What to Do When You’re In Over Your Head

4 Times to Refer Couples to Professionals

So many times I hear that mentors don’t feel qualified to be working with a couple that is struggling. I admit that I have felt over my head at times.

Here’s the honest truth – you are not qualified to deal with every situation. That’s OK. It’s important to know what you are and aren’t qualified to do.

I tell new mentors to stick to what they know. In our Connected Forever curriculum we teach 25 key concepts. This is marriage education that is biblically based and psychologically sound. If in doubt, stick to those concepts.

However, you will run into things that are beyond your experience level. The body of Christ is just that – a body of people that are all trying to follow Jesus. Yes, we want to help others, but we can also rely on other people inside the body to help out.

There are times that it is better to seek guidance. I suggest that every marriage mentor have someone with more experience that can offer guidance and advice. In our church, we rely on both pastors and mental health professionals that can give us guidance when we aren’t sure what to do.

There are also times when it’s better to refer people to someone else. Often, the couples that we are working with are also seeing a professional counselor while they meet with us. They find value in both the coaching and the professional therapy.

Here’s four times when I always refer a couple.

1. Danger to Themselves or Others

I felt over my head when Julie and Steve came to us. They really wanted to work on their marriage. Steve was concerned about Julie’s emotional state. We asked Julie how she has been feeling and she admitted that she was depressed. We talked about that for a little while and then asked her if she ever thought about suicide. She said no.

Was she suicidal? I’m not really sure. I do know that the depression was hurting their ability to work on their marriage.

We talked a little about options to get help with the depression. We suggested that she see a therapist and gave her a couple of names. Julie did reach out and get some help.

We’ve also run into reports of physical abuse. One woman told us that her husband blew up and hit her. When she said that, he was sitting next to her and he was very contrite. They had already sought out a therapist and he had signed up for anger management classes.

I used to get a little overwhelmed when I heard stories like this. I think that I thought I had to have the answers. Now, I know that I’m not qualified to deal with depression or excessive anger.

We always refer those couples to our network. I suggest that you also check the mandated reporter laws in your area. If someone is threatening harm to themselves or to others, you may be required to report it.

2. Addictions and Drug Abuse

The first time we spoke to a couple that were fighting over how much he drank, I wasn’t sure what to say. He didn’t feel that he had a drinking problem, but she felt that he did.

We stuck to our key concepts on effective listening and conflict management. I knew that those were solid.

We also suggested that they seek out some other counseling. She started to attend Al-Anon and it helped her to learn from others who have faced similar problems. He went to a counselor and, eventually, went to Alcoholics Anonymous.

Guess what? I am not qualified to treat alcohol or drug abuse. I do have recommend resources that people can seek out to find help.

3. When People Don’t Understand “Why”

One of our key concepts is to understand the “why”. This is especially true when it comes to rebuilding trust. What I mean by that is to understand your underlying issues for why you act the way that you do.

People have good reasons for their behavior. They may not understand their own reasons. At times they may need the Holy Spirit to enlighten them. When the issues are deep, it may take some therapy to understand and address the underlying issues.

This doesn’t mean that lay counselors can’t have an impact, they can. But, rely on the body of Christ and suggest that people seek some professional help.

4. When Your Mentoring Isn’t Working Over a Number of Sessions

Ten years ago we met with Rich and Donna for about ten sessions. They were wondering if they should stay married or not. Donna was a very strong, opinionated person. Rich was very nonassertive and he usually gave into Donna’s viewpoints. Donna was frustrated with this and Rich felt controlled.

We worked with them on validation and conflict management skills. It did help them to better listen and understand each other, but it wasn’t changing much about their relationship. Eventually, we came to the joint conclusion that we had plateaued and our sessions didn’t seem to be helping. We suggested that they visit a therapist.

Fast forward 10 years. I ran into Donna recently and asked her how things were going. They have both been seeing mental health professionals. Rich has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and is getting ongoing help. He is also on medication. It has taken a great deal of professional help for them to progress. They are still married, but they are still struggling.

Donna appreciated the time that my wife and I had spent with the two of them. She said that the communication skills have been helpful, but she now knows that there issues are much deeper.

I used to feel that somehow I was a failure if the couple didn’t see an immediate turn around. I now know that there are deeper issues that often need to be addressed by a mental health professional and some of these will require a great deal of work.

Tips for Marriage Mentors:

  • Stick to the Key Concepts – When in doubt, we stick to the key concepts that we teach couples. We know that those are solid.
  • Recognize Your Limitations – It’s OK not to know the answers. I would rather have mentors that are asking for help than mentors that know all the answers. You won’t be qualified to deal with every situation.
  • Develop a Coaching Network – Find some experienced pastors or mental health professionals that would be willing to give you coaching. At our church, this is part of our supervision. We explain to couples that we might ask for guidance if we aren’t sure what to do.
  • Develop Referral Sources – We have developed a list of Christian counselors, social service providers and other ministries in which to refer people.

For More information:

I recommend checking out the Code of Ethics published by the American Association of Christian Counselors.