A wife and husband sit across from me in my office. The wife sobs quietly, trying unsuccessfully to hold back her tears, while the husband sits stone-faced, arms folded, staring at the floor.I take a slow breath and choose my words carefully. “I can see how discouraging this feels right now,” I offer, “and I also see reason for hope in the simple fact that you are both here in this office, fighting for your marriage together.”
After a long pause, the husband quietly responds, “We tried, but it just doesn’t seem to be working.” His wife looks over at him, her eyes filled with shock and disbelief. It is our second session.
This scenario illustrates some of the common myths and confusion about how counseling can or should be helpful when a relationship is in distress. I work in this field because I believe in the effectiveness of Christian marriage counseling as an aid to the healing work that God can do in any relationship.
While counseling is not a “miracle cure” to the problems you face, research and experience demonstrate that it can be a powerful tool in the right hands. Like medical care, it is a gift from God that can be a means by which His healing touch is applied.
In this article, I want to dispel three false expectations about Christian marriage counseling and then discuss four ways it can actually be helpful to people just like you.
3 Things Christian Marriage Counseling Can NOT Do
Let’s begin with three things that Christian marriage counseling cannot and will not do. People sometimes bring expectations like these into therapy and then feel disappointed when they are not met. Their expectations are false because therapy was never intended to accomplish any of these things.
Christian Marriage Counseling Cannot Change Your Spouse’s Behavior Against His or Her Will
This may sound obvious, but I am amazed at how many people arrive at counseling sessions with this expectation. A husband will say something like, “If she would just talk to me differently than none of this would be a problem!”
Or a wife will say, “Can you please tell him that he can’t treat me this way and expect me to just take it?” Statements like these place the burden of responsibility for change in the relationship solely on the other partner’s shoulders. Each partner seems to think that somehow bringing it up in counseling will cause this behavioral change to occur, despite that person’s resistance or unwillingness.
The fact is that even if I could force change on someone, I would choose not to because doing so would deny them freedom of will and strip their actions of any meaning. My goal as a Christian marriage counselor is to empower both partners to play active roles in the solution to their marital problems. I want to help them accomplish this through their free choices to control their own thoughts and behaviors.
Christian Marriage Counseling Cannot Help You Win an ArgumentThis is not usually something that people admit to wanting in counseling, but sometimes a conversation between spouses in session will devolve into a tirade of spiteful attacks on one another’s character, with both partners looking to the counselor for vindication in his or her own perspective.
In the field of psychology, we call this “triangulation”, which is attempting to pull a third party into an unstable relationship (thus forming a “triangle”) with the intent of manipulating someone indirectly through the third party.
A good counselor, however, won’t allow themselves to be triangulated into marital conflict, but rather will try to encourage clear, honest, loving communication between partners. I often remind couples that as a counselor my role is not to pick a side, but to help both sides see how they can work together in harmony for the best interest of the relationship.
At times I will equally validate both partners in their individual pain, but this is really intended to model empathy and validation for them to then display toward each other. What each of them truly longs for is to be heard and understood by their spouse, not by their counselor.
Christian Marriage Counseling Cannot Act as a Quick-Fix for Your Marital Problems
Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians that the fruit of the Spirit is patience (Galatians 5:22). What this means is that all believers, because they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, should be steadily growing in patience. The suffering that comes as a result of discord within a marriage can truly seem unbearable at times. The couples I meet with are often desperate for immediate relief.
Unfortunately, marriage counseling continues to be considered a last resort only to be sought in most drastic of situations. This leads to couples waiting until they are in the middle of a full-blown crisis to start the process of counseling. These couples often drop out after only a few sessions because they don’t experience the instant relief they hoped for.
Christian marriage counseling is not an emergency room, it’s more like a personalized healing and wellness plan for your marriage. It is a process, and it takes time to produce real transformation in your marriage through counseling. I find that the couples who hang on through the initial painful stages with courage and patience are able to more fully appreciate the fruit of their labors.
4 Ways Christian Marriage Counseling CAN Help
Now I want to turn and briefly look at four ways in which Christian marriage counseling CAN be helpful to couples like you:
Christian Marriage Counseling Can Provide Clarity
Have you ever heard of the fog of war? It refers to the murky uncertainty experienced by combatants in the midst of battle. Soldiers caught in this fog have even attacked their allies out of confusion. In marriage problems, a similar “fog” often obscures the way forward for a couple.This state of hazy confusion can make it difficult for spouses to see and recognize each other, and it can make it impossible to see the situation for what it is. Time and time again, a husband will say something like “I don’t understand what is happening to us”, or a wife will lament, “This feels so surreal, how did we get here?” The fog of war has set in and taken hold.
When you commit to the process of Christian marriage counseling, you are bringing your distress into a “demilitarized zone” and sharing it with a neutral party who isn’t affected by this dark fog. A good Christian counselor will see your situation more clearly than you are able to.
With God’s help, along with the benefit of scientific knowledge and Biblical insight, your counselor will reflect the situation back to you in crystal clear 4K resolution so that you can form a strategy to cease all the “friendly fire” and start fighting against the real enemies of your marriage
Christian Marriage Counseling Can Give You a Voice
After one husband finishes sharing about his true hopes and desires in session, his wife smiles and shakes her head, marveling to herself, “Wow, I never knew any of that!” The incredible part is that they have been married nine years already. How, in all that time, did the husband never share such important parts of himself with the closest person to him on earth, his wife?
The troubling answer is that we as humans are creatures of habit, and if we form the bad habit of remaining silent in the context of the marriage, it is likely to continue that way unless something incendiary happens to ignite change.
Has your ability to communicate been snuffed out by the fear of confrontation? Has your voice been silenced by the harsh criticism of another? Marriage counseling can spark the change that will give you a voice again, a voice your partner needs and desires to hear.
For some reason it feels safer to open up and speak in a counseling session, which is understandable. There is less danger of things spinning out of control. My goal as a counselor is often to help a couple transition from having a voice in the therapy room to feeling safe having a voice at home.
Christian Marriage Counseling Can Show You the Pattern You Keep Repeating
While studying human behavior in relationships during graduate school, I learned that couples often get stuck in repeating patterns of interaction that create distance and destroy intimacy. For example, the more a wife retreats to her home office to work, the more her husband tries to pursue her and engage her in conversation, and the more he tries to draw her in the more she feels suffocated and shuts him out.
The scariest thing about these patterns is that they are self-perpetuating, which means that they always add fuel causing the same cycle to continue and often spiral out of control. One of the tasks of Christian marriage counseling is to expose these repeating patterns and find a way to break the cycle.
For example, in his book Love and Respect, Dr. Emerson Eggerichs identifies such a pattern that is all too common in marital relationships which he calls the “crazy cycle”. This particular cycle involves a husband reacting negatively when he doesn’t feel respected by his wife, and the wife, in turn, reacting negatively when she doesn’t feel loved by her husband. Both partners’ reactions deprive the other of what he or she needs most. Dr. Eggerichs writes,
“My theory surfaced as God guided me in recognizing the strong link between love and respect in marriage. I saw why it is so hard to love and respect. When a husband feels disrespected, it is especially hard to love his wife. When a wife feels unloved, it is especially hard to respect her husband.
At that point came the illumination that made sense to me, and it has made sense to a lot of people ever since. When a husband feels disrespected, he has a natural tendency to react in ways that feel unloving to his wife.
Without love, she reacts without respect. Without respect, he reacts without love – ad nauseam. Thus was born the Crazy Cycle!”
Recognizing the pattern is often the first step. In Christian marriage counseling, you can graciously begin to challenge yourself to change the thoughts and behaviors that keep the cycle spinning. Then, in their place, you can add the types of actions and words that begin a new cycle, one of trust and intimate connection with your spouse.
Christian Marriage Counseling Can Remind You of God’s Plan for Marriage
You may be wondering, “Can’t I get all these things in secular marriage counseling as well?” Perhaps you can, and any type of counseling focusing on your marital relationship has the potential to spur hope and positive change.
However, one thing you will not spend time on in secular marriage counseling is a reflection on God’s design and will for marriage. Such reflection can illuminate and access the immense spiritual resources at your disposal. It can open up your minds and hearts to the timeless wisdom and the perfect will of Almighty God.
I love the way that Tim Keller writes about God’s “secret” for success in marriage:
“So, what do you need to make marriage work? You need to know the secret, the gospel, and how it gives you both the power and pattern for your marriage. On the one hand, the experience of marriage will unveil the beauty and depths of the gospel to you. It will drive you further into reliance on it. On the other hand, a greater understanding of the gospel will help you experience deeper and deeper union with each other as the years go on.”
“Through marriage, the mystery of the gospel is unveiled. Marriage is a major vehicle for the gospel’s remaking of your heart from the inside out and your life from the ground up.”
As Keller notes, the gospel of Christ gives both the pattern (or the map) and the power (or the ability) to navigate marriage according to God’s good and perfect design. As Christians, we would be foolish to neglect such immeasurable gifts when grappling with problems in marriage.
A good Christian marriage counselor will allow the Spirit and the gospel to do their guiding and empowering work in the lives of couples in marital distress. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to one of the counselors on this site if you are seeking to restore hope in the future of your marriage. You are not alone.
Eggerichs, E., & Eggerichs, S. (2006). Love & Respect. Grand Rapids, MI: Love and Respect Ministries.
Keller, T., & Keller, K. (2011). The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York: Dutton.
“Just Married”, Courtesy of Everton Vila, Unsplash.com, CC0 License;“Lysefjord in the Morning”, Courteys of Roman Joe, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Withered Rose of Love”, Courtesy of Giulia Bertelli, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Love”, Courtesy of Mari Lezhava, Unsplash.com, CC0 License