"Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my spouse to keep"?

That's not the bedtime rhyme you teach your four-year-old, but it should be the ditty that guides your married prayer life.

Regular date nights, team-building activities, romantic vacations and top-10 lists of ways to have fun with your spouse are all good things for your relationship, but they don’t address the heart of a godly marriage.

Without proper support, these activities are destined to fail because our battle is not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). That means that no matter how many earthly marital maneuvers you master, you're still missing the spiritual mark. As pastor and author Francis Chan writes in You and Me Forever, "Sincere and concentrated prayer will do infinitely more than any human strategy for a happy marriage."

The selfless act of prayer speaks volumes about love and respect in this selfish, self-help, selfie society. But how do you harness the power of this radical battle tactic? Keep reading to learn to navigate the good, the bad and the barriers you may face as a prayer warrior for your spouse and your marriage.

Benefits of prayer beyond the obvious

Of course, when we pray God can move mountains. But there are many benefits of prayer that, while not as visible as a relocated landform, are just as powerful.

1. Regulates your emotions: Prayer stopped Blaine from giving into her jealousy and suspicion when her husband went to a mandatory work party she wasn't invited to. Similarly, taking a moment on his knees helped Geoff calm down enough to recognize his wife’s mood swings as hormonal, not hateful.

The truth is, prayer affects the pray-er. As Dave Ortis, counsellor at Focus on the Family Canada, puts it, "Prayer changes our heart and our mind toward others. It’s not to fix things. We pray for other people in terms of well-being because it teaches us sensitivity." Prayer isn’t a magic fix-it formula; it is fellowship with God. And when you commune with God, He works in mysterious ways in your heart, mind and soul – and yes, in answering your petitions, too.

2. Builds team mentality: Prayer won’t stop the battle between the enemy and your marriage, but it will help you join your spouse’s team as a prayer warrior. And as Chan writes, this will limit petty spousal battles so they don’t distract you from the main event: "Being in a war together is what keeps us from being at war with each other."

3. Encourages your spouse: In Praying God’s Word for Your Husband, author Kathi Lipp’s husband shares what it’s like to be on the receiving end of spousal prayer: "It makes a huge difference knowing that she is praying. It changes my relationship with her. It changes how I see the world. It changes my relationship with God." Though you may not notice your spouse acting or speaking differently right away, you can know that your prayers are encouraging their growth in significant ways – starting in their heart.

4. Increases commitment: Even science backs up the importance of prayer. Researcher Frank D. Finchman of Florida State University studied "partner-focused petitionary prayer," that which asks, in your own words, for God to help your partner. He found that praying for your partner results in increased romantic commitment, greater relationship satisfaction and more forgiveness. Prayer had these effects on a relationship even beyond positive or negative behavioural factors.

Barriers to prayer

A prayer for your husband or wife starts with a prayer for you. This may seem selfish, but when you identify all the hard heart-work you need to do, you realize how necessary it is.

"Prayer begins with focusing on who we are before we jump in asking God to fix the rest of the world," Ortis says. "It’s about holding a mirror up to myself." Honest self-reflection like this is the root of a sincere, effective prayer, especially when one of the following three barriers is involved:

1. I don’t want to: You have no desire whatsoever to pray for your spouse? At least you’re honest. Ortis says that no matter the barriers keeping you from even wanting to pray for your spouse, be honest about them. When you've had a tiff, Otis continues, it can be healthier to admit, "Right now, I don’t feel like praying for the guy because the guy’s a jerk," than to fake it for God. After all, God can see through your fake feelings, so don’t bother trying to hide them!

If you’re not sure why your heart is resistant to praying for your spouse, Lipp has a few suggestions to get the prayers rolling. One tactic is to start by praying for yourself. Ask God to help you "want to want to." She adds, "Right now you don’t want to pray for your husband. So now is the time to ask God to help you want to pray." Remember, God can change your desires if you ask Him to.

2. I don’t know what to say: Maybe you want to pray, but are simply at a loss for words. What do you say to God when your husband prefers reading car magazines to reading the Bible? Or when your wife opts for soap operas rather than soaping up with you in the shower. If you’re at a stalemate trying to script a prayer filled with "churchese or spiritual language because you think, Oh my goodness, I don’t want to offend God," you’re overthinking it according to Ortis. He offers the assurance that "God’s heard it all." Nothing you can say will take Him off-guard.

3. I’m not godly enough: James 5:16 reads, "The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much." That’s not to say that you must be perfectly righteous or holy in order for your prayer to "work." But it couldn’t hurt, and we’re given instructions on how to be righteous, so we really have no excuse why our prayers can’t be as powerful as we want them to be.

The key to gaining righteousness is getting right with God which starts with two actions: confession and forgiveness. First, in 1 John 1:9, we’re promised that "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." Second, in Matthew 6:14 we're told to forgive others so God will forgive us, which reestablishes communion with Him.

How can you pray for your husband to resist pornography when you’re hiding your own struggle with lust? Or for your wife’s critical work meetings to go well when you haven’t forgiven her for missing dinner three nights in a row to attend those meetings? Very poorly and half-heartedly, that’s how.

Without confession and forgiveness, it’s very difficult to pray about anything or anyone. "As long as we are holding on to those wrongs like a balled-up tissue, we can never be truly free to hold out our hands in prayer," Lipp points out.

When prayer turns poisonous

According to Ortis, "Prayer can also be used as a whip and that can be so very subtle and very dangerous." Before praying that your spouse be less lazy so they would fix the squeaky door or fix a scrumptious dinner, reflect on these important questions: What are my motives? Am I trying to manipulate the situation?

There are two prayer paths that can be particularly dangerous to your marriage :

1. Holier-than-thou attitude: "We can become very spiritual," Ortis says, "But that can be a very lethal weapon to use against people." With a hard heart and the wrong motivations, prayer could descend into a demoralizing rant, venting to God about your spouse’s quirks and shortcomings.

Can God handle the lava you’re spewing out of your mind and heart? Sure. But rather than serving as a release to your negative feelings, this tirade entrenches those negative thoughts, sinking the poison deeper into your spiritual and emotional bloodstream. As a result, bitterness rather than blessings overtake you and your marriage.

2. Greedier-than-thou motive: You also need a heart-check if you entered marriage thinking you can and will change your spouse to serve your purposes. Especially if you think the secret spiritual weapon of prayer is there to further your personal agenda.

You could ask God to give your spouse a higher-paying job so you can have higher-cost jeans. Or your wants could be slightly more spiritual with all the same selfishness. For example, we’d all like to have a Christ-like spouse, but when we pray to that end so our spouse can please us more rather than serve Him more, that’s manipulative. With a self-righteous or self-serving heart, this is a gross mutation of the intimate intent of prayer.

Now that you understand the good, the bad and the barriers that come with praying for your spouse, be the prayer warrior your husband or wife needs. Today is the day to forgive, be forgiven and be free to pray powerfully!

Cara Plett is an in-house writer for Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2015 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.

Our recommended resources

Join our newsletter

Advice for every stage of life delivered straight to your inbox