After a Crisis, Healthy Feels Like Punishment

November 24, 2017

As counselors, we join people mid-journey. Their struggle existed before they met us. Their struggle will likely persist after they finish meeting with us. We come alongside them in a particularly difficult, dark, or discouraging leg in their journey. What does this mean for how we counsel?

I believe it has at least two implications:

  1. We focus on motivation as much as instruction
  2. We focus on attitude towards long-term changes as much as instructing short-term changes

These are the two points I would like to develop in this post and use to make sense of the title – “After a Crisis, Healthy Feels Like Punishment.”

Focus on Motivation as Much as Instruction      

To the first point, motivation (willingness to persevere) has as much to do with counseling success as information (helpful, accurate instruction). This means a significant part of the counselor’s work is to assess and cultivate motivation. When the counselor is more committed to the change process than the counselee, unhelpful dynamics necessarily emerge.

Paul addresses the issue of motivation in Galatians 6:9-10 (ESV), “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

These unhelpful dynamics can potentially be avoided, if the counselee is willing, when the absence or lapse of motivation is identified and discussed. Drawing out these internal conflicts can be done in a way that helps the counselee articulate what they may feel guilty for acknowledging. For instance, “You seem more averse to having this difficult conversation with your spouse than allowing the awkward distance to remain in your marriage.” If spoken with sympathy and understanding, this statement invites a needed conversation.

Focus on Attitude Towards Long-Term Changes as Much as Instructing Short-Term Changes

To the second point, important short-term changes can sometimes be engaged in a way that still resists the long-term changes that need to become a lifestyle. For this point, let’s use a couple of case studies that will bring us to our title statement.

Case Studies

Imagine you are working with a couple whose communication struggles are rooted, in large part, in their lack of financial management. Impulsive spending creates both debt and arguments; then it creates arguments about debt. You work with them on a budget. They comply. Their communication improves and their debt declines. But then comes the question, “How long do we have do this budget thing?”

Now imagine you are working with a couple after an affair. Trust is broken. They realize their schedules were very unknown to one another and this created vulnerability due to large pockets of unaccounted for time. Part of your counsel is greater transparency of schedules with each other. You also help the couple process many sources of betrayal, hurt, and mistrust. The couple’s marriage begins to heal. Then comes the question, “How long do I have to keep a schedule that my spouse can see?”

If you have a sarcastic bent, as this author may or may not have, you might want to simply respond, “For the rest of your life.” Unless you have the rapport with the couple that humor could be used to decrease the heaviness of a hard reality settling in (Prov. 17:22), this is not advised.

What happened in both of these instances? They “grew weary in doing good” (Gal. 6:9) because they made needed short-term changes in a way that did not embrace these changes as necessary lifestyle changes. They viewed their changes as a post-crisis response, not a return to healthy, functional living.

Both couples fell into the pattern that is the title of this post – after a crisis (major debt or infidelity), healthy (budget or transparent scheduling) felt like punishment. Their motivation waned because their understanding of short-term versus long-term change was ill-informed.

As counselors, what do we do about this (because it happens frequently)? Do we confront it as sin? Not initially. I would advocate that we name the dynamic and invite them to wrestle with the implications. The early crisis called for definitive short-term actions. They initially engaged as the situation warranted. In each instance above, the couple was transitioning from crisis to post-crisis counseling. Their mindset needed to change.

If the couple responds well to a description of the unhelpful pattern they are falling into, then they are “weak” (tired after a season of crisis), rather than “unruly” (resistant to wise, godly counsel), referencing the categories of I Thessalonians 5:14.

If the couple has been cooperative enough to reach this point in their journey with you, then the majority of the time (at least in my experience) they will appreciate you helping them understand why they are beginning to resist the very things that were restorative to their life and marriage.

Often they will say some version of, “It makes sense now why I want to quit using the budget. Because it came into my life as a consequence of debt, I view it as punishment. But a budget is a part of healthy living. I have to quit associating having a budget with my bad spending and start to see it as part of God’s design for me to be a good steward of the life and resources he has blessed me with. That will make a big difference in how I feel [enduring motivation assessment] about having a budget.”

When counselees are willing to turn this corner, we’ve helped them not only navigate their way out of a short-term crisis, but also embrace an important aspect (doesn’t have to be budgeting or transparent scheduling) of how God wants them to steward their life and relationships.

Questions for Reflection

How does thinking about “counselee motivation” as much as “counselor instruction” impact your approach to counseling? How does thinking about motivation changes as cases transition from crisis to post-crisis phases impact your counseling?

Brad serves as the Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church in  Durham, NC. He also serves as Instructor of Biblical Counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, a council member of the Biblical Counseling Coalition, and has authored several books including Do Ask, Do Tell, Let’s Talk: Why and How Christians Should Have Gay Friends and God’s Attributes: Rest for Life’s Struggles.


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