Humanists Question Military Marriage Counseling; Offer Alternatives

This article continues a previous article that covered the personal issues faced by MAAF members in pre-marital counseling at the US military’s Defense Language Institute in Monterey California. This article focuses on Gary Smalley’s Hidden Keys to Loving Relationships, the primary training video used for mandatory pre-marital counseling, and alternatives to the program that MAAF hopes to develop in conjunction with Prepare/Enrich.

The previous article covered individual experiences and left off with the following conclusion:

This secular/religious conflict continues to create issues like this where the nonreligious are skeptical of chaplains who represent a faith-based perspective, especially when that faith-based perspective comes through in many programs that are nominally secular. Only with continued dialogue between the chaplains and the currently unrepresented nontheist community can these issues or perceived issues be resolved.

These issues are especially important as the military attempts to welcome gay and lesbian service members when chaplains hold that homosexuality is a sin. In Washington DC Strategy Sessions and in Congress, they lobby to protect their right to disparage homosexuality. They would presumably either not counsel or provide negative counseling to those in same-sex relationships. More progressive couples may consider open marriages, amicable divorce, and sex-positivity that could bolster modern relationships but seem to be categorically discouraged in traditional religious views of marriage. “Do it if it feels good” is not a responsible policy for sex and relationships, but there are good arguments that early, fruitful, and lifelong monogamy is suggested in many religious traditions is not a better solution.

Already in place is a chaplaincy that is used as a cadre of first line counselors that are an integral part o the command team and mental health program. The Army, among other programs has the $100 million Strong Bonds program and a Major Command tool that refers those soldiers who are Extreme High Risk to the chaplains. Chaplains are key resources in suicide prevention throughout the Department of Defense. The focus here is the Defense Language Institute’s use of Gary Smalley’s Hidden Keys training for mandatory pre-marital counseling.

Gary Smalley is a relationships guru who has published nearly 30 different programs since going into practice in 1979. His products have been used by hundreds of thousands of couples. I had trouble finding a listing of Smalley’s credentials and contacted his office to confirm his credentials. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and a Masters of Divinity from Bethel Seminary. The “Dr.” he puts in front of his name refers to an honorary doctorate in Education from Southwest Baptist University and an honorary doctorate in Literature from Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA). Smalley may have Christian credentials but he does not have advanced degrees in psychology or counseling.

The Smalley franchise is now run primarily by Gary’s sons Greg and Michael and their wives. Michael Smalley (not to be confused with Dr Mike Smalley) has a Masters degree in Clinical Psychology from Wheaton College whose Psychology program seeks to “produce graduates who will be distinctive as Christians in their practice of professional psychology”. Dr. Greg Smalley earned his doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Bible Institute of Los Angeles. The program boasts, “We believe that scripture provides the greatest insight into the human condition”. Again, the Smalley programs seem well-suited to those wanting a Bible-based approach to marriage, but there is less evidence that the Smalleys are scientifically qualified or interested in a secular counseling approach that would be more appropriate in a government context.

Patty Guzikowski, a professional counselor in Wisconsin [edit: WI not MN], reviewed the first part of the Smalley program used at DLI. This is “Recognize and Value Your Mate’s Differences”. This sets the stage for the traditional (read: Biblical) gender roles promoted throughout the series. I asked Patty how this session and the general concept of gender roles met with her experiences:

“Smalley insists that the number one thing that makes for a successful and lasting relationship is HONORING these differences between men and women. The only reason to talk about all these gender and sex stereotypes is to educate clients that these are not universal truths but myths.”

Dr. Darrel Ray, co-Founder and Director of the Therapist Project, and psychologist with 30 years’ experience also review the video and provided this comment:

“Gary Smalley’s teaching on sexual differences in brain function are simplistic and misleading and do not reflect the realities of neuropsychology. He seems to avoid real discussion of sex and sexual behavior in favor of formulaic and trite ideas about sexual relationships. His stories and examples are simplistic and designed to reinforce a narrow, Christian view of marriage and sexuality.”

MAAF did not reach out exclusively with problems but simultaneously looked around for secular alternatives. Dedicated secular alternatives such as the Therapist Project and individual counselors like Patty and Darrel are available, but the military is also looking for a versatile and large-scale program that can have the credibility and resources to serve a diverse community.

I reviewed several programs and found Prepare/Enrich to be science-based, accommodating to various beliefs, and large enough to fit well with the military. The program has been active since 1980, has offices worldwide, and has trained over 100,000 facilitators. One chaplain at DLI is even a certified facilitator for Prepare/Enrich. The program has a “spiritual” scale and has a separate Catholic module that can be those who wish to opt into that program. The program is formatted primarily as a guided exploration of the relationship to ensure they understand their strengths and weaknesses as a couple. This scope, diversity, and format would fit well with a large military program.

The “guru” of the program, is Dr David Olson alongside his wife Karen. Dr Olson holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology from Penn State and sports a long list of professional certifications, leadership, and awards. The program emphasizes his credentials and the scientific basis for the program.

Example P/E training where spiritual beliefs are addressed but not promoted

Prepare/Enrich administrators have also agreed to accept MAAF input on several areas. MAAF has suggested several wording changes on the their “spiritual” beliefs that would allow for a secular (non-supernatural) approach. MAAF and Prepare/Enrich are also discussing a Humanist module that would allow humanistic practices and beliefs to be incorporated for those couples wishing to have that option. Prepare/Enrich will have a leading-edge program if it can have an explicitly secular core training while also allowing for diverse beliefs as options.

MAAF is inviting comment from other humanist organizations like the American Ethical Union, Humanist Society, and Unitarian Universalists Humanists in development of the humanistic aspects of these programs. MAAF is also reaching out to the Clergy Project and the Therapist Project to ensure a proper level of clinical expertise for a professional counseling program.

As these programs develop, the military should also take time to review not just the Air Force training Wing program at the Defense Language Institute but should review all of its programs. While religious themes and traditions may be prevalent in many counseling programs, it is important that the military maintain a strict standard to ensure that marriage counseling and other types of counseling are based on accepted scientific standards from credentialed professionals and that counseling is not used as a vector for promoting religion.

2 Responses to Humanists Question Military Marriage Counseling; Offer Alternatives

  1. Pingback: Didn't Southern Baptists Just Resign as Military Chaplains? - Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers | Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers

  2. I concur with your findings – Prepare and Enrich is an excellent tool for military chaplains for our diverse context. I have found that this tool works very well across the spectum of service members’ religious backgrounds and affiliations, including those who have no faith affiliation, background or practice. Prepare & Enrich’s strength is that it is client-centered.

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