Healing Love’s Wounds:
A Pastoral Approach to Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage Counseling
Every pastor providing marital counseling will benefit from some basic marriage counseling skills.
By Donald A. Lichi
The Pastor as Marriage Counselor: Introduction
We can apply the quote “the best of times and the worst of times” from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities to marriage. Chances are as a pastor your people seek you for marital, divorce, and remarriage counseling.
This article provides some basic pastoral counseling skills in marriage, remarriage, and divorce counseling. I provide several resources in a sidebar. I also provide a suggested technique for each of the sections below.1
I focus on areas that will be most beneficial in your role as marriage counselor. Research for this overview reveals dozens of articles with statistics on marriage, divorce, and remarriage along with numerous marriage enrichment programs. I will cite some statistics and provide additional references in the endnotes. If the statistics are even close to accurate,2 the typical pastor can easily be overwhelmed with marriage counseling.
Statistics relate to two views: one purported by researcher George Barna and a rejoinder by Tom Ellis, chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Council on the Family. Barna’s research shows:
- 11 percent of the adult population is currently divorced.
- 25 percent of adults have had at least one divorce during their lifetime.
- divorce rates among conservative Christians are significantly higher than for other faith groups.
- Among Pentecostals, Barna’s research reports that 28 percent experienced a divorce.
Barna noted, “While it may be alarming to discover that born-again Christians are more likely than others to experience a divorce, that pattern has been in place for quite some time. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is that when those individuals experience a divorce many of them feel their community of faith provides rejection rather than support and healing. But the research also raises questions regarding the effectiveness of how churches minister to families. The ultimate responsibility for a marriage belongs to the husband and wife, but the high incidence of divorce within the Christian community challenges the ideas that churches provide truly practical and life-changing support for marriages.”3
On the other hand, Ellis claims that “born-again Christian couples who marry … in the church after having received premarital counseling … and attend church regularly and pray daily together” experience only 1 divorce out of nearly 39,000 marriages or 0.00256 percent.
The Pastor as Marriage Counselor
Christians often see their pastor as a first source of counseling. The advantages of the pastor serving as a marital counselor include the fact he typically knows the couple and has already built rapport with them. Further, the pastor observes the couple in the context of the church setting. On the other hand, a couple may feel embarrassed to talk to their pastor about intimate details.
Let me assume several things. First you are biblical in your counsel and you use prayer in your sessions. Let me also assume that a couple seeks your help. I suggest you develop a brief, solution-focused mindset for counseling; and, if it is apparent the couple needs more extensive counseling, refer.
Here’s the technique:
“As your pastor, I want you to be aware that care for your soul is one of my primary responsibilities. I will do my best to provide wise and godly counsel that is consistent with Scripture. I ask that you always be open and honest with me and complete the homework as assigned. I can assure you of confidentiality within the limits of the law; and, if at any time you are not comfortable working with me as your pastor, or if your problem is beyond my ability, I will refer you to a competent Christian marriage counselor.”
Basic Marriage Counseling Skills for Pastors
Every pastor providing marital counseling will benefit from some basic marriage counseling skills. These skills include the ability to attend, listen, and respond appropriately. By definition “attending” is using your body, time, and space to let the couple know you are paying attention.
Pay attention to where and how they sit. I recall one case where the husband instructed his wife to sit on the couch, and he pulled up a chair and sat next to me. Apparently he was going to be my co-therapist. If you have the couple sit on a couch, be aware of how close they sit to one another. I have had couples take all the pillows and stack them between them. This was my first clue that things are not going well in Eden.
Be aware of who speaks first. Observe if the couple listens to one another or are they simply waiting for the other to catch his breath to interrupt. At times the relationship is so toxic I only allow the couple to speak to me. In most instances each is trying to convince you of the failings of the other. I address this early in the session by stating that the purpose of our meetings is not to confess one another’s sins. Too often couples move beyond the presenting concern and focus on denigrating the other’s character and motives. Have the couple focus on “I” statements rather than “you” statements. Be attentive to body language, rate of speech, listening, and eye contact in addition to what the couple says verbally.
EMERGE’s approach to marriage counseling includes four main skills:
- Describe the couple’s strengths
- Diagnose the couple’s problems
- Determine the couple’s expectations
- Define the couple’s treatment
Describe the couple’s strengths
Attempt to determine if the couple is willing to follow Scripture and how they support one another emotionally. Are they comfortable giving one another adequate independence as well as enjoy healthy interdependence? What is their level of spiritual, sensual, and sexual desire toward one another?
Here’s the technique:
“Despite what brings you to counseling, what is going well in your marriage that if it did not change you would be perfectly happy?” If there is too much silence, I may simply ask, “Do you still even like each other?”
Diagnose the couple’s problems
Each couple uniquely experiences their own pain. Simple assessment tools (see downloadable PDF files “Marital Happiness Scale”and “Relationship Assessment”as examples) give the pastor a general idea where the perceived problems lie. At EMERGE Ministries we also employ the Personal Problems Checklist for Adults4 that allows the couple to check from a list of over 200 problems under major subheadings such as social, vocational, family, religion, sex, legal issues, health, attitude, and crisis. If possible, have the couple complete this form prior to the first appointment.
Here’s the technique:
Ask each to respond to the following: “What is it that you both want and need in your marriage right now?” This diagnostic question gives the pastor a brief assessment of what is not going well in the marriage.
Another lead I use is, “How can I best serve you? Why are you here? I can see that based on what you said is going well and what you both want and need, along with the items checked on the Marriage Happiness Scale (or Personal Problems Checklist) that you want to talk about _______. Which do you want to start with?”
Determine the couple’s expectations
Typically, satisfaction in marriage is a result of how close ones experienceof marriage is in relation to the expectations of marriage. Each partner in the marriage has expectations of one another. If there is a serious variation between what they both want and what they are experiencing, trouble results.
At some point try to determine their expectations of the other. Usually there is a perceived deficit in the other person. In other words, the other person is not meeting my needs. Often expectations are a result of family histories. Some grew up in a more traditional family where there was a clear delineation between a husband and wife’s roles. On the other hand, perhaps they grew up in a home that was more of a companionship model where both parents worked outside of the home and shared household responsibilities.
Here’s the technique:
“Using the Relationship Assessment, what are your expectations of yourself and each other in each of the following areas?” Then, “I would like you each to take about 45 minutes and briefly share your life story. Describe your family of origin, birth order, the modeling of love in your family, the significant people in your life, traumas, previous marriages, education, faith journey, and what originally drew you to one another.”
Listen carefully to the themes they recall in this brief exercise. Because of time limitations, they will tend to go back to themes that are important to them. For brief counseling, I usually limit this to one session, enough to determine what expectations the couple brought into the marriage.
Define the couple’s treatment
This is where the beauty of a brief solution-focused model is helpful. Do not spend an inordinate amount of time rehearsing problems. You should have a good idea by the end of the first two sessions what the issues really are as well as observing destructive patterns that led them to seek your help. Give the couple realistic hope and accurate information and help them modify expectations. In most cases they will not get everything they ask for. Keep a positive rapport with the couple, pray with them, and help them find ways to appreciate one another’s strengths. Couples should be willing to acknowledge their own sinful behaviors and attitudes and be willing to ask each other for forgiveness. Also, it is vital that the couple agree to complete homework assignments between sessions. I agree with Worthington that recommendations are to be real, tangible, and concrete.5
Here’s the technique:
“Now that we have identified the concerns, help me understand what this situation would look like if you solve the problem.” Have the couple describe what their marriage scenario would look like if they solve their problem. Then state, “Since you can identify this more ideal picture, what is the first step you are both willing to work on today to attain this goal? What is the Holy Spirit asking you to do in this situation?”
Ongoing Processes With Couples
Despite the challenges a person experienced in his family of origin or poor decisions in his past, I believe that health, over time, can undo many of the effects of unhealthiness. In fact, a healthy marriage can actually have a therapeutic effect that reverses negative generational effects. For example, if someone grew up in a family where there was conditional love, a healthy marriage can provideunconditional love, etc. While it is not easy to overcome ingrained habits, it is possible with hard work, intention, and reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit. God is vitally interested in the health and success of this marriage.
With this in mind it is vital for the pastor to help the couple institute healthy behaviors in their marriage. I call these ongoing processes because couples need to emphasize these things over and over in the marriage. Following are several examples:
Inspect what you expect
At the beginning of the second and subsequent counseling sessions ask the couple how they did on their homework assignment. Ask them to report on how they are doing in each of the five areas: physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual.
Here’s the technique:
“In our last session we discussed x, y, z. You were to do a, b, and c for homework. How did it go? Give me a brief update on how you are doing in your physical health, exercise, rest, thinking, reading, emotional expression, your key relationships, and your personal walk with God.”
The divorce-proof marriage
Since God designed us to be bonded to the sources of our pleasure, one on-going process I insist on is that the couple spends time together in prayer, sex, and companionship. When a marriage falls apart, in nearly 100 percent of the cases at least one of these three is missing. The prayer time does not need to be lengthy or complicated. You may actually need to model for them how to pray with one another (and for each other). If the couple can maintain a regular sexual relationship, it is amazing how many of the minor problems in marriage fade away.7 Companionship simply involves working alongside one another to accomplish a task. This can include everything from going on a walk, raking leaves, or working on the budget together. I find it amazing how couples benefit from developing a healthy interdependence.
Here’s the technique:
“God’s Word and solid marital research demonstrate that if you will pray together, lie together, and play together, you will stay together. What’s your plan to create the environment this week so all three are more likely to occur? Sally, what do you want John to start, stop, and continue doing this week?” (Ask John the same thing about Sally and put this into their homework plan.)
Get your brain (and eyes) in gear
A recent study published by Scientific American Mind8 reviewed over 80 scientific studies that reveal how people learn to love each other. Amazingly, one of the strongest indicators of increased feelings of love occurs in the context of “mutual soul gazing,” that is, giving each other permission to look deeply into one another’s eyes. The researchers found that prolonged gazing (with permission) led to feeling vulnerable to each other, which is a key element in emotional bonding. Is it any wonder that the “eyes of the Lord are on those who fear Him” (Psalm 33:18)?
Author Robert Epstein describes research in progress that hints at techniques for building strong relationships. Among these are:
Arousal — doing something exciting at the same time and place;
Humor — laughing makes us more vulnerable to one another;
Kindness, accommodation, and forgiveness — again all of these create a deep sense of vulnerability;
Touch and sexuality — a backrub can work wonders; the rest is self-explanatory;
Self-disclosure — sharing secrets with one another bonds the relationship;
Commitment— these secular researchers note the increased interest in an emerging evangelical Christian movement called “covenant marriage,” where couples agree ahead of time to premarital counseling and very limited grounds for divorce.
Share the good news
Another article in Scientific American Mind9 by Suzann Pileggi describes current research on positive emotions. It appears to confirm that good news when it is shared and responded to positively dismantle boundaries and enhances bonding with one’s mate.
Technique: “When was the last time you shared good news and gratitude to one another?”
Growth by the numbers
Using a technique often found in brief therapy, ask the couple to place each of their problems on a number scale (say from 1-10) with 10 being the best (problem solved) and 1 being the problem at its worst. Ask them to rate how they are doing on solving a particular problem. If they say a 4, then ask what specifically they need to do to get to a 5. Progress, not perfection is the goal. Assign their solution as homework.
Technique: “Between now and the next session creatively find 25 ways to say ‘I love you’ without words.”
Marital Separation or Divorce?
Because marriage is a sacred institution, I do not advise that pastors recommend divorce. The reasons are too numerous to deal with in this article, but the bottom line is that while it might be easy to recommend divorce, I do not want to live with the consequences of that decision. I make it clear that while EMERGE’s policy is not to recommend a divorce, we will offer spiritual and emotional support for the person(s) involved when a marriage fails. Marriages fail for a variety of reasons: sexual unfaithfulness, desertion, contempt, violence, and abuse.
While there are reasons a couple may give to justify their decision to end a marriage, you may still have some leverage to help the couple reconsider. In some cases a temporary separation provides relief, a space for repentance, spiritual renewal, and an opportunity for recommitment. Sometimes a marriage is so emotionally charged that the couple may benefit from a time-out to allow emotions to subside and rationality to reemerge. However, the risk of separation is that many couples simply use separation as a prelude to getting comfortable living apart before they actually divorce.
Assuming the couple agrees to use separation to work toward reconciliation, the pastor needs to make clear the following:10
- Draw up a separation contract that includes prayer, mutual agreements, care for the children, and agreement on sexual relations during separation (only with each other, of course). Explain the risks of separation.
- Remind the couple that separation is not divorce. There is to be no dating (others) or financial irresponsibility (e.g. a spouse may use the separation as an excuse to clean out bank accounts).
- Provide a clear timeline for the separation.
- Help the couple reflect on why they got married in the first place.
- Encourage the couple to seek the Holy Spirit to do deep personal spiritual evaluation that may include fasting. During this time they should keep a daily journal. One important question to reflect on during separation is, “What would I most need to change in myself to be successfully married to anyone? What is it in my spouse that most pleases the heart of God?”11
- A time of separation should yield a sensitive heart to one another as well as some pain in being separated from one another.
- I recommend that the couple have some structured time together such as a date night.12
Any couple remarrying within the ecclesiastical guidelines of their church should also be required to undergo marriage mentoring, perhaps with another successfully remarried couple.
In addition to topics in marriage mentoring (see sidebar below, “How To Set Up a Marriage Mentoring Program”), when a couple is entering a second marriage (remarriage counseling), you need to address the following topics and issues:
- Blending two families together is a 3–5 year process. This will require patience. The key is to help couples adjust their expectations.
- How has the person dealt with the loss of the first marriage? Where is she in the grief process? Is she harboring anger, resentment, or unforgiveness? Has she forgiven herself?
- If there are younger children, what expectations are there for discipline of the biological versus the stepchild?
- How can you keep your marriage first? I sometimes ask a remarrying couple to describe what they had intended their first marriage to be and ask them to work diligently to create the circumstances in this marriage that will enhance that image.
Marriage, divorce, and remarriage are such broad and deep topics to say nothing of controversial. Few people have the ability to influence a couple to bond their lives to God and one another and set healthy boundaries around their marriage than their pastor. The basic marriage skills provided in this article, along with a Holy Spirit governed heart, will help couples better realize the potential God has for their lives. Remember, you are not alone in the counseling role. You have constant access to the Holy Spirit who will help you successfully fulfill this vital ministry to couples.
1. Author’s note. As prelude to the techniques in this article, I recommend reviewing my article “Competent Christian Counseling” in the summer 2010 Enrichment journalthat gives an introduction to basic counseling techniques.
2. Statistics bear out that divorce affects conservative Christians just as much as anyone else. The Barna Group showed that 27 percent of born-again Christians have been divorced, compared to 25 percent of nonborn-again Americans. In 2005, Phoenix-based Ellison Research found that 14 percent of clergy have been divorced; the vast majority have remarried. The Assemblies of God voted in 2007 to permit remarried ministers if their divorce occurred because their spouse was unfaithful or was an unbeliever who abandoned them. (Source: The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, November 19, 2007.)
3. “Christians Are More Likely To Experience Divorce Than Are Non-Christians,” Barna Research Group, 2004 September 8 at http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/194-born-again-christians-just-as-likely-to-divorce-as-are-non-christians. (Accessed 3 February 2010.)
4. Pastors can purchase the Personal Problems Checklist for Adults by John A. Schinka, Ph.D., from (PAR) Psychological Assessment Resources, Inc., 16204 N. Florida Avenue, Lutz, FL 33549. Phone 1.800.331.8378. www.Parinc.com. The Personal Problems Checklist lists over 200 problems adults face. We used it at EMERGE Ministries as part of the intake package.
5. See Everett L. Worthington, Hope-Focused Marriage Counseling: A Guide to Brief Therapy (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2005). This is one of the best books on integrating faith with the various schools of marital therapy.
6. A number of Christian resources are currently available for couples on the topic of sexual enrichment in marriage. I tend to favor the work by Clifford and Joyce Penner, Restoring the Pleasure (Dallas: Word, 1993). The key will be for both partners in the marriage to read the materials, hopefully together.
7. See “How Science Can Help You Fall in Love,” January/February 2010 Scientific American Mind. There are a number of other activities couples can engage in that Robert Epstein cites in this article. Visit the Web site at www.ScientificAmerican.com/Mind.
8. See Pileggi, Suzann. “The Happy Couple.” Scientific American Mind, January/February 2010. The study notes how thriving couples accentuate the positive in life and how couples strengthened marriage bonds when they support each other under difficult circumstances as indicated by intense listening, positive comments, and questions, etc. Visit the Web site at www.ScientificAmerican.com/Mind.
9. Gary Chapman’s Hope for the Separated (Chicago: Moody Press, 2005) is still the best resource I have seen on structuring a marital separation. Chapman describes specific activities couples engage in while separated. Chapman includes assignments at the end of each chapter.
10. EMERGE President M. Wayne Benson introduced this technique to me. I have seen couples take time to listen to the Holy Spirit speak to them about the qualities in their spouse that most please the heart of God with very positive results.
11. See John Gottman’s, The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy (New York: Norton, 1999). Gottman’s scientific study of marriage has enabled him to predict whether a married couple will remain happily married or whether their marriage will end in divorce with an astonishing degree of accuracy (91 percent) by simply paying attention to how couples argue. His Love Map questions are excellent for couples to use during their date nights. (See The Gottman Institute, Inc., http://www.gottman.com/marriage/relationship_quiz/.)