Tuesday, August 05, 2008

CCEF Paper #4: Marriage Counseling


John Gottman doesn’t offer a definition of a successful marriage, but his seven-part counsel for his readers suggests something like this: Marriage, at its best, is equal and affectionate partners in life achieving their dreams together. Couples can do this by increasing their “emotional intelligence” in specific ways.

Gottman believes that science has proven that couples who are dialed into each other’s lives in such a way that they really know their partners (especially their “dreams”), enjoy one another, listen to each other, and resolve at least their easier conflicts will stay together and achieve some measure of happiness (apparently the sunnum bonnum of marriage).

In this scheme, God is almost completely absent, at least in any authoritative sense (Almighty Science has taken His place). The only reason given for a couple to stay together when having trouble is the long term health benefits for them and their children (and that’s only if there is a good chance of the marriage becoming happy)! There is no transcendent quality to marriage beyond the personal dreams and “shared meaning” created by the couple themselves (principle #7).

There is plenty of good advice for growing in the skills needed to love your spouse–turning towards your spouse is a great idea! However, the skillful love required is definitely natural, not supernatural, a few of the suggestions are atrocious (ex. speaking harshly against someone who has had a conflict with your spouse to build solidarity as a couple), and the whole thing assumes that each partner is generally a good person who just needs to work on their relational skills.

“Becoming a dream detective” (part of principle #6) is terrific counsel for understanding what motives underlie a behavior or a conflict. But each dream suggested is described as “beautiful” and equal with any others. No dreams are considered bad, evil, sinful or even simply inordinate. What if these dreams collide? Gottman has no solution for such situations, believing that some conflicts are unsolvable and, probably, that most dreams are immutable.


In direct contradistinction, Gary Thomas believes that marriage is all about God, supernatural grace is needed to truly love your spouse, and some dreams need to die. In Sacred Marriage, Thomas describes matrimony as a covenant relationship before God that is intended to sanctify both partners. The marital sunnum bonnum is holiness, not happiness (though happiness would be an eternal by-product of holiness!).

This book is not full of practical advice for building “love-skills;” rather, it is packed with rationale for leaning into suffering service of your mate to shape your character and grow your relationship with God. Thomas teaches that marriage is a school of agape love, a laboratory for prayer, a classroom for learning to serve, and an mirror to expose sin and reveal God. Most of the chapter subtitles include the word “can,” describing the personal spiritual benefits that can be gained by obedience to God in a marriage (the other chapter subtitles also imply this). For Thomas, failure in marriage means not taking advantage of those sanctifying benefits and dishonoring God.

The book urges Christians to embrace the harder parts of marriage, not only because God says to, but because it will ultimately be good for them.


Leslie Vernick’s book is written in much the same vein as Sacred Marriage, even favorably quoting Thomas’ book numerous times. Her main emphasis, however, is how (and why) to act righteously when your mate is acting unrighteously.

The purpose of marriage in Vernick’s book appears to be the glory of God and the growing holiness of and attendant blessings on the obedient partner. It is very sympathetic to those suffering in difficult marriages, but calls them to always opt for obedience even when (especially when!) sinned against. Marriage is the crucible in which the fire of trial refines the gold of the believer.

Vernick emphasizes the power to choose to do what is right (flowing from a heart centered on God). Spouses need to choose to respond (not merely react), to choose to guard their hearts, to choose to worship, to choose to grow, to choose to love. Believers are not controlled by the actions of their partners but can (by God’s empowering grace) act in ways that are counter-intuitive and God-pleasing. There are a number of practical suggestions of how to make these good choices while embroiled in a difficult marital relationship (chapter 8 on “Gifts of Love” is especially helpful). I regularly give this book to counselees whose partners have bewilderingly gone off the rails.

Vernick also emphasizes the blessings that come with obedience in the marriage but stresses that these blessings may not always include the positive change of and/or reconciliation with an offending spouse. The marriage does not exist for itself and may die a painful death, and yet even then, it can be successful in God’s all wise eyes.

Taken together, How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong and Sacred Marriage both present a Christian view of marriage–marriage as God-given, God-centered, God-blessed, God-empowered, and God-accountable.


God is strangely missing in David Olson’s book. Even though Integrative Marriage Therapy is part of a Lutheran book series on “Creative Pastoral Care and Counseling,” I didn’t detect even one reference to the Lord. For Olson, apparently, the important parts of marriage are only horizontally oriented.

Olson’s approach comes from a “family systems” understanding of human behavior. “Family therapy focuses on the interaction between people as the principal area for insight and change. By creating changes in the both the structure and the communication of the family, one can frequently resolve problems and achieve a more appropriate sense of equilibrium” (pg. 17).

In this understanding of the family, marriage is seen as an “executive subsystem” necessary for leading a healthy family (pg. 57). The chief goal of family therapy seems to be achieving and then maintaining a sense of family equilibrium sometimes referred to as “homeostasis.” Homeostasis seems to be a worldly counterfeit and echo of the biblical idea of shalom. (Note: At times, Olson also seemed to indicate that homeostasis can be a bad kind of equilibrium that a family unhealthily maintains.) Olson introduces seven different models of therapy within this family systems understanding and then suggests a flow-chart method of integrating them to serve the varying needs of different families to reach a healthy homeostasis (pg. 74, Diagram 4).

There is real truth in this approach. Our behavior as individuals affects the people around us, and their lives affect us. We live in community and are shaped by it. Our families are powerful influences upon us, providing both temptations to sin and (in the best families) encouragements towards righteousness. However, in Integrative Family Therapy, the individual’s responsibility for their own actions seems to be greatly diminished. The system seems to control each of the parts.

There is no definition of a healthy marriage here. Married couples are taught to not “triangulate” (siding with their children over against their spouses) and encouraged to see themselves and how they operate as part of the problem that their children are having. But there is no final standard for deciding if a marriage is itself healthy. Everyone does what is right in their own eyes.

My Own Philosophy of Marriage

My own understanding of marriage would share the same basic principles as Gary Thomas and Leslie Vernick. Marriage is a sacred covenant between a man and a woman before the Lord that exists to glorify Him while sanctifying and blessing them. It is all about God. My wife Heather and I are not the main actors in our life’s play, and our marriage is not ultimately about our marriage but about Him. We are married coram Deo, in the presence of God.

This God-centered reality comes out in my counseling of couples. I try to re-frame their understanding of their marital problems and opportunities into biblical categories such as idolatry and sin, active love (defined by 1 Corinthians 13, not Top 40 radio), forgiveness when sinned against, obedience to God’s design (including husbandly headship and wifely submission), faithfulness to our promises, and God-pleasing desires. The ultimate and greatest good for a marriage is one in which both partners are married to the glory of God. Of course, few of my counselees are looking for that kind of talk. Often, by the time they reach my office, they just want to know if their marriage will survive. I try to both practically help them keep going in healthy directions and to lift their gaze to what their marriage could become.

In addition to what Thomas and Vernick are teaching, I would want to also emphasize marital joy. Marriage is God’s gift, not just for sanctification but also for the pleasure and mutual enjoyment of the couple in themselves and in God. John Piper says, “Marriage is a matrix for Christian hedonism,” and he instructs Christians to find their joy in the joy of their beloved. This is not always possible, but when God grants it, it’s a wonderful thing! While reading for the four books for this pre-course assignment, I was repeatedly amazed at how blessed Heather and I are as we enjoy each other in the covenant of marriage. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places!

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