8. Moralistic Approach - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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8. Moralistic Approach

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > All Relationships MultiCult

All Relationships and Therapy are Multi-Cultural- Family and Cross-Cultural Complications
by Ronald Mah

A moralistic approach focuses individuals, couples, families, and professionals on a moralistic definition of relationship, life, and family processes that presumes a moral ascendancy of one value system over others.  An individual, one member of the couple or family, therapists, priests, pastors, rabbis, or ministers, authors, or other pundits postulate a correct way to be in a relationship.  They assert there is a correct way to interact and to communicate, a correct set of roles and structure for relationship, the couple, and for the family.  And, implicitly or explicitly condemns any other way as immoral.  The therapist risks moralizing if he or she favors or is against the other person, one or the other member of the couple or family because an individual may not be performing as the therapist's idealized models prescribe.  Or, as the individual or partner or family member's idealized model demands.  Another major danger is to assume that the goal of therapy is to create "the ideal American relationship," "ideal couple" or family which is some form of a mainstream upper-middle-class model.  On the other hand, is extremely difficult to do therapy without having some moral judgments.  The therapist needs to admit and own personal moral judgments and actively reconcile them with professional responsibility and the therapist's role.  Most importantly, clinical integrity requires the therapist to recognize that personal or professional perspectives may differ from the individual, couple, or family's judgment and goals.  In particular, if the therapist experiences someone such as Saudi Adit as very different or more different than Helena to him or herself, he or she may align with one person such Helena over the other such as Adit.  Or if the therapist has negative counter-transference regarding WASP culture, he or she may convey judgment against both Hannah and Petey.  Clients who may already have shame issues as individuals or over failures in relationship functioning would be further harmed by subtle or overt moral judgments from the therapist.
Clients with strong religious beliefs may be especially vulnerable to a moralistic approach to therapy.  Duba and Watts in "Therapy With Religious Couples," (2009) asserts how a couple's religion or religious practice can be important to therapy.  If a couple shares the same religion, it will inform them about (a) expected gender-related roles in the marriage, (b) how and when to forgive a spouse for his or her wrongdoing, (c) how to deal with parenting, or (d) the degree to which it is one's filial duty to provide care for older parents (page 211).  How the therapist respond or react to religious issues may facilitate or harm the therapy process.  "‚Ķfour approaches are the rejectionist, exclusivist, constructivist, and the pluralist.  A rejectionist approach is based on the denial of sacred realities that are fundamental components of religious beliefs (e.g., God).  An exclusivist approach, on the other hand, is based on the belief that there is only one pathway to spiritual or religious reality.  Clinicians using this approach can be tempted to adopt the position that, because there is only one 'right' way, they must share the religious worldview and values of their clients to be successful.  Consequently, a Protestant clinician seeing a secular humanist couple considering divorce may not be open to reasons for the divorce other than what the clinician's interpretation of the Bible suggests.  The third approach, the constructivist, is predicated on multiple religious realities.  Consequently, both religious and secular therapists are more interested in how the couple is making sense of their own religious perspective in ways that can guide their relationship.  A Jewish therapist, for instance, would be able to work with a Catholic ex-spouse pursuing an annulment by entering her worldview, while assisting her in making meaning out of the constructions she places on this experience.  Finally, the pluralist perspective assumes the position that there is one absolute divine reality; however, this reality can be expressed in various ways and by various people.  The pluralist clinician respects the religious views of the client, and may also bring his or her religious views into treatment" (page 213).

The rejectionist approach of the therapist is a moral assertion (or amoral assertion) that denies not just the sacred realities fundamental to religion, but also rejects clients' assumption of those realities.  The exclusivist approach is another moral assertion that denies any other belief system or religious beliefs.  Therapy would take on more a tone and direction of missionary work to convert the "damned" or "ignorant" to the righteous way.  It is noteworthy that the therapist with secular belief systems (including agnostic or atheistic beliefs or psychological orientations) as well as religious belief systems can turn the therapy room into an evangelical mission.  The constructivist approach based on multiple religious realities ostensively gives equal moral value to different religious or other belief systems.  It may not however have a unifying core as the pluralist approach may offer.  The pluralist approach may be the most comparable to a multi-cultural approach where a fundamental principle (or morality) or a few fundamental core principles manifest in a variety of ways.  If the therapist is not prepared nor feels competent incorporating the religious experiences of their clients, the therapist may fall back on respecting all religious differences without providing therapeutic assistance.  The therapist may have inadequate preparation in graduate training programs.  There are lower levels of religious affiliation among mental health professionals than among the American population.  Consequently, the therapist unfamiliar with religious-based experiences and activity often rely on their ethical codes and generalizations from other diversity experiences (page 213).  A process of inquiry by the therapist allows the individual, couple, or family to educate them to relevant religious and other cultural values.  Duba and Watts use this table (page 216) to suggest how to assess the couple on religious influences and factors.

Assessment of Couple: The Inclusion of Religious Factors
Dimension Religious influences and factors to be explored

1. How religious beliefs inform one's behavior and thoughts
2. What feelings or experiences are generated when one is behaving or thinking according to the religious beliefs
3. How does one's religion/faith bring meaning to life
4. What intrapersonal struggles related to living out one's faith are experienced

1. How religious beliefs inform one's interactions with partner
2. What guidance religious community provides about one's role in marriage
3. How one's religion helps or gets in the way of developing and maintaining meaningful relationships (e.g., marriage)
4. Beliefs about how partners should (or can) share meaningful religious experiences together

1. Religious practice in family-of-origin
2. How religion was used in positive and negative ways in family-of-origin
3. How religion/faith guided relationship between parents, and among family members
4. Acceptable practices of faith within family-of-origin
5. Support from community to practice faith

Understanding client's religious perspectives and values allows the therapist to evaluate whether the ethical values of his or her clinical practice can be compatible.  Duba and Watts encourage the therapist to consider the following questions to help them determine how he or she can best integrate religion into the theoretical approach (page 215).

1. How would the founder of this theory (e.g., Freud, Adler, Perls) view religion?  What would he or she say about how the couple's religious beliefs are helping them, or making their problems worse?  Do I agree?  How might I reconcile possible discrepancies?

2. How open would these founders be to various worldviews of clients?  How have contemporary leaders conceptualized or addressed religion?

3. Are the core beliefs (or values) of my theoretical approach compatible with the couple's religious beliefs?  Is the theoretical language similar to what the couple might hear in church or in other religious settings (e.g.., about the source of depression or obsessions, about hope in the future; the meaning of life; forgiveness and interpersonal conflict)?

4. If not, how might I work with this couple from another viewpoint?  Am I willing to do this?

5. How is my alignment with this theoretical approach related to my own religious and spiritual beliefs? How does this translate into my work with clients, religious and secular?

6. Am I experiencing dissonance between how I am approaching my work with this couple and what their needs are?

7. What am I willing to do differently if my theoretical approach cannot be merged with the beliefs of my clients (e.g., alter techniques, consciously monitor my worldview, adopt other theoretical-based techniques)?

Such assessments may enable the therapist to find the conceptual clarity to set aside fear of making judgment against clients' interpretations because of their religious teachings.  The therapist may be able to find the compatibility, the approach, and the language to address clients' religious perspectives.  This is important since erroneous interpretations may motivate or justify behavior that may be problematic for their relationship.  The therapist may have been withholding therapeutic interventions that may be appropriate if conceptualized and presented in a religiously compatible manner.  The therapist may not have to share the client's beliefs to be effective.  Duba and Watts's questions may lead a therapist to eliminate him or herself as being fundamentally ill-suited to certain clients for intractable religious or other moral differences.  To engage appropriately with clients, it is important to create a climate of respect, safety, and trust through demonstrating sensitivity to and respect for clients' spiritual values.  With such sensitivity, ways to present therapeutic interventions may be found that are not moralistically judgmental or condemning.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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