I’m heading out to the American Association of Christian Counselors conference in Orlando. I’d appreciate your prayers as I travel and speak. I’m feeling a little worn out from the last month and need some extra prayers to stay healthy and strong.
Today’s question: My pastor keeps pressuring me to try marriage counseling again. I’ve been separated for six weeks and my pastor says that we need to work on getting back together. He’s recommended someone we should see to fix our marriage, but I’m not comfortable. We’ve been to marriage counseling several times already with dismal results. I know you’ve said marriage counseling isn’t the best way to go when you’re living with a destructive person, but can you tell me why so I can answer my pastor?
Answer: We like to think that couples in distressed marriages should always go for joint marriage counseling, but that is not always the best option.
I don’t know specific details of your situation and why you separated or are resistant to go to marriage counseling with your spouse, but I’d trust your gut. Here are three reasons that couple’s counseling is not helpful and can even cause more harm. I hope this helps your pastor understand your concerns. Marriage counseling is not helpful when:
1. One person is afraid to speak or afraid to be honest. A counselor ideally likes to hear both the husband and wife’s perspectives on how they see their problem. For example, one of my former clients knew she couldn’t speak honestly or tell her counselor what was really happening at home. When she tried, she knew she’d pay at home. Once, she courageously spoke up and said to their marriage counselor “that’s not true” hoping her counselor would believe her and dig deeper but her husband quickly contradicted her story and the counselor concluded their session by saying, “You both have very different versions of reality. I’m not sure who I can believe.”
If there has been any history of controlling behavior or physical abuse, or one person feels intimidated or afraid to be honest, marriage counseling cannot be effective and can cause harm. Marriage counseling can’t work if one person can’t speak freely or honestly or is afraid to do so because of negative ramifications at home.
2. There are patterns of abuse, addictions, and/or sexual betrayal. Marriage counseling is not the first step to dealing with the marital fall out of these personal problems. You cannot repair broken trust in a marriage before the person who has repeatedly broken that trust has done his (or her) own work of repentance and putting off and putting on (Ephesians 4:22-24). Patterns of abuse, addictions, and sexual betrayal are not marriage problems, they cause marriage problems. The first step is not repairing the marriage. That’s like trying to rebuild a house that’s fallen into a sinkhole without addressing and fixing the sinkhole problem first. It’s foolish. The first step is for the person who has broken trust to do his (or her) own work so that the patterns don’t continue. Then and only then can the restoration of the marriage be considered.
3. You only have one client in the counseling office even though the couple shows up.
When an abusive/destructive person goes to marital counseling it’s often because he was pressured to do so by his spouse, by a pastor, or by painful consequences like separation or the threat of divorce. He goes reluctantly, not with the idea of working on anything for himself, but to blame his spouse, observe what she discloses, get the counselor to see what a great guy he is and how wrong or crazy his wife is.
An error that counselors often make when these kinds of cases present themselves is to try and establish a positive relationship with the person who isn’t a willing client. We hope over time he will want to work with us. We make small talk about life, work, sports, good restaurants, church, and do therapy with the willing client (his wife).
Intuitively counselors know that we can’t officially counsel him because he’s not a client. It’s clear he has not invited us to speak honestly into his life or to give him truthful feedback into what we “see” going on. So without taking sides, we’ve taken sides. We’re afraid if we speak honestly about his destructive patterns, he’ll stop coming to counseling (which is probably true). But by not speaking honestly, we are not staying neutral. By our silence, we’ve empowered the bully at home to believe his actions are not that bad and we think he’s a pretty fine person and his wife is the one who needs the work.
And… it might be true that his wife could use some help with some things. But not in front of her husband. By working with the willing client (the wife) in front of her husband, it only gives him ammunition to use against her. “See you’re the problem,” the counselor said you trigger me. Or, “It’s your past that affects our marriage, not my behaviors. That’s what the counselor said.” Or, “You’re being unforgiving and hard-hearted. The counselor said God wants you to forgive me and let me back in the bedroom.”
To discern whether a person sitting in the office is a willing client, a counselor must be bold and ask both parties in the room “Why are you here?” As well as, “What would you like to change about yourself in counseling?” This clarifies why you are all meeting together and invites the non-client to become a client. If he can’t come up with something he identifies as problematic or needs to change in himself that he’s willing to work on, then the counselor should dismiss him from counseling. This isn’t cruel, it’s a kindness to him who doesn’t want to be there in the first place. We do him no favors to collude with his mindset that it is his wife’s problem to fix their marriage while he observes and critiques.