Marriage counseling: A biblical approach

A biblical view of the causes, evaluation, and goals in counseling couples

From the perspective of many Christians, marital difficulties are caused by the assaults of Satan upon the home.

When a couple recognizes the presence of negative spiritual forces in their marriage, they can more effectively understand and approach the source and nature of the pressures in their situation. Coming from this perspective they will be more cooperative with each other and their Lord as they work through their problems.

As a Christian counselor, I am constrained to incorporate skills and techniques reflective of a counseling philosophy that includes an authentically spiritual understanding of marriage. Behind a Christian approach to marital counseling is: (1) a unique understanding of what causes marital distress; (2) particular methods of assessing the nature of the difficulties being faced; (3) specific counseling techniques; and (4) identified goals for the counseling situation.

Finding the causes

First is the issue of what, on the surface, are the causes for the particular problems being faced by the couple. Research shows that when a person makes the choice of a marital partner, he or she attempts to form a meaningful relationship that yields maximum benefit with minimum effort. When the benefits do not meet the level of expectation, or when the effort seems to outweigh the realized benefits, conflict results. 1

Ellen White expressed a high-level expectation for marriage when she said that the home should be a little heaven on earth, a place where affections are cultivated instead of being repressed. She added that the realization of such an expectation depends upon the cultivation and development of love, sympathy, and true courtesy to one another, a set of circumstances which the powers of evil work to keep spouses from achieving.2

In order for our homes to be this "little heaven on earth," the marriage relationship needs to actively cultivate mutual unconditional love, acceptance, cooperation, and support. Underlying these qualities is the one reality that above all others is able to generate the other positive traits: a sincere, deep, and meaningful life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ, who alone success fully stands against the principalities and powers (Eph. 6:12) arrayed against human marriages.

Marriage is considered to be a relatively long-term, intimate relationship in which a significant investment of energy and commitment is made be tween marital partners who each play a major, ongoing role in the lives of one another.3 Some theorists measure mar riage and its survival in terms of percentages of interdependency and commitment shown by each spouse.4 Van den Broucke, Vertommen, and Vandereycken recognize that the degree of true intimacy experienced in a marital relationship has a major influence on one's physical, emotional, and psycho logical well-being. A deficiency in this area may lead directly to a variety of traumas such as loneliness, chronic depression, physical illness, sexual abuse, and psychosomatic ailments,5 all of which make one particularly vulnerable to satanic exploitation. Yet the minimized standards of covenantal marital commitment, which have become an integral part of life in so many contemporary cultures, have (along with other influences) produced a decline in true emotional intimacy in marriage. In light of such destructive patterns, it should come as no surprise that so many marriages experience the degree of loneliness, abuse, and dysfunction they do. Many of the prevailing attitudes and patterns within current marriages can not help but have a weakening effect on marital trust and happiness in general, opening the way for still more significant satanic exploitation, making marriage and even the prevailing culture a hellish rather than a heavenly experience.6

Methods for assessing the condition of a marriage

Second is the issue of assessing or measuring the strengths and weaknesses of a marriage. The perpetuation of a marriage, like its dissolution, results from a number of factors that need to be appropriately assessed.7

Worthington states that the proper treatment of a marriage depends on an accurate assessment of its actual condition.8 For example, although it would seem that warmth, support, and demonstrations of positive emotional response in marital interactions should indicate a high level of satisfaction and harmony in a marriage, the evidence for such a conclusion is not as easily substantiated as the effects of the detrimental influences at play within hostile or otherwise negative marital interactions.9 There are a variety of assessment instruments available for use in marriage counseling. For example, there is the Personal Assessment of Intimacy in Relationships, the Couple's Precounseling Inventory, the Locke- Wallace Marital Adjustment Scale, and the Dyadic Adjustment Scale, to name a few. 10

Some literature asserts that there is little substantial support for the idea that an increase in religious activity improves marital relations or decreases conflict and problems. 11 Recently, researchers have questioned religion's capacity to serve as a socially integrative force in today's society, emphasizing that modernization has diminished the power of religious institutions to exercise any significant social control. 12 I question such findings, believing instead that the God who declared His unchangeability and who created marriage in the first place, declaring that it was good, still knows what is best to preserve and sustain it and to keep it healthy and mutually satisfying. At the same time, it is important to note that much religion, even when practiced with sincerity, may have either no particular positive effect on a given marriage or may itself be a serious detriment to the marital intimacy God designed in the beginning.

Therefore, in my assessment of a couple in counseling, I ask questions about the nature of each person's personal and corporate relationship with Christ and how He is a part of their daily lives. I also judiciously point them to the wise instruction given in the Bible, according to their level of spiritual maturity and growth. If God created marriage, then He, above any other source, should know how to maintain it as well.

Techniques and goals

Third is the issue of the use of techniques in counseling. Worthington correctly suggests that any counseling strategy should include a clear description of goals for the counseling situation, guidelines for the couple for getting the most out of the counseling encounters, indications that responsibility for change belongs to the couple, and specifications of the limits of the counselor's responsibility. 13 Contracts between the counselor and the couple are also a possible technique to be considered. A pastor or counselor should moreover have his or her own goals for a specific counseling situation.

It has been said that the goal of marriage counseling is to alleviate risk factors and to enhance protective factors that are associated with successful marital adjustment before problems develop. 14 Certain research findings show that religious involvement does have a positive impact on an individual. Divine interaction through prayer, meditation, and Bible reading may help the individual resolve and interpret their problems more effectively. 15 Therefore, my goals in marriage counseling include providing suggestions and instruction, as deemed appropriate, for the development and nurture of a spiritual life both individually and corporately for the couple, along with reducing risk factors and increasing protective factors in the marriage.

Despite decreasing divorce rates during the last decade, couples continue to face at least a fifty percent chance of divorce. Others may never divorce but remain in a distressed or abusive relationship. The good news is that there is more information and help available now than ever before to assist couples in taking meaningful steps to enhance and preserve mutually satisfying relationships. 16 But it remains at the heart of the call of quality Christian counseling to intelligently and comprehensively incorporate a unique approach or orientation to marital counseling that is based securely on the healing, transcendent verities of the Word of God.

1 F. M. Douglass and R. Douglass,
"The Marital Problems Questionnaire: A
Short Screening Instrument for Marital
Therapy" Journal of Marriage and the
Family
(July 1995), 238.

2 E. G. White, The Adventist Home
(Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub.
Co., 1952), 15.

3 R. Schafer, K. Wickrama, and P.
Keith, "Self-Concept Disconfirmation,
Psychological Distress, and Marital
Happiness," Journal of Marriage and the Family
(1996).

4 S. Nock, "Commitment and Dependency
in Marriage," Journal of Marriage and
the Family
(1995), 503-514.

5 S. Stanley, et al., "Strengthening
Marriages and Preventing Divorce: New
Directions in Prevention Research," Family
Relations
(October 1995), 392-400.

6 Stanley et al., (1995).

7 J. Melby et al., "The Importance of
Task in Evaluating Positive Marital
Interactions," Journal of Marriage and the
Family
(November 1995), 981-994.

8 E. Worthington, Marriage Counseling:
A Christian Approach to Counseling

Couples (Downer's Grove, 111.: InterVarsity
Press, 1989).

9 Melby et al., (1995).

10 Worthington, (1989).

11 A. Booth et al., "Belief and Behavior:
Does Religion Matter in Today's Marriage?"
Journal of Marriage and the Family (August
1995).

12 Booth et al.

13 Worthington.

14 Stanley et al.

15 Booth et al.

16 Stanley et al.

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May 1999

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