Christian coaching is a rapidly growing field and has been recognized by AACC with a new organization, the International Christian Coaching Alliance (ICCA). While there are many types of coaches, this commentary will address a relatively new coaching approach to working with married couples. It will explain the difference between marriage counseling and coaching, describe marriage coaching, and then focus on the value of coaching as a helping methodology.
Differences between Counseling and Coaching
Traditional counseling is the provision of assistance and guidance in resolving personal, social, or psychological problems and difficulties, especially by a trained person on a professional basis. It is designed to take one who is not emotionally well and restore that person to emotional health.
Coaching, on the other hand, is designed to work with people who are emotionally healthy to help them move forward to achieve their goals and objectives. Married couples clearly fall into both categories. Even emotionally healthy couples have problems in marriage that often require counseling or coaching. Dr. Steve Stevens, a renowned Christian author and psychologist, says that 60-70% of the couples he sees do not need a licensed counselor, but could be helped by a marriage coach.1
The issue becomes identifying which couples require counseling and which couples are coachable. Couples who are struggling with addictions, mental health issues, depression, or ongoing affairs are not good candidates for coaching. Essentially one, or both, of the spouses is not emotionally healthy, which limits his/her ability to make agreements and follow through with the promised changes. These couples need professional counseling.
However, if Dr. Stephens is correct, that leaves six or seven out of 10 who could benefit from marriage coaching. So, exactly what is marriage coaching?
What is Marriage Coaching?
Couples usually seek the assistance of a counselor or a coach because they are not able to find a solution to the distress in their relationship. The following metaphor helps to clarify this situation. Each spouse comes to the marriage with his/her own way of dealing with conflict, handling anger, solving problems, communicating, etc. Essentially, each has developed a unique “playbook” on how to manage these issues in life. When they get married, they do not effectively share these individual “playbooks,” nor do they intentionally develop a common playbook to address these issues successfully—as a team. Consequently, there are numerous errors, fumbles and confusion. Before long, the team is frustrated, no one is scoring, and they are losing the game. A marriage coach helps the couple create a common playbook so each person understands and accepts responsibility for changing the current dynamics.
Effective marriage coaching requires the combination of marriage education and coaching.
Therefore, the first task of the coach is to assist couples in developing improved communication skills and help them gain clarity about their expectations and the different ways they do life. Essentially, the coach creates awareness and understanding of what is not working. As couples realize they are on the same team, but using different playbooks, they begin to see things differently. Actually, couples do have common goals; they want to get along, be happy, be intimate, raise successful children, etc. What they don’t have is a common playbook on how to achieve these goals. A coach helps them focus on what is best for the relationship and recognize that when there is a winner and a loser in an argument, the relationship is the ultimate loser.
A marriage coach then helps couples apply their newly developed skills and awareness through a coaching process that includes creating options and actions for them to move forward. As they make new agreements and adopt new behaviors, the feelings of affection grow. Coaching ensures that couples create unique solutions that will work for them; thus, they have total ownership of the results. A coach also helps couples create mutual accountability for living up to their new agreements. Questions such as, “When you forget to do what you have agreed to do, what can your teammate say or do to encourage you to follow through?” help to eliminate barriers to success. Addressing potential barriers is extremely helpful while couples are trying to adopt new behaviors.
Value of Marriage Coaching
There are numerous anecdotal accounts from couples extolling the positive impact that coaching had on their marriages. Many of these accounts focus on the fact that coaching not only provided tools for success, but also offered the application necessary to change destructive patterns of communication and conflict.
Because marriage coaching is relatively new, there are few studies concerning its effectiveness. However, statistics are available from a recent thesis completed by a student in the Masters of Leadership and Management Program at Warner Pacific College in Portland, Oregon.2
This thesis surveyed couples who had participated in both counseling and coaching and compared the results. It is important to note that all the coaching was done by lay Christian couples who had 24 hours of coach training. The survey asked, “On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the best possible, what was your relationship before counseling [coaching]?” and “What was your relationship after counseling [coaching]?” The online survey was opened by 147 recipients and 40 responded for a response rate of 27%. Three of the findings were:
- Respondents reported a 37% improvement in their relationship as a result of counseling and a 60% improvement as a result of coaching
- Coaching had a divorce rate that was 13% less than counseling
- Coaching provided a 50% greater perceived value than counseling
While the sample size was small, the results indicate that marriage coaching is a valuable intervention and warrants further study.
Both traditional marriage counseling and marriage coaching are effective interventions for couples experiencing marital difficulties. While some couples require the help of a licensed counselor and are not candidates for coaching, others can benefit from marriage coaching with lay coach couples. Marriage coaching, especially with lay coach couples, is a relatively new and effective approach to working with couples experiencing marital difficulties and merits additional research.
Al Ray, M.S., and Autumn Ray, B.S., were married in 1970 and are the founding directors of MarriageTeam, a nonprofit that has trained and manages 120 coach couples from 66 different churches ministering to marriages, where Al serves as the Executive Director. They are the authors of Rick and Jane Learn to Listen and Talk: The First Step to Intimacy. Dr. Gary Chapman “highly recommends” this short story about a couple who discovers improved communication through the coaching process. Al retired from the Air Force from his last assignment as the Professor of Aerospace Studies at the University of Portland. He and Autumn are a certified Marriage Enrichment leader couple, Seminar Directors for PREPARE/ENRICH, and skilled trainers. Together, they train MarriageTeam coach couples and promote MarriageTeam through speaking events, workshops and seminars. Distressed married couples who complete MarriageTeam’s coaching program have reported an average of 180% improvement in their relationships and life-changing results. For additional information, go to www.marriageteam.org.
1 Stephens, Steve. Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist and Author, Radio Interview, KPAM, 860 AM, Portland, OR, May 22, 2011.
2 Ray, Brandon. A Study of the Effectiveness of Marriage Coaching, a thesis submitted to Warner Pacific College, unpublished, October 2011.