The Wisdom of Seeking Counsel

I sat across the table in my office from a couple as they each took turns describing their marital conflict. Their litany of complaints stretched back years--accusations of infidelity, emotional outbursts, screaming matches, and tenderly-nursed grudges over past offenses. As a pastor, I am firmly convinced that our sovereign and gracious God can (and does!) perform miracles when it comes to healing marriages. I do all I can to live into this belief when I counsel such couples. Yet, as they traded barbs, I felt a sense of sadness because I feared that it was probably too late to repair the years of damage that had been done. Had they sought help months, or even years earlier, much heartache might have been avoided, and the marriage may have been rescued. Are you in a marriage that might benefit from counseling now, before things get worse?

No Stigma

For many Christians, counseling carries a stigma that leaves them reluctant to seek help. Some view counseling as a practice reserved for weak people or those lacking faith; others might judge counseling too “touchy-feely” and are therefore unwilling to participate in an exercise they deem too emotionally-focused. While some forms of counseling will not be a good fit for every couple, that shouldn’t deter a couple from seeking help when a marriage is in unfamiliar or turbulent waters. It’s not always easy to admit we need help and it’s sometimes even harder to ask for help from someone else, but don’t let pride get in the way of seeking help. Proverbs 12:15 makes this clear: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” Seeking counseling is a way of gaining advice, and though it requires us to be humble in seeking that counsel, this humility is a mark of wisdom. Let’s look at some occasions when seeking counseling from an expert can strengthen, or even save, your marriage.

Routine Maintenance

Some years back, my wife and I attended a personal retreat with a counselor-couple who helped us to tend to the health of our marriage. We weren’t facing a crisis, or significant problem that was threatening our marriage. However, we found that time to check in with another couple allowed us to strengthen our marriage, and refresh us personally. Since that time, we’ll check in with this couple once or twice a year, as a way of maintaining the health of our marriage. We’ve come to see it like preventative maintenance. Checking in with your pastor, or a counselor affords you the chance to identify any issues before they balloon into more serious problems.

Major Decisions

Every couple will navigate through at least a handful of major, life-changing decisions in their marriage. One couple has to decide whether or not adoption will be a good fit for their family, another is trying to figure out where they want to live, still another is weighing whether the career change will be worth the sacrifice. These may not be decisions where there is significant disagreement, but there can still be great value in outside counsel. It’s easy to develop tunnel vision. We focus in on all the (potential!) benefits of a given decision, and we ignore or downplay the potential negatives. A neutral party can raise potential challenges that may be present and can help a couple work through a solution. We are told in Proverbs 15:22 that “without counsel, plans fail, but with many advisers, they succeed.” If you are facing a challenging decision, seeking advice from a counselor can help you through the decision-making process and give you some outside perspective.

Persistent Problems

It’s not uncommon for a married couple to run into the same problem time and again. Do you find that you and your spouse are running into conflict over the same issue repeatedly? Maybe it’s spending habits, balancing time together or apart, sexual expectations, communication patterns, or parenting styles. Every time the issue arises, it’s like you press “play” and each recite the same tired complaints over and over again. Odds are pretty good that one or both of you have become so deeply entrenched in a point of view that you’re no longer listening to one another or considering other perspectives. If you can’t agree to disagree on an issue, if you can’t find a workable compromise or solution, or if you are practicing ineffective communication, good counseling can help you understand what’s happening beneath the surface. Counseling can also provide you communication and conflict tools that can reorient your relationship in a way that will satisfy both of you.

Threatening Trauma

Some of you reading this have, or will, experience a trauma so deep that it feels like it will completely destroy your life. This may be something far in your past, like sexual abuse from your childhood for example. Others will be in a present-day crisis. Perhaps you discover that your spouse has betrayed you, or you experience the tragic loss of a child. The event might involve your spouse (such as a marital infidelity, or learning of a spouse’s addiction) but it might not (such as a tragedy in the family, or childhood abuse). However, the effects of such trauma are often experienced within the marriage and sometimes in ways that seriously threaten the relationship. A husband and wife who don’t learn how to grieve well together may drift far apart, as grief goes untended. The abuse you experienced as a child might mean that it’s terrifying to be vulnerable with your spouse. Counseling is almost always going to be an asset in navigating trauma. Counseling will help you uncover the pain and the damage done, and can help you journey through the trauma to a place of healing. Most importantly, counseling can help you work together as a team.

Seek Counsel!

One of the recurring themes in Proverbs is the wisdom in seeking advice. Those who seek advice are held in high regard, while those who ignore (or refuse to seek) guidance are mocked as fools. Proverbs 19:20 urges us to “listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.” Could your marriage use some help? Listen to the voice of wisdom, and seek out counseling while you have the opportunity to do so!

About the author — Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra

Rob Toornstra has pastored a church in Salem Oregon for the past ten years. He has been married to Amy for fifteen years, and together, they are enjoying the adventure of raising two girls and one boy. For fun, Rob enjoys cooking, reading, aviation, and geocaching.  He is the author of "Naked and Unashamed: How the Good News of Jesus Transforms Intimacy" (Doulos, 2014).

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