I sometimes use the phrase “third-party help” or “Trained third-party help”. Let me clarify what I mean by that.
First third-party: Simple enough – it’s someone other than you and your spouse – a third person added to the mix. It is amazing what a third-party can see. We can be so wrapped up in our situation and our perspective that we cannot see things that are clear to others. Beyond that, the third-party is not directly involved, does not (or should not) have a side (has no dog in the fight as it were), and thus has no pride at stake. A third-party does not always mean a stranger, and it can be someone who knows one spouse better than the other. If their goal is to resolve issues and better the marriage, rather than to gang up on one spouse, a friend can help.
As for trained: Perhaps trained is not the right word – skilled would be a better word. Training can make one skilled, but great skill can exist without formal training. Some folks have a natural talent for something such that they need little training to be very good. Additionally, experience can be a great teacher, and sometimes a friend who has walked a similar path is all one needs.
The level of skill and training needed depends on the situation: Minor issues can be resolved with the help a friend. A couple with a good solid marriage can be a huge help in some situations. If the problem is bigger, or has not been resolved by talking with friends, then more skill is needed. The more complex and/or unusual a problem is, the more picky you should be. Just because someone is trained in general does not mean they have experience or skill with every possible marital problem. Those who are professionally trained will be very up front about this, and will generally refuse to deal with you if they have no training for something unusual you are dealing with.
Be aware that you have to connect and fit with anyone helping you: The bigger the issue, the more important this is. A counsellor who is world-famous is of no use to you if you or your spouse does not feel connected and comfortable with that person. Personality issues can make or break a relationship with third-party help. If you and/or your husband are following Jesus, your help needs to fit in this area as well. Some non-Christian counsellors have training that allows them to work with Christians in ways that do not violate their faith. If you have an uncommon issue to deal with, or live away from a major city, this may be something you need to consider.
Please be aware that third-party help, no matter how skilled, cannot fix you, your spouse, or your marriage: Only you and your spouse can do the necessary work; the third-party can give you insight and offer ways to proceed, but they cannot do it for you. You have a journey to take, and the third-party is offering you a map that shows safe and dangerous places, good roads and bad roads. If you and your spouse are both willing, a good map will ensure success – but the two of you still have to make the journey and deal with any obstacles along the way.
A few sources of third-party help, and what to expect with each:
- Friends: You already know and trust them, which is great. You may not (and should not) feel comfortable discussing some issues, which is a limitation. If the friend shows favouritism, or you or your spouse feel they do, it is not going to work out. Good for simple things that have not grown too large.
- Lay-counsellors/lay-pastors: These folks have some training, and if done right some oversight or someone they can call on if they get in too deep. Often these people have some personal experience with whatever they are now helping others with, and that is usually a plus. If they stick to what they know, tell you if you get into something they do not know, and can maintain confidentiality, they can be significant help in a wide range of marital and personal areas. Lay-help is usually free or very low-cost, which is sometimes an important issue. A great first choice for many things.
- Pastors: Being a pastor does not mean that a person has been trained to counsel, nor does it mean the person is gifted in helping others in this way. Some pastors are awesome counsellors, others are not, and some should be receiving marriage counselling. Ask about training and experience. Also consider what you will be sharing, and if you will find it difficult to face your pastor after sharing personal parts of your marriage. Generally, a no cost option. May or may not be of any use depending on the issue and the pastor’s training, but a good choice if a good fit.
Note: Pastors can be a great source of direction for seeking help, as they may have a good awareness of who is available and the strengths and weaknesses of various people.
- Counsellor/therapist: Individuals who have training and certification are generally the safest and surest choice, but there are both emotional and financial issues that may keep some from using them – even when their marriage desperately needs “professional help”. Many problems never need this level of help, but some are only going to be resolved at this level. Do not waste time with other forms of third-party help if this is what you need, or if the others clearly are not getting the job done. Never a bad choice, but sometimes over kill and sometimes too expensive.
If you can’t find help locally, or don’t want to work with someone who knows you, Gospel Guidance may be for you.