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Hope-Focused Marriage Counseling

By Everett L. Worthington, Jr.

The number of people seeking help for troubled marriages far outnumbers those seeking help for depression, family tensions, alcohol or drug abuse, anxiety, spiritual concerns, past traumas, or crises.

When people seek counseling from their pastor, most frequently it is concerning marital problems. The number of people seeking help for troubled marriages far outnumbers those seeking help for depression, family tensions, alcohol or drug abuse, anxiety, spiritual concerns, past traumas, or crises.

Most Christians value marriage. God approves of the permanence of marriage (Malachi 2:14), and Jesus and Paul advocate marriage (Matthew 5:32; 19:9; Mark 10:2–12; Luke 16:18; 1 Corinthians 7:10,11). God hates the pain and brokenness that oozes from divorce.

Popular culture saturates our minds with the idea that obliterating the bonds of marriage can relieve the pain of marital conflict. In contrast, pastors advocate the virtues of marriage from the pulpit. The Christian who lives with daily marital conflict, hurt, and anger is pinched in a vice. Seeking help from the pastor, troubled spouses are sometimes disappointed when this counseling doesn’t work. Too often, Christians—who are separated, divorced, or living a life of conflict and anguish—twist free by leaving the church. This is not a satisfying solution to marriage partners or to pastors.

Six Bridge Planks to Reconciliation Between Troubled Marriage Partners

Plank 1. Decide whether to reconcile. While we are admonished in Scripture to reconcile and live at peace in as much as it depends on us, there are some conditions where reconciliation is not immediately advisable. When partners are potentially or likely physically dangerous to each other, reconciliation might need to be postponed until a partner’s safety can be assured.

Plank 2. Give a soft answer to turn away wrath. Coach offended partners to make gentle reproaches when they have been offended or hurt. Also coach offending partners to be accountable for their injurious behavior. Emphasize the need for confession and legitimate reasons for their behavior rather than denying or justifying their behavior. Show partners how to seek forgiveness (confessing, apologizing, conveying sincere regret, offering restitution, and asking for forgiveness).

Plank 3. Help people forgive. Teach people to REACH for forgiveness.

• Recall the hurt. Help people to not deny that an offense has been hurtful.

• Empathize with the person who hurt you. Guide people to think of the situation from the other person’s point of view.

• Altruistic gift of forgiveness. Have an offended partner recall times when he or she has inflicted hurt and yet received forgiveness, remembering the gratitude felt when forgiveness is offered. Invite the partner to give that same altruistic gift of forgiveness to the spouse.

• Commit to forgive. Help people say aloud that they forgive their partner and perhaps write a letter of forgiveness.

• Hold on to forgiveness. Recognize that people doubt their forgiveness when they recall the hurt they felt. Make a distinction between hurt and unforgiveness. Help people see that it is natural to remember being hurt, but recalling a hurt is not the same thing as dwelling in bitter unforgiveness.

Plank 4. Reverse the negative marital cascade. When marriages get worse, they move from criticism, to defensiveness, to contempt, to a you-can’t-get-to-me numbness. Help couples reverse this downward cascade.

Plank 5. Develop an attitude. Help people develop an attitude of gratitude when they see improvements in their relationship and an attitude of latitude when they see ways their partner has disappointed them.

Plank 6. Rebuild love. Help partners take positive steps to restore love in their marriages.

—Everett L. Worthington, Jr., Ph.D.,
Virginia Commonwealth University,
Richmond, Virginia.

The obvious, but not easy solution, is for pastors to counsel couples more effectively. The average marriage counseling success rate for professional marital therapists is 50 percent. Pastors probably have about the same success rate. There are four possible reasons why pastors only have a 50-50 chance of saving a troubled marriage.

First, methods used in the pulpit do not transfer well to the counseling room. Like shutting off a light switch, a troubled marriage moves from the light into the dark. The partners draw attention away from the benefits of marriage to its problems, pain, dissatisfaction, and suffering. It is similar to the way a smashed finger draws attention to itself and away from the nine fingers that are not smashed. Marital counseling is not about providing information to partners. While a preacher is expected to inform, admonish, and inspire, a pastoral counselor must teach biblical truth using other methods. Marital trouble clamors so loudly that preaching is muted. When pastors don’t make the shift in style, success rates in counseling plummet.

Second, to improve chances of successful marital counseling, it should be couched within a broad program in the church that promotes successful marriages. Such a program wages war against divorce on many fronts. This may include a series of sermons on marriage, special events for couples (like a Valentine’s Day dinner), ongoing couple discussion or prayer groups, premarital counseling, marriage enrichment groups, marriage retreats, couples who are role models of successful marriages, and peer marriage mentors. While marriage counseling may be more difficult, it is a needed part of ministry to marriages in a fallen world.

Third, many pastors need more training in marital counseling. Most get little training in seminary and do not pursue further training after assuming the pastorate. Research shows that mere experience at counseling does not improve a counselor’s success rate. Self-study can help, but supervised counseling involving reflection, study, and discussion is needed to supplement counseling experience. A network of local pastors can provide such peer supervision. Pastors and associate pastors within the same congregation can supervise each other.

Fourth, pastors may not know how to help couples make the needed changes. All counseling depends primarily on relationship, but what pastors recommend is also important. Here are ways to improve pastoral marital counseling skills.

Hope-focused Marital Counseling


Hope can be defined as willpower for change, plus waypower to change, plus waitpower for God to work change. People without the desire to change (willpower) won’t change. They lack hope. People with willpower who don’t know how to change (waypower) also lack hope. Both willpower and waypower are necessary for hope.

Yet, even with willpower and waypower, we don’t always see immediate change. People need waitpower. Knowing that Jesus Christ walks with us through the furnace of affliction and urges us not to lose faith, fuels waitpower.


The pastor must use a strategy of "faith working through love" (Galatians 5:6, RSV). "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen" (Hebrews 11:1). Working is the energy that keeps plucking up marital weeds to produce tasty marital fruit. Love is defined as being willing to value, not devalue, the partner.


Faith-working-through-lovestrategy should be employed as the pastor’s guiding intervention principle. Interventions are the practical aspects the pastor uses to guide the counseling session. These may include homework assignments, assessment tools, and confrontations. Each intervention must contribute to increasing faith, encouraging work, or building love (or a combination of these). To help couples handle conflict, I use the acrostic, LOVE:

• Listen and repeat. Suppose a husband begins to feel misunderstood. He stops listening while his wife is talking and begins to think about how he can be understood. Because he is not listening, he misunderstands her. As he talks, she senses his misunderstanding and starts thinking about how she can be understood. She fails to understand him and the cycle continues. Paradoxically, the way out of the cycle is for one partner to put his or her agenda on hold and really listen to the other. When people "listen and repeat," they repeat and paraphrase to communicate valuing love.

Observe your effects on your partner. When a partner communicates unclearly, the spouse usually gives clear signals of puzzlement. "Observe your effects" is encouragement to tune in to the partner and immediately clear up puzzling reactions before they grow unmanageable.

Value your partner. This is an oft-repeated self-command at the essence of showing love. In conflict, love is always needed.

Evaluate both partners’ interests without getting cemented into defending rigid positions. Partners locked eyeball to eyeball in conflict usually stake out rigid positions from which they will not move. Behind those positions are personal interests.

For instance, Susan and George are having a shouting match about going to a hamburger restaurant (Susan) or fried chicken restaurant (George) for dinner. They are stuck in those positions. But why does each partner have his or her position? George wants something fast (the chicken restaurant was closer to the house than the hamburger restaurant); something besides a hamburger (which he had for lunch); and something near the public tennis courts (so he can see who was playing). Susan wants the salad bar available at the hamburger restaurant and something near the coliseum (so she can see which music group is playing that night). As long as they argue about the relative merits of hamburgers versus fried chicken, they will be locked in struggle. If they examine their interests, they can work out a solution without compromising. (Compromise usually involves giving up some interests to gain others.) Most conflicts can be resolved by finding solutions that satisfy the interests of both parties.

Couples often want someone who will decide who is correct, but pastors do not want to become the hamburger-versus-chicken referee. Instead, pastors need to help couples practice ways to resolve their conflicts by teaching couples ways to build conflict-resolving skills.

After conflict, unforgiveness often lingers. Marital counseling by pastors moves beyond building conflict resolution skills to promoting forgiveness and reconciliation (see Six Bridge Planks to Reconciliation sidebar).

Hope-focused marital counseling uses interventions that make change tangible. For couples to have a strong sense of willpower, waypower, and waitpower, interventions must be: 1) physically able to be sensed by the partners (sensible); 2) more than talk; 3) active and involve physical products. For instance, in teaching couples how to deal with conflict, a pastor might have the couple videotape a discussion at home in which they employed the LOVE acrostic. They then bring the tape to the following session and view it with the pastor.

At the end of counseling, I encourage partners to make a "Joshua memorial" to commemorate the work God has done in their marriage. The memorial can be any physical evidence that is meaningful. One couple went on a ski weekend as a second honeymoon. At the ski lodge, they decided to rededicate themselves to each other. They framed lift tickets so they would remember the pledges they made to each other on that weekend.

Before Intervention, Assess

Hope-focused counseling teaches hope—a general strategy of promoting love, faith, and work—and sensible interventions. By talking about interventions, I presume a pastor knows where to intervene. Without accurate assessment of the marriage, the pastor cannot know where to concentrate.

I have identified nine areas of marriage (see Assessing Married Couples sidebar). Each is important, but every marriage has topics that are more important than others. Most troubled marriages have difficulties in conflict resolution, and confession and forgiveness. Beyond that, careful assessment is needed.

Many pastors prefer to jump immediately into counseling. But such jumps often end up on the rocks. Most counselors (pastors or therapists) have a general belief about typical problems present in marriages. Before launching into treatment, however, they must discover how the problems show up in each couple they counsel. If they do not, couples will turn a deaf ear to counsel.

A pastor will look hard to assess where the problems originate. Perhaps the pastor believes all the problems, marital or psychological, are fundamentally spiritual. Careful assessment is needed to establish how and where the sin might show up.


If asked, most people will say communication is the fundamental problem in a marriage. While it is true that communication can almost always be improved in any marriage, we have to look deeper to see what is meant by communication. Then we must ask whether communication is a cause or effect of the marital tension.

Problems in communication can be one of three general types. All types exist at the same time, and the approach taken to help the couple depends on the pastor. Communication problems can be viewed as:

Semantics. Communication problems exist because partners do not understand each other. Many pastors believe it is a misunderstanding of what was said that is at the root of communication problems. Those pastors will say, "Susan, stop talking for a minute. George, what did Susan just say? What do you think she meant by that? To show her that you understand her, repeat or paraphrase what she says before you give your response."

Syntax. How it was said. Pastors may say, "Susan, when you talk so much, you don’t give George a chance to respond. George, when you clam up, you don’t give Susan the feedback she needs to let her know whether she is getting through to you. George, when you get frustrated and yell at Susan, she is afraid to talk and withdraws."

Pragmatics. Any communication has many simultaneous effects. Susan says, "George, you be the head of the house. Just decide what we are going to do, and we’ll do it." On one level, it sounds as if Susan wants more leadership from George. But hidden in the message is the invisible effect that if George actually takes charge, he is doing what Susan told him to do. So who actually is in charge? The effects of communication are complex, but some people think the pragmatics of communication are where the action is.

Pastors try to change a couple’s communication based on their (usually implicit) understanding of whether semantics, syntax, or pragmatics is more important. Pastors should select and employ interventions with an understanding of what they hope to change.


Pastors should select and employ interventions with an understanding of what they hope to change. That is a general guideline for hope-focused marital counseling. (Indeed, it is a good guideline for any counseling.) Discover what the problem is; employ effective interventions that are sensible and related to the general strategy; and keep in mind that a central barrier to overcome is the lack of hope—each intervention should help to direct hope back to the healing hand of the Lord.

Assessing Married Couples

To assess each of the following areas, interviews and relatively inexpensive printed instruments such as H. Norm Wright’s Marital Assessment Inventory (available by phoning 800-875-7560) can be used.

Central Beliefs and Values
Christian beliefs, beliefs about marriage and divorce, and the degree to which people value those beliefs.

Core Vision
The vision of the marriage is an amalgam of what was observed in the family of origin, what is absorbed through culture (including popular and church cultures), and what is learned through other romantic relationships.

Confession and Forgiveness
Most partners in marital difficulties are more eager to forgive—"He needs forgiveness from me for all the nasty things he has done to me"—than to confess their own failings. Unfortunately, most people in the middle of conflict are not eager to grant forgiveness.

Partners develop problems by communicating too little or too much; too emotionally or not emotionally enough; too few or too many of the events of their lives; and too little or too much of their disappointment and anger. They might be unskilled at getting their point across, have a style that is harmful to the relationship, or communicate in ways that have numerous hidden consequences.

Conflict Resolution
Couples are often involved in power struggles. They disagree on many issues and want the pastor to help them resolve those specific differences. A pastor, however, needs to discern the couples’ overall conflict resolution strengths and weaknesses so interventions can have effects beyond solving specific issues.


Troubled partners often have unrealistic beliefs about marriage or their partner. They blame the partner for everything, including the weather.

Each partner establishes a balance of intimate, co-active, and alone activities to meet their different needs for closeness. Intimacy needs (except for sexual intimacy) can be met by people other than the partner. People often need help in balancing their intimacy with their coaction and alone time.

Complicating Problems
Look for the presence of problems such as alcoholism, affairs, abuse, and affective disturbance (depression or anxiety). Such problems often need to be dealt with before progress can be made with marital problems.

Commitment depends on satisfaction with the relationship, satisfaction with competitors to the relationship (hobbies, work, or other romantic interests), and investments in the relationship (joint property or children).

In marriage counseling, seek to establish the existing main problems, target interventions, and let the less important areas be pulled along for the ride.

—Everett L. Worthington Jr., Ph.D.,
Virginia Commonwealth University,
Richmond, Virginia.

Everett L. Worthington

Everett L. Worthington, Jr., Ph.D., is professor of psychology at Virginia Common-wealth University, Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of Hope-Focused Marriage Counseling, InterVarsity Press, 1999.


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