Pastors are all familiar with that couple. The couple that asks for help and says something has to change, and now! But why the sudden urgency? Maybe something has come out: there’s been adultery, a secret sin, or an addiction that has been discovered. Or, it may be that what has been irritating for five, ten, or twenty years has reached a tipping point and become unbearable.

It’s easy to get caught up in the emotional swell that happens in this scenario. We too feel like something has to happen immediately. But is that really the case? Is this how we can best help in these emotionally charged situations? And do we really understand the couple and the situation well enough from what we can glean in one counseling session?

As pastors and counselors, we need to step back from these emotionally charged encounters and carefully consider how to help the hurting couple. Below, I share five common mistakes that pastors sometimes make in marital counseling and how to avoid them. My aim is to share insights I have learned as a counselor and pastor to better equip you in your ministry.

Mistake #1: Trying to fix things too quickly

The first challenge we encounter in this type of situation is getting caught up in the emotions of the moment and feeling that we have to fix the problem immediately. However, if we give in to that pressure, we are much more likely to say something that isn’t helpful. In the first thirty minutes, hour, or two hours, of counseling we often don’t know enough to be all that helpful.

So how do we avoid this mistake? Here are a few principles to keep in mind:

  1. Slow things down. Step back from the pressure to “fix” something and invite each spouse to share his or her experience without interruption or letting an argument erupt.
  2. Listen well. Listen carefully and make sure you understand them. Repeat back to them what you have heard and how you understand it to ensure you are all on the same page.
  3. Validate the difficulty of the situation. Communicate that you understand how difficult it is for them to walk through this experience.
  4. Let them know you care. A couple may be asking for a quick fix, but what they really need is for you to begin loving them well by demonstrating that you care about their situation. Make sure that your words, attitude, and tone all communicate genuine concern and care.
  5. Commit to walking with them. Tell the couple that you are committed to being on this journey with them. It will be a process, but you will walk with them through it. If you want them to stick with it, then you need to stick with it.
  6. Create an expectation of work. Their situation did not happen overnight, so it cannot be fixed overnight. It will take time and effort. Often it has taken years to get to the place where they are, so it will take time for things to improve.

Mistake #2: Not setting concrete goals

In counseling, it can be easy for us to wander around, discussing many topics but not making clear progress. That’s due in part to the fact that counseling is messy by nature. But sometimes we wander because we don’t have concrete goals to guide our sessions and our overall counseling.

I suggest setting clear, concrete goals that are doable and, if possible, measurable. This not only provides a sense of direction, but it also allows you to measure your progress. For instance, how can we help a couple know when they are communicating better? What will that look and sound like? Talk through these early in the process, write them down, and come back to the goals periodically to assess your progress.

If you are not making progress, review your goals together. Discern together what is needed in the moment to make progress. Are we missing something? Has something changed? Is everyone on board with our approach? Regular evaluation of concrete goals will help you keep moving forward.

Mistake #3: Relying on models that don’t take sin into account

We need to remember that our hearts aren’t neutral places; they aren’t empty love tanks that spouses are responsible to fill for each other. We are fallen, broken people whose hearts are filled with dreams, expectations, fears, and desires that are shaped by sin. So we can’t simply define love as giving each other what we want.

So how does this come into play for the couple we’re discussing? While we counsel, we do need to teach the couple to pay attention to and be considerate of differences in ways that they feel loved, but we also have to help them understand that no one’s heart is neutral. Because we are all sinful, what husbands or wives may want for themselves and what they might ask for from their spouse won’t always be the right or the best thing.

For instance, a wife raised in a home with lots of uncontrolled anger and shouting may feel threatened by marital conflict. We may need to help her husband understand the importance of being calm and affirming in the midst of marital conflict. However, it is not loving for the husband to avoid conflict entirely. I think a lot of Christian enrichment material goes off track in asking spouses to become experts in knowing what the other spouse wants and assuming that is what they must give. Couples need to understand each other’s desires and fears, but also learn how to wisely and carefully challenge them. Sometimes what a spouse prefers isn’t what is best. Spouses must learn to love the other in a way that is wise, even if it is unpleasant for both of them.

Mistake #4: Taking the responsibility of changing the couple

All of us want to be effective in what we do. As pastors and counselors we want to see people grow in Christ, but too often we place the responsibility of change on ourselves. We assume that change is solely the result of what we say or do with the couple. But it is critical for us to understand that no one, no matter how passionate or gifted, has the responsibility or the power to actually change another person. Meaningful change only happens when spouses decide to change.

Oftentimes I see spouses stuck in chronic cycles of conflict and anger, each convinced that the other is the one who needs to change. Their angry words and actions are attempts at forcing the other to change. Of course this never works. It only leads to increasing levels of anger, bitterness, and, ultimately, hopelessness. In those moments, it is important to remind them that their relationship with God—the fruitfulness of that, the joy of that, the peace of that—is not dependent on their ability to change their spouse. Ultimately, God is after a change in us, and that is all we are responsible for anyway. We can only choose to change ourselves; we cannot make other people change.

To do the hard work of marriage requires that they keep it up over the long haul, and spouses need to see the importance of becoming a new person even when the other spouse chooses not to. Hopefully the other spouse may witness godly change and want change as well, but even if that spouse does not, the one who is willing to change will have more joy and more richness in his or her relationship with Christ that no one can take away.

So it’s important to remember that you as a pastor cannot make the couple change.

Mistake #5: Going at it alone

Finally, many of us in ministry have a tendency to be lone rangers. As pastors, we can get caught up at times in our own ministries and our own churches. The same is true of our own counseling cases. Either we forget that we aren’t on our own or we believe that we can do it better without someone else’s help.

But don’t go at it alone. Find other resources—other couples or another church leader—who can mentor the couple or reinforce the work you are doing. Another great resource is other seasoned counselors who can give you advice on those you are counseling. Do you know counselors or other pastors in your area who have experience with these sorts of things? If so, talk to them. Get some other ideas on how to help and how to encourage change in these difficult moments.

You don’t have to be a lone ranger; this will only make you as the counselor suffer. It is also a recipe for disaster for ministry in general.

Final thoughts

The next time you encounter a difficult couple in counseling, remember this advice: slow down, set concrete goals, get at the heart, don’t force change, and use your resources. Not only will you be better equipped for helping the man and woman who come to you for counsel, you will be less frustrated and will better understand the issues at hand.

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