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The Alternative Approach to Marriage Counseling

May 13, 2010

I won’t bother giving them fake names to protect their identities. I don’t have permission to share the details of their story and I’ve lost touch with them. But it really doesn’t matter; their story is universal these days. He worked too much and distanced himself from his wife over many years of being married. Every year, she grew more angry at him. She let that anger color her decisions and, as a result, she easily entered into another relationship. Her husband found out she was cheating on him and she freely admitted it. I do know the details of that initial fight and I don’t really have to share them here. It wasn’t any more dramatic than the confrontations in a million other relationships. Both of them spent a sleepless night wondering if they should contact a divorce lawyer. They both cried. They spent that night in different places, both physically and emotionally. But for some very unusual reasons, their story did not turn out like millions of others.

Though each of them did go for counseling at some point, they never went together for marriage counseling. And they never got a divorce. They eventually solved the problems in their marriage (for the most part) even though they both unveiled other secret sins. By telling their story I am not saying they are better than other people. But their choices do shed light on an alternative approach to marriage counseling.

I can just picture many of you waiting breathlessly for the formula to their solution. I want to be cautious at this point. Though they stayed married, it cost them way more than either would have  agreed to pay that first “fight night”. The rest of this article is not for the faint of heart. There: You have been warned.

I don’t remember if they practiced all these principles in their desire to change, but I know they at least embraced the first two. These are five things I see in  marriages that overcome problems like abuse, adultery, neglect, hatred and substance abuse. I list them in order of importance and the first ones are the most difficult.

[Disclosure: Other than from the Bible, I learned most of these principles from a series of books by William Glasser on the subject of “Choice Theory”. I mention this because several readers of this blog are MFTs and could really benefit from Dr. Glasser’s observations and practice. I am also beholding to Dr. Ed Smith and the therapy method taught in “Healing Life’s Hurts” and the practice of TPM.]

Here then are five principles that will yield the healthiest motivations to preserve a marriage:

1. Choose THIS marriage. The most poignant question Dr. Glasser asks in his first counseling session is “Do you really want to be married to your spouse?” If either spouse hedges on their answer – or comes out and says “no” – he ends the counseling relationship. He contends that no one will convince a person to be married to a particular person if they really don’t want to be. Here is what I add to that. Many people who don’t want to be married to a particular person still want to be married. They like the thought of marriage: the comfort and companionship that it can have, the intimacy it seems to promise, the stability of a family. God created the first marriage and said it was not good for man to be alone. But he also knew that once a couple are joined for any length of time in marriage, they form bonds that only death can truly separate. Therefore, people may like the idea of being married, but loathe the thought of being  married to THIS person. That has to change if the marriage will work.

In the Bible, when Jesus talks about divorce, his primary concern is remarriage. His teaching on marriage goes right back to Genesis. He recalls for them that a man is to leave behind his birth family (father and mother) and cling to his wife. In our traditional marriage vows, we say “forsaking all others”. The “all others” means mentally dismissing the idea of a future spouse as well.

Divorces happen…there are many people who decide they cannot live with that person any longer. But would people change their approach and attitude if they believed this was their only opportunity to get married? What if this is your only chance and there are no real alternatives? Would that make a difference at how you worked at solving the problems in this marriage? Of course it would. But that is not how most people live. We live in a world of “alternatives”. If you don’t like what you have, there is always an alternative.

The couple I referenced at the beginning of this article decided if they didn’t make this marriage work they weren’t going to get married again. Waking up to that reality motivated them to get things fixed. For those who accept a biblical format for marriage, the best motivation for working on marriage problems is a choice to stay married to THIS person…not just a commitment to marriage as an institution.

2. Soften the Hard Heart: In the last article, I mentioned the pastor who used our counseling appointment to announce his intention to divorce. After I reined in my anger, I asked him to explain his motivations. He cited chapter and verse to justify his biblical grounds for divorce. That’s when I told him: “Those are reasons you want a divorce. But as far as the Bible is concerned, there is only one ground for divorce. You have hardened your heart”. Jesus teaches us why Moses allowed the people of Israel to get a divorce. As far as we know from historical documents, the nation of Israel was the first culture to develop a concept of divorce. Why? Jesus explains: “Because of the hardness of men’s hearts, Moses permitted divorce”. That’s it in a nutshell. There are many things that break a covenant between a man and a woman. Adultery, violence, molestation of children, lying, abuse, neglect, abandonment, yelling, belittlement, substance abuse, eating disorders, withdrawal of sex, lack of passion, workaholism – they all contribute to huge rifts in marital closeness. But with all that, there still is only one reason people divorce: Hardness of heart.

I can give examples of every one of the above problems that people have endured only to stay married and to prosper. I know a woman whose husband molested their two oldest daughters. He went to state prison for his actions and her church insisted she divorce him to protect the kids. She did not want to. She refused to hate him or to give up on him. He even filed for divorce at one point, but she resisted. Her oldest daughter refused to speak to mom again unless she divorced her dad. Was she being an idiot? Some people think so. But she had compassion, love and acceptance of him. She wasn’t denying his crime or his sin. He paid for what he did and he still carries the weight of how he hurt his girls. My point in mentioning this is that no one could fault her for getting a divorce. And she really isn’t a co-dependent person or weak-willed. She just didn’t want to harden her heart that far.

How do you deal with a hard heart? You soften it with two decisions. These are what I spend most time working on with counselees. First, let go of the bitterness for how you have been treated. Stop reserving the right to feel wounded, victimized and in emotional pain. Let go of the right to enact emotional revenge. Second, forgive the person. This does not mean  you excuse them. You simply choose to say they do not have to “make up for” their failures and sins.

3. Confront your own story: We all have aspects of our marriage story that focus on how we have been hurt. But if that is all you can see when the marriage is failing, then you are missing the other part of the story. Don’t rely on your spouse to tell you either. They are carrying their own hurt, so they will not be all that accurate in describing your problem. No one wants to hear the statement, “do you know what your problem is?” But we all need to hear what our problem is. As a counselor I have great hope for the person who comes to me during marital difficulty and says “I need to fix me”. Those people are the ones who stay married. The ones who say “I want you to fix my partner” do not stay married very much longer.

4. Give Yourself Time to Reconcile: As with most “solutions” in life, we spend way too much time causing the problems and allocate so little time to solving them. As I watch the clean-up going on in the Gulf from the oil spills, everyone legitimately wants the oil to stop flowing this second. British Petroleum’s stock is plummeting because people expected the flow to be capped overnight. Revelations are coming out about how many things went wrong to cause this disaster. This won’t be cured for a while yet. The clean-up will take years. By that time, most of us will have mentally moved on to the next disaster and the next one after that. That is often how we treat marriage counseling. We want it fixed today!

If you have 20 years of problems, it won’t get fixed today. We vastly overestimate what can change in a week. But conversely, we completely underestimate what can change in a year. I even recommend in the most serious marital problems that people creatively separate and start dating from scratch. I highly commend the book “Reconcilable Differences” and the suggested time chart of putting a marriage back on the right track. Don’t rush things and don’t despair. Rushing and despair only muddy the waters more.

5. Ask God for “perspective”, not “rescue”. As I said last time, God cannot save your marriage. That is your job. But if you want God to partner with you in this, you must let him do what God does best. God sees the inner heart of every person. That includes our own heart. Just as in the third step we must see what attitudes and beliefs have caused us to act improperly, so we also need to see our spouse as God sees them. Why does God forgive them? Why does God appreciate them? Why does God spend time with them? What does God see in them? This is so crucial at that point where you cannot say anything good about your marriage partner.

My wife and I have times of struggle like every couple. This is not the venue to give examples of that. But one solution we have found is when we are feeling stymied by the bad course our marriage takes, we sit down separately and ask God to show us the good qualities of the other person. I do remember that horrible day when Kat came up with 20 things and I only had five. That only meant she was listening with more conviction than I was. I was still bitter and used my time to tell God how rotten she was being to me. God didn’t agree, so I wasted my time. But if you come to counseling with the attitude of hearing God about your spouse, things will change. They really will.

The couple who saved their own marriage at the beginning of this article did so over a period of several years. I don’t know all the details and I don’t have any idea how many times they wanted to give up. But now they both help other couples find the same path. These principles work much more effectively than the confusing and ineffective process of three-way counseling.

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2 comments

  1. Pastor Mike- THIS IS PHENOMENAL! Your years of research, personal experience, pastoring and counseling are very evident. Thank you also for the references. I like Stephen Covey’s research and writings too about living life well, (married or not in: ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’) that compliments your point about allowing space to reconcile. He says: “with people, slow is fast and fast is slow.”


  2. Thanks for your input on this Kim. I do remember the day 15 years ago when I finally decided I couldn’t do 3-way counseling any more. It was liberating and I have seen much more counseling success this way than any other way. And I do like Covey’s Habits…especially the first one.



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