Hope-Focused Marriage Counseling
An evidence based Christian approach to marriage counseling constructed by Everett L. Worthington.
The hope-focused approach to couples therapy is based on Christian principles primarily drawn from Galatians 5:6, "For in Christ neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love."
It is characterized by employing two frameworks:
- The strategy of promoting Love, Faith, and Work.
- The goal of building hope by increasing willpower (motivating), waypower (making changes noticeable to clients through active interventions), and waitpower (the patience to persevere when progress is not evident).
These are used as a foundation for assessing couples as well as guiding interventions. Worthington recognizes that couples must have faith in their relationship; they need to work on their relationship for it to grow; and ultimately they must have love and warmth for one another.
“Faith, work and love all help guide the counseling through a difficult journey” (Ripley & Worthington, 2014). Hebrews 11:1 states, "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."
Love brings life to faith and work (Ripley & Worthington, 2014). Love connects partners and is the nurturance to human beings. As 1 Corinthian 13:7 states, "It always protects, always trust, always hopes, and always perseveres."
The Cause of Dysfunction
The cause of dysfunction in marriage from the theory’s view is the loss of love, faith, or work in the relationship. Marriages experience problems when the husband and wife fail to love one another; they do not value their spouse, but instead actively devalue (Worthington, 1999). They lose faith that “love can rescue, restore and redeem their relationship” (Ripley). The relationship becomes negative. The couple loses faith in the future of their relationship (Worthington, 1999). Once love and faith is lost, couples tend to stop working on their relationship; refusing to spend time and energy on what they deem a lost cause (Worthington, 1999). Some red flags to identify are "depression, untreated substance abuse, ongoing or recent infidelity, domestic violence, untreated or active trauma symptoms, divorce or separation intent, cognitive deficit issues, or low motivation for change" (Ripley).
The nature of therapy for this model concentrates on the hope-focused approach that utilizes a strengths-based perspective. The counselor will assess and build on the client’s individual strengths and virtues as well as the couple’s strengths. Assessment tools to assist the practitioner are provided, such as online screening through questionnaires.
The counselor's role is to teach the couple how to repair and maintain their relationship instead of trying to fix the vehicle of the relationship. They are realistic; the counselors do not "manufacture positive aspects of the marriage that do not exist" (Worthington, 1999). Instead, as the counselor plays an active role and is directive, they see what the troubled couple cannot see. The counselors are not confusing; they clearly communicate their strategy to the client so that the client can understand what the counselor is doing in context, and recognizes what is important and not important. Counselors are also open and vulnerable sharing their own struggle in marriage regarding similar problems. They tailor their treatment to fit the specific couple as they develop warmth, virtue, health and happiness in the couple's relationship. This environment created by the counselor allows the couple to strengthen their marriage bond as the counselors work to be positive, fun, healthy, warm and encouraging through the difficult time.
What is the therapy trying to accomplish?
“Hope Focused marriage counseling is based on a good relationship. The goal is to produce stronger, less troubled marriages. There is a three part strategy to build hope through fostering motivation, showing couples tangible ways to change, and strengthening their resolve to wait on God’s work in their marriage” (Worthington, 1999). Hope is crucial to counseling. It involves vision to see a way through the suffering. Hope = the willpower to change, the waypower to change, and the waitpower even if change is not happening.
Since working on a marriage requires hope, Hope- Focused marriage counseling works to find and/or build a couple’s hope regarding strengthening their marriage. Worthington explains how humans have been designed for hope by the Creator so that even in tough times there is a spark that can be flamed by a skillful counselor.
Four goals for the couples in therapy are: warmth, virtue, health and happiness.
Warmth- Secure the bonds in the relationship with more peace and less conflict surrounding their bond- secure attachment.
Virtue- Both partners display the virtues: morals, fairness, self-control.
Health- Patterns of intimacy and conflict should be characterized by respect and caring (Riley p28).
Happiness- Having a loving relationship. “Couples need hope that happiness in love is a possibility, that it might be obtained. That hope will motivate them to take courageous risks in their journey together” (Riley p28).
"Love is a willingness to value and to avoid devaluing people that springs from a caring, other focused heart." - Everett L. Worthington Jr.
Hope-focused marriage counseling occurs in 3 stages:
Encounter, Engagement, and Disengagement.
During the encounter phase, the counselor strives to develop a working relationship with the couple and assesses the appropriate Target Areas of Change:
Counselors assess their clients’ relationship in the following areas-
1) Central values and beliefs (love, self, and commitment)
2) Core vision of the marriage (the actual marriage, the true marriage, the ideal marriage)
3) Confession and forgiveness (reconciliation, attitude of softness)
4) Communication (misunderstandings, unintended effects)
5) Conflict resolution (learning to navigate conflict successfully)
6) Cognition about the marriage (changing negative thinking to positive)
7) Closeness (distance vs. intimacy)
8) Complicating problems
9) Commitment (contracts and covenants)
In the Engagement stage, the counselor then works to help correct weaknesses in love, faith and hope by specifically targeting the areas of change with detailed, previously planned and tailored interventions.
While love is at the core of successful relationships, it can be extremely difficult to find love in the midst of crisis. Love changes as couples grow and mature and it can look different for different couples. Couples in crisis, however, lack faith that the love is there or that they will be able to ever find it. “By maintaining an attitude of faith and by working with the couple through love, the marital counselor can help build the conviction of things not seen”; [they] can provide evidence that can form a new foundation of faith in marriage” (Worthington, 1999, p. 34).
Counselors promote love, faith, and work to help the couple by
1) Direct teaching,
2) Training the couple in applying faith working through love,
3) Stimulating practice at forgiving the spouse for perceived wrongs,
4) Helping spouses forgive each other and others,
5) Modeling faith working through love and,
6) Motivating couples to work in hope, have faith and love each other.
No doubt, correcting weaknesses in Love, Faith, and Work requires work on the part of the couple and the counselor will require tasks for the couple to complete both during sessions and between. There are several strategies and interventions that a counselor might use when counseling a couple in crisis.
When trying to stimulate self-reflection on a partner’s own culpability:
- Counselors induce clients to reflect thoughtfully on their behavior. By bringing a person into contact with the reality of his or her hurtfulness, a confession is more likely.
- Counselors refer to a situation in their own life and marriage when they struggled with similar problems. This helps eliminate partners’ defensiveness and promote honesty.
- Counselors promote thoughtful self-examination by calling attention to the effects of communication on the partner. Suppose Patricia lashes out at Mark during counseling. “You’re such a stupid, unfeeling dolt sometimes. It makes me want to scream, but it wouldn’t do any good.” Mark may snap back angrily, “You never let that stop you from screaming before. You have no self-control.” Counselors don’t allow such hurtfulness to continue. Instead they say something like “Just a minute. Those kinds of comments don’t convey that you value each other, which is what you’ve been working on. Let’s analyze this exchange. Patricia, when you said Mark was a ‘stupid, unfeeling dolt,’ what did you want to accomplish?...(later) Mark, when you said Patricia had no self-control what kind of effect do you think that had on her?” (Worthington, 1999, p. 133)
When helping with trouble at forgiving and identifying barriers to forgiveness, in session the counselor may ask, “What keeps you from forgiving your partner?” Here are some answers that people typically bring up: Lack of time to deal with the emotion of it, lack of trust that the partner won’t hurt me again, don’t want to feel pain again, takes a lot of effort, pride, guilt or shame, fear, distraction or busyness, or past unresolved pain from childhood.
If the person can identify no barriers, the counselor provides the above list and assigns the person homework to think about which barriers he or she might be facing. In the following session, the counselor discusses the results of the homework. Then the counselor will ask, “What would it take to remove those barriers? What would you have to do to remove those barriers? What would your partner have to do for you to be able to forgive?” (Worthington, p.135-136)
The counselor may use Sculpting as a metaphor for communication-
- “You both seem entrenched in your position. Turn your chairs away from each other and place your hands over your ears. Now continue your conversation.”
- “John, point your finger accusingly at Mary. Mary, hold up your hands defensively in front to you to ward off his attack. Now that’s the way I see you communicating in the last few minutes.” (Worthington, 1999, p. 151)
"An actor couple with Dr. Jennifer Ripley demonstrates the beginning of a first session. Dr. Ripley is looking for their communication pattern as they describe the presenting problem. Their pattern appears to be distancer (female) pursuer (male) pattern with difficulty seeing the other person's perspective. The male is very focused on resolving the issue quickly. The female is withdrawn emotionally even in the session."
Critique of Theory
Worthington's strategy helps couples progress through conflict; it equips them with systematic skills to manage crisis. The numerous interventions shared within this theory allow counselors to find the best fit for their clients. Hope-focused marriage counseling is a strategy that allows both pastors and marriage counselors to adapt a professional model for their counseling sessions in today's culture. It is realistic and very applicable to the church or clinic setting.
Worthington notes, “Scripture is not a counseling manual...[it] can shed little light on the methods of modern marital counseling. However we can evaluate whether any type of help is consistent with principles of Scripture” (Worthington, 1999).
I would disagree. Scripture is not only our counseling manual—it is our Counselor. Psalm 119:24 says, “Your testimonies also are my delight and my counselors.” The testimonies = God’s Word. God’s Word is Jesus Christ- John 1:14. Jesus Christ is our Counselor- Isaiah 9:6, the Word made flesh. The Word is our counseling manual and Counselor.
As the psalmist declares, “You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies; for they are ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for Your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the ancients, because I keep Your precepts.”- Psalm 119:98-100. The application of God’s word by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the life of a Christian, is healing in every circumstance.
Worthington’s theory, however does accurately align with Scripture and holds a biblical worldview. He speaks of the power of God’s presence throughout and the Sovereignty of God in every situation. He discusses counselors as ambassadors of the living God; and exhorts counselors to get couples moving closer to fulfilling the Great Commission within their own marriage. Counselors promote maturity in their clients that are Christian or non-Christian by emphasizing the important issues foundational to Christianity such as: love, faith, hope, forgiveness, commitment, moral integrity and faithfulness. These personal characteristics when encouraged in love and gentleness often draw the non-Christian or Christian to desiring a closer relationship with Jesus Christ (Worthington, 1999).
Scripture contributes to the framework of the theory as it focuses on love, faith, and work- Galatians 5:6. It promotes marital commitment- Ephesians 5:22-33, 1 Corinthians 6:16-17, Hebrews 13:4; it promotes harmony and reconciliation between people who are in conflict- Matthew 5:9; it promotes love between Christians- 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, Ephesians 4:22-5:2; and it promotes the marriage covenant- Malachi 2:14, Matthew 19:4-6 (Worthington, 1999).
It is noted that couples counseling has one of the highest incidences of dropout and recidivism of any kind of counseling (Jacobson & Addis, 1993; Owen, Duncan, Anker& Sparks, 2012). Research reports over a 50% failure rate at the one- year post- therapy mark. Couples counseling requires two people to simultaneously make changes in order to fully achieve goals and those goals might differ. Hope-Focused Marriage Counseling zeros in on making tangible changes in the marriage relationship over “mere verbal methods of counseling” (Worthington, 1999). It is supported empirically to be effective in helping marriages overcome difficulties. Worthington desires more empirical tests to be conducted to thoroughly test the theory. As he states, “Any approach needs to demonstrate both effectiveness in the clinic and efficacy in the laboratory” (Worthington, 1999).
Key Resources to learn this approach:
Why Hope-Focused was developed:
A resource from Jennifer Ripley
Example of Sculpting
An example of therapy with Jennifer Ripley on Marriage Covenant
Reach: A Five Step Model in Forgiveness with Everett Worthington
Conflict Resolution Technique
Giving Feedback: Demonstration
Sculpting Forgiveness Technique with Everett Worthington: Early session
Sculpting Forgiveness Technique with Everett Worthington: Later session
TANGO demonstration: Communication
Abinoja, Lisa Doot,M.A., L.C.S.W. (2016). Couple therapy: A new hope-focused approach. Social Work and Christianity, 43(2), 249-251. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.liberty.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/docview/1812278845?accountid=12085
Ripley, J. S., & Worthington, J. E. L. (2014). Couple therapy : a new hope-focused approach. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu
Video of Hope Focus Marriage Retrieved: http://www.regent.edu/admin/media/fms/vod/singlePlayerURL.cfm?address=2000619
Video retrieved: https://youtu.be/HNHCTVNoPfA
Video retrieved: https://youtu.be/GyemoUBUCGk
Video retrieved: https://youtu.be/5Or9OuxuYKw
Video retrieved: http://hopecouples.com/Hope-Video-Trainings.php
Worthington, Everett Jr. Hope-Focused Marriage Counseling. Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2005.
Review by: Alysa VanderWeerd, Jennifer Bellinger, and Latasha Harvey
Liberty University, Doctorate in Education Community Care and Counseling: Family and Marriage