Call us : 403-390-7970
Email us :

Spirituality In Counselling

Diane Marshall, RMFT

A Brief Overview

The stories of the clients with whom I have been privileged to work have brought the issues and questions surrounding spirituality into a particular focus for me. Namely: how do we human beings make meaning of our lives? What are the myths and symbols which we use to organize into purposeful living our need for community and connection, for being and belonging, as well as for doing? I am intrigued by the varieties of ways people search for, and experience intimacy: intimacy with self, with others, with the Transcendent. The word Intimacy, derived from the Latin intima, means inner or innermost. So the sense of touching our innermost core is the essence of intimacy. This is part of what I define as a spiritual quest, and it is heightened today in our society as we witness a renewed hunger for the sacred permeating all areas of post-modern life.

Therapists need to find ways to integrate spirituality in couple and family therapy. Just as ethnicity, class, gender, race, and sexual orientation issues need to be understood, so too do religion, spirituality, values and beliefs. A person or couples spirituality is often crucial to their self-understanding as well as to the couple or family system. As eminent family therapist William Doherty has pointed out (Soul Searching: Why Psychotherapy Must Promote Moral Responsibility, 1995), therapists are often called to help our clients deal with moral issues. Doherty postulates that Interpersonal morality is that dimension of our lives in which our behaviour has consequences on the welfare of other people. Thus, there is no such thing as value-free therapy, and it could be said that family therapists are committed to the values of justice and peace, nonviolence and equality in domestic relationships.

Some ways of looking at what we call spirituality

Part of spirituality is a journey into authentic personhood. Such a journey requires courage, connection, community, commitment:

Courage: the struggle to become fully human includes facing what is past, present, and future, trusting that what is discovered will be a source of strength, and of identity.

Connection: some define spirituality as connection. The therapeutic process is itself based on the understanding that healing and change takes place in a relationship which is grounded in a trusting connection.

Community: we are relational beings, and as therapists we need to seek to understand the wider communities with which the person/couple/family is connected. These may include kinship networks, religious affiliations, the workplace, recreational & volunteer organizations and neighbourhood relationships.

Commitment: the process of therapeutic healing requires commitment to staying in the journey, trusting that the discovery of truth will result in freedom: even when that truth is painful, and the freedom is uncomfortable. Therapy is not about adjustment, it is about commitment to becoming authentic, and growing in love.

Counselling, therefore, can be described as an activity of being with someone (or someone‚Äôs) in a connected way as they make the courageous commitment to journey into a deeper relationship with themself, their significant other(s), and their community. To sustain the worldview and perspective needed to work with a wide variety of clients, from different cultures and life experiences and beliefs, therapists often draw on the arts — film, plays, novels, poetry, music, paintings — to broaden their vision of the world and so to enter into the therapeutic conversation with their clients. For example, having recently read Rohinton Mistrys novels Such a Long Journey and Family Matters, about the Parsi community in Bombay, I had a deeper understanding of a young couple who came from a Bombay Parsi immigrant family.

However, therapists must also be honest with ourselves and have the courage to recognize how our own spiritual values affect the way we work with others. While we may not agree with the values of our clients, it is essential that we respect the rights of our clients to hold different sets of values. On the other hand, it requires wisdom to determine when we cannot work with a client due to a clash of values, and may need to refer to another therapist.

As families come to us and invite us into the sacred space of their own becoming, we are called to be both compassionate and hospitable. There is a strong interface between ourselves as persons and ourselves as professionals engaged in a therapeutic process with our clients. We as therapists need to maintain an attitude of respect, gratitude, and generosity towards those with whom we are privileged to work. We need to deal with our own prejudices and anxieties that may emerge in the therapeutic relationship. These become questions of our own spirituality.

Some questions family therapists may use with clients, which can be useful in discussions about spirituality, pertain to questions of meaning and to a sense of wholeness. A few of these are:

what nurtures your spirit? (a very general question; responses includes everything from prayer, scripture reading, worship; to being with friends, walking in nature, gardening; to music, art, theatre; to making love, looking, laughter).
what gives you meaning? (a question which may appeal to more cognitively oriented people; responses may range from the arts, to relationships, to God; to learning, to problem solving, to Amy cultural identity).
what gives you a sense of rootedness? (a question which may appeal to those who are concrete thinkers, and who are physically and sensory oriented; responses may describe things in organic, sensory terms — such as growing things, having a family meal, curling up in bed with a good book, fishing at my cottage.).
what gives you joy? (a question which may resonate with feeling oriented people, and links to areas of giftedness and to their values of love, connectedness, community; responses may include w comments such as: doing something that helps someone, to playing with my children, to celebrating special events with friends).

In working with couples and families, it can be a wonderful experience to hear varied responses to these questions from different members, and frequently people are surprised and intrigued by the way their partner or children may answer!

Therapists are often asked to sit with our clients darkness, often of despair and hopelessness in the face of life crises and pain, or of family breakdown or separation. Our challenge may then be to help facilitate the individuals, couples, and families with whom we work to draw on their deepest resources. This may includes helping them to mobilize change, to find community and support, and, ultimately, it may include encouraging them to find the hope that will sustain them in their journey.


Baron,Renee & Wagele, Elizabeth. The Enneagram Made Easy, 1994
Butler, Katy, Spirituality Reconsidered: Facing the Limits of Psychotherapy, in Family Therapy Networker, Sept-Oct. 1990
Corey, G., Corey, M.S., Callanan, P. Issues and Ethics in the Helping Profession, 1998 (See especially chapter 3: Values and the Helping Relationship)
Doherty, W. Soul Searching: Why Psychotherapy must Promote Moral Responsibility, 1995
Goodall, Dr. Jane. As quoted in High Profile, Third Way, May 2001
Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, April 2000, Vol. 26, No. 2. See the following articles:
The spiritual genogram in family therapy (Marsha Wiggins Frame)
Spiritual Ecomaps: a new diagrammatic tool for assessing marital and family spirituality (David R. Hodge)
Spiritual Issues in Family Therapy: a graduate-level course (JoEllen Patterson, Martha Hayworth, Christie Turner, and Mary Raskin)
Olthius, James. The Beautiful Risk: A New Psychology of Loving and Being Loved, 2001
Thich Nhat Hanh. Peace is Every Step, 1990; The Miracle of Mindfulness, 1975.