Back when our marriage was firmly planted in a pit of despair, we sought counseling. We tried marriage counseling three different times—not a single appointment, but an extended effort.
Likewise, I’ve often encouraged people to seek Christian counseling for their marriages or themselves, but I admit to worrying sometimes what they’ll get. Because our experience was a mixed bag, and some things said were sadly unhelpful.
None of our counselors was uncaring or incompetent or ungodly. Rather, our poor experiences simply weren’t what we needed, so our marriage didn’t improve and I sank further into despair. I thought: If we’re giving our marriage everything we’ve got, including Christian counseling, and it still isn’t working … maybe we should just call it quits.
With no disrespect to those people who tried to help our marriage, I want to share some “bad marriage counseling” approaches and give tips on how to recognize a good counselor for your marriage.
1. “I know what your problem is.”
Counselors see a lot of the same circumstances again and again. It’s true that for most people who have shared sexual problems with me on this blog or through email, someone else has shared a similar problem. So I can see how that would happen. It’s an easy stretch then to have a counselor spend an hour with a couple and think, “I’ve got this.” They announce, “I know what your problem is,” then describe the issues and prescribe a solution.
More than once, we had a counselor announce what our problem was—and they were off-base. They ascribed stereotypical gender roles or family back stories or internal motives that didn’t apply.
You wouldn’t trust a physician to diagnose strep without a throat culture, would you? Or cancer without a biopsy? Likewise, a good counselor needs to gather information about what you two are actually facing to be able to diagnose the problem and give specific solutions.
Look for someone who asks more questions than gives answers in the first few sessions. That’s not to say a good counselor won’t have insight and good advice—in fact, it’s a great idea for them to give you some obvious tips to get a few “quick wins”—but they should also take time seeing how your issues match common scenarios and how your relationship is different.
2. “Just work the program.”
Two of our three counselors preferred a specific program to helping marriages. One used a particular book, which we were asked to purchase and read, and the other had his own canned approach. The message both gave was clear: You work the program, and your marriage will work.
I’m not knocking the books or programs people promote to help marriages. I’ve benefited a lot from specific perspectives like Gary Chapman’s Five Love Languages and Emerson Eggerichs’s Love and Respect. But I grow concerned when we treat such programs like these, and His Needs, Her Needs by Willard T. Harley, as magic bullets for whatever ails your marriage. What if you work the program and the marriage still doesn’t work? If it’s not the fault of the program, it must be your marriage. Right?
On my blog, I try to address specific sexual intimacy issues while returning again and again to principles that apply across marriages (like 3 G-Words to Improve Your Marriage and The Gospel in the Bedroom). Look, I don’t have a magic bullet, and change is hard. Your marriage has its own specific problems, and while the ultimate answer is Jesus, how Jesus works in your marriage is specific to your situation.Your marriage has its own specific problems, and while the ultimate answer is Jesus, how Jesus works in your marriage is specific to your situation. via @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet
Marriage counseling should be tailored to where a specific couple is and what they’re dealing with. Principles from programs can be helpful, but the program shouldn’t be the focus of healing the relationship. Just open up the Gospel and tell me if Jesus dealt with every person He encountered in the same way. Of course not! Are there principles He followed? Absolutely. But He tailored His approach to the specific person.
3. “It’s all his/her fault.”
Actually, the problem is a counselor letting a spouse get away with this attitude. I’d venture a guess that in 90% of counseling cases, one spouse thinks all the problems would go away if the other one would just change already. And some of those times, a counselor agrees.
Sure, there are situations in which one spouse is largely to blame—like with a serial adulterer, an ongoing addict, or an abuser. But the majority of marriages are two-to-tango in their dysfunction. Even if one person started the mess, something the other did enabled or escalated problems. Our reactions to our spouse’s bad behaviors make a real difference in whether it’s a blip in the marriage or a dynamic that takes hold.Our reactions to our spouse's bad behaviors make a real difference in whether it's a blip in the marriage or a dynamic that takes hold. via @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet
On the other hand, one of our counselors had a different message that seemed just as destructive to me: It’s all your fault if you let your spouse’s bad behavior affect you. This is the notion that you’re to blame for your reactions, so if you feel negative about something your spouse has done, that’s on you.
Whoa, wait a minute. So if my husband cheats on me, and I’m mad about it, I chose that emotion so it’s my fault? Um, no! There are reasonable reactions to certain behaviors in marriage, and we should not beat up a spouse for having those emotions. If your spouse woos the heck out of you, you’ll probably be happy about that. If your spouse pooh-poohs all your date plans for the night, you’ll probably be unhappy about that. That’s called caring about your relationship.
If you’re in couples counseling, your counselor should address where each of you can improve. They should intervene when one starts blaming the other too much or tries to shut down reasonable negative reactions to bad behavior. This is really just the application of the Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).
4. “That’s not important.”
When you bring up something that matters to you in a couples counseling session, and the counselor says, “That doesn’t matter,” it feels like they just said that you don’t matter. Maybe they don’t say it quite that way; rather, they might try to steer the conversation away with something like, “Well, that’s a small thing, and we need to tackle the bigger issues here.” That sounds great, but if you brought up the way he refolds his clothes after you already did it, I’m guessing that issue stands for something bigger in the relationship.
This hasn’t happened to us much, but I’ve heard it from readers quite a bit—especially when it comes to sexual intimacy. The scenario is often this one: The higher-drive spouse brings up a lack of sex in the marriage, and the counselor dismisses that as a physical need that isn’t as important as “high-minded” issues like emotional connection and communication. Well, hello! God created sex to be one form of emotional connection and communication in a marriage.
If your core issues are not being addressed, find another counselor who will listen. Again, this would be like going to a doctor and saying, “My knee hurts every time I bend it”; if they said, “Well, that doesn’t matter. I just want to look at your throat,” you’d be annoyed that they didn’t care about your health. If your marital ache is your husband never doing a chore in the house, or your wife rolling her eyes when you talk, or your spouse neglecting sexual intimacy, find a counselor who’ll address it. Along with your spouse’s concerns, which also matter.
But how do you find a good Christian counselor?
You can Google search for a counselor in your area, and you can look into local churches. Larger churches often have a counselor on site or support a counseling practice in your area. But one of the best ways is word-of-mouth. For that, don’t just look for that person who goes to counseling all the time, but the one who has shown improvement. Who do you know that used to struggle with X and is doing much better now? Who did they see?
At your first appointment, ask questions about what kind of approach they take. They should be interviewing you about your situation, but this is also your opportunity to interview them to see if your goals and personalities will work together. Be open-minded and willing to hear tough stuff—that’s part of counseling—but look for someone who listens, gets along with both of you, and seems to be for your marriage.
And be willing to try more than one counselor if the first one or two aren’t a good fit. It’s okay to move on from someone who isn’t helping you to someone you might be able to. Seriously, you’d do that much for a car that the first mechanic wasn’t able to fix, so why wouldn’t you do it for your marriage?
Have you ever been to marriage counseling, and if so, what was your experience? What advice would you give for finding a good Christian counselor?