comings) are likely to have a potential dele-terious effect, or at best no effect on forgive-ness and other relationship outcomes. Rather,consistent with goal theory, the indicatorsof transformation of motivation we found inthese studies should only occur as a result ofpartner-focused prayer. Future studies shouldexamine the effect of other types of prayer onrelationship well-being.

Another important direction is to furtherexamine whether prayer is unique to thistransformation of motivation or whether anywell wishing for a partner would have asimilar effect. Although we controlled forrelationship satisfaction and in Study 4 weincluded a positive thought about partner

control condition, future studies may examinewhether wishing one’s partner well withoutprayer would elicit a similar result.

We propose that prayer would have aunique effect due to sanctification. Mahoneyand colleagues (1999) found that perceptionof marriage as holy and sacred was relatedto greater global marital adjustment, moreperceived benefits from marriage, less mari-tal conflict, fewer communication problems,and more verbal collaboration for husbandsand wives. Dollahite and Lambert (2007)found that perception of their marriage asbeing sacred enhanced couples’ marital qual-ity and fidelity Fincham and colleagues (2010)also found that sanctification mediated therelationship between prayers for partner andinfidelity. We suspect that partner-focusedprayer would likely have a stronger effecton transformation of motivation than wouldwell wishing for partner due to the sancti-fying effect that prayer can have on a rela-tionship. Again, this possibility awaits futureresearch.


In five studies, we found that praying for aclose relationship partner was related to morecooperative and forgiving behavior toward thepartner. The results are among the first to gobeyond the limitations of self-report data andto demonstrate that partner-focused prayerincreases cooperative and forgiving tenden-cies in the immediate aftermath of a hurtfulbehavior by the partner. They are also the firstto document that the effect of partner-focusedprayer on forgiveness is visible to close rela-tionship partners. In addition, these studiesprovide an empirical test of goal theory,demonstrating that praying for a partner trans-forms relationship goals to be more coopera-tive, which has implications for forgiveness.Although our findings have the potential toinform relationship education and couple ther-apy (for religious clients), they may also helpclarify the types of interventions that might bedeveloped for nonreligious couples to accom-plish similar goals. In particular, the currentresults suggest the potential for interventions

Prayer and forgiveness 197

that increase a cooperative orientation towardthe partner to facilitate forgiveness.


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