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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Ask the Matriarch -- Couples in Conflict at Christmastime (or Anytime)

Tis the season to be jolly, but for many people, the holidays aren't enough to overcome seasonal bleahs. This can strain relationships between spouses, families, friends and, apparently, internet connections, because mine was down last night and all morning.

Not that I have a relationship with my internet connection. Honest. (Wry look.) Anyway, this week's question has to do with relationships falling apart, and comes from a seminarian.

Hey everybody,
I have a quick question for all my pastor colleagues out there. At my church lately there's been a rash of marriages falling apart. Maybe it's my preaching. If not, there are other factors at play and I'm seriously struggling to provide good counseling and pastoral care; I don't have much experience with troubled marriages. My spouse is easy to get along with. One of the couples is young (mid-20's, married at 18) with the husband initiating the separation, but the others are all middle aged. Some have kids, others do not. The only common thread between the middle-aged adults is that it's the wife who is initiating the split, and when spoken to they voice the same concerns but both spouses say the other partner is to blame for everything. I'm loving and supporting, but my counseling knowledge/experience in this area is nill.
Can anyone steer me towards a good resource or resources to help guide me? Has anyone else experienced this? I guess I'm looking for some support of my own. Tell me I'm normal, Jesus loves me through it all, and everything will turn out alright. Thanks.

Karen offers this important thing to know about pastoral care for couples:
Just some observations based on experience. About half the couples that have come to me annoucing "it's over" have eventually gotten back together, so I've learned to be careful about taking sides in a way that could backfire later.

Also, don't forget the kids. They tend to get lost in the pastoral care shuffle when a marriage is unraveling.

Ann agrees, noting that during this stressful time of year, partners have fewer emotional resources to deal with the strains of marriage:

There is also the idealized image of a relationship that is often in all the holiday programming that makes one's own seem even worse.

It seems like many women stay "for the children's sake." Once they see that the kids are on their own and they feel that they can support themselves, they think "why stay?"

Listening and being supportive without taking sides (unless there is abuse where a person needs to find safety) is the right track, as is encouraging friends to stay out of it.

If it all breaks down there is a good program called Beginning Experience for newly single, divorced, widowed, etc persons - helps them to learn how to grieve and how to have healthy relationships.

As to counseling - the Episcopal church discourages counseling sessions unless the priest has training in that field. A few sessions are okay but after that we are supposed to send them off to a professional. When moving to a new town it is good to check around for resource people for referrals. When I meet with a couple I use Appreciative Inquiry to try to get the couple to remember what it is that they love or loved about each other. A question like tell me about a time in your relationship when you felt very close to your partner and you thought "yes" this is what I love about being married to him/her. Each then tells that incident to their partner.

Another tool I use is Myer-Briggs, although it's not a perfect tool (they can take a short version of the test online - google Kiersey-Bates or Myers-Briggs or Personality Type for a quiz). But it can highlight areas where the most stress is likely to occur in a relationship. My husband and I cannot do wallpapering or read maps together for instance - we have totally different approaches to tasks. He is very linear and and I have a intuitive approach.

Also, a footnote that Ann wanted me to mention: Having recently undergone my own insanity with a friend of my spouse-to-be who really had absolutely no respect for our relationship, I would like to recommend a book for couples who are recovering from affairs or dealing with unwelcome attention from a party creating a triad dynamic in a relationship: NOT "Just Friends" by Shirley Glass.

Feel free to share your insights in comments, or reflect on this question in your own blog and share the link with us!


  1. To the asker: you are normal, Jesus loves you, and if it doesn't all turn out alright, it will end eventually - and it will be okay. Somehow.

    If couples are willing to do counseling, I've used the "Enrich" portion of Prepare/Enrich to help them start thinking about what needs to be dealt with. HOWEVER, I only do 2-3 sessions with married couples and then refer, refer, refer. I am not a counselor. When I was new in town, I asked some colleagues for references on decent counselors.

    Also, take care of your own marriage. I've noticed occasionally that when I am working with a troubled marriage, I get anxious about my own marriage or I get cranky from dealing with cranky people. On the other hand, sometimes I end up appreciating my spouse that much more. At any rate, don't let yourself get dragged into the drama.

    And I agree with the observation that the holiday season just amps everything up to a new level of craziness. Lots of extra stress.

  2. I wanted to respond to the "rash of marriages breaking" up comment.

    Over the years it has seemed to me that things do come in clusters (wave theory at work!) -- there will be the season of mental illness, a cluster of cancer, a bunch of marriages in trouble. It is probably not anything you are doing. Sometimes it is that people gain courage from seeing others take action. Sometimes new couples are forming (and that part of the story somehow doesn't get told to the pastor). Sometimes it's just timing.

    Often when several couples are struggling it seems to raise the overall anxiety in the congregation. Anything you can do to assure the congregation that people are being cared for, that you take all this seriously, that God still knows and loves us all will be helpful.

    I agree with refer, refer, refer. And the more couselors you know the better, because it's not one size fits all. One congregation I served even had a fund to help pay for couple counseling. It was wonderful to be able to offer to pay for half of six sessions, or whatever and it helped the congregation as a whole feel less helpless.

  3. I have to strongly suggest NOT using the Meyers Briggs, unless you are certified in this copyrighted test. It is not a relationship test. It's not normed for that. It requires credentials (a counseling degree or a 40 hour course or both) to deliver and interpret correctly.

  4. I've had some some marital issues presenting themselves at my office door, too! I can deal with the initial crisis, but after a couple of sessions, I refer them to a counselor who specializes in marital counseling. I offer to to what I can to get them back on track spiritually, but for relationship issues, I send them to someone else!

  5. Intteresting in a sad way- I have had 3 similar conversations this week, all with wives who are instigating the action. Listening is key, taking sides is a big no, no- both partners need support no matter who says what.

  6. Marriage counselling is beyond my scope- so along with others I would tend to refer on...

  7. As a pastor you are correct for looking at the bigger picture in this. Its likely that they are gaining confidence and possibly encouragement from each other. I would suggest you talk to the congregation as a whole and offer outings and bonding experiences to help encourage stronger christian relationships and maybe focus on preventing the next.

  8. I agree: refer, refer, refer. Even pastors with training and experience as psychologist would be ill-advised to wear that hat with parishoners.

  9. Just in case it didn't come through in everyone else's comments:

    refer, refer, refer...

  10. ultimately refer...

    but i have found this book incredibly helpful for short term crisis counseling. i've used "the plan" a few times to pretty good effect. i have no training in counseling, but this got me through.

    Hope I'm not too late to comment.


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