When clergy couples come for counseling

Helpful observations of a counselor specializing in clergy marriages.

William Rabior is a hospital chaplain at St. Mary's Medical Center in Saginaw, Michigan.

Nearly ten years ago, I attended a seminar conducted by a therapist nationally known for his expertise as a practitioner of marital therapy for clergy and their spouses. I still have my notes from that seminar, and I find myself reflecting upon his remarks whenever a clergy couple approaches me for counseling.

"Clergy couples seeking help will be very much like other married couples," he said. "Many of the issues will be identical to those you typically see in non-clergy marriages. However, generally there will be two important differences. First, confidentiality will be absolutely paramount. They don't want their congregations knowing they are seeking marriage counseling, because while it makes for a delicious piece of gossip back home, it only makes their personal situation worse. Second, most of the time they will be open to spiritual interventions like prayer, so use them."

He added, "Most clergy couples really want to make their marriages work. They are usually willing to do whatever it takes to transform their hurts into healing, and get their marriages back on track. Give them a sense of hope and help them strengthen their inter personal skills and you'll be surprised at how well they do."

At the time, I remember thinking that he seemed overly optimistic about the effectiveness of marital therapy for clergy and their spouses. Yet, based on my own experience as a marriage counselor working with clergy couples, for the most part he was correct on all counts. Not all troubled clergy marriages survive, of course, but of the ones that I have personally been involved with professionally, nearly 90 percent are still married. So when it comes to working with clergy and their spouses, I've become an optimist as well. I enjoy working with them, because I have seen so many of them not just survive as couples, but go on to thrive. They are good clients, well-motivated, and willing to work hard to revitalize their marriages.

Particular needs of clergy couples

The therapist was certainly right about confidentiality. It is, indeed, a very big con cern. Some clergy couples drive 500 miles round trip to seek marriage counseling in an area where they are not known.

And they are usually open to spiritual interventions such as prayer. In fact, at times I have been the only person who regularly prayed with them during their time of crisis.

Pastors and their spouses often pray for and with others, but frequently, no one realizes they are in need of prayer themselves. Usually, they yearn for it, but they may not feel free to bring their own personal issues to prayer with members of their congregations. Many times they simply do without it to their detriment.

In most respects, clergy couples are just like other couples who come for therapy. The difference is that the clerical lifestyle can give rise to certain dynamics which may overstress the marriage, for example, by putting excessive demands on the pastor's time or giving rise to the feeling of living in a fish bowl. The lifestyle itself can negatively affect a marriage.

With these remarks as a kind of preface, what follows are eight common issues which clergy couples have brought to my office over the years.

Eight common issues among clergy couples

1. Anger issues. For many of us anger is the single most difficult emotion to deal with, and clergy and their spouses are no exception. Often, they simply do not know what to do with their anger. For example, I have seen clergy virtually unable to express any anger at all because of a conviction that a man or woman of God must be peaceful at all times, or that the expression of anger is sin ful and must be tightly suppressed or denied.

The trouble with this is that in every marriage there are times when spouses become angry with one another, whether they admit to it or not. Unless anger can be successfully processed in a marriage, it can become toxic and poisonous to the marital relationship.

Therapy dealing with this issue focuses on helping the couple develop and practice anger management skills and giving them permission to express their anger in safe ways, which in turn enables them to reduce and more rapidly resolve angry feel ings.

2. Marital gridlock. Marital gridlock is the couple's inability to successfully discuss and iron out differences, solve problems together, and in general to resolve at least some of their issues.Nagging conflicts and fights over the same old things keep recurring.

One the one hand, a certain amount of gridlock is normal in a marriage, because spouses bring to their union different personalities, attitudes, and outlooks. It is inevitable that at some point a husband and wife will disagree on some issue and perhaps even clash over its resolution.

Gridlock becomes a serious problem when spouses are unwilling or unable to compromise, thereby creating a power struggle. This in turn gives rise to a win-lose situation, where one has to be the victor, the other the defeated. Gridlock in this form keeps a couple infuriated and stuck in the cage of their issues. Bickering becomes endless and positive energy is drained from the relationship.

A pastor who is experiencing grid lock with his or her congregation as well as in a marriage will be highly frustrated, indeed, and will be seriously overstressed.

When gridlock surfaces as an issue, therapy typically focuses on showing the clergy couple how to create win-win situations through compromising. Compromising enables both to come away reasonably satisfied and helps break the power struggle-victimization cycle. It also allows the couple to engage in genuine problem solving together, so that gridlock takes place less frequently, and the marriage can gain some positive momentum.

3. Communication problems. Good communication fuels a marriage, so when a clergy couple complains that their marriage is "running out of gas," it is often because they have virtually stopped talking and listening to each other, and as a result have steadily grown apart.

Talking and listening strengthen the bonds of friendship, help with problem solving and conflict resolution, and enable the couple to affirm and validate each other. When this does not happen, individual spouses may turn to someone else to whom they can vent and find a sympathetic ear. Often, this only widens the gap in the marriage.

Therapy here helps the clergy couple realize how crucial dialogue is with each other that communication is one of the basic "super glues" which holds a marriage together. The spouses need to take and make time just to talk and listen. Two-way communication must become a priority or it will not happen.

As a therapist addressing this issue, I try to show clergy couples how to use basic communication skills such as deep listening while the other speaks, and then mirroring back to their spouse what she or he has said as a form of validation. I usually stress to the couple that talking and listening to one another can be seen as a form of making love, which strength ens the bonds of marriage. I try to help them discover all over again the joy of talking and being listened to.

4. Loss of closeness. The need to feel close to one's spouse is essential to the well-being of any marriage. When it starts to fade, so can the love.

Typically, when a clergy couple tells me they no longer feel close, they also describe a constellation of other things that have been adversely affected by this feeling. There has been a reduction in talking and touching, a waning of affection and sexual problems have usually developed. In fact, physical intimacy may have virtually disappeared from their relationship. All of this can create a downward spiral in the marital relationship which is damaging and dangerous.

Therapy for an issue such as this one involves training spouses to turn toward each other instead of away. It teaches them how to reconnect beginning with the smallest efforts such as holding hands and learning how to touch each other again. It emphasizes what is right about the marriage instead of what is wrong. If couples can identify a single area where they still function well together, I encourage them to do more of that.

Dating each other again can help restore romance and excitement to the relationship. Spouses who have distanced from each other can rediscover how to be close to each other once again, but it needs to become a priority, and they need to do the sometimes demanding work which is necessary for this to happen.

5. Finances. For many clergy couples, financial issues generate tremendous stress which in turn usu ally takes a toll on the marriage. Too often, clergy are underpaid and over worked. An inadequate salary may seem to necessitate the pastor having to take another job or even several jobs. The other spouse may have to work, too, to make ends meet.

All of this can mean less quality time spent together, more fatigue, and in general, constantly living with a sense of being overwhelmed. The clergy couple may not only have legitimate concerns about financial pressures in the present but also deep concerns about having sufficient financial resources on which to retire in the future.

Like other married couples, clergy couples often have real difficulty handling money and frequently fall into the trap of overspending. Interventions for this issue may include sending the couple to a financial counselor who can help with budgeting and debt consolidation.

Instead of turning their finances into a battleground, I encourage the couple to talk openly about their finances with each other and plan carefully, until they begin to get some sense that they are managing their money and not having their money manage them.

6. Dysfunctional behaviors. Across the country, therapists are reporting that more clergy persons and spouses are seeking help for compulsive behaviors such as uncontrolled gambling. Often, the pastor has become a workaholic, giving all his or her energies to pastoral work and leaving little or nothing for the marriage. It is also not unusual for addictions to alcohol or drugs to put severe strain on a mar ital relationship.

Sexual dysfunction is also common among clergy and spouses. Not infrequently, one or sometimes both mates may have been sexually abused as a child and consequently as adults be having difficulty trusting or being truly intimate. A clergy person and a spouse in a seemingly heterosexual marriage even after years of marriage may still be experiencing confusion about sexual orientation.

Pornography may have become a serious problem. And infidelity can prove so damaging, that I have seen even strong marriages collapse like a house of cards from the overwhelming sense of betrayal and emotional devastation.

Dysfunctional behaviors like the ones mentioned above may warrant a variety of interventions. Severe sub stance abuse problems might require in-patient rehabilitation services and follow-up which includes regular attendance at support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

I have sent clergy to Gamblers Anonymous for compulsive gambling problems and even to Overeaters Anonymous for eating disorders. They often do well in support groups such as these, provided confidentiality is maintained.

For sexual dysfunctions I have utilized everything from evaluations by medical specialists, teaching one or both spouses how to set strong boundaries, intimacy work, and significant spiritual interventions such as seeking and finding forgiveness from God for sexual sins.

7. Family issues. Like everything else mentioned above, family issues can take many forms in the lives of clergy couples. For example, if a husband or wife has not successfully emancipated from his or her parents, it may be difficult for the couple to create a strong bond of their own. Interfering parents or in-laws can pre vent a couple from creating a solid relationship together.

Children, too, can sometimes destabilize a marriage. An out-of-control child can severely stress a marriage and be a source of embarrassment to a clergy couple.

If there have been previous marriages, the process of blending several different families can prove formidable. Sometimes the illness or death of a child can introduce grieving issues into the marriage.

I have learned to be creative when helping a clergy couple cope with family problems. If parents or in-laws have been a problem, I have sometimes recommended that the couple accept an assignment as far away from them as possible. Parenting classes have often proved helpful, especially to new parents.

Above all, my work as a therapist is to help the couple view their marriage relationship as a major priority. I try to help them make each other the primary focus, so that not all their energy is directed toward children or family (or the church). As spouses strengthen the bonds of their marriage and become more united, they are in a better position to face family issues together, which in turn can make these issues more manageable.

8. Marital "ghosts." Some clergy couples live in a marriage haunted by a ghost or ghosts from the past that seem never to go away because the couple lacks the desire or the ability to "exorcize" them. Marital ghosts come in many different shapes and sizes, and some are more malevolent than others.

A common one is the unwillingness on the part of one spouse to forgive and permanently bury some hurt inflicted by the other spouse, for example, adultery. A ghost such as this starts to acquire a life and power of its own, keeping the couple at loggerheads and making healing virtually impossible.

The best way I know of to drive a ghost from a marriage is through simple, straightforward forgiveness.

Forgiveness is much more than just a feeling, it is a choice and a decision. One spouse can choose to forgive the other even without feeling very forgiving. Of course, he or she may have to make that decision many times, but it is the only way a marital ghost can be permanently driven away and the slate wiped clean. Forgiveness allows a couple to love again, trust again, and move for ward together down the road of life as friends and lovers.

It has been my pleasure and privilege to work with many clergy couples over the years. Often they come for counseling not because the marriage is shaky, but because they are at the point where they want to change pat terns of behavior which no longer work well and substitute healthier behaviors so that the marriage can be happier and more fulfilling. They view their marriage as a work in progress and are willing to do whatever it takes to renew and revitalize it.

My challenge as a therapist is to help these couples make wise and responsible choices which enrich and expand their love and friendship, so that their remaining years together are sweet and joyous.

As clergy couples become more mutually supportive of one another and more willing to nurture one another, many times I also see their ministry start to flourish and become even more effective. Helping a clergy couple's marriage inevitably helps their ministry.

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William Rabior is a hospital chaplain at St. Mary's Medical Center in Saginaw, Michigan.

July 2002

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