Mentorship vs. Couples Counseling and When to Refer to Couples Therapy

Two of my close friends are involved in spearheading a Marriage and Family Enrichment program.  We’ve been collaborating on how to more effectively impact marriages in our community.  We’re an iron sharpening iron type of team. Through multiple conversations, they challenged me to put more thought into the differences between marriage mentorship/pastoral care and marital counseling.  While they both have their place, I would  like to help you recognize the differences between them. 

For this purpose, I will include pastors who do not have a license to treat mental health issues as a marriage mentor.  Both pastors and marriage mentors work hard to train themselves in helping marriages by reading books on bettering marriage, self help studies, and attending seminars.  However, even with the effort they invest, unfortunately it does not compare to the training a licensed professional had in their Master’s program or the years of therapy experience they gained.

As I sat at my friends’ dining table, the discussion rolled around to the importance of education, as well as mentorship.  As I look back, almost every  area of my life has been changed by education; starting with how I learned to brush my teeth as a child, to cooking my first meal in Home Ec class, how I started practicing therapy once I received my degree, to how I practice now after years of experience, and the impact of continuing education.  Some of the things I have learned have changed my viewpoint on the world.  I for one, would never have experienced the deeper level of joy I have in my relationships now, without the knowledge I have gained in the last couple of years at continuing education classes.  It truly can be said that "without knowledge, the people suffer." Therefore, perhaps we should place a higher importance on marital education and consider it to be "continuing education" as well.

For clarification purposes, marriage education and mentorship includes information on the benefits of marriage, what to expect along the way – a roadmap for the normal, expected stages and challenges all couples face in marriage, and the skills and behaviors that will help couples build strong bonds and keep their love alive. Whereas  couples therapy is provided by a licensed clinical therapist with clinical experience working with two people in a romantic relationship resolve conflict, gain insight, and deepen their bond through therapeutic interventions and treatment.

Marriage education and mentorship is preventative care.  Much in the same way we go to the dentist for cleanings, our marriage needs routine care.  Cleanings help us recognize when we are in danger of tooth decay.  I remember my dentist recommending I floss daily because I was on the verge of gingivitis.  Ugh! What if I hadn’t listened to his advice?  What if I had ignored the need for cleanings entirely?  Mentorship and education programs can help us recognize the flaws in our ways of relating.  They can help us right the wrongs before it becomes a disease. 

But what about the people who wait to see a dentist until they are in pain?  Perhaps they have a cavity or infection.  Pain grows slowly.  Most people put off care when they are in pain, whether it’s the dentist, the family doctor, or even their marriage.  Most couples wait until they have been in serious pain for 5 years before they seek help.  Imagine how severe the problems would be after having an infection for 5 years and not seeking treatment.

What about the person who decides to do their own dental work?  Can you imagine someone going to the dentist AFTER they have pulled out their own teeth?  "Hey doc, I just couldn’t stand the pain.  I needed to separate myself from it!" What if it were preventable, but they needed special tools, strategies and medications to help them?  Imagine how the dentist would feel at this stage, the frustration and helplessness, the "I could have helped you!"  feeling.  Yet this is how many people handle the pain within their marriage, they pull the tooth and separate because of the pain they feel. Then they come to therapy.

So then how do you know when a couple should be referred to a professional therapist?  Many good hearted, well-intended mentors and pastors are not sure where the line is.  While I am aware that the skill level of the helpers can vary greatly, there are still some issues that require the assistance of a licensed professional. Below you will find my guidelines for knowing when the time is right to refer a couple to therapy.  

Abuse – Domestic violence is a situation where even counselors should not provide therapy. First, revelation of the abuse should be done outside of the hearing of the abuser.  If abuse is present, we recommend that couples postpone marital therapy until these issues are addressed individually, especially with the abuser.  Doing mentorship or couples counseling places the victim at risk for more abuse. Asking both partners to assume responsibility for their behavior only serves to give the abuser more power and ways to blame the other.  Abuse is the problem of the abuser, and the choice to continue to behave that way lies solely with the abuser.  The relationship will never work as long as abuse is happening.

Past Sexual Abuse – It is common for people who have been through past sexual abuse to struggle in their adult lives in some areas.  Helping people with sexual abuse requires extensive training that is often not available to those who are not mental health professionals.  Survivors can be inadvertently damaged by well-intentioned people who don’t have a good understanding of how trauma impacts the body, soul, and spirit. Mental health professionals should be seeking out specific training in an area before they begin to treat someone.  Thus, when past sexual abuse is affecting the marital relationship, this is a good time to refer to a therapist who has expertise in this area.  Be mindful, some people may not be ready to seek help.  It can be suggested, but not pressured or coerced. 

Adultery – The average person doesn’t know how to help couples recover from affairs.  This isn’t something that is common knowledge.  Even if a mentor has gone through the difficult process themselves, they do not have the specific and complete set of skills to help others navigate the difficult passage, as each situation has some individual aspects that the mentor may not have experienced.  Therapy should not be done with a couple in which one partner is still actively involved in an affair. Couples therapy will not work because the betraying partner has divided loyalties. The affair must be over in order for the relationship to be repaired.

Addiction– In situations of addiction, issues cannot be effectively addressed if an addiction is active.  Both in mentorship and in counseling, the addiction must be addressed before couples therapy can be effective.

Divorce– When divorce is looming, the marriage is obviously in crisis.  There are some questions pastors and mentors can ask to help assess how close or impending the divorce is.   If a spouse is having thoughts of separation frequently, considering divorce at some time other than during an argument, or discussing it with someone other than their spouse, there is reason for concern.  However, it is more concerning if they are suggesting it to their partner or discussing the issue of separation and divorce seriously.  Divorce is most likely when they are making specific plans, such as: setting up an independent bank account, making inquiries about separation (i.e. how long it takes to get a divorce, grounds for divorce, cost involved), contacting an attorney to make preliminary plans for separation, discussing custody arrangements, how possessions and bills will be divided up, asking that separation be permanent, or making specific plans, such as, how to break the news to their partner.

While I recognize there is a continuum between these circumstances and where pastoral help or mentorship will help, judgment will be needed. Be mindful, when the helper feels overwhelmed after meeting with the couple or if they don’t quite know how to help, then a therapist may need to be involved. Even trained therapists recognize how difficult marriage therapy is and compare it to flying a helicopter inside a hurricane. 

Many churches offer mentorship in hopes it will save marriages. However, mentorship’s goal is to help a normal or somewhat troubled marriage improve, whereas counseling’s goal is to help a dysfunctional marriage shift into a healthy state.

Comparing mentorship help with therapy is similar to comparing coaching to therapy.  Coaching is for people who are generally healthy but still need support. According to the International Coach Federation coaching is, "partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential…" This is for working with a normal person without significant dysfunction.  Whereas therapy is helping a dysfunctional person move to functioning.  The purpose is to treat mental and emotional problems, evaluate, diagnose, and provide professional expertise and guidance.  The clinical care should be based on research which shows this type of care has proven to be helpful and be a norm that is typically used in the practice of therapy.

That being said, you can draw the boundary at: If you or your marriage is ill, see a therapist; if you are focused on prevention and maximizing your relationship, see a mentor.  Both have their role in helping the Kingdom.

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