Chapter 1.
Brief Marital Counseling

You can help troubled couples quickly, compassionately and effectively. It isn't easy.

I build this approach to marital counseling on the basis of the honoring of marriage that we read throughout the Scriptures. Marriage is a shadow of the relationship that we are expected to have with Jesus—permanent, loving, committed (Eph 5:32).

We will have the most success with marriage counseling—indeed with all counseling and with life in general—to the extent that we develop a healing character. That healing character is the character of Christ bursting through our own personalities. We manifest that character in our relationships with our clients, coworkers, family members and peers. Christ's love shows up in our interactions with everyone. Christ's love produces faith and work, which provide the basis for hope.

Walking Through the Valley of the Shadow of Marital Death

An Overview of the Book and Hope-focused Marriage Counseling

In this book I describe a brief approach to marriage counseling called hope-focused marriage counseling. I emphasize building hope throughout the counseling. I recommend this book as a manual for treating couples with marital problems in less than ten sessions.

In the first part of the book I summarize the theory. Hope-focused marriage counseling, like other forms of counseling, is based on a good relationship. The goal of professional (and sometimes pastoral) marriage counseling is to produce stronger, less troubled marriages. I show how to use a three-part strategy to build hope through fostering motivation (willpower to change), showing couples tangible ways to change (waypower to change) and strengthening their resolve to wait on God's work in their marriage (waitpower). The strategy includes correcting weaknesses in love, faith and work. I discuss eight areas of marriage (of nine that I identify) in which problems might be concentrated.

In the second part of the book I present over one hundred in-session interventions and homework assignments to flesh out the theory. I concentrate on interventions that are physical rather than simply verbal. The physical manipulations—of objects, space or behavior—coupled with verbal processing of the interventions, are the ones that make changes seem real to couples. Real changes can be sensed. They are "sense-able," or sensible.

Hope-focused marriage counseling, thus, involves a blueprint for marital counseling that describes your goal (produce stronger marriages), focus (promote hope), strategy, potential target areas and interventions. I have summarized the blueprint in figure 1.1.

Figure 1.1. Blueprint of hope-focused marriage counseling

Hope-focused marriage counseling has been used for years with couples who have sought counseling for problems. We have conducted substantial research on its use with couples who want to better their relationship (cleverly entitled hope-focused relationship enrichment). I have even adapted the approach for couples who were planning marriage (would you believe, hope-focused marital preparation?) and couples who were newly married (you've probably detected the pattern). In my experience, the approach works well for each type of couple.

Effectiveness (Or Ineffectiveness) of Most Marital Counseling

The goal of hope-focused marriage counseling is to strengthen marriages and reduce divorce. How effective are most approaches at accomplishing such a goal?

The longer I have practiced marriage counseling, the more I have appreciated how hard it is to do well. If you counsel couples, you may not have been very successful. Under the best conditions (that is, highly skilled and experienced counselors who follow a manual that describes an effective marriage counseling protocol), counselors have traditionally not been successful at helping troubled couples avoid divorce. Consumer Reports, in a survey of consumers, found that of all the problems for which people seek counseling, marriage counseling and addictions had the least successful outcomes. Only about fifty percent of the clients who seek professional counseling for their troubled marriages emerge with well-functioning marriages that last over three years. That fifty-percent figure is about the same as Neil S. Jacobson reported for behavioral therapy and about the same as others have reported for other types of marriage counseling approaches. For counselors who are not experienced, well trained or skilled, the outcomes are worse. If some are worse, though, that suggests that some counselors have better outcomes. I want you to be one of those.

Marriage counseling is tough to do. If you are discouraged with your results, you are not alone. Most counselors dread dealing with troubled marriages even though troubled marriages often form the majority of their caseload.

Is the Goal I Stated Appropriate?

The goal of strengthening marriages and preventing divorce is difficult for any approach to achieve. Is the goal even appropriate for marriage counseling?

Professional marital counseling is different from (a) lay or friendship helping, (b) pastor-provided counseling within a congregational context and perhaps (c) professional pastoral counseling. The major difference is in the couple's goals. When a couple seeks help, they do so within a context, which implies specific expectations. From a friend or lay counselor, couples expect understanding, support and perhaps uncomplicated advice. From a pastor, couples expect Christian-oriented advice and counsel. From a professional counselor, whether explicitly Christian or not, couples primarily seek aid with the presenting problem. The professional counselor is obligated, within the bounds of morality and ethics, to embrace as his or her number one priority to help strengthen the couple's marriage (if that is what they want).

An explicitly Christian counselor might hold a secondary goal of strengthening the partner's faith or promoting more spiritual intimacy. However, clients who pay for professional marital counseling have a right to expect that the professional counselor's first goal concerns promoting stronger, less disturbed marriages (unless an explicit agreement is made to prioritize other goals ahead of that goal).

The professional pastoral counselor, as opposed to a congregational pastor who counsels, has the role with the most ambiguous expectations. This counselor is both a professional counselor and a member of the clergy. Which goal should take precedence? As an outsider to that profession, I do not presume to provide a definitive answer. I believe that pastoral counselors should provide a full a priori disclosure of their goals to the clients.

Earlier, I presumed one side of a continuing debate in the field of marital counseling. I defined the goal of marital counseling as bettering the marriage. Some marital counselors would disagree. They define the married individuals as co-clients. Their goal is to help each partner develop optimally. In such an approach, divorce might be seen as a successful outcome of marital counseling if the counselor deemed it best for both individuals (or perhaps either individual). This makes the evaluation of the effectiveness of marital counseling almost impossible to determine, given the three participants (husband, wife and counselor). For example, if one partner adamantly wants divorce and the other does not, then can one determine whether counseling has succeeded, regardless of outcome?

However, I believe that divorce is always considered a failure of marital counseling. Of course, that does not mean that maintaining an intact marriage is the most important consideration in counseling. The counselor is first responsible to maintain the physical safety of the partners. So if the husband is physically abusing the wife and she is threatening to shoot him, the wise counselor might recommend separation; this would be considered a failure to strengthen the marriage and thus be a failure of marital counseling. Some might even recommend divorce; this would also be considered a failure of marital counseling.

Conjoint Marital Counseling: The Preferred Approach

The success rate for marital counseling is better (that is, improved marriage and less chance of divorce) if the couple comes to counseling together than if partners do not come at all, do not come together or seek counseling individually. Couples do not have to come to counseling together. Good counseling can occur even if only one partner comes, if that person really wants to improve the marriage. If both attend counseling but only one wants to improve the marriage, success is possible. The best results occur if both partners attend counseling and if both partners are interested and involved in improving the marriage.

Hope-starved Marriages

Few couples enter counseling with both partners fired up and eager to work. Wise counselors do not count on seeing a full caseload of highly motivated clients. Nor do wise counselors carp because their clients aren't motivated to work. Usually, both partners are discouraged and demoralized. They lack hope. One or both may be going through the motions of counseling simply to say that they have tried everything prior to divorcing. You must actively engage the partners in working on their marriage. That depends on your character, the relationship you can form with the partners and the interactions you have with the partners.

You must work the relationship magic fast. Hope-focused marriage counseling is one long assessment session plus five to eight intervention sessions. For many people who seek marital counseling, those few sessions will be enough to turn them around and send them in a more positive direction. For some clients, sadly, five to eight sessions won't begin to affect their marriage.

Marital Counseling: Brief Or Briefer

Brief marital counseling can be highly effective. Weigh carefully all the important factors before deciding whether to use brief counseling and if so how long it should be.

Who Benefits From Brief Therapies?

People who benefit from brief marital counseling aren't easy to distinguish from those who require longer marital counseling. Severity of the marital problems is not the distinguishing characteristic. Some couples with very disturbed marriages benefit quickly, while less-troubled couples resist changes.

Initial willingness to work on the marriage is important. However, some couples come to counseling with their heels dug in, fighting change with each step; and yet, after a good, hope-inspiring first session, they throw themselves into counseling wholeheartedly. Others seem hopeful at first, but after a few sessions, hope fizzles, sputters and finally goes pffft.

People's assumptions about counseling predispose some clients to be able to benefit from a few sessions and cause others to require longer. When people assume that counseling must be long, arduous and psychologically painful, they often have a hard time shifting gears. When people come to counseling seeking quick change and expecting it, they often find it.

Thinking Brief

Managed mental health care has changed the expectations for almost all types of counseling. Most modern psychotherapies last less than ten sessions, and virtually all last less than a half year.

Marital counseling is usually not covered under insurance plans, so most people who seek marital counseling must pay for it. Most are appalled at the cost. While they might have thought nothing of paying $10,000 or more for a wedding, they are often reluctant to spend about $800 (that is, $200 for a thorough assessment and eight sessions at $75 per session) on counseling that might help a derailed marriage headed for divorce get back on track.

Most marital counselors have responded to the pressure for briefer marital counseling, but generally this has meant counseling as usual, merely less of it. In fact, briefer counseling requires different therapeutic skills and a different mindset on the part of the counselor and clients if it is to succeed.

A few counselors have designed intentionally brief (or briefer) therapies. For example, using a book summarizing eight Christian marital therapies, Jennifer Ripley and I found that most counselors aimed at between six and fifteen sessions for marital counseling with a motivated couple having quite a few marital troubles.

Not Merely Time

The most common misconception about brief marital counseling is that the major difference between it and traditional marital counseling is the duration of the counseling. Brief counseling is briefer (muffled gasp of surprise) than the more traditional marital counseling. Yet the major difference between the two approaches is that in traditional marital counseling most of the change was expected during treatment. Once treatment stopped, the improvements in the marriage either maintained or deteriorated slightly, sometimes substantially. In hope-focused marital counseling, the counselor aims to create a turning point in the couples life together—one that will lead to continued improvement after the end of counseling.

Hope-focused marriage counseling seeks to arouse hope in couples. Thus, aim at creating the desire in clients to try to change, arming clients with concrete ways of changing and fortifying clients with a sense of eager waiting for change. Demonstrate to the clients that they can change using the ways they learn in counseling and thus give them the desire to employ those ways after marital counseling ceases. Help them ignore some of the inevitable failures that will occur while new patterns of marriage are practiced.

Does Brief Marital Counseling Change the Causes of Marital Discord?

Some critics of brief marital counseling worry that because it takes fewer than ten sessions, it can't address the deep causes of marital problems. These critics' underlying assumption is that important and lasting change can only occur over a long period of time. That assumption is insupportable.

Much change occurs briefly. Jesus healed numerous people of physical ailments in encounters that lasted only minutes. Peter spoke at Pentecost and over a thousand were converted soon after his brief speech. Paul interacted with people who were ailing physically and spiritually, and many were quickly healed.

True, in all these cases one change did not bring the people into total maturity. Jesus devoted three years to training his disciples. Peter pastored the church at Jerusalem for many years. Paul stayed in various cities to train the new converts. Yet real and lasting change occurred in brief encounters when God was at work in people's lives. Brief encounters launched a rocket ship of change that kept accelerating even after the launching.

My tennis serve was forever altered when one of my boyhood heroes, Sammy Darden, captain of the University of Tennessee tennis team, saw me (then a high-school junior) practicing my serve at a local park. Sammy demonstrated the American twist serve. He didn't delve into my past behavioral repertoire, my unconscious motivations or my cognitive structures that prevented me from hitting a twist serve. He demonstrated. I observed. When Sammy left the park that day, my serve was little different than it had been before he came, but my direction was different. I had a strategy for hitting my serve, and I had hope. I contend that promoting hope in couples and teaching the strategy of faith working through love will repair the root causes of marital problems.

Is Hope-focused Marital Counseling Consistent with Scripture?

Scripture is not a counseling manual. Counseling is a recent description of ways to help people. As far as I can tell, there is no remote analogue to marital counseling within Scripture. That is, there are no cases in which a person set out to help a couple with a troubled marriage restore their marital relationship. Thus, Scripture can shed little light on the methods of modern marital counseling. However, we can evaluate whether any type of help is consistent with principles of Scripture. I believe that hope-focused marriage counseling is consistent with Scripture.

What Are the Implications of Brief Marital Counseling for Practice?

Hope-focused marital counseling has a number of characteristics different from traditional marital counseling.