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How to Counsel a Couple in 6 Sessions or Less
By H. Norman Wright
RegalCopyright © 2002 H. Norman Wright
All right reserved.
WHEN A COUPLE SEEKS YOUR HELP
"Pastor, can you help us? Our marriage is falling apart. You're our last hope." "Pastor, you've got to straighten out my wife's thinking. It's affecting our marriage!" "Pastor, what do I do? It's his third affair."
These familiar words often come from a desperate phone call. You are asked to do the impossible and repair years of destruction. Can you help them? Can you do anything? And can you devote the time that's needed to assist them? Through this resource, it is my hope to provide you with answers to these questions and more, paying particular attention to how you can counsel a couple effectively by sticking to a plan where you will evaluate a couple and then determine their needs in six sessions or less.
Remember that you will not help every couple who comes to you. It would be dangerous to use statistics of how many couples still divorce as criteria for counseling success. With this in mind, it is critical that you know your own expectations as couples seek your assistance so that one day you don't blame yourself for a failed marriage.
The reasons behind couples seeking help vary greatly. One couple might come to see you as a token effort to show that they have tried to save their marriage, but their hearts aren't in itand likely they have already decided to divorce. On the other hand, another couple might not benefit from counseling because you just don't connect with them. This is okay. You won't be able to work well with everyone who comes to see you. Some will come wanting you to take sides and when you don't, they will tune out even the most helpful suggestions. Others will resist only because they don't like your recommendation to a problem, while some are unwilling to change no matter how skilled you are. But always remember that it is important to come to grips with the fact that you are neither responsible for their past, nor can you fix their relationship for them. You cannot force them to do anything. In all likelihood, you will not have the time that is needed to help some couples sort through their issues in order to turn their marriages around. I like what DeLoss and Ruby Friesen suggest concerning how your own values will affect what you do, as well as what you can expect from yourself.
It's not possible or desirable to completely separate your values from the situation. The counselor, however, may reveal his or her values without imposing those values on the counselee. For example, we will share, if appropriate, our belief (value) that many more couples could make their marriages work if they were more committed to doing so. Not all of our couples share this belief.
The Friesens go on to list some realistic expectations for the counselor:
• You may be able to set achievable goals by helping to identify the real issues involved and whose issues they are.
• You may be able to help with behavior changes that will work toward achieving the goals of the couple.
• You may be able to help sort out various options and the consequences of choosing or not choosing these options.
• You can work with the couple as a team to try to find solutions.
• You can help the couple identify strengths and how they might use their strengths in a particular situation.
• You can help individuals develop more control over their own destinies (by taking responsibility for one's own happiness, greater happiness in the marriage may follow).
• You may be able to help the couple accept past events; they can learn that the past does not always have to forecast the future.
• You may be able to act as a stabilizing force when the couple has lost hope.
However, the greater the severity of the problems, the more likely a couple's help will be limited. Dr. Everett Worthington suggests the following:
Couples with severe problems usually require more sessions and usually improve less than couples with less severe difficulties. But what is a severe difficulty?
Worthington expands on his "What is a severe difficulty" question with at least eight important predictors of poor counseling outcome, which, based on my own experiences, almost always result from what some counselors consider "severe difficulties." It is my conclusion that the more difficulties a couple experiences, the less success the counselor will have. Keep these in mind when evaluating a couple, and you could save yourself time, energy and frustration.
1. An ongoing affair that one spouse refuses to terminate.
2. One or both spouses use overt threats of divorce and a lawyer has been contacted. 3. Presence of severe personal problems such as chronic depression or alcoholism. 4. Both spouses are non-Christians or involved only on the fringes of the organized church. Or if one spouse is bitterly opposed to Christianity and the other is actively involved in it, the effect is similarly pessimistic, though the couple will tend to have different problems. 5. Lack of intimacy and pleasantness in the couple's interaction. This is different from the presence of hostility and negative behavior. 6. Severe patterns of conflict that are harmful, over-learned, well rehearsed, deeply disturbing and demoralizing. Conflict involves power struggles that are well entrenched. During conflict, the couple attacks each other personally and disparages the worth of the relationship. 7. Continual focus on the problems with the relationship and with the spouse. If the couple returns to the deficiencies in the relationship and the spouse, even when the counselor persistently induces them to discuss other topics, the relationship will require more effort than if the couple cooperates with the counselor.
8. Involvement of "helpers" who encourage individual spouses to protect themselves in the relationship. In-laws tend to play this role. One can understand their proclivity to protect their offspring through advice and sometimes interference, but their intervention forces the marriage apart. Other parties that can become over-involved in marriage struggles and make success less likely are: individual counselors, pastors, influential friends and siblings.
Can you see why certain issues would make it difficult to help turn a marriage around?
How would you begin your first session with a couple? Have you ever considered the possibility of getting the couple to work out problems before they see you? Here is a verbatim quote from the book Promoting Change Through Brief Therapy in Christian Counseling, which illustrates what you can suggest to a couple before the counseling sessions begin.
Susan: My husband and I need some help with our marriage.
Counselor: How are you hoping I might be able to help you? Susan: Well, we don't communicate very well, and we argue more than I like. I've wanted to get some counseling for a long time, and Jim finally said he'd be willing to come. Counselor: Susan, there are two important things you and Jim can do before our first session. Doing these two things will help you get much more benefit from our time together. The first one is (if after) our first session we agree to work together, what would have to happen for you to know that the counseling had made a positive difference in your marriage relationship? Another way of looking at this is to ask yourself, "When will we know that we no longer need to come in for counseling?" Do you think you and Jim can do that? Susan: Sure. What's the second thing? Counselor: Well, the second task is easier than the first. In the past several years, I've had many couples tell me that they experienced some small improvements between the time they made the phone call and their first session. Between now and your first appointment, I'd like you and Jim to notice any positive or pleasant things that happen in your relationship. You may want to write them down and bring the lists with you, even if the lists only have one thing.
Susan goes home and tells her husband, Jim, the counselor's two points they need to focus on before their first session. Here is a dialogue of the first session.
Counselor: When we talked on the phone, I asked you to think about what would need to happen for you to know that our work together was helpful. Jim, what did you come up with?
Jim: Well, one of the main things is that we wouldn't argue so much. Sometimes I come home from work, and as soon as I walk in the door, I feel attacked. It feels as if she can't wait to pounce on me.
Susan (With a disgusted look and a sarcastic tone of voice.): If you'd come home when you say you would, maybe you wouldn't feel so attacked. I'm sick and tired of working hard to have dinner ready, getting the kids to the table and then having you waltz in at least one hour late. And you don't even call to say you'll be late.
Counselor: Susan, so one of the ways you would know whether Jim was really committed to working on improving your marriage is if he came home when he said he would? Susan: Yes, that would be a great start. Counselor: Jim, how realistic is that?
Jim: I guess I could do that. I mean, I'm on time for appointments at work. But I don't know if I can be on time every night.
Counselor: How many nights do you think it would be realistic for you to be on time?
Jim (After a pause.): Three?
Counselor: Susan, what would it be like if Jim was on time for dinner three nights a week?
Susan: That would be great. But I don't think he will do it.
Counselor: Maybe he will, and maybe he won't. We'll find out next session. But who knows? He may just decide to surprise you. It will be interesting to see what Jim chooses to do. Jim (With a smile on his face and with a competitive tone in his voice.): Not only will I be on time, but if I'm going to be late, I will call you and let you know. How's that?
Susan (With a smile on her face.): Fat chance! But it would be nice!
Counselor: I'd like you to imagine a scale between one and ten. A one means that you are discouraged, dissatisfied and hopeless about your marriage. A ten means that most of the time you are pleased with your marriage, and that you enjoy high levels of satisfaction, good conflict resolution and deep levels of love and affection. How would you rate your marriage?
Susan (Responding immediately.): I'd give it about a three. I know that compared to some other couples our marriage isn't horrible. I mean, Jim doesn't beat me or anything. But when I compare it to what it could be, to what I think God would want it to be, I'm discouraged. Jim doesn't talk. He is negative and critical, and he always wants to go to Canada with his friend Don and fish for Northern Pike. I think that if things don't change, it's not worth going on.
Jim (With a surprised voice.): I didn't have any idea you thought it was that bad! I was going to say a seven.
Susan: A seven? Where have you been?
Counselor: Do you think you can do one more scale? Once again, I'd like you to imagine a scale between one and ten. This time a one means that you have virtually no commitment to making your marriage work. Quite frankly, if it falls apart today, that will be fine with you. A ten means that you would be willing to invest whatever it takes, to do almost anything to make your marriage the best it can be. How would you rate your level of commitment?
Jim (Responding immediately.): I'm at a ten. I know I've been slow in realizing how bad things are, but I am committed to making our marriage all that God designed marriage to be. Susan (Looking at Jim, with a sarcastic tone in her voice.): That's a pleasant surprise. (Susan continues after a long sigh.) Well, in spite of how discouraged and frustrated I am, I would say that I'm probably at about a six. I do love Jim, and I want our marriage to work, but something has got to change.
What I would like you to take from this quote are the two requests the counselor asks the couple to work on before their counseling begins. The first is for the couple to think about how counseling could make a positive impact on their marriage. And the second is for the couple to notice positive occurrences, whether little or big, in the marriage. These are two key points I will further discuss in the new approach.
A Traditional Method
Traditionally, many counselors and ministers have used the first session, and even the second, to gather information and history on the relationship. Personally, I see some difficulties with this approach. While one spouse might be ready to discuss problems, the other might not immediately want to tackle the main problems. And when just four or six sessions are scheduled and you attempt to fit in an evaluation at this time, it eliminates the already little time you have available for positive solutions and growth.
Additionally, if the first session is devoted entirely to identifying the problems of the marriage, a pastor could be reinforcing a defeatist attitude about the marriage, which hinders progress. Most couples are well aware of their pain and conflict, and they have probably hashed it over for weeks and months before coming to see you. If anything is to be emphasized at this time, it should be strengths over weaknesses.
A New Approach
Instead of gathering assessment information and history on the relationship in one or two sessions, I suggest evaluating couples in a precounseling interview. The main purpose of this interview will be to build positive expectancies, establish a commitment for change and begin the process of change.
Excerpted from How to Counsel a Couple in 6 Sessions or Less by H. Norman Wright Copyright © 2002 by H. Norman Wright
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.