Many couples turn to their pastor or deacon when their marriages become rocky. They may seek pastoral guidance for many reasons. Regular parishioners love their priests and invest a great deal of confidence in them. Even among non-Catholics, and even in the era of abuse scandals, priests often are seen as in a singular category of spiritual helper. 

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For the laity, priests represent a unique combination of spiritual father, friend and guide. Shutterstock

A few years ago, a young man in our area climbed on top of the shopping mall and threatened to kill himself by hurling himself off the roof. He asked to speak to a priest, and one of our associate pastors drove over and was sent up on the roof. The young man spoke to Father Jim with trust and openness, and came down safely to receive help. Ironically, the man was not a Catholic; when asked why he’d asked for a priest, he said with innocent surprise, “You’re supposed to ask for a priest at a time like this.” 

Of course, the implicit trust we place in our pastors is not the only reason couples may turn to the Church in times of need. They may have privacy concerns, fear the stigma of seeking mental health counsel, or because health insurance benefits do not cover the cost of marriage counseling. They may also worry that a secular counselor will not respect the role of faith in their lives; research indicates that only about 10 percent of the membership of the American Psychological Association considers religion an important factor in daily life, nearly inverse to the general public. 

There is significant risk that couples seeking pastoral guidance may have not merely a passing marital disagreement, but rather long-standing patterns of addiction, abuse or mental illness. This aspect of pastoral counseling is challenging; while some priests have advanced degrees and professional licenses in mental health, most must rely on pastoral training, some psychology courses, and the guidance of other clergy. 

Pastors want to help their parishioners, but they are limited in the time available for marriage counseling. Fortunately, there are some approaches to counseling that are very appropriate for uncomplicated marital disputes, many of which comprise skills that can be acquired by non-psychological professionals without years of training and supervision. Solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT) and the genogram, while meriting significantly more study and training than the scope of this article, are helpful techniques for short-term, non-emergency situations. 

SFBT was developed in the 1970s by Steve de Shazer and InSoo Kim Berg. SFBT practitioners take the position that people have the tools to solve their problems and that the counselor’s role is to help elicit those solutions. This is done by exploring times when the problem is not happening, what else is happening at that time, and finding ways to increase those exceptions to the problem. For example, a retired couple seeks help because, after 50 years of marriage, they are suddenly angry with one another “all the time.”

The “Miracle Question”

Using an SFBT strategy called the “Miracle Question,” the pastor can ask what would be different tomorrow if their arguing behavior miraculously disappeared. How would they know the problem was gone? What would be the first clues that something was somehow different that morning? “He would make me coffee and not be grumpy,” she may say; he may reply that, “She wouldn’t complain.” 

By eliciting these imaginary clues, the next step is to ask the couple when some of those elements have been present (the cup of coffee, the lack of complaint, a smile, a kind word, etc.). Then explore how they made these exceptions occur, who was doing what, and how they can increase the frequency of these exceptions. If one is careful not to minimize the challenge of increasing the frequency of the exceptions, this approach can be very helpful in instilling hope in discouraged couples. We risk offending couples if we make solving the problem seem too simple, and we risk appearing to buy into their despair if we overplay the difficulty.

The Scaling Question

Another relatively easy-to-implement SFBT strategy is the scaling question. The scaling question asks the couple to rate the recent severity of the problem on a 1-10 scale, and then challenges them to identify what would be happening to let them know things were a little better. A young couple has been fighting about child discipline. On a 1-10 scale, she rates the problem very bad, at a 2, and he nearly as poorly at a 3. What would have to happen to move that scale up a half-point for each of them? 

The pastor’s role would be to elicit the couple’s notions of solutions, clarify them in behavioral terms and help them move toward commitment to attempt those small steps. It’s important to help the couple be very specific about changes so that the objectives are clear and measurable. “We won’t fight as much about discipline,” is vague and unhelpful. “She won’t leave the discipline to me and then criticize me for being too strict,” and, “He won’t undermine me by saying ‘yes’ without checking with me first,” are specific and make clear what each person desires from the other.

The Genogram

The genogram is a standard tool in marriage and family therapy. It’s a family tree of sorts, and can be used to help couples see how their families have influenced them. While a typical family tree includes marriages, births, deaths and perhaps religion and jobs, a genogram format focuses on histories of attitudes about gender roles, substance abuse, addictions, mental illness, child discipline or about marriage itself. 

A genogram can be a visual way for couples to see, and often more deeply grasp, the effects their families continue to have on their unspoken expectations, behaviors and marriage. Married Catholics will have gone through formal pre-Cana programs and questionnaires such as FOCCUS (Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understand and Study). These include exploration of family history and how it impacts each spouse. 

It’s safe to say that, as time goes on and new life stages are reached (parenting, caring for aging parents, job changes and retirement), that couples may find the shadows of family history emerging. Identifying these patterns via a genogram and a follow-up discussion can be helpful. This may also uncover childhood traumas that require deeper counseling than may be handled solely via pastoral assistance. 

Pastoral staff interested in learning more about SFBT may want to visit the Solution Focused Brief Therapy Association website and contact local mental health professional groups to see when training sessions are offered. Local trainings are often very inexpensive and provide small settings and the opportunity to develop connections with possible referral sources for parishioners needing additional services. 

It is not uncommon for people to seek pastoral counseling when they may also need professional mental health services. Some individuals realize they need mental health services, but decide they cannot afford it, are worried about confidentiality, and/or elect to try to handle the problem on their own. Some may not be aware that they have psychological problems. 

Still others are in denial about the severity and impact that an addiction or behavior pattern is having on the whole family; a typical example is the spouse who is addicted to Internet pornography and deceives himself (most are male) that it is private and not a violation of his marital vows. 

A new mother with post-partum depression may not recognize the effects the depression and hormonal adjustment are having on her entire body and mind. The changes in her behavior can have powerful and lasting negative effects on her newborn, any other children, her spouse and herself. Simply responding slowly and with the flattened, tired-appearing expression of depression can cause lasting insecurity in an infant. 

Even if there is no overt mental disorder, researchers have found that most couples who seek therapy have actually been unhappy for about five years. This means that, for five years, these spouses have been resentful, hurt and angry. The habits of behavior and the resulting neurological patterns will be resistant to change. Hard feelings so deeply entrenched may be apparent; they may also be buried and the intractability only apparent when, after several sessions, no real changes are beginning. In such cases, a referral to a mental health professional and/or to a program such as Retrouvaille may be most helpful. 

Veiled dysfunctions such as alcohol abuse, other drug abuse and mental illness are serious challenges for pastoral and professional counselors alike. The raw facts are that alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and mental disorders occur frequently. Low estimates from the U.S. government suggest that, as of 2006 (the latest National Institute of Mental Health figures), more than 8 million American adults meet the psychiatric criteria for alcohol dependence; more may be misusing alcohol. Another 3.5 million adults regularly abuse illegal drugs; still others abuse prescription medications. 

Finally, the National Institute of Mental Health asserts that while, annually, 26.5 percent of American adults meet criteria for some sort of mental disorder, over 5 percent of the adult population meets criteria for serious mental disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression. In the case of all these disorders, the individual has times when he may appear to be functioning relatively well, or can mask symptoms. However, the irregularities of behavior may be contributing not only to personal suffering but to marital problems.

Identifying Warning Signs

While only persons licensed to do so can diagnose and treat mental illness, it can be very helpful to have training in identifying warning signs that a professional referral is necessary. Some severe symptoms may be easily identified, such as cutting or burning oneself when distressed, poor hygiene, and overt substance abuse. Other common symptoms may be less obvious. Suicidal thoughts are a prime example; despite the emphasis on identifying warning signs of suicide, most suicides do not overtly signal their intentions. 

At other times, the person’s appearance may simply be very inappropriate to time, place and circumstance. Granted, there can be vastly different definitions of inappropriate, but choosing a dirty, disheveled appearance, excessively formal attire or revealing, provocative clothing as the way to present oneself for pastoral guidance may be warning signals that there are judgment problems.

Pressured Speech

Speech patterns are an important clue of underlying psychological struggles. Very slow speech, with delayed responses or an unusually flat tone is one extreme. On the other, the person may talk loudly, expressively and excessively, often leaping from one topic to another with little connection between thoughts. It may first seem like a mild case of nervousness, or merely an extreme of extroversion. It’s only when you’ve had a few conversations and realize the behavior is consistent even when the situation calls for something more subdued, that its clinical significance begins to emerge.  

This sort of pressured speech may indicate a mental state in which the mind is racing and the person is attempting to express ideas that are impossible to follow, even for the speaker. Some people may have slurred speech, which may be due to a substance such as alcohol or to physical illness such as stroke. This is a serious sign and merits medical intervention, perhaps immediately. 

Another warning sign of an unidentified, or at least unacknowledged, mental disorder, is inflexibility. In obsessive-compulsive disorder, the person’s anxiety level is so intense that making even a small change can feel like an existential threat. There are a number of mental disorders, such as schizotypal personality disorder or schizophrenia, in which irrational beliefs are held firmly and there is little or no willingness to even consider an alternate perspective. 

Joann and Tom (The case is a combination of several cases with details changed to protect clients’ privacy.) were having serious marital problems. They sought counseling from their pastor. Joann was facile at blaming Tom, citing his “anger problem” as reason enough to withdraw and avoid intimacy. Fortunately, Joann had signed a release of information with me, and I was able to consult with their pastor in advance. She had been under the treatment of a physician for bipolar disorder, and several years ago had a psychotic incident after which she stated it had been revealed that she was supposed to be “married to Jesus.” 

Despite psychological counseling for several years, which included exploring the teachings of Blessed John Paul II regarding the theology of the body, Joann was unwilling to consider doing more than holding hands and kissing her husband on the cheek. She seemed to waver between realizing that her desire for a celibate, nun-like existence as she imagined it would be, was unreasonable in the context of Catholic marriage, and being inflexible to the point of rage if pushed on the issue. 

Despite the complications that mental disorders, addiction and dysfunctional family history cause, the inherent value of pastoral counseling cannot be underestimated. Even if a person expresses hopelessness, by seeking the guidance of clergy there is a flicker of faith that something can change. In non-crisis cases, priests and deacons can provide brief interventions that can provide guidance, confidence and comfort. The additional spiritual guidance that clergy can provide enriches the experience and protects parishioners from the possibility that a psychotherapist may not adequately value the role of faith in married life.

For laity, our clergy represent a unique combination of spiritual father, friend and guide. Pastoral guidance provides not just spiritual reassurance but temporal authority. This gives clergy the unique opportunity and responsibility of the spiritual pillar, as well as the authority whose referral to psychological services when brief pastoral counseling is not sufficient may be accepted.

DR. PUTERBAUGH, Ph.D., LMHC, LMFT, NCC, is a licensed mental health counselor with a practice in St. Petersburg, Fla. She is also commissioned in lay pastoral ministry by the Diocese of St. Petersburg.