The Issue and the Relationship

Most counseling cases involve more than one person. There are exceptions, of course. But they are few and far between. Even when it appears that but one individual is involved, upon further investigation, you will frequently discover that there is a mother or father, a relative or friend—or someone else—who plays an important role in the counseling problem you are considering. Because of this, it is important to understand the basic dynamic that underlies many of the interpersonal difficulties that you will encounter.

I have titled this posting “The Issue and the Relationship” because it sets forth the two essential factors that you will always have to consider when counseling more than one person. More often than not you will find that the husband and wife, parent and child, neighbor and neighbor, church member and church member, will present the principal problem in terms of the issue: “He wants to buy a boat when he knows that we simply can’t afford it!,” “He cheated me in a business deal,” This kid is incorrigible—she drinks, does drugs and plays around with any stud who comes along.”

The issue is always intriguing and tempts a counselor to focus on it at the outset. Usually, it is clearer than the relationship, so it protrudes in the initial description of things. And yet, you will learn that until you have dealt satisfactorily with the relationship, you will not be able to help counselees solve issue problems. In addition to the tempting nature of issue problems, counselees will often pressure you to handle them, sometimes protesting if you turn first to the relationship. In such circumstances, it will be necessary to explain why you are doing so (“You two are in no shape to consider the issue”). I want to suggest, therefore, that in most instances it is fatal to attempt to solve issue problems until relationship problems have been satisfactorily cleared up.

“How is that? I’m not sure that I fully get your point. If the husband and wife mentioned above would only come to a conclusion about the boat, the matter would be ended, wouldn’t it?”

Probably not. You see, one or the other—or possibly both—would go away from dealing with the issue with sore feelings toward his spouse. That is, if they could even discuss the issue civilly! Their problem has grown to the point that they have come for counseling—evidentially, they failed to solve it on their own. Here is the fundamental problem: most of the time until you have dealt with the relationship, no matter how simple the solution to the problem may be, the parties involved will not handle the issue sensibly (let alone biblically). Once I counseled a couple who, among other things, were fighting over the way each left the toothpaste tube after using it. One squeezed it in the middle (I think that was the husband) and the other left the cap off (I think that was the wife). Now, you would suspect that so simple a problem could be easily dispensed with. But, Oh no! Not on your life!

“Wait a minute, that’s an easy one to figure out. All they had to do is buy two tubes, and after the first use you’d know whose tube is whose.”

Very astute! Indeed, in the end, that’s exactly the way that we solved it. But it didn’t happen as readily as you might suppose. You see, they were in no mood to think rationally. Whenever she went into the bathroom and saw the squashed tube, she said to herself, “That man’s been at it again!” Whenever, he saw the cap removed and found toothpaste hardened at the end of the tube, he thought “Ugh! She doesn’t even care enough for me to put the cap back on. She knows I can’t stand it that way!”

Now, surely, you will notice that the problem wasn’t the tube. Both husband and wife were sharp enough to figure out the very solution that you suggested on their own. But if they did so, they probably wouldn’t have needed counseling. The problem wasn’t the toothpaste tube—as I said—it was a marriage so badly on the rocks that the tube had become a symbol of the other interpersonal problems that they had. And, until I was able to bring them into a proper biblical relationship with one another, they wouldn’t even try to seriously deal with the toothpaste tube issue. Having done so, at length, toothpaste tubes were no longer a symbol of larger problems between them, but symbols of those problems—solved.

So, don’t be misled into thinking that if you deal with the issue you will have helped your counselee. Ordinarily, you will soon discover that you can only deal with it after the relationship has been righted biblically, by repentance before God and reconciliation with one another. Always ask yourself, “What in the relationship has become a complicating factor?” What is keeping them from solving the issue? In response, you will find yourself confronting sinful attitudes that need changing, instructing counselees in ways of speaking to one another that honor God, unearthing long-standing grudges, clearing up misunderstandings that have led to bitterness, and so on. When these have been eliminated and proper biblical ways of relating have been learned (usually over a number of weeks), then all sorts of issues will dissolve as if they had never existed. That is not to say that some may not remain. But when they do, it will be two persons bent on pleasing God who will be resolving them; not two who are hostile, and who, in their self-centeredness, have been ignoring God. So, I urge you to think of each situation in terms of issues and relationships, and you will rarely go wrong.

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