Skills Are Never Enough
At this point in the marriage counseling course we’ve mapped out the connections between worship and relationships, the basic truths of God’s purposes for marriage, and utilized these in analyzing various case studies. And while my students are always appreciative and thoughtful about the conceptual framework, they are itching to get “practical”. They want to know how to impart the skills needed to succeed in marriage. I’m ready to get down to the nuts and bolts, too, but this is the part of the course where I’m always careful to remind them that relational skills alone are not the key to a successful marriage. In fact, imparting relational skills without anchoring them in Christ’s love is downright dangerous.
Oddly enough, it’s a point that I often emphasize by reminding the class of something we learned from Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman, arguably the most practically-minded marital researcher around. Gottman notes that most marital counseling is ineffective precisely because it is entirely focused on imparting relational skills (i.e. active listening and problem solving – Gottman, p.9). So what’s the critical ingredient? Based on research he’s conducted by observing hundreds of couples and analyzing thousands of hours of videotaped observation Gottman explains that successful marriages aren’t based simply on skills but on “deep friendship” (ibid., p.19). Not the sort of sublime scientific conclusion you were expecting, I’ll bet. In fact, it sort of has a biblical ring to it when you think about it. You see, Gottman’s understanding of what it means to be scientific won’t allow him to use language any more subjective than friendship, and even that’s pressing the envelope. In fact he’s careful to fortify his conclusion with lingo like “emotional intelligence” and “positive sentiment override”, but I think he’s using friendship as a way of describing love without having to use the word.
But as biblical counselors we’re not afraid of the word love. In fact, it is the basis of everything we do as Christians and marriage counselors. The Apostle Paul writes, “Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10). So whatever is helpful about communication and conflict resolution skills is only helpful because it is somehow an expression of Christ’s love. In other words, using an “I statement” may help you communicate with your spouse because it unwittingly approximates the humility Christ requires of us. Or paraphrasing your spouse’s words may help because it embodies a biblical call to understanding before speaking. But without Christ, how do we escape our sinful tendency to use all those skills to serve ourselves?
So, by all means let’s get practical. Let’s call spouses to action. But let’s make sure they are acting in love as we help them rely on the grace of Christ.