Peer Counseling – Part II: An Experiment In Peer Counseling


Now that we’ve had a generalized discussion introducing the concept of Peer Counseling and exploring an overview of its history and use, I’d like to expand upon how Peer Counseling fits in with Marriage Advocates.

As Marriage Advocates exists to promote and protect healthy marriages and support those with challenges and/or crises, peer counseling is an important part of what we do here.

What Does Peer Counseling Have To Do With Marriage Advocates?

There has been a huge increase in the use of peer counselors for helping people deal with and work through all sorts of things. Graduate level courses are taught on specific aspects of using peer counselors effectively under the direction of licensed professionals in all kinds of programs. It seems that in the mental health and medical fields, there just aren’t enough professionals to go around who can invest the time needed to get the job done.

Some states actually certify peer counselors. One example is Washington, which has training and certification for all sorts of programs. The web is absolutely filled with work related to peer counseling, none of it related in any way to advising people on what to do to save a marriage. Much of it has to do with surviving cancer, overcoming addictions, breast-feeding, recovering from job loss and just about anything other than dealing with marital crisis. While a first glance might indicate that nothing in any of those programs has anything at all to do with what we try to do at Marriage Advocates, that really only applies to the topic of marriage versus other topics being discussed. The peer counseling part—what a real Peer Counselor (PC) is, what they do, how they can be most effective, and why a PC can do things a LMFT or other professional can’t accomplish very well—is exactly the same theme running throughout all of the training materials.

What It Means To Be A Peer

The emphasis in the term peer counseling is always placed on the first word instead of the second. People in most certification programs are actually told not to offer advice beyond that which licensed professionals suggest and, even then, in more general terms rather than specific to a given situation. The whole point, it seems, in offering advice as a peer is remembering the part about being a peer of the one being helped. Training for a specific program devotes a lot of energy to understanding the difference between what a PC should and should NOT try to delve into, and to referring those things they are not qualified to deal with to licensed and trained professionals.

Once the understanding of what real peer counseling means and what it entails is established, applying it to helping people with marital problems can be fundamentally simple. Still, it has nothing at all to do with what any given person might advise any other specific person in any kind of situation. Peer counseling, as a topic, has absolutely nothing at all to do with what advice will be, should be, or might be given. The topic itself is about how advice is given rather than what advice is given. What is most interesting in all programs that certify and train peer counselors for specific duties (some of them paid) is that, in all cases, offering a client specific personal advice that is not already a part of a well defined program is deemed unacceptable and is typically reason for dismissal.

Trained PCs are told to share personal experiences, support healthy decisions and offer alternatives to unhealthy ones, within the confines of already accepted and approved programs and services of the host program. Programs that deal in crisis types of situations all understand the same things about human beings: People are resilient. We, as a species, can adapt and overcome or adjust to nearly any collection of circumstances within a broad range of conditions. Thus, we live in climates where fewer than 20 days per year are above freezing, and in climates where fewer than 30 do not include daytime highs above 100 degrees (Fahrenheit – so nobody can squabble over temperature extremes).

The Heart Of Helping

Nearly all people have within themselves the ability to overcome obstacles, find workable solutions and sort out the quagmires of life. A crisis occurs when and while people are making adjustments and adapting to a situation they themselves have not encountered before. It is their default condition until those adjustments are made.

From the perspective of peer counseling being applied to helping people in marital crisis, the principles actually have been dealt with before, and in some cases are within the writing and published work of the professionals who run some marriage help sites.  Thus, one recommends telling people to do what works, with the key of tailoring advice offered to “what worked for me…”  That it seems, is the only real advice someone not actually trained in the intricacies of the metal health field and diagnostic subtleties is qualified to give. With some expansion to include “What I have read/heard/seen/been told by others is…” the basics of that concept can do more to help a person overcome a crisis in their marriage than paying someone to offer advice that is more specific.

Peggy Vaughn released a study called Help for Therapists (and their Clients) in dealing with affairs. This study was the result of 1083 people responding to questions attempting to discover what worked and what did not work when dealing with an affair. Those who talked to someone other than their spouse were much more likely to feel that they were personally recovered, whether the marriage was restored or not. Those who had recovered their marriages were more likely to feel that their marriage was better than before the affair if they discussed it with someone else. It does not appear to matter whether those discussions took place with a licensed counselor or a peer counselor, or even an anonymous person behind a screen name on a website. In fact, many felt that licensed marital counselors actually made dealing with the emotional rollercoaster more difficult.

The most important person the hurt spouse can talk to about it all, it turns out, is the unfaithful spouse. It seems that those who were able to process their feelings and get questions honestly answered, even when those answers might have been less than satisfying, are the people who are most likely to still be in the marriage and to report that the marriage is better than before the affair.

How Can We Help?

That people can adapt to a great range of conditions is a sort of built-in solution to many difficulties in life. The emotional instability exists while solutions are being analyzed, tested and processed in terms of personal beliefs and values. Something as upsetting to the balance in one’s life as discovering that your spouse has been cheating can bring every area of our personal beliefs into question. We wonder if anything we believed to be true has any truth left in it.

Even in marriages that have been dealing with issues not related to infidelity, a person can find it hard to deal with any issue that challenges what he or she has always believed. Addictions, injury, job loss, the addition of children or the loss of a child or close friend can all throw a relationship into turmoil. When the things we considered the defining parts of our lives are suddenly questioned, many seek advice from those who have had similar experiences in their own lives.

That, it would appear, might be the  peer counselor’s greatest contribution to helping marriages. Having experienced life in different places and in different timelines, we each have our own unique perspective on a wide variety of subjects related to marriage. We all have some tidbit of advice we can share that worked for us, or one of those horror stories we can delve into to explain what did not work so well.

At the heart of peer counseling there remains one key aspect we should never forget in our desire to help others work through areas in life we ourselves have already traveled. That aspect has to do with the ability of people to process their own life circumstances, to arrive at a renewed stability and an end to the crippling effects of a crisis.

The Best Advice

As much as we sometimes think a person would be better off if he or she followed our advice, most people act based on what might be called their “core beliefs.” The reason people don’t follow our advice is only in part due to their inability to trust the advice of anonymous members of an online forum. It is not just that they don’t trust our advice to be in their best interest. The biggest holdup in taking action that might help their situation is usually that they are processing many of those core beliefs. Their model of their little corner of the world has turned out to be flawed. Nothing they once believed is very believable and must be tested based on new information, and much of it that contradicts long held assumptions about marriage, relationships, the spouse, the children and their own emotions.

From a peer counseling perspective, perhaps the most important support we can offer is helping people in the midst of a marital crisis process the emotional turmoil they find themselves in as the result of that crisis. Some reach a result quickly, and others seem to wallow for a significant time before adjusting to a new reality that looks unlike what they once believed the world to be. When people don’t follow our advice, it is often a matter of that advice not yet lining up with those fundamental core values and beliefs that are suddenly suspect. In some cases, they might never reach a place of accepting our advice and yet still recover their own sense of stability and strength. Our greatest contribution, it seems, is helping them process the events of a life spinning out of control to find control over their own lives.

For a free copy of Help for Therapists (and their Clients) in dealing with affairs go to and download the book in PDF format.

Check out our Peer Counseling forum.


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