Faith, Hope, and Marriage
I’m at that age when my wife and I attend weddings again. The children of our friends are getting married. We've known one or both members of the loving couple for years-- sometimes since they were children. What a great occasion! Old memories mix with the present celebration. For a day or two dozens of us are transported to a world where there is only joy and love. Smiling young people sing and dance, kiss and hug. And colorful pictures tag their way along digital corridors. A new marriage has begun.
Most people enter their first marriage because they are deeply in love and want to be together forever. Some obtain premarital counseling and some do not. If they think ahead, they have high expectations that they will have a great marriage. On occasion, close friends and family members can’t imagine a relationship working out. But love is blind. And sometimes the skeptics are wrong.
When trouble looms, many couples try to work things out. They take time to be together. Schedule a fantastic holiday weekend. See a marriage counselor. Consult a priest or pastor. Attend a marriage seminar. They have invested emotions, and a whole lot more, in a life together. But at some point many give up. Divorce is easy to come by and life is too short to spend any more time in a relationship that really ended months or years ago. Is there any hope that marriages can be restored?
So, what works?
If counseling is going to work, what kinds of interventions will make a difference? One intervention is the Hope-Focused Couples Approach (also known as HFCA, but I will refer to this as Hope) developed by Everett L. Worthington Jr. and his colleagues at Virginia Commonwealth University. The Hope approach is one of those interventions that has been supported by research and clinical practice. And it is a faith friendly approach (psychology researchers use the phrase religious-accommodative intervention), hence it is relevant to my blog on the Psychology of Religion. As you might expect, interventions that accommodate religious beliefs in the United States will be tested in Christian samples. In fact, given a choice, most in the U.S. will opt for a faith-friendly intervention (72%; cited in Ripley et al., 2013).
In a recently published chapter (2013) aimed at clinicians, Jennifer S. Ripley, Vickey L. Maclin, and Joshua N. Hook joined with Everett L. Worthington Jr. to review the evidence and offer practical suggestions. There’s a helpful table summarizing the findings of 11 research studies between 1995 and 2012. Most studies involve a dozen or more couples. Two were case studies. The 2012 study included 145 couples randomly assigned to Hope, another intervention, and a control condition. Worthington and his colleagues measured outcomes in several ways. They asked people to complete widely used questionnaires, studied behavior, and measured cortisol levels—a biological marker of stress.
What’s included in Hope?
The Hope focused approach is a strategic intervention. With clinician guidance, couples identify those behavior patterns and beliefs or other factors that seem so destructive. An intervention plan focuses on what can be done to improve the relationship with a focus on the importance of repairing the relationship bond (the authors draw on attachment theory).
What about hope? Hope is one of those positive psychology variables investigated in depth by the late C. R Snyder of the University of Kansas. Snyder found that hope has two components. Hopeful people are motivated to achieve goals and believe they can (agency). And hopeful people have a goal-focused plan (pathway). The Hope researchers also draw on a theology that encourages people to wait on God. (They cite the Catholic existential philosopher, Gabriel Marcel).
What else makes a difference? Worthington is known for his forgiveness research. He and his colleagues draw on that legacy to include forgiveness interventions known to heal damaged relationships. They believe the forgiveness component is the most important to long-term effectiveness.
How does Hope relate to Faith?
Referring to Christian theology, the authors observe that faith involves “belief in things not yet seen (p. 196).”
Christians couples are encouraged to have faith in God to support their relationship. Love is the third concept linked to faith and hope in Hope focused counseling as well as in Christian theology. In this context, loving couples increase their valuing of their partners and refuse to devalue them.
Christian virtues are linked to hope. I already mentioned forgiveness. Another virtue is humility. Also important are such virtues as waiting patiently, showing love, and speaking gently. Christians and many people of other religions view the marriage relationship as sacred. Marriages often begin in churches and temples. Clergy officially conduct the ceremony. And for Christians, God is invited to be present. Christians and other people of faith also think in terms of covenants and vows. These deep commitments go to the heart of what binds people together in any relationship and can be especially important to recall and enhance in a marriage relationship.
Any specific interventions?
The authors offer several of their most effective interventions. As you might expect, they include prayer and show its importance to Christian couples. They are aware of the problems in prayer research but note that prayer is the most commonly used Christian intervention in counseling or psychotherapy. Other specifics include communication skills, scaling strategies to assess closeness, empty chair techniques linked to empathy development and forgiveness interventions, and sculpting. Sculpting is a theatrical strategy that encourages people to use their posture to show their distance or closeness from each other and how they might relate to each other. For example, in a damaged relationship the couple may place themselves at a distance and be looking away from each other as if focused on their own life pursuits. See the sculpting video on my YouTube Playlist).
The Hope Focused intervention works for many couples.
Clinicians ought to use counseling interventions that are known to be effective with at least some couples. Why would anyone want to use counseling approaches that are not supported by evidence when evidence-based practices are available?
Couples seeking counseling ought to work with clinicians who know and use interventions that are known to be effective with some couples. So many couples are in distress. Couples cannot be expected to know what interventions work and which do not. I hope readers of this post will get the word out to all people seeking counseling that there are some effective interventions for many conditions or situations. That does not mean an approach works well for all people but it does mean some interventions are supported by evidence. And people do well to work with clinicians who understand what works and what does not work.
Clinicians ought to understand and respect the role of faith in the lives of all clients. And clinicians ought to be especially cognizant of the importance of faith to the sacredness of marriage for many people. Most people in the world are religious. And most in the U.S. are Christian. The Hope approach is one approach that is faith-friendly.
Clearly more research is needed. There are other approaches to marriage counseling that have been supported by evidence. My primary concern is that people should seek treatment from professionals who employ evidenced-based interventions. And I consider it important that religious persons not seek treatment from someone just because they share the same faith. In this context, I might suggest that faith without evidenced based practice might lead to a dead relationship.
Follow this link to read my review of the book Evidenced-based practices for Christian counseling and psychotherapy (Free download or the paper can be bookmarked).
I recommend the book. Although I know some of the authors, I receive no compensation for my recommendation.
Ripley, J. S., Maclin, V. L., Hook, J. N., & Worthington, E. L., Jr. (2013). The hope-focused couples approach to counseling and enrichment. In E. L. Worthington Jr., E. L. Johnson, J.N. Hook, & J.D. Aten (Eds.), Evidenced-based practices for Christian counseling and psychotherapy (pp. 189-208). Downers Grove, IL: CAPS/IVP Academic.
Wade, N.G., Worthington, E.L., Jr., & Vogel, D.L. (2007). Effectiveness of religiously-tailored
interventions in Christian therapy. Psychotherapy Research, 17, 91-105.