By: Scott O'Malley
In past articles, we discussed the importance of listening to a life story to identify his or her heart issues. When people share their life story in the beginning of counseling they feel heard, known, and understood. In addition, they see themselves more clearly and make progress more quickly. While these are important benefits, there are some additional benefits of listening to a life story as it relates to marriage counseling. In this article I want to do two things:
Walkthrough the process of untangling a person’s life story and identifying the ruling heart issue.
Demonstrate three ways the information gained from the life story positively impacts marriage counseling.
Let’s begin by focusing on a husband we will call Jeff. This husband is in his late twenties and has been married for five years. He has had an ongoing struggle with pornography and masturbation and his wife gave him an ultimatum: get this problem fixed or she will divorce him. But Jeff continued to struggle after receiving this ultimatum, so his wife has moved out and they are currently separated. In desperation and shame, Jeff comes for counseling with his wife and their two advocates. The obvious presenting problems are pornography, masturbation, and lust. A novice counselor could focus on these obvious bad fruits and give Bible verses that tell Jeff to stop it. In my early days of counseling I would have focused on Job 31:1, 2 Timothy 2:22, and Philippians 4:8; telling him not to lust; flee youthful lust, and think of what is true, noble, right, and pure. These verses may have helped for a week or two but any growth would be short-lived because Jeff will never be able to stop his flesh if he doesn’t know why he is turning to pornography in moments of weakness. But, if you had listened to Jeff’s life story you would have found out he had Christian parents who told him they loved him, but their actions demonstrated they were too busy and distracted to focus on their son. Jeff described himself as a child who was lonely a lot.
As a child with a ton of free time on his hands, he began to wander the neighborhood and an older boy started to pay special attention to him. Eventually, this boy exposed to him pornography before they eventually became sexually involved. Jeff became very confused. He looked up to this boy, and he was the only one who brought comfort to his loneliness. But, what they were doing felt wrong and he became ashamed. Eventually, this boy moved away but Jeff continued to feel insecure, like he didn’t fit in, and that no one really cared about him. In his loneliness, he fantasized about having a super deep romantic connection.
Eventually, in high school, Jeff had a couple of girlfriends. But he never really enjoyed these relationships because he was so insecure. He constantly thought they were going to dump him as soon as they really got to know him because he didn’t think he had anything to offer. Sure enough, every girl he dated in high school dumped him and he was heartbroken. At times he was so heartbroken and lonely he became hopeless that any girl would ever love him.
He then gave up on girls for a while and went to college. During his junior year of college, he met a woman we will call Kathy, who later became his wife. Throughout their dating relationship, he admitted his porn struggle and she was very gracious and forgiving. After confessing his sin struggle to her many times, he decided he didn’t want to hurt her anymore and so he stopped talking about his struggle. Kathy assumed that meant he was over it. Unfortunately for her a few years into marriage she found out it never went away. Now they are sitting in front of you and need help saving their marriage. From last week’s article, it should be clear we must help Jeff get to the root of his struggles by first listening to his life story (Proverbs 18:13).
Identifying the Ruling Heart Issue
Last week I introduced the process of identifying a ruling heart issue. Let me go a bit further now and walk you through how I draw out the heart of a person I am counseling (Proverbs 20:5). Last week we discussed typing out a person’s life story and then reviewing it together as a group, identifying themes and patterns. As we identify themes, I write them on the board. If you review the information provided about Jeff’s life story, you might identify the following themes: lonely, insecure, hopeless, lust, comfort (through pornography and masturbation), longing for connection, desire to be loved, confused, didn’t fit in, rejected, desire for attention, no one cared, guilt and shame. In addition, here were four words he used to describe himself and that he regularly thought about: unimportant, overlooked, invisible, and defective.
Now that I have numerous different themes, I identify the “I wants” from the list and circle those on the whiteboard. As you review the above themes here are the things he strongly desires that I circled:
To fit in
To be loved
As I reviewed this list with Jeff we immediately removed comfort as the ruling motive because that is what he did when he was not receiving what he longed for in the moment, it wasn’t what he really longed for in his life or marriage. I then took the remaining 6 and split them into two categories because they seemed to fit together. The first category of terms was: loved, cared for, important. The second category of terms was: connection, to fit in, and attention. Taking these two categories I then presented the first category as a desire to be loved. The second category I used the expression fear of rejection. I chose to use fear to acknowledge and capture the deep insecurity he expressed throughout his story. I then questioned him and helped him weigh between those two options which one he felt was weightiest or most prominent in his desires. He chose the desire to be loved, and those of us in the room all agreed. As we reviewed what he longed for from his parents, girlfriends in high school, fantasies in high school, and now his wife, it seemed to us that he longed to be loved, and when he wasn’t experiencing love and desire from his wife, he was willing to settle for a substitute version of it with pornography.
At this point, I walked him through a scenario where he did not feel loved by his wife and sought to help him identify typical responses – internally and externally. I asked Jeff to identify a recent situation where he did not feel loved by his wife. I then asked him three questions as we worked our way down the spiral – what did you think? What did you feel? Or what did you do next? In his case, we identified the following typical responses when he did not feel loved by his wife: hurt, insecure, angry at himself for becoming insecure, hides his emotions, tries to reconnect with his wife but if it fails he becomes lonely, and then he turns to pornography for comfort. He then finishes his spiral filled with shame and hopelessness. I then tested this spiral against another situation or two and confirmed this spiral is a very common way he responds when he does not feel loved.
Benefits of the Life Story to Marriage Counseling
While there are many benefits to hearing a life story for marriage counseling, I would like to focus on three:
It is much easier to empathize with your spouse’s struggles, hearing the history of his or her life and upbringing in one sitting.
After identifying each spouse’s ruling motive and the spiral that follows, it is much easier to see the patterns of conflict in the marriage that led them to grow apart.
Identifying that ruling desire of one’s heart can be the first step to releasing one’s spouse from the impossible burden of satisfying the other’s soul. Only Jesus can satisfy a thirsty soul (John 6:35).
After hearing Jeff’s life story, Kathy was still not happy about his pornography use but she was much more empathetic after more fully understanding how the older boy abused Jeff and exploited his loneliness. Furthermore, the life story helped us identify the string of responses so Jeff can repent quicker or Kathy can help him see where he is at in his spiral. This level of understanding of what is happening under the surface frequently helps couples struggle together against sinful patterns instead of fighting with each other. Finally, Jeff was able to see that he was putting his whole sense of well-being on his wife loving him the way he wanted to be loved. We helped Jeff to see the love he longed for must first and foremost come from Jesus Christ. He needed to learn the same lesson the Samaritan woman had to learn in John 4. There is no person who can satisfy your thirsty soul. But, if you drink of the living water who is Christ, you will never thirst again (John 4:13-14).
Questions for Reflection
How well are you currently doing at getting to the heart in your counseling? What can you glean from this article to help you grow?
What additional benefits can you think of that hearing a life story provides in marriage counseling?
Discuss the following question with counselors you know – what is the process you go through to identify the heart issues involved in a counselee’s life?
Scott O’Malley is the Executive Director of Twelve Stones Ministries and has worked there since 2007. He holds a Master’s Degree in Biblical Counseling from the Master’s University and is an ACBC Certified Counselor. He and his wife Tara have been married since 1992 and they have 8 children, one of whom is adopted. You can read more articles written by Scott at www.twelvestones.org/blog.