Monthly Archives: September 2013

Premarital counseling: Clergy or clinician?

By Kathleen Smith September 30, 2013

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In the past decade, research on the efficacy of premarital counseling has proven difficult. The most notable obstacle is the reality of the self-selection bias, which recognizes that couples who are motivated to engage in premarital counseling already exhibit low risk of marital conflict.

Seeking to stem divorce rates, many states have opted to offer discounted or free marriage licenses for couples who participate in premarital education. A few states even have pending legislation seeking to require premarital education, but none currently requires it. In many states, however, premarital education legislation has emerged from the politically charged conversation concerning the definition of marriage, and it is safe to guess that the effectiveness of premarital counseling is hardly the sole impetus for new state laws.

In a 2006 study at the University of Denver, Scott Stanley and his colleagues found that couples who married in a religious setting were seven times more likely to seek out premarital counseling than those who were married in secular settings. This disparity could be partially explained by the counseling requirement put forth by many clergy before they perform marriage ceremonies.

For the more than 2,500 respondents in Stanley’s study, premarital counseling was also significantly associated with marital satisfaction, but there was no significant distinction between the effectiveness of counseling in religious settings and nonreligious settings.

These results beg professionals to consider a few questions. How does premarital counseling differ when conducted by a religious leader vs. a counselor? And are these differences significant to a couple preparing for marriage or long-term commitment?

To start, many counselors find the term “premarital counseling” to be limiting for clients. “When I talk to people, I often called it ‘relationship education,’” explains Sara Schwarzbaum, coordinator of the family counseling program in the Counselor Education Department at Northeastern Illinois University. “We receive inquiries from people in same-sex relationships, second marriages and cohabitating couples.”

Other professionals take issue with the assumption that counseling should only occur before marriage. “I leave my door open for counseling beyond the wedding day, primarily because many issues in premarital [counseling] are discussed in the abstract,” says Tyler Rogers, who is both a pastor and a recent Ph.D. recipient in counselor education. “I find that couples’ expectations and reality never quite intersect as expected, so I find it helpful, though perhaps counter-cultural, to encourage couples to pursue some follow-up meetings beyond the honeymoon.”

For many clergy, premarital counseling is seen as a component in the construction of the actual wedding, in which they will play a public role. “I think this is a very specific experience unique to this situation and to the role of the clergy,” explains Rev. Amy Butler, senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. “In my mind, there are three reasons for my requirement of this process prior to conducting a wedding: to build a relationship between the couple and the minister that will allow the minister to create a meaningful wedding experience; to allow the couple some respite time from the normal conflicts and stress involved in planning a wedding; and to help the couple focus on the meaning of their commitment to each other and have an experience of counseling that will hopefully make seeking support in the future an easier task.”

Butler views the clergy influence in premarital counseling as an opportunity to encourage couples to gain courage to seek additional therapeutic support should it be required. “I recommend further work if I hear of any particularly difficult family situations, red flags around communication or other trauma that comes to the surface in the premarital counseling process. I always, without exception, talk with a couple about the healthy habit of seeking outside support when they feel they are in crisis. I also recommend they establish a relationship with a supportive therapist for regular check-ins.”

Yet some couples look for a counseling experience that is religiously neutral. “In my experience, about 30 percent of the couples who consult with me are doing so because they perceive that this will be a religion-neutral process,” explains Northeastern Illinois University’s Schwarzbaum. “They are worried that if they attend the ones at their church, synagogue, etc., they will be given religious-based information only.”

Another difference between counseling with a religious figure vs. a professional counselor is the presence or absence of the dual relationship. Unlike counselors, clergy often have the advantage of prior interactions with a couple, and therefore some familiarity of their relationship. But this intimacy also could create a level of distress when a couple discusses personal issues. “Knowing the couple makes it easier because I know the social sphere that a couple is a part of,” says Rogers, a member of the American Counseling Association, about the members of his church. “I do not usually bring my observations to them in counseling or outside [the session], but these do inform my ‘clinical gut’ and help me tease out some of the things that I may see in reality that do not present in counseling.”

Conversely, a counselor might have the advantage over clergy of not being tempted to skirt over awkward issues that might emerge in a dual relationship. “The trained counselor might have more professional knowledge about relationships and relational dynamics, as well as the interpersonal skills and sensitivity to feel areas that need special attention and push past the ‘Oh, we’ve already talked about that,’ responses that may be concealing a potentially explosive disagreement,” says Thomas Blume, associate professor of counseling at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., and a member of ACA. “But I think we share the strength of being able to offer an outside perspective.”

Hopefully with time, research can begin to tease apart the disparities between the role of clergy and clinician in premarital counseling as well as isolate the potentially similar therapeutic elements in their work.

Until then, it is safe to assume that any environment that encourages objective thinking and open communication in a relationship will ultimately be a productive one.




Kathleen Smith is a certified rehabilitation counselor and a doctoral counseling student at George Washington University. Contact her at

The eightfold path to chemical addiction recovery

Robert Bailor September 26, 2013


(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The ancient and venerable perspective on spirituality called Buddhism presents a therapeutic prescription for the fundamental ailment of human beings — suffering. That is, living out of step with reality. It teaches that to our detriment, human beings tend to seek private fulfillment above all else.

This sounds very much like the case with an addictive lifestyle, which is characterized by narcissism. Because of this attitude, an addicted person lives as if he or she is the center and primacy of everything. Chemical addiction develops into a lifestyle that is self-absorbed, self-centered and self-indulgent. This is out of step with the reality of a healthy lifestyle.

Just as Buddhism prescribes eight steps to right living, I propose eight steps for transforming an addictive lifestyle into a healthy lifestyle. Together, I call them the “Eightfold Path to Chemical Addiction Recovery.” This “path” can be a useful guide for successful alcohol and other drug (AOD) counseling.

 1. Right motivation: Without a goal, there is no orientation; without an orientation there is no advancement, only random movement. Proper motivation for recovery is a healthy, happy life. However, without a clear picture of this goal and a deep sense that attaining it is worthwhile, this type of life can never be achieved. Recovery requires a deep, personal commitment from the recovering person to realize the best possible version of himself or herself simply because of his or her own intrinsic and inestimable goodness. There is right motivation when it is internal, honest and devoted to healthy, happy living because the recovering person deserves this type of life having been wonderfully and powerfully made. Any other motivation will misdirect one’s efforts or will never sufficiently energize the person to accept and confront all of the challenges that will arise on the way to right living.

2. Right choice: As motivation is no more than a platform for decision-making, even with right motivation, the recovering person is required to make proper choices. Humans live in a “coulda, shoulda, woulda” world where what happens in one’s life refers as much to how one responds to motivations as to what motivations there are to respond to. People genuinely oriented to recovery must put their choices where their motivations are so that their actions will give life to their motivations. Merely “wanting” to live rightly is not enough. Motivations must be translated into actions, and this transformation depends on the power of a person’s will to bring about healing change. This will power, in turn, is dependent on right learning and right discipline to be successful.

3. Right learning: Lasting recovery requires a person to develop not only a right set of ideas and strategies about addiction but also a lifelong commitment to them. Reaching out is essential for recovery, and continuing to learn about the recovery process is part of this reaching out. Yet, ongoing learning about addiction and recovery is not only about gathering more information; it is likewise about being lovingly self-critical. Lifelong learning develops both increased enlightenment and strength of character to move from a self-absorbed, self-indulgent way of living to a lifestyle lived in terms of truth and reality.

4. Right discipline: An attitude of right discipline is required by right learning in order for challenges to be overcome. Discipline is the development of strategies and strengths through conformity to set guidelines. This means being a willing disciple to those who present right motivations and who are able to foster the strength of character needed to overcome obstacles to turning right choices into realities. Convenience, fatigue and apathy are primary challenges to recovery success. Discipline is wisely harsh in that it demands certain actions and attitudes even in the face of such tempting diversions, but in return, it provides the competency to accomplish what the discipline is for. Should a teacher allow his or her students to do whatever they want to do in the classroom, there would be no advancement toward mastery of the subject matter. Students as such tend to opt for convenience, tend to prefer inertness to the fatigue that comes from effort and tend to allow their focus to wander in order to indulge their whims. Once properly disciplined (that is, trained and conditioned), a student can perform a particular task effortlessly and with gusto. So it is with recovery. This is because right habits of mastery have been formed through the combination of right motivation, right choices, right learning and right discipline.

 5. Right habits: Whatever is done over and over again develops into a pattern. People incorporate patterns as habits. A personal habit is a “second nature.” It is a routine of behavior or attitude that is ready-at-hand, just like the abilities to see and digest are ready-at-hand. Habits are required for competency, for a random success does not an expert make. Recovery requires the development of a set of habits devoted to healthy living. Through habits, there arises that intuitive competency and strength that immediately and without fail recognizes what needs to be done in a situation and allows a ready, unhampered flow of proper response. This is called mastery. Emergency medical technicians work quickly and effectively, not because they are not thinking but because they have developed habits of competency that no longer require them to think about what needs to be done before they do it. Recovery requires the development of similar habits of mastery, ones proper to healthy living, such as proper hygiene, ongoing growth-promoting activities and daily prayer. A set of right recovery habits leads to a right recovery lifestyle.

6. Right lifestyle: Having developed a set of recovery-oriented habits, a person takes on a recovery lifestyle. A recovery lifestyle is a way of living that exhibits a global devotion and trajectory toward healthy, happy living in spite of continuing challenges tempting a return to active addiction. What does a recovery lifestyle look like? It shows itself in the demeanor of a person who is confident in his or her orientation to recovery while being vigilant and lovingly self-critical. A recovery lifestyle shows strengths, skills and right habits that characterize the full range of a person’s life condition. Biologically, a right lifestyle reflects caring for one’s self, i.e., proper eating, proper exercise and proper consultation with healthcare professionals. Psychologically, it shows itself as clarity of mind and a hunger for education and skill advancement. Socially, it presents itself as the capacity to recognize genuine love and an eagerness to connect with others honestly and compassionately. Spiritually, it is revealed in regular meditation and prayer, a sensitivity to beauty and harmony, and a sense of serenity in terms of an intimacy with a higher power.

7. Right actions: Right lifestyle stands as a source of continuous right action. Right motivation, right choice, right learning, right discipline, right habits and right lifestyle are all platforms for personal power to change and support the transformation of intentions into actualities. To be recovered means to behave like a recovering person behaves. It means to live as if one were moving to a perfect state of health and happiness in all that one does. Anything that develops, maintains or advances recovery is a right action. Some right actions that have proven worthwhile on the way to recovery are 1) living one day at a time with a focus on sobriety as the goal; 2) adhering to a recovery program like the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous; 3) developing healthy connections with sober people; 4) attending and participating in support meetings even though they might no longer seem necessary; 5) devoting oneself to works of kindness and generosity, like involvement in the welfare of others, especially those still afflicted with addiction; and 6) deliberately and routinely setting aside time each day to reflect and pray in order to connect more closely to a higher power and to come upon a deep sense of serenity.

8. Right reflection: Finally, it is natural for a person to step back and take stock of his or her life. Having engaged the other seven steps to recovery, a person needs to review and appreciate both what he or she has done and what has been done for him or her on the way to recovery. Right reflection allows the recovering person to evaluate and appreciate the progress that has been made. Right reflection requires honesty, fearlessness and a willingness to continue on the right path. When things are well, the recovering person feels a deep sense of gratitude along with a confirmation of his or her own intrinsic worth. When things need adjustment, the recovering person accepts faults and limitations and sets his or her focus on overcoming them. In either case, a sense of encouragement can arise. Being aware of progress and recognizing the need for more progress return the recovering person to a sense of right motivation so that his or her journey will be true and sustained. Right reflection completes a circle of recovery as it serves to guide and inspire the further pursuit of genuine health and happiness. And, best of all, with right reflection, the recovering person can attain an overall sense of being in the right relationship with reality and thus can be prompted to smile deep down with the appreciation of becoming ALL RIGHT.

 Robert Bailor is a substance abuse counselor at Talbot Hall, the Ohio State University Hospital East, Wexner Medical Center, in Columbus, Ohio. Contact him at

Letters to the editor:

Public policy department to host conference call

Heather Rudow September 24, 2013


The American Counseling Association’s public policy and legislation team will be hosting a conference call this Wednesday at 3:30p.m. (EST) to discuss recent events involving federal policy and the counseling profession.

Topics will include the status of S. 562, a bill that, if passed, would expand Medicare coverage for licensed professional counselors; updates on events at ACA; citizen advocacy opportunities; and issues within the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Though the call is primarily geared toward ACA members, Art Terrazas, acting director of the public policy and legislation department, invites other interested parties to participate.

“Members of the counseling community should be on the call so that they can find out how they can make a difference in their communities and advocate for the profession,” he says. “This is an opportunity to gain important insight so that they can become more empowered.”

For those interested in participating in the call, contact ACA’s public policy department at 1.800.347.6647 or email Guila Todd at

You can listen to past conference calls at ACA’s YouTube page.

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at

ACA member continues pushing for progress while celebrating March on Washington

Heather Rudow September 20, 2013



In August, the nation commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, when Martin Luther King Jr. and hundreds of thousands of others gathered on the National Mall to demand jobs and freedom for everyone, regardless of race. The King Center and the Coalition for Jobs, Justice and Freedom coordinated another march on Aug. 28 to celebrate King’s immortal “I Have a Dream Speech” and to call renewed attention to the ideals of the original march.

The 50th anniversary march was also used to highlight current issues needing attention in today’s society. Stuart Chen-Hayes, a past president of the Illinois Counseling Association and Counselors for Social Justice, a division of the American Counseling Association, marched with his husband, Lance, and their son, Kalani, 10, to bring attention to issues such as LGBT rights, marriage equality, universal health care, nonviolence and education.

Chen-Hayes, an associate professor and program coordinator for the counselor education/school counseling program at Lehman College of the City University of New York, says he and his family regularly participate in rallies focused on social justice issues.

“This was a historic occasion where we wanted to celebrate prior civil rights successes and focus on civil and human rights issues that still need to be resolved,” he says. “[In addition], my husband was born in Taiwan on the day of the original march 50 years ago, so we figured that as a mixed-race, dual-national, multilingual, gay-fathered family, there could be no better birthday present than to attend the 50th anniversary [of the] March on Washington.”

Stuart and Lance Chen-Hayes, who have been together for 19 years and had a legalized marriage ceremony in New York two years ago, make it a point to include Kalani in their social justice efforts.

“We’ve raised him with a strong social consciousness, and he wouldn’t have missed [the march] for the world,” Stuart says. “We regularly speak in front of audiences about social justice issues as a family across the United States and abroad, so he’s quite used to it.”

He hopes that the August march leaves a lasting impression on Kalani.

“We [want] him to remember the mass of people and all of the … positive feedback we received from our signs and our shirts, and to feel what it’s like to speak truth to power in a country where so many human rights are still violated, and where war and secrecy are all too prevalent instead of peace and transparency,” Stuart says.

Chen-Hayes believes that certain issues, such as instances of overt racism, have improved since the first March on Washington. However, he says, systematic barriers still exist that make equality difficult for many Americans.

“There are too many young men of color headed toward prison,” he says. “Gun laws have been written … that are overwhelmingly used against young men of color. LGBT families still can’t get legal protections in 60 percent of the country because those states forbid gay marriage. The great recession decimated millions of families, and the poverty rate has increased with very little job creation in sight to restore those lost jobs. Outsourcing has decimated the middle class. Student debt is skyrocketing, as is college tuition. We spend way too much money on war… and bailing out banks instead of focusing on jobs and [erasing] debt for young people.”

Chen-Hayes also sees the need for the counseling profession to push for greater progress within its ranks. “We’ve seen great movement in multicultural and social justice issues in some ways,” he says, “but in others, we’re not anywhere near where we need to be.”

In his view, both the counseling profession and the country as a whole need to “do a much better job of recruiting and retaining people of color in all aspects of governance and in counseling. We need more women in governance in all aspects in the United States, and more men in counseling. We need more LGBT individuals and LGBT-headed families in the USA with full, legal rights, [as well as] in the counseling profession. We need much more of a focus on social class and economics so everyone, not only the wealthy or those with decent health insurance, can receive counseling services. We need more poor and working-class persons in the counseling profession at all levels.”

Chen-Hayes believes that lasting social change starts with grass-roots efforts, not at the ballot box.

“Real social change is made in the streets and organizing over the Internet,” he says. “You have to be an advocate, and that means getting out in the street and organizing online. There are so many groups that you can connect with to bring back participatory democracy. Right now, the United States is a corporate plutocracy, and we all need to fight to change that.”


Thelma Daley, a past president of ACA who took part in the 1963 March on Washington, had her reflections published in an essay in USA Today. Read that article here.

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at

Helping new college grads find success in the workplace

Susanne Beier, Pamela Gordon and Brett Gordon September 19, 2013



New college graduates approach the job market with feelings of excitement and anticipation. Weighing any possible job offers and accepting that first special position are just a couple of the first milestones new graduates face. Career counselors need to remind these “new employee” clients that their earned degree may have helped them in landing the job — but now, the next step is to keep the job and move up the career ladder.

While most companies provide new hires with an orientation and corporate training aligned with the company’s organizational practices, there are several general strategies that career counselors can use when coaching these clients. Understanding the following topics can provide counselors with the tools to arm new graduates with the confidence they need to successfully navigate their transition into the workforce.

 Make a lasting impression

First impressions count — and they last. In management circles, this is referred to as the “halo effect” or the “horn effect.” Counselors can coach clients to set the stage for future success by ensuring that they make a lasting, positive impression during their first six months on the job. If employers see a consistently stellar performance, this leads to the “halo effect,” which assumes that the employee is a solid performer and any later missteps are viewed as out of character. Unfortunately, the reverse, or the “horn effect,” is also true. If the employee makes a poor impression during the first several months on the job, this impression tends to last, and no matter how much the employee improves, the lingering impression remains a negative one.

Become a knowledge sponge

Coach clients to continue to be in student “learning mode” and become sponges that absorb knowledge. This means that recent graduates in a new job should be coached to learn all they can about industry trends, company policies and procedures, job processes and anything else that supports a budding reputation as a knowledgeable employee and a potential knowledge resource. Caution clients that, in their eagerness to make contributions, they don’t need to feel compelled to immediately change the system. Policies and procedures that have been in place for some time may carry political implications within the corporate structure, and it is best for the client to join the system and work within its constraints before trying to change it.

Network and build contacts

Just as college students built networks through sororities, fraternities and other student groups, as well as through student memberships in professional organizations, this type of networking should continue in the professional work environment. Counselors can help clients explore professional organizations, as well as familiarize themselves with the corporate hierarchical structure. Consider recommending that new hires study the corporate directory to match names and positions as a means of learning who’s who. Encourage new employees to set a goal of meeting a certain number of colleagues each week in order to build contacts and become known within the organization. In addition, suggest that clients frequently volunteer to serve on committees, be part of task forces and get involved in special projects. Each one of these opportunities allows employees to work with others and interact with a variety of company personnel.

 Secure a mentor

We all know that no one “goes it alone.” The best way to encourage new hire success is to recommend finding a mentor. This can be someone from within the company or within the industry who will act as a guide to the newly hired college graduate. The mentor shares personal experiences, secures introductions to others, acts as a sounding board for ideas and suggests resources for professional and personal growth and development.


Career counselors play a major role in workplace coaching. An emerging role is advising the newly hired college graduate. By focusing on the four key strategies mentioned above, career counselors can help promote a smooth transition for clients as they move from college to the professional work world and set the stage for their future success.

 Susanne Beier is a licensed professional counselor in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and a diplomat in clinical forensic counseling. She has 10 years of teaching and educational administration experience at the high school level, as well as 15 years of clinical counseling and Fortune 500 industry experience. She has been featured in New Woman, Working Woman, SELF and Cosmopolitan magazines for her work with corporate relocation clients. Contact her at

Pamela Gordon earned her doctorate in business administration with a specialization in management from Northcentral University. She has 22 years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry, including 17 in corporate management/leadership positions. She has more than 10 years of teaching experience and currently works for University of Phoenix, fostering faculty development. Her research interests are in the areas of management, organizational behavior, marketing and human resource management. Contact her at

Brett Gordon earned his doctoral degree in organization and management from Capella University in 2002 after spending 11 years in the pharmaceutical industry in the areas of sales and marketing and corporate training. He currently holds faculty positions at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, University of the Rockies, Keller Graduate School of Management, University of Phoenix and Northcentral University. Contact him at