Episode #50: Who Needs Marriage Counseling? Part 1

by Derek Brown & Cliff McManis

In this first episode of a two part series, pastors Derek Brown and Cliff McManis discuss who should seek marriage counseling and the kind of benefits that flow from sound marriage counseling. 


Derek: Welcome to the With All Wisdom podcast, where we are applying biblical truth to everyday life. We’ve been on a break for a couple of months, but we are excited to get back into the studio and get back to our conversations over Scripture, theology, cultural issues, and the Christian life. We are excited that this is our 50th podcast, and we started back in October of 2020, if you can believe it. And it has been a joy to sit down with you, Cliff, and have really edifying conversations over the issues that matter most.

Cliff: Amen. 50. Is that the golden [episode]?

Derek: I guess it’s our golden—not silver—podcast anniversary.

Cliff: Yeah, it’s our golden podcast. That’s exciting.

Derek: And hopefully we’ll have many, many more to come. We love doing these and just sitting down and conversing over these important topics and having you listen in. So we appreciate our listeners and we just encourage you, if you haven’t before, to check out withallwisdom.org. We have more podcasts there. That’s where we host our podcasts. Plus, we have a lot of written resources there as well. And all of those resources, both audio and written, are there to help you grow in your relationship with the Lord Jesus, grow in your faith, grow in obedience, and we trust those will be helpful to you. Now on to our topic for today. If you are a Christian and you are married, that initial bliss that you experienced when you were first married, it can wear off. For some, it begins to wear off quicker than others, but we all know that when we start actually living with another sinner, life can be challenging for some couples.

The challenges begin to grow to such a pitch that the marriage relationship itself is greatly strained. Some couples may resign to the fact that their marriage will always be halfway miserable and they just kind of decide that, because divorce isn’t an option, they’ll just plan to put up with each other and live with each other for the next few decades and try to trudge through it. Others may start to desire and even pursue divorce. Sadly, that is the case. These are both troubling scenarios for Christian couples. And then these are situations where the couples clearly need some counseling from Scripture to help them overcome their marital problems and to repent from their individual sin and to begin to cultivate a fresh marriage that pleases God and blesses their own lives. These are two obvious situations that require counseling, but what about other couples?

What about couples who don’t feel like they’re just settling for five decades of mediocrity, but there are some issues they’re starting to notice that they are afraid might start to erode their relationship? What are about those couples? Should they get counseling? What about couples who sense that everything is fine in their relationship and they don’t really sense that there’s really any major or minor issues that need to be addressed in a formal, counseling way? What about those couples? Should they consider counseling? What about the couple where one spouse sees some issue in the other spouse that if that issue is left unchecked may cause real problems in the future? Should that couple seek marriage counseling? Cliff, just to start us off, what are your thoughts on who should seek marriage counseling?

Cliff: Well, I’ve been married 33 years and you’ve been married—remind me, Derek.

Derek: 17.

Cliff: 17. Yeah.

Cliff: As a Christian. I’ve been married for 33 years to another Christian, my wife. So just from a personal experience of being married and then also having opportunity to be a marriage counselor myself, I would say that everyone needs marriage counseling—everyone.

Derek: Wow. So not just the people with the major problems.

Cliff: Absolutely. And when I say everyone needs marriage counseling, not to the same degree or with the same frequency. So that’s one thing we’re going to talk about—the nature of what kind of counsel we’re talking about. But every married couple, every Christian, I’d say needs counsel just on the definition of what the Bible says that means. And I’d say the same is true in marriage. And I like your point there, that it doesn’t mean you’re weird or defective or an oddball if you as a Christian, married couple ponder the idea of getting counsel. And I think that’s a good and healthy thing.

Derek: Exactly. And I think folks need to be encouraged with that and we’ll talk about that in a moment. I actually have a few bullet points about what marriage counseling can do for a couple. And so we’re going to go through those and talk about them one by one. I want you to notice though, in each of these, I’ll say marriage counseling can—because you’re going to make a point, a strong point I think at the end of this podcast. And by the way, this is going to be a two-part podcast, because we have a lot to say. So we’re going to cover these bullet points here and then Cliff is going to have some really helpful practical counsel for married couples in the next podcast. But here I have—each one of these starts with marriage counseling can, and what you’re going to point out at the end of this podcast, I believe, is it’s important to keep in mind that marriage counseling doesn’t itself fix anything. You have to have people committed to change, committed to the Lord, committed to Scripture and implementing what marriage counseling brings to the table.

Cliff: And another thing that the audience and listeners need to understand with our terminology and the phrases that you’re going to use here—that marriage counseling can—is the understanding of what we talk about when we say marriage counseling. We’re talking about biblical marriage counseling, which we’ve done podcasts on. So that’s our frame of reference—biblical counseling. And if you want to know further about that, and you haven’t heard what we’ve said in our podcasts, we’ve got a couple of very important podcasts on that. What is biblical counseling? That’s what we’re talking about here.

Derek: And that’s a helpful reminder, I think, because perhaps people hear the word marriage counseling and they think of people who’ve gotten the marriage and family therapist, which we know of a local school that provides that particular degree and that a person who pursues that degree, they might have some training in Scripture and theology, but their main training will be in the area of psychology. And we’re not talking about that kind of marriage counseling. We’re talking about marriage counseling that’s framed within a biblical worldview and that sees Scripture as sufficient for counseling married couples who are having some trouble.

Alright, well the first thing I want to say is kind of related to the couple that doesn’t seem to be struggling in serious ways. I mean, as a counselor, you’ve seen a spectrum. You’ve seen a spectrum of people in their struggles in their marriage. You’ve seen some on the brink of divorce, you’ve seen some who come in and they’re just kind of preemptively wanting to protect their marriage. And that’s kind of the couple on that side of the spectrum who I’m thinking of with this first one. Marriage counseling can help strengthen existing foundations. So you can have a couple who both know the Lord, and they’ve had some solid Christian teaching leading up to their marriage and through their marriage. They seem to be doing well, they’re handling it—they’re sinners—but they’re handling things in a mature way and they’re growing. But perhaps they want to seek out marriage counseling in a preventative kind of way. Have you experienced that kind of thing, where married couples just come and say, Hey, things seem to be going okay, but could we get some counsel so we can prepare or prevent problems in the future?

Cliff: As you know, as elders and pastors, counseling is part of our job. It’s what we do on an ongoing basis. So we have plenty of opportunities to interact with our people—the saints at our church—with respect to counseling, including marriage counseling. So I’ve had a lot of opportunities over the years of a Christian married couple at our church coming to me or maybe me and my wife or me and one of the elders, and maybe it’s a one-off. They’ve got a marriage, they’ve been married seven years, but they’re seeking wisdom on a very important decision that’s coming up that they don’t agree on. And they’ve come to an impasse as husband and wife and they’re doing the wise thing. They are seeking wisdom from a multitude of counselors, from their shepherds. And so I’ve seen that in the past and even recently, and it’s been a beautiful thing, where they sought my counsel or the counsel of me and my wife, they prayed about it, they considered their options, they worked it through, and they made a decision. And here it is a couple years later and God has blessed that decision. So I’ve seen the good of that. I’ve seen situations where it didn’t turn out as well, and what concerns me is how many other scenarios are out there where married couples haven’t done that. They haven’t sought the counsel of someone else in their church, like a pastor, regarding a one-time difficult decision like that. And they neglected marital counseling and paid the consequences as a result.

Derek: Well, it’s encouraging to hear that you’ve seen the benefit of it and it’s just an encouragement to our listeners that seeking counsel should be a spiritual discipline that Christians are doing all the time.

Cliff: Okay. I need to stop you on that point you just made, Derek, about seeking counsel as a discipline. That’s a great point. I wrote a book in 2006 on the Christian disciplines—things that every Christian should be having as a regular part of their life on a daily basis to grow in Christ. I think I had, I don’t know, 12 different disciplines, and then the best, most well-known book on the Christian disciplines was by Richard Foster written 30 years ago. He has different disciplines in it—they’re like fasting and those kinds of things. But I don’t think in either of those books, either mine or his, the discipline of getting counsel is listed. And I agree with you, seeking counsel from other believers should be a Christian discipline that we practice all the time. It’s all over Proverbs. It really is all over the New Testament. And I can just think of many times in my life, especially in my early Christian life, where I failed to seek counsel and paid the consequences for it. James 5 tells people in the church to call the elders. Part of that is calling the elders to get counsel. So I just wanted to accentuate your point there. That is a Christian discipline—getting counsel.

Derek: And I think it avoids a lot of trouble when we do, and we fall into trouble when we don’t. I mean, it’s like you said, and I would say the same thing about myself in my younger Christian years and even looking back, even in the last recent years, at the times I failed to get counsel and it didn’t go well. So again, in encouragement, like you said, for Christians to be regularly seeking counsel in all walks of life, whether you’re married or not, because it’s not just for married couples. So marriage counseling can provide or can help strengthen existing foundations. It can be preventative. I like your point about counseling on a specific issue. You might come to the pastor with the couple, and they need some help on a specific issue. So that’s excellent. So marriage counseling can do those things. Marriage counseling can provide couples with biblical tools to help them cultivate a God glorifying and enjoyable marriage.

And that’s for couples who are struggling either in significant, large, potentially marriage-ending ways or in smaller ways—you have in Scripture the resources you need. And oftentimes you just need a skilled pastor or counselor to be able to walk you through those things and to give you those things. How to live in your marriage to the glory of God. So what’s encouraging is that Scripture provides such rich resources and varied resources and provides us such promises that even a marriage that seems to be on the brink of disaster or of breakup, if the couple will both apply themselves to the Scripture, to the truth, trusting and relying upon the Holy Spirit and repenting of their own sin, God’s Word promises that they can make genuine progress and they can have a God-pleasing relationship. They can restore what has been devastated. They can make a real progress in their relationship, and that should be an encouragement to all married couples.

Cliff: The way you phrased it there—the imagery that came to my mind is good biblical marriage counseling can provide a couple with the tools they need. And for me that’s because we believe in biblical sufficiency and we can’t just tell people, just do what the Bible says. Just do what the Bible says and leave it at that. They need more than that. That’s why Jesus said, follow me; watch me. And then when they asked him questions, like in Matthew 6, they said, teach us how to pray. How to do it. Not just tell me to do it, but show me how. And then Jesus actually modeled prayer for them in Matthew 6. So that’s how we can give them modeling. So the question is, what tools are you talking about, Derek? And I think, well, the tools in the Bible, the skills there, the disciplines there, the modeling is exemplified there. It’s kind of like, yeah, I’m married and I’ve got this big toolbox for me and my wife, but I want somebody to actually open the toolbox for me and show me the tools. Oh, this is a screwdriver, right? That’s a wrench. What do you do with that? How do you use it? How does it work? Oh, I’m not supposed to use it on that. Oh, okay. Thank you for showing me that. I had all these tools in my toolbox and I didn’t even know what they were for, and I didn’t even know that some of them were there. So that’s what marriage counseling can be.

Derek: Yeah, that’s a really helpful analogy, because showing people, I think—that’s probably one of the reasons why biblical counseling suffers from caricatures often from folks. Because they think that it’s what you were saying—just do what the Bible says. That’s not what we’re suggesting at all. That’s not what biblical counseling is. It is providing people with not only the tools, but showing them how to use the Scripture, how to use the truth, how to apply it. And that’s what effective counselors will do. And again, when Christian couples apply themselves and begin to use those tools and resources, they will see progress in their marriage. But it requires them to actually make an effort.

Cliff: I’ve just got to make a comment on the caricature thing and the bad rap of biblical counseling. I mean, we’ve talked about that before, but I still to this day think the number one bad rap of Jay Adams, a lot of times, is that he’s accused of just [saying to] people, just do what the Bible says. Just do what? When you read his books, that’s not the case. He’s very practical. As a matter of fact, he’s got books titled on how to do it.

Derek: In fact, I remember reading Jay Adams, and I can’t remember which book it was, but he actually critiqued the pastors who failed to help their people know how to do things. Some pastors were like, oh, we don’t need to do the how-to’s. We just preached doctrine. And he actually critiqued those kinds of preachers and said, no, you need to help your people know how to do things in the Christian life.

Cliff: So I think one of his books is called What To Do on Thursday.

Derek: Oh, wow.

Cliff: Talk about practical.

Derek: Yeah. That’s good. All right. Well, another point just to encourage you, marriage counseling can help expose ingrained patterns of sin in one or each of the spouses. And the reason I bring this up is because sometimes we need some counseling—in this case, marriage counseling—in order to expose some sin. We’re not even aware of some wrong thinking, some wrong behavior, some wrong patterns that have developed, and we may have even become completely blind to them, even if our wife is trying to bring them up. Or in the wife’s case, the husband bringing them up. We may be completely blind to them. And marriage counseling can help expose and bring those out so that they can be repented of and there can be change.

Cliff: Yeah, absolutely. In a lot of ways, marriage is God’s sanctifying tool. His refining fire for us.

Derek: Amy and I say that a lot—marriage is sanctification on steroids, because of how intense sometimes it is, having your sin exposed right in front of you on a pretty regular basis. But we’re talking about exposing ingrained patterns of sin, not merely to expose them—that sounds scary. In fact, it kind of is. It’s a little intimidating. But with that exposure of sin, you don’t just expose it. You expose it to then cleanse it, to confess it, and then to replace it with godly attitudes, heart attitudes, habits, and thinking. We’re not just merely exposing these kinds of things. This is how change happens. And then it begins to really bless the marriage and it blesses each individual in that marriage.

Cliff: Yep. Amen.

Derek: We already mentioned this point, but I want to say it again just to be clear, and then we’ll end this with a brief warning. A couple should not feel foolish or embarrassed to seek marriage counseling. Maybe there’s a stigma in people’s mind that if they seek it, they are showing themselves to be weak or they’re admitting their relationship is on the brink of disaster, which it may be. But there is some sort of stigma attached to seeking counsel that people think, well, hey, if I do this, then they’re going to look at us. People will look at us and think we’re weak or that we should do this. We should be able to handle things on our own. We should just be able to figure these things out in our own marriage. And I think when you get caught up in that attitude, it will cause even more problems in your marriage.

It might even be one of Satan’s tactics to keep you from the counsel that you need, making you think, oh, we should be able to handle this on our own, or this is going to show that we are just weak or these kinds of things. When in fact, you shouldn’t be embarrassed at all. We’ve already mentioned that seeking counsel should be a regular spiritual discipline for all Christians. And seeking marriage counsel actually is a good, and even in some cases very courageous, thing. Because you’re seeking to preserve and conserve that relationship—that marriage relationship—and to protect it, to save it, to grow in sanctification individually. So we don’t want people to ever think that they should feel embarrassed or strange to seek marriage counseling.

Cliff: I mean, there’s a lot of reasons for that. One that you mentioned is there could be a stigma with that, and that’s a true concern because counseling today in this culture a lot of times is attached to either seeing a psychologist or a psychiatrist. And if you’re seeing a psychiatrist, that means you’ve got, not just problems, you’ve got big problems—so much so that you need medication. So I think that can be attached to it. That’s a stigma that one of the spouses says to the other, we need counseling. And immediately they’re thinking, oh, you’re saying I need a psychiatrist. I need medication. So I could see that. I think another common one is there’s an element of pride involved. They’re looking around and saying, well, that couple in our church or our friends, they don’t need marriage counseling. Why do we? As I do marriage counseling today, one thing I’ve learned that’s been helpful over the years is I’ll give a little survey in our first meeting to the married couple. And one of my questions is, whose idea was it to pursue marriage counseling? And guess, statistically, whose idea it is, at least with my limited experience of the couples coming?

Derek: I would say, more often than not, it is the wife’s idea.

Cliff: So, more often than not, it is the wife’s idea—overwhelmingly so. I mean, it’s not even close. My wife dragged me in here, or she wouldn’t relent. But anyway, so statistically, that’s been my experience, which is kind of interesting. And it’s telling, too, because a lot of times it can play into the role of the man. That’s that pride. I’m the leader of this marriage, and therefore, if there are any defects or problems and we have got to seek counseling, then I am not a good husband. So it’s a threat to his confidence as the head of the home. So there’s a lot of different reasons for that, and I see that, but we do have to get over that. And maybe if it is the wife, maybe she should change her terminology and say, hey, let’s go get help. Or, let’s see the pastor. Let’s go talk to another Christian. Let’s see God’s wisdom from our pastor who we love. That might be more effective.

Chuck Swindoll has been a pastor in Southern California for years now. He planted a church. He went to Dallas Seminary to be the president, and then he ended up retiring there and then planted a church in Dallas, where I think he’s still preaching pastor. He’s almost 90. Great guy, godly man. Well, anyway, he’s written a lot of books. He wrote a really good book on marriage early on in his ministry, and it’s called Strike the Original Match, and it’s a book for giving counsel to Christian couples. And at the very beginning, I’ll never forget it because it’s so true, his experience was that he had the same experience—that it’s usually the wife who is trying to get the husband to go to counseling, almost without exception. And then he also said that, and it’s typical of the wife to always be giving the husband a book on marriage to read on how to fix your marriage in seven easy ways. Anyway, he just kind of comments on that and made it kind of funny.

Derek: That’s funny. One thing you mentioned about the husband—why he may not want to do counseling because it actually seems to reflect on his leadership and his ability to manage his home and things like that. And I want to encourage the men who are listening, actually—it’s an indication of good leadership if you step out and say, we need to get counseling. So it’s just the opposite. And I think Satan would love for men to think that, oh, by doing this, it’s actually an indication that I’m not leading. Well, actually leading well would lead you to get counseling if you’re seeing some problems that may be insurmountable right now, because you don’t have the tools to deal with them. So guys, if you’re listening, it’s actually a sign of good leadership for you to step out and seek out the counseling. Don’t just leave it to the wives. As the head of the home, as the leader in the home, as the one who cares about how things are going in the family and the one who God holds accountable for how things are going in the family, it’s good leadership to actually pursue and initiate counseling.

Cliff: I mean, the Bible says there’s wisdom in a multitude of counselors, right? And if you’ve got the position that we don’t need any counsel for our marriage, then what you’re saying is, I don’t need anybody’s outside wisdom. Right? I disagree with the Bible. I don’t agree with that principle. I can do it all on my own. Totally self-sufficient. Which is totally arrogant.

Derek: It is. And you don’t see in any other part of the world good leaders thinking like that. Good leaders are always looking for wisdom and help and insight from sources outside themselves, and then they’re applying that to their situation.

Cliff: That’s true. Some of the strongest NBA coaching personalities, at timeout, you’ll see they get up off the bench, they get away from the players, and then they’re surrounded by six assistant coaches.

Derek: Wow. Yeah.

Cliff: For a minute and 30 seconds. And they’re taking in all this counsel, which is great.

Derek: Yeah, great illustration. Okay, well, we’re going to close with this. Just a warning. Actually, we’ve already mentioned it, but we want to want to press this home. The warning is this: the mere process of marriage counseling won’t fix your marriage. Any thoughts on that startling statement?

Cliff: I have many thoughts on that, Derek. And again, this kind of relates or can intersect with the last point that you made, where the wife’s trying to drag the husband to marriage counseling, maybe with the naive notion that if we just do 10 weeks of marriage counseling, the counselor can fix our marriage. And what she really means is that the counselor can straighten you out, can fix my husband, and change you and fix my husband. So just jumping through the hoops, going through the process—that is not going to fix your marriage. It’s not going to change anybody.

Derek: Both individuals and their relationship have to be committed to the Lord and committed to following him in obedience, applying the truth that they hear, applying the counsel, listening to the pastor, listening to the counselor, and doing what they say in as much as it coincides with what Scripture teaches. And if you don’t do that, you could go to 50 weeks of marriage counseling and it’s not going to change anything. In fact, it could actually lead to worse problems because it’s hardening you to the truth. So we just want to remind people that we love counseling. We think it’s good and Christians should seek it. But you, as a Christian, you need to apply what you are learning in that counseling and apply it to your life. Apply it to your marriage. It’s the same with listening to sermons, reading books—just the process. Unless you are applying what you’re hearing, applying what you’re reading, just the process itself is not going to create the obedience in your life. You need to actually apply yourself to believing in, obeying, and following the counsel.

Cliff: Amen. And then ultimately relying on the wonderful Counselor, Jesus Christ and the Spirit of God.

Derek: That’s right. So I look forward to our next podcast on this topic in part two, we’re going to hear from you, Cliff, and a lot of practical counsel. I’m excited to hear it and hopefully apply it to my own marriage. That’ll be cool. And then you, listeners, will be able to ponder over what Cliff says and hopefully apply it to your marriages. So we will be back with part two. We would like to encourage you again, check out withallwisdom.org. There are a lot of great resources there, and even a few on marriage. And hopefully get some help there in those articles and those resources. And until next time, keep seeking the Lord in his Word.

Listen to All Our Past Episodes in Our Podcast Archive

Related Articles