Ten commandments for improving pastoral marriage counseling
My preparation lacked depth and substance. The ink was still wet on my seminary diploma as her tear-stained face taunted my feelings of inadequacy. Her marriage was floundering, and my efforts to resurrect principles memorized in seminary psychology . class seemed futile. How could id, ego, and superego bring some semblance of sanity to her challenging circumstances?
"My husband is willing to come with me to counseling, Pastor," she whispered, only making me feel more desperate.
These feelings of desperation impelled me to pursue advanced studies in counseling and psychology. I thought an extended stint in the classroom would enable me to master the elusive discipline of counseling. My earnest quest kept me in school for many years, seeking for the secrets, digging for the nuggets of understanding that would help me save failing marriages.
Some of my well-meaning colleagues, more experienced and mature than I, suggested that my academic pilgrimage would lead only to broken cisterns. They asserted confidently that the key to strong marriages was simply to embrace solid biblical principles that were usually antithetical to the themes of secular psychology. They informed me that secular psychology had little to offer those who seek to build marriages on firm foundations. With stern countenances and prophetic intonations they reminded me of the perils of psychological seduction.
One of these friends gave me a book to read by Dave Hunt and T. A. McMahon entitled The Seduction of Christianity. In that insightful book, statements leaped out to reinforce the notions propounded by my friends regarding the dangers of psychology. I read the following statement: "We must have counseling for one another. But it must be based on the Bible and not upon questionable psychological theories. Unfortunately in the area of psychology we have adopted beliefs and practices that have neither scientific nor biblical basis"1
I was almost persuaded.
Years spent in the study of psychology on the graduate level, however, have convinced me that some assertions of secular psychology reflect the light of biblical principles. For example, rational emotive psychological theory asserts that the root of psychopathology is illogical thinking. Marriages in trouble can therefore be helped by assisting spouses in learning to challenge illogical assumptions and substitute them with logical ones.
The notion that distorted thinking can be problematic is reminiscent of the biblical statements "As a person thinks, so is he or she" (see Prov. 23:7) or "Be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Rom. 12:2, NIV).
Perhaps both secular and religious theorists can help improve our pastoral marriage counseling strategies. We can use the results of their empirical research to assist couples in finding answers to marital difficulties. After all, if the labors of secular theorists have uncovered pharmacological solutions to bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, and other maladies, they may also have something valuable to say about marriage. Also, since religious theorists have assisted people in finding peace in a chaotic world, an inner serenity that the world can neither give nor take away, we must embrace their contributions also.
Nearly a quarter century of practicing pastoral counseling has convinced me that a prudent blending of both sacred and select secular perspectives can contribute to making more effective and Spirit-filled marriage counselors. Some would argue that to speak of sacred and secular approaches to counseling is to erect a false dichotomy. After all, many so-called theorists are Christian believers. Perhaps from the themes of both spiritual and clinical research we can discover some commandments that may improve the pastor's ability to provide substantive intervention to married couples in crisis. These commandments have helped me in my quest to become a more effective pastoral marriage counselor.
Know the times
Effective pastoral marriage counselors should know the times and the environmental factors that affect marriages. Like the sons of Issachar, those who strive to maximize their counseling gift will "know the times and know what Israel is to do" (see 1 Chron. 12:32).
What essential knowledge of the times can help us facilitate marital improvements? Well, the days of Ozzie and Harriet are gone. Marked changes in styles of living have occurred in the past few decades. In many world cultures the Leave It to Beaver marriage paradigm is a thing of the past. Divorce no longer carries a terrible stigma, and the traditional, stable two-parent family is now only one of many acceptable models for relationships. People even discuss the ostensible viability of same-sex marriages.
Our times are characterized by increased mobility of individuals, making it more difficult to put down stable roots. The extended family support sources are fewer, and economic challenges add to the pressures placed on marriages, challenging the emotional security and the material stability people seek. Values and roles are less clearly defined, increasing the strains on relationships. In many cultures today both spouses work outside the home setting.
These factors make an impact on marriages. They produce a wear and tear that make some of the solutions offered in the past glib and inappropriate. Many of the people we counsel today will have lived together before getting married. This influences the nature of our counseling, both during premarriage and through the stages of marriage. A sensitivity to the myriad influences that affect contemporary marriage will make us more effective pastoral marriage counselors.
Maximize premarital counseling opportunities
You must "nip it in the bud," said Barney Fife on the old Andy Griffith Show. When it comes to the possible pitfalls of any given marriage, this is particularly true. Many potential marriage problems can be identified during premarital counseling. Often the prelude to serious difficulties in child rearing, financial matters, spiritual concerns, communication problems, and inlaw challenges can be seen, in embryo, during premarital counseling. Premarital relationships that border on the abusive rarely have a chance for later success, and the pastoral marriage counselor must have the courage to confront and speak the truth in love.
Regardless of one's approach to premarital counseling, there should be at least three goals. First, the pastor should make some appraisal of the couple's readiness for marriage. There are tests and other aids to help accomplish this. Other aspects of the couple's readiness for marriage will usually surface during the counseling sessions. Second, the counselor, in most instances, should seek to use these sessions as an educational opportunity, filling in knowledge gaps and helping to inform and empower the prospective husband and wife. Third, the pastor should discuss the procedural details for the wedding ceremony. Often this is all that the couple wants from premarital counseling, but they should receive the complete package.
At one point in my ministry, nearly 10 percent of the people who attended my premarriage seminars decided either to postpone the wedding or to cancel it completely. That troubled me at first. I have since come to believe that perhaps a service of love was being performed for those couples who decided against immediate union. Far better to admit a mistake and extricate oneself than to complicate matters by forging ahead. Pastoral marriage counselors can save themselves much future, painful labor by doing a thorough job of premarital counseling.2 Ensuring that marriages get off to a strong start may be one of the most significant contributions the pastoral marriage counselor can make.
Hear both sides
Proverbs 18:17 reminds us that "the first one to plead his cause seems right, until his neighbor comes and examines him" (NKJV). When the pastoral marriage counselor provides guidance for only one of the marriage partners, it is nearly impossible to provide successful intervention. Marriage involves mutual need satisfaction, making it imperative that the counselor hear from both partners.
I have found it helpful to begin counseling with both partners, even if eventually some separate sessions may be helpful. Usually it is a good idea to permit the one who appears the more reluctant about coming to counseling to be the first to speak. If the counselor has already spoken with the other spouse, it may be helpful to inform the spouse who was absent about what you as a counselor know from the preliminary interview.
In hearing both sides of the story, the counselor should maintain a spirit of helpful neutrality. Counselors are not referees. They should respond to what is said in the counseling sessions, pointing out from time to time what seems consistent with the Word of God and common sense. But counselors should not dominate the sessions with their verbiage. Counselors are there to listen, to hear, to facilitate, to explore, to enable. This process has a greater chance of success when counselors possess a sanctified objectivity that compels them to get the complete picture, to hear both sides of the story so that both spouses as individuals know they have been listened to and heard.
Refuse to play the blame game
Marriage counseling can easily degenerate into frenetic sessions in which the partners launch blame at each another. When marriages are in trouble, such attempts to establish blame are inevitable. Rarely does a husband or wife view their marital problems primarily from the perspective of what he or she has contributed when it comes to triggering difficulties. Interestingly, even when one spouse will admit to some misdeed, he or she may blame the other partner for making the destructive behavior necessary.
Spouses play the blame game for a variety of reasons. If it can be established that the marital problems are primarily the fault of the other partner, it probably provides an excuse for the "innocent" one not changing. This denial of personal responsibility can make one partner the scape goat for all that is bad in the marriage.
But wise pastoral therapists will refuse to tolerate the blame game, because this game makes it difficult to produce win/win solutions to serious problems. If counselors allow the couple to continue their blaming exchanges, an unending seesaw battle of attack and counterattack ensues. Usually by the time the couple reaches the pastoral counselor, they are already proficient in this form of combat.
Competent pastoral helpers refuse to reinforce blame game behavior. They will interrupt, intervene, teach, or redirect the interaction so that constructive changes can occur. I have found it helpful to encourage each partner not to focus on how bad the other spouse is, but rather to discuss calmly what behavior has occurred that affected him or her negatively. I seek to teach them the difference between confrontation and assault. Confrontation identifies the behavior and its effects. Assault judges or evaluates the behavior to the detriment and diminishment of the other partner.
Understand the counseling process
Charles Stewart, in his book The Minister as Marriage Counselor, defines marriage counseling in this way: "Marriage counseling is a process in which a counselor helps persons, couples, or families to make plans and to solve problems in the area of courtship, marriage, and family relations. It is a phase of the general sphere of counseling; however, the problems dealt with are in the area of courtship, marriage, and family relations."3 Notice that the counselor doesn't solve the problems but serves as a facilitator.
In the same volume (pp. 82, 83) Charles Stewart gives five realistic goals of marriage counseling that provide us with insights into the counseling process:
• Marriage counseling is limited to current problems in relationships between marriage partners.
• The counselor helps the couple to begin to communicate feelings to one another again.
• The counselor helps the couple to adjust to certain situations in the marriage which cannot be changed, including each other's character traits.
• The counselor helps the couple to play down personal goals and to work toward ones which are mutually set.
• The counselor aids each partner to understand the other and his/her role in the marriage, such counseling giving him/her opportunity to adjust to what the mate and the marriage demands. Stewart concludes, "This is the nub of marriage counseling: the understanding of each other's role images and role relations."
The marriage process, therefore, involves a focus upon current challenges, enhancing communication and conflict resolution skills, facilitating a cooperative spirit, and assisting with a better understanding of marital roles. An understanding of this process is critical for those who seek to empower others to improve their marriages.
Master the discipline
Counseling has developed into a multifaceted discipline, and conscientious pastoral marriage counselors will acquaint themselves with the nuances of this field. Numerous research studies in the marriage and family area of psychology can inform pastoral counselors in their work.
For example, research has shown that nonverbal as well as verbal cues from counselors can facilitate the therapeutic process. The acrostic SOLER is used to describe the way counselors' nonverbal communication can enhance the counseling experience:
Squarely: Sit facing the counselee squarely.
Open: Assume an open stance with uncrossed legs and arms.
Lean: Lean forward.
Eyes: Make eye contact.
Reflect: Reflect the feelings you hear from the client. The counselor serves as a sounding board, providing a nonjudgmental counseling environment in which options can be explored with spiritual sensitivity and objectivity.
Focus on goals
Research has also shown the importance of goal-setting in counseling. Instead of focusing on marriage problems, most of the counseling encounter should involve proactively examining the direction the marriage should take and how to get on the right road. Michele Davis writes: "We believe that people know themselves best and that they are the experts on what needs to change, not the therapist. So when therapy begins, clients are asked, 'What is it that you would like to change?' and this is the starting point in therapy. If couples complain of fighting about how time is spent, solutions to this complaint are sought. No underlying problem is assumed, no complicated meaning is attributed to the fighting. The goal as it is defined by the client is the goal for therapy." 4 Focusing on goals also keeps the counseling experience from degenerating into the blame game; it accentuates the positive, overcoming evil with good (see Rom. 12:21).
Teach coping skills
Often the pastoral marriage counselor must educate people about how to accept the things they cannot change and how to cope when one's spouse will not change. This sometimes includes teaching people what not to do, as well as what to do. Learning to cope can mean developing more realistic expectations. Some people expect marriage to do too much; they want their spouse to change while they remain the same. This often involves more of a "control issue" than a genuine need.
Often a marriage characterized by challenging differences can be helped by improving the communications. Michele Davis recommends teaching couples how to communicate better through "the structured fight." Often communications break down in marriage because both parties attempt to talk at the same time and no one is listening. This habitual sparring style can be interrupted by the structured fight. The steps are very simple:5
1. Toss a coin to decide who talks first.
2. The winner gets to vent for 10 uninterrupted minutes.
3. Then the other person gets a 10-minute turn.
4. Then there needs to be 10 minutes of silence before another round is started with a coin toss.
This simple tactic and others like it, from the empirical research of counseling theory, can be used by the pastoral counselor to enhance marriages.
Learning to cope may involve teaching people to appreciate their differences. Differences that are not immoral, unbiblical, or unethical should be respected. When a person appreciates his or her spouse's differences, it is an affirmation of his or her loved one's significance.
Build a healing community
The pastoral marital counselor has an obligation to be proactive. A part of being proactive entails working to create a supportive and healing community that will nurture relationships. This may mean providing a substantive ministry to singles, helping to prepare them to make quality choices regarding marriage. This may mean sponsoring marriage enrichment training that will improve relationships that are already doing well. This may mean training laypersons in counseling, so that people can help one another. We must not wait for the storm to strike and then react. We must diligently prepare people for inevitable challenges by building healing communities.
Strengthen the family
Proactive pastoral marriage counselors will also seek to strengthen families. Many marriage problems are exacerbated by family and parenting issues, and the same counselor who prepares people in the premarriage setting should be interested in the family. He or she should assiduously seek to improve and empower families, strengthening the cords between parents and children.
Some people think children help make a marriage stronger. This is often not the case. Often children can place additional strains on an already shaky marriage. Many couples who hoped having children would help make the marriage stronger discover that "bundles of joy" can add to the load.
In an effort to strengthen parents to bear that load, pastoral counselors can offer family life training, stressing assertive Christian parenting skills. Couples should be challenged to "walk the walk." Children learn about our real priorities more from our actions than from our words.
Pastoral marriage counselors can also encourage couples to make God's Word relevant to their children. Parents and children should read the Bible together. Deuteronomy 6:4-7 states: "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on our heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up" (NASB).
These 10 commandments can provide a springboard for launching more effective approaches to pastoral marriage counseling. We must know the times as we seek to maximize premarital opportunities. Remember to hear both sides, while refusing to play the blame game. Continue to gain a deeper understanding of the counseling process, becoming a lifelong student of the discipline. Keep counseling focused on goals, while helping people to accept the things they cannot change. Strive to build a healing community that will include strong families. Like the Decalogue, the fulfillment of these commandments is love.
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1. Dave Hunt and T. A. McMahon, The Seduction of Christianity (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House, 1985), pp. 187, 188.
2. See Mary Bartusis' Off to a Good Start (New York: Donald Fine, Inc., 1991), a guide for engaged couples and newly weds, written by a practicing psychiatrist for 32 years, with a specialty in marital and sex therapy.
3. Charles Stewart, The Minister as Marriage Counselor (Nashville: Abingdon, 1983), p. 21.
4. Michele Weiner-Davis, Divorce Busting (New York: Summit Books), pp. 87, 88.
5. Ibid., p. 153.