Chapter 8: Helping Couples in Crisis

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

Chapter 8: Helping Couples in Crisis

Self-actualization does not mean a transcendence of all human problems. Conflict, anxiety, frustration, sadness, hurt, and guilt can all be found in healthy human beings. 1. -- Abraham Maslow

If he is satisfied to ‘analyze’ him . . . then he may be successful in some repair work. . . . But the real matter, the regeneration of an atrophied personal centre, will not be achieved. This can only be done by one who grasps the buried latent unity of the suffering soul . . . and this can only be attained in the person-to-person attitude of a partner, not by the

examination of an object. 2. -- Martin Buber

Young Adults’ Pressure Cooker

For many, the young adult years are filled with countless demands, adjustments, and crises, large and small. Think of what a typical young couple must learn to handle, all within a few years -- coping with marriage, new jobs, pregnancy, caring for a baby, limited finances, a large mortgage and other debts.

Thomas Holmes, professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington, has developed a rating scale for the stresses caused by common life crises. 3. The death of a spouse he assigned a stress score of 100; he then rated other crises in terms of the stresses they caused in the people he studied. Look at the stress ratings of these changes which are common among young couples: marriage -- 50; pregnancy -- 40; sex difficulties -- 39; new family member -- 39; mortgage over $10,000 -- 31; trouble with in-laws -- 29; wife beginning or stopping work -- 26; beginning or ending school -- 26; revision of personal habits -- 24; trouble with boss -- 23; change in residence -- 20. Holmes found that 53 percent of persons with total stress scores between 150 and 300 developed serious mental or emotional ailments; 80 percent of those with ratings over 300 developed such ailments. A not atypical young adult couple who experienced only half of the crises listed in a limited time, would have a stress rating near 180! It is clear that many marriage crises among such couples result in part from other stresses which have knocked a relationship out of balance.

All this points to the critical need for counseling and pastoral care, and for support and enrichment groups to be readily available to young couples. Fortunately, we now have better counseling tools for helping marriages and families in crises than ever before.

Marriage Growth Counseling

Marriage growth counseling is an approach to helping couples in crises -- one which has as its explicit goals the growth of the individuals and their relationship. Individuals often cope poorly with crises because of long-blocked growth and unlived life. Similarly, many couples cope poorly with ordinary crises because of chronic neglect of the development of their marriage. Marriage crises are potential growth opportunities. Their pain confronts couples with the necessity of making their marriages more fulfilling. The growth counseling approach uses action-oriented crisis counseling methods which aim at helping the couple: (1) activate their own latent coping resources quickly by providing a short-term supportive relationship, (2) understand the parts of their problem and their action options in each, and (3) begin immediately taking actions which will improve their relationship.

Awakening Hope

Let’s face it, many marriage crises don’t result in growth! Instead they are occasions of disintegration -- for escalating the mutual starvation and rage in a marriage. A crisis is a fork in the road -- the couple turns either toward growth or toward greater alienation.

The growth opportunities in a crisis can be used by the person or couple, only if realistic hope is awakened. The methods described in this chapter all seek to ignite and fan a couple’s flickering sparks of hope. The key is to keep two things in balance throughout counseling: (1) dealing effectively with their problems and pain (toward which a couple gravitates automatically), and (2) affirming repeatedly their assets, strengths, past successes (however limited), and their ability to improve their marriage. The purpose of affirming these things is to ignite hope by helping them recognize the resources in themselves. The counselor must help the couple look at what’s still healthy and right with their relationship as well as what’s mutually destructive and unworkable.

The communication and conflict-resolution tools already described in chapters 4 and 5 are useful in couple counseling. And the basic methods of marriage counseling and crisis counseling I have discussed elsewhere can all be valuable in growth counseling if the counselor uses them in hope-eliciting ways. 4.

A Bridge of Understanding

The crucial first step in any counseling is to build a bridge of trust and understanding with the couple. I usually begin by saying: "As I see it, it takes strength and courage to admit there’s a problem and seek help. I want you to know that I appreciate this fact." Then the simple words, "Tell me about it," usually open the floodgates for the wound-cleansing outpouring of hurt and anger about the crisis. Each person should describe the problem from a personal perspective, the counselor making sure that each has comparable opportunities to speak on all issues. By listening in depth to what each person is feeling as well as saying, and by responding with warmth and understanding, the counselor helps them drain off the paralyzing pressure of resentment and guilt. This gradually frees their capacities to communicate more clearly and resolve issues more effectively.

After hearing both persons’ perceptions, I state my understanding of how each sees the problems. Then, as a hope awakener, I say in effect: "You’re in a difficult crisis in your marriage; you’re both feeling very hurt by what’s happened. It has taken a lot of strength to bear as much pain as you have been through. As I see it, a crisis can be a valuable signal that lets us know things must change. It confronts you with the necessity of learning how to improve your marriage so there’ll be less hurt and more satisfaction for you both. Would you be interested in working together for five or six sessions to see if you can begin to do this? We could then evaluate to see if you wish to have additional sessions."

The Less Motivated Person

In marriage counseling, the relationship is what needs help, so it’s crucial to involve both partners if possible. If only one comes, do everything possible to involve the absent person -- perhaps phoning (with the other’s permission) and saying: "Your spouse feels that there are some problems in your marriage. (There are always two viewpoints, of course.) I could be of more help in the situation, if I had an opportunity to hear how you see things. Would you be willing to come in Tuesday at 7:00 P.M.?"

If either partner seems weakly motivated with respect to wanting to change, it’s essential for the counselor to communicate warm understanding of that person’s feeling and perception of the problem. Separate sessions with each person often help build the essential bridges of trust. The counselor can sometimes awaken motivation by focusing on the two factors which cause anyone to become open to help -- pain and hope. By lifting up the painful consequences of not improving things and simultaneously stimulating realistic hope for building a more mutually satisfying relationship, latent motivation may be activated.

If it’s possible to counsel with only one partner, focus on that person’s side of the marriage alone and what she or he can possibly do to improve that. Avoid the pitfall of attempting to analyze or manipulate the absent partner.

The Intentional Marriage Method In Crisis Counseling

The primary hope-awakener in marriage crisis counseling is a modified version of the IMM (see above chap. 2). This has proved to be remarkably effective even in some deeply pained marriages. It’s usually wise to use the underlying principles flexibly and informally rather than to present the

IMM as a formal series of steps. In crisis counseling, a first stage -- which isn’t essential when using the IMM in enrichment events -- often is required as a preliminary to the stages that follow:

Identifying the Pain

It is important to know what needs to change in order to decrease the pain and increase the satisfactions. The structured approach to this is to ask one person to finish the sentence, as many times as she/he desires, "I don’t like it when you . . Then the other person does the same. If a couple comes with lots of issues and fury, as many do, a structured approach isn’t necessary. They will move into stage one spontaneously if the counselor opens with, "Tell me about the problem." But with couples who have deadlocked communication or who say, "I don’t know what the trouble is, I just don’t love him (her) anymore," the structure can help give focus to the vague pain. Incidentally, unfaced anger and mutual need deprivation are usually at the roots of the "I don’t love him (her)" feeling. This new stage one aims to help the couple express and drain off their anger, reopen blocked communication channels, and get a clear picture of areas of pain in which they need to make improvements.

Becoming Aware of Surviving Satisfactions and Strengths

After the acute hurt and anger are reduced, I ask: "In spite of all the pain are there things you still like in the marriage or in your spouse? If so, it may help to be aware of these. Let me suggest that you take turns listing whatever you still appreciate. OK?" It usually comes as a hope-engendering surprise to discover that the other person still appreciates as much as he (she) does about oneself and the marriage. The counselor’s opportunity, at this point, is to affirm them: "It sounds as though you still have some important things going for you. This is hopeful since these are strengths on which you can rebuild a more satisfying marriage."

Even with couples still caught up in the cycle of mutual blame, it often helps to ask as you close the first session if there is anything they still like about each other or the marriage. If either person resists moving into stage two, wait for a later session and try it again.

Stating Your Needs Clearly and Directly

Counselor: "It’s obvious that you haven’t been getting a lot of what each has wanted from the other. Your marriage will improve if you learn to meet more of your own and each other’s needs. I’d like to have you work on this by doing two things -- stating your needs directly and really hearing what the other is saying. One of you begin by completing the sentence, ‘I need from you . . . ‘ as many times as you can. The other listens carefully to understand what is being said."

After one person, perhaps the wife, lists her needs, the counselor says: "Good. Now, a valuable marriage skill is ‘checking out the other person’s messages.’ Let me ask you to practice this by stating to your wife the things she said she needs -- to make sure the messages got through accurately." The counselor can affirm the wife for her skill in stating clearly and directly, and the husband for his skill in listening -- however limited the skills of each at this stage. The husband then states his needs while his wife listens. Coaching each person in these two communications skills -- and others -- is very important; so is teaching them to restate vague or generalized needs in terms of specific behaviors they want from each other.

Recontracting to Meet More of Each Persons Needs

Counselor: "A satisfying marriage is a two-way street, balancing the give and the take. Which of your spouse’s needs are you willing to meet, assuming that your partner is willing to meet some of yours in exchange? Will each of you state what you’re willing to do this week, what you’re willing to change, in order to meet some need of the other, and then see if you can come to an agreement that seems fair to you both? I’ll jot down what you each decided to do so we’ll be sure everyone understands the plan."

The counselor can help a couple enrich their marriage further by asking: "What would you both enjoy doing together this week? I suggest that you plan this now as one way of getting more pleasure back into your lives."

After a couple has agreed on a feasible plan the counselor may say: "I want to commend you on taking a positive step. You’ve used a new skill, that of revising a small part of your marriage contract to meet better the needs of both. Please keep track of your efforts this week, and be sure to tell each other that you appreciate it when your partner follows through in meeting your needs. Remember, appreciating each other openly will make it easier for you to succeed in your plan."

Counselor at the beginning of next session: "Well, how did your new plan work?" The counselor should commend them for whatever degree of success they achieved. Most couples have a mixture of successes and failures. It’s better not to do a long analysis of why they failed; this reinforces failure. Instead, help them develop another change plan which is workable, perhaps with coaching by the counselor.

The cumulative effect of the use of the IMM by couples in crisis is to help them resolve their crisis by learning how to move away from self-defeating Child-Child or Parent-Child relating -- for example, desperate attempts to force the other to meet one’s needs by demanding, manipulating, pleading, and threatening -- and toward more Adult-Adult relating -- for example, negotiating openly to find ways to meet each other’s needs and thus get one’s own needs met more fully. 5. Affirming behavior by the counselor and by the couple helps to keep "not OK" inner Child feelings from sabotaging Adult-Adult communication. As marriages become more mutually fulfilling, couples begin to enjoy satisfying each other’s needs; at this point they have moved to positive complementarity in the marriage. They are no longer trapped by their own neurotic interaction. Instead, they are growing in their ability to create rather than drift into their future. This process is empowered by hope and results in an enhancement of hope, based on the fulfillments they have already experienced.

Referral and Follow-up

Short-term marriage growth counseling tends to be effective with couples who are still committed to the marriage, are willing to work together to build or rebuild what is missing, and have some surviving mutual satisfactions in their relationship. For long deadlocked or deeply disturbed marriages longer-term marriage therapy often is essential. However, before making a referral to a competent marriage therapist, 6. try the growth approach for a few sessions. I’m sometimes amazed by what happens if one can "push the growth button" in people, thereby releasing the power of fresh hope.

After marriage counseling or therapy, or during its latter phases, encourage couples to join a couples enrichment group. This will help them continue their growth work, give valuable peer support and honest feedback, and provide them the satisfactions of helping others to grow. Such follow-up groups can greatly increase the long-range effectiveness of counseling.

Divorce as Growth

Not all marriages can or should be saved. If one person refuses to change, or if after prolonged and competent counseling the couple is still strangling each other’s personhood, separation and divorce become necessary. Breaking free from a person-damaging marriage can be a sign of personal growth. Coping with the pain and rebuilding one’s relationships after divorce can be a growth opportunity.

Attracting People to Seek Help Sooner

The growth approach to ministry is one key to helping people seek counseling long before they’re on the brink of divorce. Seldom have I led an enrichment retreat that didn’t result in at least one referral for further help. The fact that congregations sponsor marriage enrichment events communicates the message that they care about helping couples improve their relationships. As more people participate, they discover that everyone has problems and that it’s a sign of strength to seek help when it’s needed. As a congregation discovers the healing power of caring and sharing, the need of its people to keep up "marital fronts" diminishes. And as the parish grapevine carries the word that the minister really helps couples handle the problems of living with new hope, trust, and self-esteem, the climate of a congregation frees people to seek help sooner.



1. Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being, p. 210.

2. Buber, I and Thou, pp. 132 -- 33.

3. The Christian Ministry, July 1971, p. 14.

4. See H. Clinebell, Basic Types of Pastoral Counseling, chaps. 6 -- 9.

5. See Campos and McCormick, Introduce Your Marriage to Transactional Analysis, and Introduce Yourself to Transactional Analysis.

6. For names of well-trained counselors write the American Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, 225 Yale Avenue, Claremont, Calif. 91711, or the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, 3 West 29th Street, New York, N. Y. 10001.