Chapter 1.
The Need for Marriage Counseling by and for Christians

Marriages are in trouble today. Cherlin found that divorce rates have risen alarmingly over the last 100 years. By 1980, the divorce rate was over fifty per cent: Over one of every two couples married in 1980 will ultimately divorce! Of course, such growth rates cannot continue indefinitely. Nonetheless, marriage as a long-term relationship is in trouble.

Most people remarry after divorce—over eighty per cent remarry within five years of divorce, according to recent statistics. Surprisingly, the divorce rate in second and subsequent marriages is even greater than in first marriages—over sixty-five per cent Apparently, the institution of marriage is not as endangered as some people claim; however, the permanence of individual marriages is in peril.

People have become wary about marrying. Unmarried heterosexual cohabitation prior to first marriages has risen dramatically over the past fifteen years. Cohabitation after divorce or widowhood has also substantially increased. Many who cohabit say they are investigating the stability of a relationship before making a commitment to marriage. Yet even when the "incompatible" couples who cohabit and decide not to marry are removed from consideration, couples who cohabit prior to marriage have equal or higher divorce rates than couples who do not

Although professing Christians have markedly lower rates of divorce than those not professing Christianity, Christians are not immune to this crisis in commitment to marriage sweeping through contemporary society. Even committed Christians end up in divorce courts.

Scripture is clear about divorce. God hates it (Mal 2:16), even though it is permissible under certain circumstances (e.g., Ezra 10:44; Mt 19:9). This creates pressure on couples who treat Scripture authoritatively to seek all avenues to preserve their marriages.

Many such Christian couples seek counseling from both Christian and non-Christian professionals. Over half of the cases seen by clinical psychologists in private practice involve marital difficulties. Arnold and Schick found ten of eleven studies to show that the most frequent counseling done by pastors involves marriage counseling.

Are these Christian helping professionals trained in marriage counseling? Not very many and not very well. Most expertise at marriage counseling has been acquired "under fire." Many assumptions and techniques used by Christians in their counseling office are often incompatible with their clients' and sometimes even their own values. Despite this, marriage counseling is surprisingly effective—more so than many individual psychotherapies. But one must ask, Could counselors be even better with training and with an explicitly Christian-based theory guiding their practice? I believe they could.

Having a theory makes counseling or therapy more efficient by directing the therapist rapidly to areas that are potentially important. It also helps the counselor understand how marriages go wrong, which leads to suggestions for setting them right again. A theory also defines the role of the counselor in helping those seeking help. This book provides a practical model for understanding and counseling Christian couples whose marriages are troubled.


I have reviewed existing theories of marriage therapy (as distinct from family therapy) in appendix A of this book, including psychoanalytic marital therapies (Nadelson, Dare, Willi, Paul), systems theories of marital therapy (such as Bowen, Mental Research Institute, Minuchin, and Haley and Madanes), behavioral marriage therapies (such as Jacobson and Margolin, Stuart, Liberman) cognitive theories of marital therapy (Sager, Epstein, Baucom and Lester) and a Christian-cognitive-behavioral theory of Norman Wright Six conclusions may be drawn concerning theorizing about Christian marriages and marriage counseling with Christian couples.

1. There is a need for an integrated theory of the marriage that considers three levels of analysis: (a) individual constructs; (b) the operation of the marriage as a unit (or system); and (c) the position of the married couple in the family cycle. The theory should be conceptually integrated, not just constructed by borrowing concepts from theories that consider each level of analysis.

2. There is a need for an integrated theory of marital therapy that is based on that theory of the marriage. The theory should use concepts based on changing (a) individual constructs and (b) operating principles of the marriage, and considering (c) the position of the couple within the family life cycle.

3. The theories of marriage and of therapy should incorporate distinctly Christian concepts. The spiritual nature of the individual and of the marriage should be woven into the theory rather than merely applying concepts from secular marriage theory to people who happen to be Christians.

4. The theory of marriage therapy should be simple enough to be used clinically. Haley has pointed out that clinicians need simple, powerful theories to guide their interventions and produce powerful changes; whereas, researchers need complicated, complex theories that account for much of the variance in human behavior. Thus, as a secondary goal:

5. The theoretical underpinnings of the theory of the marriage should be rich and complex enough to stimulate research (so that the theory of marriage therapy can ultimately be improved).

6. The techniques should have at least four characteristics:

  1. They should be related to the theory.
  2. They should be prescribed and standardized to such an extent that they are easily usable.
  3. They should be varied and individualized to be able to help a variety of couples.
  4. They should be clearly applicable at specified points in the therapy.

The theory of marriage and marriage counseling that I present in this book attempts to fill these needs. Undoubtedly it will fail at points, for there is no perfect theory. Any theory that attempts to integrate theoretical concepts, therapy techniques and research from a variety of theoretical perspectives must be broadly eclectic. I think the strength of this book is the clear explication of many techniques for use by the practicing marriage therapist and the organization of those techniques as they apply to (a) intimacy; (b) communication; (c) conflict; (d) hurt, blame and sin; and (e) commitment. I hope that after reading this book, you will emerge with new interventions to try with troubled marriages. On the other hand, I hope that I am not encouraging indiscriminate eclecticism. We should have reasons for our choice of techniques.

Since I have performed, supervised and taught psychotherapy and marriage therapy, I have noticed that therapists of widely different theoretical persuasions often use the same techniques of therapy. Yet, they do so for different reasons, hoping to accomplish different objectives and hoping clients will learn different things from their interventions. Thus, in a way, techniques are somewhat artificially identified with particular approaches to the therapy. Often it is what the therapist does after the technique has been used, and not what occurs while the technique is being used, that has the most impact on the clients.

The explanation of the technique and the way techniques coalesce into a coherent treatment package is more important than applying a technique "letter perfectly." For this reason, I believe that even if I do not fully explain why I might use every technique, the informed counselor might still learn from and even adapt the technique to his or her purpose. Nonetheless, I hope my theoretical framework and my decision rules about when to use various techniques and what should be derived from their use will permit you to understand my selection of techniques.


Having been developed during my private practice of counseling psychology, this theory can be used in most general practices of marriage counseling or marriage therapy. However, therapists who will be most attracted to the theory are those who are generally attracted to other direct problem-solving marital therapies such as cognitive-behavioral or strategic problem-solving therapies (for instance, Haley). Therapists inclined to highly value insight into unconscious motives or understanding the intricacies of inter-generational or childhood effects on the marriage will generally find the theory too limiting.

There are two ways that marriage therapy is usually practiced. In one instance, the couple attends counseling with the sole objective of improving their marriage relationship. That does not mean that counseling will be easy. Some marriage problems are relatively "pure," with no diagnosable individual psychopathology even though both spouses may be depressed, anxious, frustrated or angry because of their marital disturbance. In such "pure" marital therapy, the counselor may use the theory I present in this book.

Besides direct marriage therapy, this theory is useful when at least one spouse has serious psychological disturbance and there is serious marital involvement in the problem. Perhaps the wife is depressed and has been for several months. Her depression was precipitated by the discovery of an ongoing affair between her husband and a neighbor. Although the depression now might have other aspects, the marriage relationship is a continuing contributor to maintaining her depression. In this case, the therapist might decide to treat the wife by marital therapy. Individual therapy might be appropriate too, but marital therapy is certainly a viable treatment option. Whether it is the treatment of choice will depend on the beliefs of the therapists and of the couple, who may want marriage therapy (and not individual therapy) despite the presence of individual pathology. Whether the therapist will be able to convince the husband to attend therapy and will be able to help the couple by using marriage therapy is yet another matter.

Direct marriage counseling is done mostly by pastors and people working in church-based settings or where insurance payments are not involved. Couples are freer to request direct marriage counseling when insurance companies are not involved. Marriage therapy as a treatment for individual distress is used often by psychotherapists, especially when dealing with insurance companies that will not pay for direct marriage counseling but will pay for individual psychotherapy through marital therapy.

I have done marriage therapy successfully (and unfortunately unsuccessfully at times) with couples who have both types of presenting concerns. Once the marriage is implicated and treatment of the marriage becomes one goal of therapy, marriage counseling can proceed as I have outlined in the following pages.


Throughout this book, many readers will find that my theory is "not Christian enough." Others will criticize the theory because it is "too Christian." Each person has assumptions about what a Christian theory of counseling should be. In a review of research on religious counseling, I identified three ideas about what religious therapy involves.

In one approach, the goal of the therapist is to create a "Christian" client (or "Christian" marriage). The therapist believes that Christianity is not a matter of technique but of the heart and of human relationships. Thus, reasons such a therapist, it is unnecessary to use specific Christian techniques in therapy. Some even believe it unnecessary to use secular therapeutic techniques. The therapist believes that Christianity is more "caught" from a loving, caring Christian than it is taught. A Christian therapist who practices this type of Christian therapy might never mention Jesus, God or the Holy Spirit and talk might never turn explicitly to religious matters throughout counseling. Nonetheless, the therapist thinks that he or she is doing Christian therapy. If the client's life changes to embody Christian principles of living, the therapist concludes that he or she has successfully done Christian therapy. If not, the Christian therapy may be seen as unsuccessful.

In a second approach to Christian therapy, the counselor believes that all therapy must have direct scriptural justification or at the least be rooted in practices of spiritual guidance techniques (such as prayer, confession, Bible memory and others) that have been used within the church for ages. Such therapists might criticize the first type of therapist as being thoroughly secular. (Of course, the first type of therapist might criticize the second type also.) Therapists who rely on spiritual guidance techniques usually exclude techniques derived from secular theories of therapy because they did not originate in the Bible or the church.

At a third extreme, some therapists use methods developed by secular theories of counseling but deal directly with the spiritual thoughts, behaviors and lifestyles of their clients. These counselors might use any number of spiritual guidance techniques in their counseling, but their theories of influence are generally based on secular theories of therapy coupled with a belief in divine intervention at the level of the unseen world. If therapy may be divided into the process of therapy versus the content of therapy, then the third type of therapist uses secular counseling processes but Christian content My approach to therapy lies somewhere between the second and third approaches. I draw from many secular theories of marriage counseling and therapy but try to integrate them into a Christian framework. I believe my theorizing is consistent with Scripture even though it is not derived directly from it As you read my descriptions, you might think them quite secular in places. However, when you read the examples and the transcripts that I have included, you will see how I deal with the Christianity of my clients. I usually use some spiritual guidance techniques in therapy—such as explicit prayer, confession, forgiveness, scriptural exegesis and citation of scriptural references and quotations to explain principles to my clients. Much of this book involves the process of marriage counseling; therefore, much of the book will not deal explicitly with Christianity. Nonetheless, I hope the book is an example of Christian helping. In When Someone Asks for Help, I describe four distinctives of Christian counseling:

1. It should be done by a Christian.

2. It should be consistent with Christian assumptions, such as the fundamental truths of Christianity described by apologists like C. S. Lewis.

3. It should be consistent with God's revelations—both his special revelations (Jesus and the Bible) and his general revelations (the created world and the imageness of God within people).

4. It should have Christ at the center. This last requirement means that counseling should be grounded in prayer and in the explicit identification of Jesus as the healer of individuals and the restorer of relationships.

Throughout the book, I strive to make counseling a good example of Christian helping. My hope and prayer is that the book will help you become a better Christian marriage therapist who can work more confidently and competently with the Christian couples who seek your help.