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Growth Counseling for Marriage Enrichment by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr.

Howard J. Clinebell, Jr. Is Professor of Pastoral Counseling at the School of Theology at Claremont, California (1977). He is a member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, and the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. He is a licensed marriage, child and family counselor in the State of California. His personal website is, and his email address is Growth Counselling for Marriage Enrichment was published in 1975 by Fortress Press, Philadelphia. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Richard and Sue Kendall.

Chapter 1. Growth Counseling -- A Human Potentials Approach

"Freud supplied to us the sick half of psychology and we must now fill it out with the healthy half. Perhaps this health psychology will give us more possibility for controlling and improving our lives and for making ourselves better people. Perhaps this will be more fruitful than asking ‘how to get unsick. 1. "Abraham Maslow

"The future lies with those who believe salvation likelier to spring from the imagination of possibility than from the delineation of the historical. . . . Perhaps we all need to be reminded of the necessity of remaining open to new, or newly recovered ways of being." . 2 . -- Carolyn 0. Heilbrun

"Every age but ours has had its model, its ideal. All of these have been given up by our culture. . . . Perhaps we shall soon be able to use as our guide and model the fully growing and self-fulfilling human being, the one in whom all . . . potentialities are coming to full development." 3. -- Abraham Maslow


Gradually, over the last ten years or so, my counseling and caring ministry has shifted from a diagnostic, treatment approach (a pathology model) to a human development, positive-potentials approach (a growth model). I've changed from focusing on what's wrong with a person or relationship and now I place greater emphasis on what's right and what's possible; as this change has taken place better results have occurred in my ministry of counseling, teaching, and working with small groups. Furthermore, it has gradually become clear to me that the positive approach frees one in helping relationships to use more of the rich assets and resources which every church-related, religiously aware person has available. When I've discussed growth approaches in workshops for ministers and lay persons, most participants have responded with interest, many with enthusiasm. The same has happened in workshops for counselors from various secular professions. Many ministers and counselors seem ready, even eager, to diminish their emphasis on a repair-and-rescue approach and increase their emphasis on prevention through releasing the positive potentials of persons.

The Dual Nature of Growth Counseling

Growth counseling is a way of helping people to discover in themselves and in others what Buber called "the treasure of eternal possibility and the task of unearthing it."4. It involves two inter-related things -- a perspective on people and a set of methods.

First, there is the growth perspective, a liberating way of viewing persons (including yourself) in terms of (1) their present strengths and their rich unused capacities -- intellectually, spiritually, interpersonally, creatively; (2) their profound inner strivings to fulfill more of these good gifts of life; (3) the pull of a better future toward which they can move by the fuller use of their inner riches. Viewing people through this growth perspective is one of the most important things we can do to help them grow!

Second, growth counseling involves a variety of growth-stimulating methods to help people use more of their potentialities by (1) developing better communication with self, others, nature, and God -- the four basic relationships within which all growth occurs; (2) developing new skills of relating in mutually-affirming, mutually-fulfilling ways; (3) growing by making constructive decisions and taking responsible action; (4) using the growth possibilities inherent in each life stage; (5) learning to use the pain and problems of unexpected crises as growth opportunities; (6) learning better methods of spiritual growth -- the maturing of one's personal faith, working values, sense of purpose, peak experiences, and awareness of really belonging in the universe.

Growth marriage counseling is only one of many applications of this general approach to liberating the potential of people. But church-related counselors probably have more opportunities as growth enablers in marriage and family relationships than in any other area.


Hope-Centered Counseling

Growth counseling is hope-oriented counseling. Hope exerts a powerful pull toward constructive change. Conversely, hopelessness is a powerful block to such change. Therefore, these methods aim explicitly at mobilizing realistic hope in the lives of individuals or couples. I suspect that hope is the most neglected force for helping human beings change. Growth methods don't ignore pain, conflict, and problems -- the messy, grubby side of any marriage. To do so would paralyze growth by denying reality. This has been the weakness of the "positive thinking" approaches. Growth counseling methods help people deal with their pain in the context of reality-based hope. This not only makes the pain look very different but also releases remarkable energies for coping constructively with the pain!

Growth marriage counseling is a way of helping people cope constructively with problems and conflicts. It uses many of the methods of traditional couple marriage counseling, but it adds a vigorous, sustained emphasis on hope-creating awareness of the couple's past successes -- however limited -- their present strengths, and their ability to create a better future by using more of their assets.

Faith (in the sense of trust), hope, and love are, as the First Letter to the Corinthians says so beautifully, crucial and lasting dynamics in all good human relationships, especially intimate ones like marriage. But when things are going badly and all three have grown faint, hope is the power by which trust and love are revitalized, and with these three a marriage is reborn.

The same is true in monotonous marriages in which couples are resigned to flat, two-dimensional relationships. Only if the power of hope is released will they discover the latent marriage that is theirs, a marriage with more heights and depths, more aliveness and conflict, more zest, pain, and fulfillment than they had imagined. The growth approach aims at helping a couple actualize hope by learning new skills for nourishing rather than starving their love!


A Third-Force Approach

The "third force" in psychology and psychotherapy -- the human potentials, value-oriented approaches -- provides much of the theoretical foundation for growth counseling. (The first and second forces are psychoanalysis and behaviorism.) The towering figure in the third force, the late Abraham Maslow, distinguished between deficiency needs and growth needs. Traditional psychotherapy, he pointed out, concentrated mainly on persons suffering massive deficiencies of their basic psychological needs for security, love, and esteem. In studies of "self-actualizing" people he found that a new need emerges in persons who have learned to satisfy their basic needs. Their new need is to continue to grow by developing their creativity and their unused potentialities.

I find that an awareness of the persistent but often hidden growth strivings in people is immensely useful in counseling with those suffering from major basic need hungers -- for example, couples with deeply pained lives and troubled marriages. This awareness is indispensable in enriching normal marriages.

The distinction between deficiency and growth needs provides a guideline for keeping balance in one's helping activities. The distinction points to the two sides of the counseling and pastoral care coin -- counseling/healing and nurture/prevention. As every parish minister knows, marriage counseling is both unavoidable and a vital form of human help. But the church is also called to be a growth-nurture-training center for the vast majority of a congregation who do not need "counseling" at any given time. Unfortunately, in recent decades, counseling has tended to be the tail that wagged the pastoral care dog. It is more productive to make the nurturing of "normal" people throughout the life cycle normative. For me, this means investing at least three times as much caring time and leadership (ministerial and lay) in person-building, human enrichment activities (including short-term growth-oriented counseling) as in helping those with deep deficiency needs through longer-term pastoral counseling.

The growth counselor can use the human potentials and lifelong development perspectives as the hub of the wheel around which insights and methods from the newer growth oriented psychotherapies -- e.g., reality therapy, transactional analysis, gestalt therapy, action therapies -- can be integrated. The growth perspective also allows the integration into one's approach of growth-enhancing insights from the older psycotherapies -- Jungian, Adlerian, Rankian, and Freudian.

Growth counseling blends third-force thinking with what I call the "fourth force" in psychology and counseling -- relationship-building methods including couple marriage counseling, conjoint family therapy, couple group counseling, and multiple-family support groups. In contrast to intra-psychic and one-to one methods, these approaches seek to liberate directly an entire relationship system -- a marriage, family, or group -- so that everyone in that network will be freer to grow. These methods take seriously the fact that, for better or worse, we are inescapably "members one of another" (Eph. 4:25). Growth or stagnation results from the quality of our relationship!


Liberating the Power of the Pastoral

Growth counseling can help one strengthen an authentic theological and pastoral identity in caring and counseling work. And when I use the term "pastoral" I clearly do not mean to exclude, but precisely to include, the ministry of the laity. Growth counseling can help us church-related counselors use more of our seven unique resources:

Biblical Insights

Growth counseling enables us to rediscover and implement growth-centered, people-liberating insights that are deep in our biblical heritage. These insights, which have been restated beautifully in the relational and growth-oriented philosophy of Martin Buber, are energizers. When they touch the heart of an individual or a group or a church, they stimulate the flow of new creative energies. Human potentials thinkers such as Maslow affirm in modern psychological language deep, neglected dimensions in our spiritual heritage. Let's look at some growth oriented biblical insights.

The ancient insights that we human beings are children of God (Rom. 8:16) and that our spirits are formed in the divine image (Gen. 1:27) express the awareness that each of us has tremendous possibilities within us. The fulfillment of these possibilities is awaited "with eager longing" by the whole creation (Rom. 8:19). Think of it! All of life is on the side of growth and fulfillment.

The growth parables -- the leaven (Matt. 13:33; Luke 13:21), the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31; Mark 4:31; Luke 13:19), the sower (Matt. 13:3; Mark 4:3; Luke 8:5), the talents (Matt. 25:14-15) -- all have new meaning for me since I've been turned on by the growth perspective. They refer to the way God's kingdom -- the new kind of world of love and justice -- is coming, by growing! And we all are invited to participate in this growth process.

Jesus' basic life-style was people-creating. This is seen most clearly in his remarkable skill of drawing forth extraordinary gifts from "ordinary people." He could "see" in a fisherman with obvious weaknesses an underlying potential for rocklike strength. And so he called Simon by a new name -- Peter, which means "rock." By looking at people in terms of their becoming, Jesus helped enable them to become! That was "good news" -- a new quality of relationships is possible and in these relationships a new quality of human consciousness can develop. That was good news in the first century; it is good news today -- news that is needed in our inner lives, our marriages, our churches, and our world. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus' purpose in coming is described as enabling people to find life "in all its fullness" (John 10:10 NEB). Life in all its fullness -- this is what growth counseling is about. What a beautiful theme for a growth-centered church and ministry!

Time-tested biblical insights about the resistance to growth provide a healthy corrective to the unrealistic optimism which sometimes appears in the human potentials movement. What's wrong with simple nature analogies -- for example, "We're all seeds becoming plants, becoming flowers"? The growth forces are in us, as in a seed. But there are also complex, persistent forces in human beings and in society which resist growth. The biblical awareness is that we often use our freedom to cut ourselves off from those very growth-empowering relationships for which our hearts long. This points to a reality which can't be ignored if we're going to be growth enablers. Whether called by the traditional religious word "sin" or by the traditional psychotherapeutic word "resistance," it must be dealt with. The biblical awareness is that a dying must precede every rebirth -- that our personal Easters cannot occur unless that which keeps us from experiencing the resurrection of awareness and caring dies. Thus, growth is often painful and anxiety-arousing as well as joyful and energizing. It hurts to let go of something, however constricting, that has at least made us feel protected. Growth involves risking. It requires the "leap of trust."

The biblical insights about resources for growth are also important. Like life itself, all growth is a gift and a mystery. Growth occurs through a process which releases energies from beyond ourselves as well as within ourselves. We can choose whether we will participate in this enlivening process or not, but we need not and cannot create the growth energies. The awareness that all growth is a gift of God, the creative Spirit, helps get us out of the center. The challenge we all face is to learn to facilitate the flow of the growth-enabling energies of the universe through our relationships.

A Fellowship of Persons -in-Relationship

Growth counseling enables us to use more fully the rich opportunities which are inherent in the fact (which we usually take for granted) that a church is a fellowship, a network of groups, individuals, and families. Relationships are both the place and the power of growth. Church-related counselors have direct, regular entree to a wide variety of relationships. Growth counseling can help persons "turn on to life through people." Having an ongoing relationship with a majority or near-majority of families in most communities creates a unique opportunity for churches that is shared by no other social institution. Growth groups, combining mutual nurturing and relationship training, provide better tools than ever before to utilize this opportunity. In responding to this opportunity, churches are discovering deeper meanings in the New Testament image of the church as the body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16; Eph. 4:12).

Personal Contacts Throughout the Life Cycle

Growth counseling enables us to help each other use the developmental crisis of each life stage as a growth opportunity. As the only institutions with ongoing face-to-face contact with "normal" people throughout the life cycle, churches have a unique opportunity to help people use the extended life-span given us by medical progress. To do this effectively, a church should become a lifelong learning and growth center.

Natural Contacts With Persons in Crises

The growth-counseling approach also enhances a counselor's ability to use his/her natural contacts with many persons going through unexpected crises such as sickness, bereavement, and divorce. Short-term, action-oriented crisis-counseling methods (one aspect of growth counseling) are a "natural" for a minister or lay befriender. Such methods often are effective in a few sessions, allowing persons in crises to rally inner strengths and learn better ways of coping.

Christian Life-Style as Responsible Action

Growth counseling, being decision-oriented and action-centered, draws on another strength in our tradition -- the fact that the Christian life-style is a way of living, not just a way of believing. Personal growth often occurs more quickly by helping a person make a decision and take responsible action than by focusing mainly on changing feelings and attitudes.

Ordinary People in Mutual Ministry

The growth approach helps to mobilize the power of ordinary people to help each other through mutual ministry. The individuals in every congregation who have the capacity for this ministry of growth are a gold mine of largely untapped helping resources. Their abilities can be released through a systematic training-for-caring program.

The Focus on Spiritual Development

Growth counseling, by recognizing that spiritual development is at the center of all truly human growth, allows us to use the unique resources of our religious heritage and theological training in our counseling and enrichment work. Today, with the collapse of the old "certainties," many people suffer from value-confusion, meaning-emptiness, childish consciences, and theological future shock. The ability to be a spiritual-growth enabler has never been more important.

Pastoral growth counseling moves beyond the third and fourth forces in counseling and therapy to the "fifth force" -- by which I mean insights and methods of spiritual counseling and growth. Recognizing that "the spiritual" is what is uniquely human, growth counseling brings the resources of one's religious heritage to the task of facilitating the maturing of one's faith, conscience, and relationship with God. The goal is a liberated and liberating spirit, open to experiencing the truth that makes us free (John 8:32) -- free to grow, free to love and care, free to make a constructive impact on society, free to become all that the Creator dreamed for us to become!



 1. Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being, p. 5

2. Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Toward a Recognition of Androgyny (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973), pp. x and xiii.

3. Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being, p. 5.

4. Martin Buber, Between Man and Man (Boston: Beacon, 1955), p. 84.


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