Integrating Religion and Spirituality in Marriage and Family Counseling

By Wolf, Chelsea T.; Stevens, Patricia | Counseling and Values, October 2001 | Go to article overview
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Integrating Religion and Spirituality in Marriage and Family Counseling


Wolf, Chelsea T., Stevens, Patricia, Counseling and Values


In the fields of counseling and psychology, interest in religious and spiritual issues is expanding. The authors examined integrating religion and spirituality with marriage and family counseling. They explored potential obstacles and negative consequences for this integration, as well as clinical implications. The positive impact of incorporating a religious or spiritual perspective into clinical practice is discussed. Ethical considerations, techniques, and strategies are presented.

According to a 1991 Gallup poll, 94% of adult Americans believe in God or a universal spirit. In addition, 68% of adult Americans are members of a church, synagogue, or place of worship, and 58% of the same population rate religion as being very important in their lives (Gallup, 1993). Richards and Bergin (1997) also noted a recent growth in interest in spiritual and religious issues in the United States, as evidenced by increased coverage of these topics in leading newspapers, magazines, books, and television specials. Likewise, in the fields of counseling and psychology, there has been a growing awareness about the importance of incorporating spirituality and religion into psychotherapy. For example, in the code of ethics, the American Psychological Association (APA; 1992) recognized religion as a component of human diversity. Furthermore, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition (APA, 1994) includes spiritual problems as a V-code, which is the code that designates relational problems. In addition, both the American Counseling Association (1995) and the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (1998) identified religion as an element of human diversity. Finally, there have been several recent publications devoted to religious counseling (e.g., Richards & Bergin, 1997; Shafranske, 1996).

However, despite this heightened awareness in the general counseling and psychology fields, we found relatively little literature regarding the integration of religion and spirituality in marriage and family counseling. Watson (1997) articulated this dearth in literature after examining journal articles, books, and book chapters from 1974 to 1996. According to his search, there were only 48 references relating to religion and spirituality in family systems theory and therapy. This number of references is compared with 389 references relating to religion and spirituality in general counseling and psychotherapy.

Although comparatively small, the body of research regarding the inclusion of religion and spirituality in marriage and family counseling is expanding. This article presents potential negative and positive consequences, as well as ethical considerations, concerning spiritual and religious integration in the field of marriage and family counseling. In addition, several techniques and strategies for practicing from a spiritual or religious perspective are explored.

Defining the Terms

Religion and spirituality are terms for which there are a multitude of definitions. In fact, references offer slightly different definitions of these two words (e.g., Hoge, 1996; Richards & Bergin, 1997). However, the definitions of religion and spirituality given by Wright, Watson, and Bell (1996) are representative of definitions presented in many resources and are the definitions used throughout this article. Wright et al. defined religion as "shared, usually institutionalized, values and beliefs about God [implying] involvement in a religious community" (p. 31). Spirituality refers to

   a personal belief in and experience of a supreme being or an ultimate human
   condition, along with an internal set of values and active investment in
   those values, a sense of connection, a sense of meaning, and a sense of
   inner wholeness within or outside formal religious structures. (Wright et
   al., 1996, p. 31)

Thus, religion and spirituality are interrelated but are not exactly alike; one can be religious and not spiritual, spiritual but not religious, as well as spiritual and religious.

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