Do you work with couples, trying to help them get to a better place, stay together or maybe both?
If so, you may have been in a session and thought, “I have no idea to how to help this couple. How did their relationship become this bad?”
I get it. I’ve heard those stories too, as a divorce attorney and mediator. Some of the most gut-wrenching and the most tragic stories have played out in front of me as I’ve worked with couples in crisis.
You’ve probably had a husband or wife talk to you privately about their partner, leaving you with a mental picture of how difficult their spouse is. Once you meet the other person for yourself and hear their story, it becomes obvious that distorted perceptions are at play.
Sometimes it even gets bizarre... I once had a man compensating for a language barrier, galloping around my office. He was conveying his wife on a broomstick, as he was trying to say she was a witch. But you guessed it—she wasn’t.
We see the strife of war amongst lovers.
In your counseling or supporting role, how do you offer help without becoming a part of the war or simply throwing up your hands in despair?
- Position yourself as an influencer, not as a judge. Resist their attempts to have you ‘join their side’; to exact justice on the other. In all but the exceptional case, there is more complexity to their relationship than you are able to see in a few sessions. There’s an art to influencing without being perceived as judging. Hone that skill. Why? Because once someone feels judged, they’re more likely to check out.
- Establish and enforce boundaries. If you’ve given a couple permission, explicitly or implicitly, to call you when they’re deep into a heated argument, they will. If God’s calling for you is to help couples when they’re in crisis, then by all means, take their call.
But if you have other roles you need to prioritize to be faithful, then what you may need to do is help them think through who they’ll call in the event of crisis (options include, close friends or family who are support people, crisis counselor, small group leader, mental health network, crisis help line, police). Remain within the scope of your calling, considering your education, your expertise and your track record for successfully assisting couples. Clearly communicate your role; what you can and cannot offer, and when. If you’re not the person they turn to in the heat of the moment, God has provided another plan. Help them to understand their plan.
- Have a private session with each one first. You need to assess whether domestic violence, severe power imbalance or unstable mental health is part of the picture. Do what you can to assist and ensure safety for everyone in the family.
- Just as you need a network, they need a network. You need a network of professionals that you can refer couples who are struggling to. Do you have Christian counselors, psychologists, divorce attorneys and mediation professionals you know and trust?
Talk to people about leaning into one or two close friends to journey through this painful season of their lives with. Help them think through which relationships to choose. Who in their support circle will be honest with them, and help them to see their blind spots? Who wants their marriage to win? If the answer is ‘no one’, then do your best to connect them with a professional therapist. One of the questions they need to chase down is, ‘how did I become isolated?’ As you’ve probably observed, isolation is a destructive force in a marriage.
- Guide them to agree on one practical step in the right direction. The purpose of this one step is to bring immediate relief for them and their family if they have kids. See if they’ll make an agreement and sign off on it. Perhaps try an accountability plan.
If they’ve been struggling with unhealthy conflict in front of kids, see if they’ll agree to a signal they can use when they’re getting too heated, to park a conversation and walk away. It may be a code word such as ‘time!’, a hand signal such as ‘stop’, or anything else that is intuitive for them.
Remind them that if they’re being triggered by each other, there’s value in stepping back, debriefing after-the-fact once they’re calm and reaching out for help to figure out ‘why’.
Lastly, since you may not hear it from them, allow me to sincerely thank you for what you’re doing for couples in crisis. Your ministry demands faith and courage, wisdom and skills, with some art thrown in. You’re leaving a legacy.