Chapter 98
Marital Counseling for the Obstetrician-Gynecologist
Eileen Jernigan Reamy and Kenneth Judson Reamy
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Eileen Jernigan Reamy, PhD
Department of Psychology, West Virginia University, Morgantown, West Virginia (Vol 6, Chap 98)

Kenneth Judson Reamy, MD, MPH
Professor, Departments of Obstetrics and Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry, Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center of West Virginia University, Morgantown, West Virginia (Vol 6, Chap 98)



Marriage is a central life experience for about 90% of adults. As such, marriage has far-reaching effects on health and well-being. Episodes of distress and discord are part of normal human relationships, and discord, itself, need not be a threat. However, statistics on domestic violence1,2 and divorce,3 and a growing literature on the pervasive effects of marital conflict on children,4 point out the destructive outcome of unresolved marital conflict.

The need for early intervention and treatment, and the efficacy of such early treatment upon outcome variables for illness is well accepted. Likewise, the literature on marital discord and conflict indicate that early intervention, before patterns are well established, and while there is still the presence of some good will, has the greatest record of success.5 Effective early intervention may be as “simple” as giving the patient permission to voice her concerns to a compassionate, caring professional or giving correct information to dispel myths and misconceptions. The respect and validation received as a result of being heard may be enough to empower the patient before conflict becomes fixed or destructive. “All health-care professionals can initiate a first level of treatment by giving patients an opportunity to ventilate in an atmosphere of supportive listening—the efficacy of this simple but powerful strategy should never be underestimated.”6

Physicians, viewed by patients as authorities—available, confidential, and resourceful—are in an excellent position to offer marital counseling and intervention. Women may be able to visit a physician when their circumstances would not permit contact with a marriage or family therapist or even a minister.

The obstetrician-gynecologist has traditionally occupied the central medical position in the lives of many women. For women managing multiple roles (e.g., career woman, wife, mother), the obstetrician-gynecologist may be the only health professional seen on a regular basis. Women caught in the web of violence may not have “permission” to consult a physician apart from “women's concerns.” Research indicates that battered women tend to make the obstetrician-gynecologist the first, and sometimes the only, physician consulted.7 The current trend toward the obstetrician-gynecologist as a primary care physician, along with pressure to view medicine within the framework of total health and well-being, widens the role of the obstetrician-gynecologist. Marital counseling is a timely and relevant topic.

In the role of primary care physician, questions about health and well-being, including sexual health, are not viewed by the patient as intrusive, but as a mark of interest and expertise.8 Physicians who communicate compassion and interest to their patients encourage patient confidence and openness, qualities that are necessary to ensure that the patient is not only served but satisfied with such service.

This chapter is written from the conviction that interest in the marital and sexual concerns of the patient is an obvious, legitimate, and necessary response to the total health needs of patients. And further, the responsible practice of medicine requires attention to the effects of marital interaction. The chapter is designed to encourage and assist the obstetrician-gynecologist to move easily and competently into marital counseling.

Information about marriage, and the prevalence and effects of marital conflict, including its common causes, are discussed. Skills and techniques necessary for physicians to effectively address marital and sexual concerns are offered. Finally, models for marital and sexual counseling are provided.

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Marriage is, at the same time, both a personal and a public bond. While marriage is intimate and private, the existence of a legal spouse, even if that person is absent, is a public boundary. Not only does the choice of a spouse demonstrate one's personal taste and ability to secure a desirable mate, it also defines relationships with other persons (family, friends, potential employers) and institutions (bank, school, government). Healthy marriages have certain characteristics in common. Such marriages are marked by the ability to negotiate solutions and solve problems; an adequate tolerance for ambiguity; positive attributions regarding interaction and behavior; and outcomes to situations and problems of life that meet the needs of both persons.9 Problem solving skills, which include communication skills, the assumption of good will, and the attribution of good intentions to the partner are basic ingredients for success.

Contrary to some popular beliefs, a successful marital relationship need not be egalitarian in the sense that tasks, responsibilities, and rewards are evenly divided. Rather, it is the perception that personal needs are being met within the relationship that makes the difference between distress and nondistress. Perception is a key variable in cognitive definitions of events as stressful or nonstressful.10

Research confirms that it is not differences between people or particular problem areas that couples encounter that are important for marital distress, but how the problems are handled.11 Couples who are able to resolve problems when conflicts develop have the best chance to develop a successful marriage.12

Marital Expectations

Marriage in the United States today is marked by high expectations. The marital partner is expected to be friend, lover, confidant, wage-earner, caregiver, and “equal” partner. In addition to the inherent demands in these roles, there is a high expectation that the partners will understand each other.13 In sharp contrast, men and women in earlier generations were assigned clear, often opposite, gender roles; each expected that the opposite sex would remain somewhat mysterious and separate.14,15,16

At the same time that couples hold high expectations, they are aware of the low probability of successful marriage (on average, 50% of all marriages end in divorce). This awareness may negatively influence the level of marital commitment and further undermine feelings of competency and self-esteem when marital conflict is present.17

Patients who hold contemporary expectations about marriage and divorce may be expected potentially to be at risk for increased levels of stress, discord, and conflict. Disappointment, distress, anger, and perceived stress are normal responses to the violation of expectations. The mediating variables in whether or not conflict occurs appear to be how the couple handles stress, and what methods are used for stress reduction.18

Stress may increase partners' needs for support while simultaneously decreasing the ability to support each other.

In addition, stress may be associated with negative mood states that adversely affect couple interaction. Finally, stress may impair cognitive ability, particularly the ability to focus outward on problem-solving, rather than inward on personal need and mood.

In literature on stress and coping, one of the most widely considered resources for stress management is social support.19,20 The concerned and involved physician-counselor provides an accessible, formal resource for patients' social support.

Multiple Roles of Women

Multiple roles of women result in demands on health and well-being, even in the absence of conflict. Multiple roles are accompanied by details and demands that increase the potential for distress. Daily hassles have been positively correlated with feelings of well-being and stress.21 The level of daily hassles has been shown to be a better predictor of concurrent and subsequent psychologic symptoms than major life events.

About 60% of women work outside their homes with the percentage rising to about 68% of women ages 25 to 34.22 At the same time, women continue to have primary responsibility for the care of home and children in our culture. In assessing the context of a marriage, close attention should be given to the presence and demands of multiple roles.

Sexuality in Marriage

During the past 30 years, sexual attitudes, behaviors, and expectations have been influenced not only by sex researchers but by the sexual revolution, the Women's Liberation Movement, the holistic health cause, and media promotion. “Consequently, the primary physician now relates to a practice population that is informed about sexuality, has many more expectations, and anticipates more education, support, flexibility and therapeutic interventions .-.-. than ever before.”23

Physicians potentially are well-equipped to address sexual concerns with information about human sexual response24; sexual dysfunctions25,26; normalcy data concerning sexual behavior27,28,29; and sexual aspects of life transitions, such as pregnancy,30 postpartum,31 and menopause.32 “Primary care physicians and medical specialists who are not sex therapists or psychiatrists are probably able to provide effective treatment for patients with sexual problems in 80% or more of the cases encountered in their practices.”6

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Individual ideas and values about appropriateness and correctness are learned first within early family and sociocultural contexts. Values and ideas are often unexplored, unarticulated, and sometimes invisible, even though they may support strong opinions and feelings. Basic tasks in marriage include learning how to maintain personal autonomy; get personal needs met; and live in an interdependent, intimate relationship. When the personal ideas and values of one partner conflict with those of the other, understanding, articulation, and negotiation may be required.

Conflict in marriage commonly occurs over the following: gender issues (the demands and conflicts of roles ascribed or assumed within the relationship); loyalties (e.g., friends, in-laws, other family members, clubs); the use of money; power (who's in charge); children (presence and behavior of); privacy; inability or unwillingness to communicate; and sexual concerns.16,33,34,35 A brief description of each area follows.


Conflict about gender occurs because marital partners hold differing definitions and expectations about differences between women and men, and what form these differences should have in the relationship.

The statement “Men (or women) are supposed to do{_____} (or be or act)” expresses ideas and values about gender appropriateness. Examples of traditional words or phrases applied to women are: giving, caring, vulnerable, helpful, sensitive to the needs of others, eager to soothe hurt feelings, emotional, childlike, and dependent. In contrast, men have been described as self-reliant, independent, forceful, analytical, self-sufficient, dominant, competitive, ambitious, and strong.


Marriage is lived in a context that includes relationships past and present. “When we are by ourselves, everything is fine,” or “If other people would just leave us alone, we wouldn't have any problems” are statements that reflect loyalty conflicts. Loyalty conflicts often present as jealousy or possessiveness on the part of one partner.


People place differing values on money; as many as 25% of married couples consider money their chief problem.33 Money is a medium of exchange, and as such, it may represent many things including: love, power, self-esteem, security, time, gifts, independence, masculinity, corruption, or evil. When marital partners differ in their values about money, conflict is the inevitable result.


Power conflicts may center on any of the other common issues in marriage (e.g., money, sex, loyalty). Power has to do with feelings of personal competency, self-esteem, and efficacy, and ultimately with survival. Personal power styles include: dominance, coercion, blaming, giving-in, and egalitarian. Research is far from conclusive. However, results to date have revealed the following33:

  1. Wife-dominant relationships are the most likely to be unhappy.
  2. Egalitarian marriages have the best chance for success.
  3. Coercion (threats, manipulation, violence, etc.) usually results in an unhappy marriage.
  4. Blaming the other partner is always detrimental.
  5. Believing that one has little control over events signals serious trouble for the marriage.


Children may be a source of conflict for marital partners who are parents, or for those who are childless. Conflict over children may involve a variety of issues around the children themselves, such as needs, care, expense, behavior, privacy, and parenting styles. In addition, quarreling about children may be safer for the married couple than quarreling about some more deeply felt concern, such as sexual dysfunction. Further, quarreling about children may be prompted by other problems, such as the distribution of power within the marriage, or loyalty conflicts that have not been resolved. For example, a father might insist on certain types of behavior, with which his wife does not agree—not for its own sake,but out of loyalty to his own father or mother.


Privacy issues include personal space, time, thoughts, emotion, and personal property.33 Partners may differ widely in their learned definitions of each of these areas and in their personal needs. A partner with a high need for personal space may feel smothered by a partner who does not maintain distance, while the other partner may feel rejected by the demand for privacy.


Of all the concerns that are expressed in marital counseling, communication is one of the most discussed. Conflict is usually over the inability or perceived unwillingness of one partner to communicate with the other. Initial communication problems may relate to differences in the basic personality variables of extroversion or introversion. There are a number of other possibilities as well. For example, the adage “information is power” is a marital truism. The refusal to communicate may be one partner's attempt to be in charge or to keep the partner from being in charge. Lack of communication may represent lack of trust in the other partner, in the partner's ability to understand or sympathize, or to maintain confidentiality.

Sexual Problems

As a common source of marital conflict, sex is one of the “big three,” along with money and power.11 Common sexual concerns include: vaginal dryness and associated dyspareunia; impaired sexual desire; dissatisfaction over coital frequency; duration and quality of sex play; premature ejaculation; erectile dysfunction (impotence); orgasmic dysfunction; and concerns about sexual practices and various coital positions.36,37 Many sexual concerns reflect relationship issues, including role expectations. Conversely, marital discord may be a reflection of sexual problems.

Marital Conflict and the Physician

Patients caught in the experience of marital conflict may present repeatedly to the physician with a variety of somatic complaints such as recalcitrant fatigue; headache; a variety of menstrual complaints; various aches and pains; depressed mood; and a sense of helplessness or hopelessness. Since social conditioning for women in our culture encourages the repression of anger, such repression may present as anxiety, depression, or even guilt over perceived personal failure.

The absence of an identifiable organic cause can provoke frustration in the physician who is not alert to the presence of marital conflict and can reinforce the patient's sense of inadequacy and incompetency to deal with life events. There is also the possibility that anxiolytics or other drugs may be prescribed that treat symptoms, use financial resources, and offer no lasting remedy.

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One woman is beaten every 10 to 18 seconds in our culture. About 2 million spouses are beaten annually, and 90% to 95% of all victims are women.1 Battering appears to be the single greatest cause of serious injury to women, accounting for more injuries than auto accidents, muggings, and rape combined. In addition, it is impossible to estimate the number of small and untreated injuries inflicted. Between 3% and 17% of women report or acknowledge recurrent severe assaults during pregnancy.38 If data are summarized, some form of domestic violence occurs in the United States in one half of its homes at least once per year.1

Marital rape may be the most frequent type of sexual assault, and it is common in the battering situation.39,40,41 The victim of marital rape suffers all the psychologic sequelae of rape and in addition, is the only rape victim who has to live intimately with her rapist.41 Further, the rape occurs in a setting where traditional, legal, and emotional bonds frequently make disclosure almost impossible. In 1985, for example, there were still 20 states that specifically excluded husbands from the definition of rape. Research has shown that victims of marital rape are even more traumatized in their ability to trust than women raped by acquaintances or strangers.41

Battered women seek regular medical care,1,42 often from an obstetrician-gynecologist. Victims have a high rate and extensive range of gynecologic somatic symptoms and frequently suffer post-traumatic stress disorder in addition to actual physical injury.42 Studies have shown the failure of physicians to respond to the issue of domestic violence in 40% to 92% of instances, even when a protocol for response was in place.43,44,45

The responsible physician must consider the meaning of domestic violence statistics as represented in the lives of patients. Marital and sexual history taking is a powerful tool for intervention in this silent, often deadly, epidemic.

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If the current divorce trend continues, a minority of children born in the 1990s (about 40%) will live with both biologic parents from birth to age 18. Another 30% will begin life with married parents who will later divorce. The remaining 30% will be born to an unmarried woman.46 Many children in the latter two groups will experience several changes in household composition and several marital transitions from divorce to remarriage to divorce again. Many will spend time with the live-in lovers of their parents, grandparents, or a stepparent. Each of these realignments may be expected to include discord and conflict.

A growing body of literature addresses the developmental effects of marital conflict on children.4 Negative effects include behavior problems, anxiety, depression, difficulties relating to peers, and difficulties in their own future dating and marriage relationships. Cummings and colleagues4 report that children as young as 10 months of age have shown distress in situations of marital conflict.

Of special interest is the finding in these studies that the manner in which conflict is resolved is more important to the child than the presence of conflict. Parents who successfully resolve their conflicts provide powerful positive role models to their children.

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Current figures indicate that marital discord in first marriages will result in divorce for about 56% of women between ages 25 and 39 (peak childbearing ages), and 36% of women between the ages of 45 and 49.22 About 75% of divorced women remarry; about 50% of remarriages end in divorce. The distress and conflict in the lives of adults represented by these statistics is accompanied by dislocation, distress, and often chronic instability for their dependent children.

Without intervention, the problems that attend marriage, divorce, and remarriage appear to be a permanent part of our culture. Despite some appearance of decline in the late 1980s, a recent review of trends indicated that divorce in the United States is likely to remain among the highest in the world.3

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A single model in which to view all the aspects of individual or marital life does not exist. However, the biopsychosocial model is a useful beginning. The model consists of the biologic or biophysical, the psychologic, and the social dimensions of illness.47,48

The biologic system emphasizes structure, including the molecular substrate of disease and its effects on biologic function. The psychologic system emphasizes psychodynamic, motivational, and personality factors; the social system stresses cultural, environmental, and personality factors, and their effects on the expression and experience of illness.

Components of the three systems further include the following:

  1. Biologic—sex chromosomes, anatomy (phenotype) and physiology, hormones, aging, illness, drugs, surgery
  2. Psychologic—parent-child interaction, touching, nurturance and affection, socialization, sex role expectations, self-esteem, anxiety, depression, guilt, anger
  3. Social—culture, ethnicity, world-view, locus of control, the dyad or relationship, cooperation and communication, conflict.

Limitations of the biopsychosocial model for marital counseling include a lack of attention to the roles of cognition and of personal spirituality, and the underemphasis of context.

Developmental psychologists contend that human development is embedded in context and cannot be adequately evaluated, apart from the contexts of the individual's life.13

Context may be defined as everything external to the individual's person. An ecological systems approach is useful for studying contexts moving from the microsystems to the macrosystem. Included in this approach are one's immediate context (family, workplace, peer group, classroom); the links between contexts (a parent-teacher conference); the larger sociocultural context; and the overarching context of public norms and policy (e.g., laws regarding lunches available for school children, regulations on abortion, divorce laws).


Both external (behavioral) and internal (affective, cognitive) factors play roles in the development and maintenance of marital conflict.49 Problem solving, including dealing with stressful events, requires cognitive processes.10 Appraisal and attributions within the marital relationship are cognitive processes. The cognitive domain of development includes all the mental processes used to obtain knowledge or to become aware of the environment (perception, imagination, judgment, memory, language, processes used to think, decide, and learn, both formal and informal education, and the accumulated wisdom from life experience). Assessment requires attention to both affective and cognitive responses.


Religion as a formal socializing influence is included in the psychosocial domains of development and the biopsychosocial model. To be inclusive, however, the basic faith system that supports and shapes personal attitudes and behaviors may need to be examined in marital counseling. This personal faith system may operate apart from organized religion.

The biopsychosocial model with additional attention to the roles of cognition and spirituality, and a broader definition of context, provides excellent categories for viewing the total life and well-being of patients.

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Effective counseling requires knowledge, comfort, and skill. Physicians give medical counsel to patients routinely. However, medical counseling and marriage counseling differ because medical counsel is offered from a wide base of knowledge and training, and the physician approaches the patient as an authority, clearly in control of the situation. In contrast, information, knowledge, and training about marriage and marital concerns is not part of the medical education of most physicians.

The physician need not expect to treat marital and sexual problems and difficulties with the same depth used to address other health concerns; ultimately, the physician may not be able to resolve the marital issue.

However, counseling as a discipline, unlike the practice of medicine, does not require the prescribing of the right answer to patients. On the contrary, an effective counselor enters the counseling situation with the fundamental belief that right answers will emerge as the patient is assisted to communicate issues, clarify needs and wants, and work out a plan for moving toward a desired result.

Resource material is available on most issues that will arise during the counseling session. Knowledge will grow as answers to patient concerns are sought.

This does not mean that marital counseling requires no specialized knowledge or skill. On the contrary, the more information the physician has about marriage and marital conflict, and the greater the knowledge of counseling skills, the better able she or he will be to participate fully in the experience of the couple. Excellent references on counseling skills are available for the beginning physician-counselor and should be used.50,51,52,53,54,55,56

Good referral is an excellent and appropriate treatment choice for marital and sexual problems that the physician feels unable or unwilling to treat. A referral network offers a potential source of information and training for the physician as well.

Specific counseling skills include techniques for approaching the patient, listening, using appropriate verbal skills, interviewing, evaluating information, and assisting the patient to initiate and take charge of her own solutions. Knowledge, comfort, and skill in the use of counseling techniques will grow with participation in on-going patient dialogue and problem solving.

Approaching the Patient

Primum non nocere means first do no harm. The physician must balance his authoritative status with a manner that is gentle, caring, respectful, empathic, and attending.53

Respect is a particular way of viewing another person. It means believing in the worth of a person on the basis of shared humanity without any other qualification. Such respect is not passive but is an active value held by the counselor. The respectful counselor is characterized by a manner that is open, compassionate, gracious, and tough-minded.57 Respect communicates powerfully that the counselor believes in the intrinsic worth of the patient; is committed to the patient's well-being; and will persist in supporting and assisting the patient to resolve the situation. In the absence of respect, the use of further counseling techniques will be largely ineffective. Attending is a manner of being present to another person; active listening is what the counselor does while attending. Attending is both physical and emotional.

Physically, the counselor attends by facing the patient, maintaining an open posture, maintaining appropriate eye contact, and remaining relatively relaxed. Respect the patient's space. Sitting either too close or too far away may promote discomfort. Avoiding eye contact may connote embarrassment. Actively seeking eye contact may convey other messages including voyeurism. It can be helpful to position oneself where eye contact can be determined by the patient as desired. Many find that rather than talking across a desk, two similar chairs at right angles facilitate sexual interviewing and counsel. It is less authoritarian and prevents confrontational eye contact.58

Psychologic attending includes listening for both the feeling and the content in the verbal and nonverbal messages of the patient. Attending is a difficult skill demanding commitment and concentration on the part of the counselor. The ability to attend improves rapidly with practice.

Techniques for Listening

Active listening requires the avoidance of distraction, awareness of intonation, and attention to feeling, as well as content. It is necessary to listen until the patient completes her “train of thought” before formulating a response. Periodic nods, encouraging sounds, and empathic paraphrases indicate active listening and hearing.

The observation of the patient's facial expressions, movements, and posture can supply important information. One must not make unwarranted assumptions about demeanor, however.

It is helpful, for instance, to ask a woman who is crying what she is feeling before offering her a facial tissue. Because women are socially scripted in our culture not to display anger, tears may be an expression of anger or frustration as often as sadness. (A man, on the other hand, may yell when he is afraid or sad.) Constant dialogue is unnecessary; occasional silence may be comforting and useful for assimilation or processing to occur.

Empathy is twofold. First, it is the ability to look at the world from the perspective or frame of reference of another person and get a feeling for what the other's world is like.57 This is quite different from sympathy which is seeing and feeling another's world from one's own perspective.

Second, empathy is the ability to communicate this understanding in a way that shows that feelings have been understood, and the experience underlying the feelings has been also understood.

Empathy is demonstrated by participation in emotional responses. Thus, a look of sadness when the patient is communicating pain or a verbal expression of understanding (e.g., “that must have been very frightening” or “many people would feel sad [hurt, angry] if that happened”) are empathic responses. The experience of accurate empathy may be compared to dancing in step with a partner. Such emotional synchrony is a powerful form of human validation. When empathy is combined with respect, it establishes and maintains rapport and develops trust and openness.

Verbal Skills

There are several simple rules concerning the use of language that apply equally well to marital and sexual inquiry.53,58

Medical or psychological jargon may confuse rather than clarify. The patient's intelligence, education, and degree of sophistication will help to determine the level of communication. Never invite a negative response by asking closed-ended questions, such as “Have you ever .-.-.” or “Do you .-.-.?” Examples of alternatives that convey an accepting nonjudgmental attitude include “When was the last time you .-.-.?” or “How often do you .-.-.?”

Open-ended questions are often more enabling than closed-ended and limited ones. “What sexually transmitted diseases, if any, have you been treated for in the past?” is preferable to “Have you ever been treated for gonorrhea?”

Ubiquitous statements diminish anxiety, legitimize and normalize concerns, and encourage dialogue. For example, a good technique for the sexual history as part of the review of systems is to begin by a universal or ubiquitous statement followed by an appropriate question. “Most persons experience sexual concerns or problems at times during their lives. What problems, if any, have you experienced?”or “What concerns do you want to share with me?”

Ask one question at a time and allow time for an answer.

Avoid “why” questions that are typically heard as blaming and critical. One can ask a similar question using “how” or “what.” “How do you think the problem came to be?” or “What do you think the cause of the problem is?”

Never use a long word when you can use a short one. A complex or latinate word is more likely to be misunderstood. “Do you come?” is more readily understood than “Do you achieve orgasm?” Usually, neutral colloquial terms are better than vulgar ones. Anatomic charts or models are often helpful during sexual inquiry.

The physician may wish to explain to the patient a personal preference for using medical or scientific terms because they have exact or precise meanings. On the other hand, it is advisable to make clear that there is no expectation or necessity that the patient will use the same terms unless she wishes to. It is essential that myths be tactfully and sensitively corrected at the risk of interruption. If it is not done at the time, you have, in effect, tacitly or implicitly validated the misconception.

Begin with the easy, kind questions and leave the difficult, threatening, or cruel ones until the end. The patient gains confidence in the physician as questions begin with the less threatening and proceed to the more explicit. Assumptions should be avoided. Do not assume that a patient is familiar with common marital, or sexual problems or difficulties. It may be enabling to give examples relevant to the age or life stage, such as power struggles over parenting styles, or vaginal dryness and associated dyspareunia, in the menopausal woman or lactating mother.

Never assume that persons understand the meaning of words. A psychologist ending an AIDS lecture to a senior class was asked by a student what heterosexual meant.58 Teenage girls have responded to the question “Are you sexually active?” with “No, I just lie there” or words to that effect.

One must not accept a patient's self-labels such as “He is oversexed” or “I am frigid.” It is important to ask, “What do you mean by that?” or “Can you tell me more about that?”59 Most sexual words are either euphemisms—”down there,” “my privates,”—or street language.

When investigating exposure to sexually transmitted diseases do not assume that a married woman or her husband is monogamous. The rate of extramarital relations is high, at least 20% to 40%.60 Keep in mind that an assumption of heterosexuality or exclusive heterosexuality in a woman, including a married woman, may be fallacious. An estimated 15% to 20% of women (and 30% of men) have engaged in homosexual or same-sex activities on one or more occasions.60

Patients frequently wish to know whether their behavior or their husband's requests are normal and seek informed support or reassurance. This is particularly true in the area of sexual concerns. A knowledge base permits you to inform and educate, a primary component of counseling.


The most efficient and effective way to screen for marital and sexual concerns and to offer early intervention in marital conflict is to take a marital and sexual history as part of the routine patient interview and assessment.

Interviewing skills allow the physician to engage the patient in disclosing marital and sexual concerns, and to help the patient get to the root of the problem or concern quickly and efficiently.

A routine format for obtaining marital and sexual histories provides a way to structure information and pinpoint the marital or sexual interactional pattern. Use of a conversational style and basic counseling skills (attending, active listening, ubiquitous statements) will allay anxiety and elicit information efficiently.

Information about the areas of function in which basic conflicts and problems are likely to occur should be obtained in the marital and sexual histories.

Marital History

During the initial marital history, an overview of the life of the marriage from courtship to present should be recorded. The overview itself should be broad but information within each life area need not be elaborately detailed. Periodically, current information about children, job satisfaction, relationship with in-laws, finances, and social life should be reviewed.

Areas and possible questions to be covered during the marital history taking are:

  1. Courtship and marriage patterns (how long; how families reacted to their courtship; were they sexually involved during courtship; were either of them involved with other people emotionally, sexually, or legally before or during courtship; church or other type of wedding).
  2. Number of years married (any periods of separation because of work or conflict).
  3. Number of children (biologic, step, adopted, and other dependent persons who live full- or part-time with the couple).
  4. Parents or relatives (do they live close by; how often do you see them; do you enjoy being with them).
  5. Vocation/work (do you work outside the home; have you always worked; do you like/enjoy working; do you like/enjoy your job; what does your spouse do; does he like/enjoy his job).
  6. Distribution of power, that is, who makes the decisions in the family (who decides what you do on your days off, do you or your husband write the checks).
  7. Rules (often unspoken) about roles and gender issues (Do you do your own housework?; Do you do all of the cooking?; Does your husband babysit?).
  8. The presence of conflict can be elicited by ubiquity statements followed by appropriate questions (Most couples disagree about something now and then. Is there any disagreement in your marriage that is causing you concern at this time?).

Because marital and sexual concerns are often expressed in vague terms (“we fight a lot” or “we aren't getting along very well”), questions such as “What bothers you the most about that?” “What part of that is the most upsetting for you?” or “What happens when you fight about that?” assist the patient in articulating the basic conflict issue. The insertion of the words “the most” into a question conveys the sense that such concerns are common and normal. “What bothers you about that?” can be heard as “What bothers YOU about that?”

Begin with nonthreatening questions (“How long have you been married?” “How long did you date before you were married?”) and precede to the more specific (“How did your (his) family react to your dating?” “Did either of you date other people during this time?” “Were you sexually involved during your courtship?” “Were either of you sexually involved with someone else while you were dating each other?”).

Taking marital and sexual information suggests that the physician is interested and competent to answer, treat, or refer on such issues. If problems are apparent, a more detailed history is obtained.

History taking opens the door to future dialogue if marital and sexual concerns arise. A patient who is a victim of domestic violence may be unable to respond to inquiries about marital or sexual concerns in the initial interview. However, soliciting such information in a routine and caring way may empower her to express concerns during a future visit. Finally, the initial screening history alerts the physician to areas for further evaluation and the need for preventive education.

When To Take a Marital History

A marital history should be taken: (1) as part of the routine health screening interview for a new patient; (2) as part of the annual health screening interviews for existing patients; and (3) when the physician suspects a marital problem or conflict to be present.

Sexual History

A sexual history should be a routine part of the total patient assessment for new patients and may be associated with relevant areas of the medical history, such as the gynecologic history (“Are you sexually active?” “Do you have any pain or discomfort or other problems during intercourse?”) or the marital history (“Most married couples have sexual concerns from time to time. What concerns, if any, would you like to share with me today?”).36,59

If the patient is unwilling to share sexual information, the physician should respect the patient's wishes and express willingness to listen to concerns at a later time. History taking can be closed with the question “Is there anything further in the area of sexuality which you would like to bring up now? I hope that as questions do arise over the course of time we will be able to discuss them here.”61

When a specific sexual problem is identified, a sexual problem history should be done.59

The outline for the sexual problem history is:

  1. Description of the problem
  2. Development and course of the problem
  3. Patient's assessment of the cause of the problem
  4. History of attempts at resolution of the difficulty
  5. Patient's expectations and goals.

The following information is relevant in sexual problem assessment: a family and personal history, including childhood; adolescence; loss (death, estrangement, divorce); abuse (sexual, physical, emotional, verbal); quality of the family (functional, dysfunctional); sex education and experiences; education; dating and courtship; religion; psychiatric (or psychologic/emotional) history; and the use of alcohol and drugs. Other aspects are early arousal history, masturbation, sexual fantasies, sexual value system, premarital and extramarital experiences, sexually transmitted disease and AIDS prevention, health status, and contraception.

A sexual history is recommended:

  1. As part of the new workup (it can be part of the gynecologic history following the menstrual history; part of the social history, part of the personal and marital history, or a separate section)
  2. When management of organic problems and treatment necessitates inquiry into the patient's sexual practices and sexual value system (e.g., endometriosis, premature labor, premature amniorrhexis, hysterectomy, oophorectomy)
  3. When the patient presents with explicit sexual problems
  4. When the patient presents with suspected “functional” or obscure complaints (hyperventilation, palpitations, chronic pelvic pain, recurrent vaginal discharge without obvious pathogens, chronic concerns that everything is all right “down there” [cancer phobia]).62

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In marital counseling, the marital relationship, rather than the individual partners, is the focus of counseling. Marital assessment is an evaluation of the relationship, its strong and weak points, interactions, satisfactions, and conflicts.

The marital relationship is greater than the sum of its parts (husband and wife), and, as such, has a character and nature of its own. Focus on the marital relationship allays anxiety, and diffuses hostility and defensiveness, allowing the counselor and marital partners to view the relationship as a joint project in which they are all engaged.

The PDC (i.e., present, desired, change) Counseling Model is a short-term, problem-focused model developed for our personal use in counseling and later used effectively to train nonprofessional counselors.63 Based on the developmental model of Egan57 and influenced by the work of Glasser64 and Satir,65 the PDC model requires both cognitive assessment and behavioral management of concerns and problems.

The model offers a simple format that can be used with a variety of concerns and in varied settings. It is designed to be sensitive to time constraints and flexible in the length of time required with the patient. Given a short introduction to a question, an engaged and committed patient may complete the required tasks on her own. In contrast, if the counselor discerns that the patient is unable or unwilling to work on her own, the entire set of steps may be done during the counseling sessions.

The PDC model includes three assessment steps with questions to be answered in each step. Assessment is designed to lead the patient from vague expressions of concern to a clear and concrete understanding of her concerns. To achieve that goal, emphasis is on “what.” Questions about “why” are avoided. By use of ubiquitous statements and empathic questions, the patient is encouraged to visualize and describe with as much detail (cognitive and affective) as possible so that a clear picture emerges before moving to the next step of assessment.

The three assessment steps are:

  1. Present (What is happening?)
  2. Desired (What do you want to have happening?)
  3. Change required—What is required to get from step 1 (what is?) to step 2 (what is desired?).

Timing within the steps may vary dramatically among patients. A patient may be able to articulate quickly what is happening; be unable to say what she wants; and consequently be unable to make a plan for change. Conversely, a patient may know what she wants; find it very difficult to articulate or evaluate what is happening; and consequently, be unable to formulate changes. A third patient may move quickly through steps 1 and 2 but be unable or unwilling to formulate necessary change.

The first two steps may be reversed while step 3 is always last. The counselor may decide to begin with step 2 and encourage the patient to express hopes, dreams, and wishes before asking how those differ from her present situation.

Step 3 directly confronts the problem. It requires the patient to assume responsibility for the resolution of the problem, and it requires personal action on the part of the patient. Insight is not growth, and resolution requires that something change, even if that is as simple as changing an attitude. Because of its demands on the patient, this is potentially the most frightening step.

The more completely the patient and counselor are able to get to the bottom line and understand the difference between what is happening and what the patient desires or needs to have happening, the more prepared both are to actively address what is required in step 3.

Marital discord and conflict often result from unexpressed, even unrealized, expectations. Frequently, the time spent in clearly articulating what is happening and how that differs from what the wishes and desires of the patient are all the counseling that is necessary for resolution to be possible.

Regardless of what is required to get the patient to step 3, ultimately, if the issue is to be resolved, the patient must act. It must be recognized that a patient may choose not to act. That choice is an assumption of responsibility for the nonresolution of the problem. Except in those instances where the physician is certain that nonaction will result in life-threatening damage (e.g., in situations involving abuse), the physician should express respect for the patient's wishes and belief in the ultimate ability of the patient to deal with the problem. Such expression should include a gentle assurance that when the patient is ready to act, the physician will be available to offer his or her support.

Using the PDC Counseling Model


Problems and conflicts exist within a context. What is happening? includes: what, how, when, where, and who.

  1. What happens—the behavior and feelings in detail?
  2. How does it happen—how the behavior or feelings are manifested or not manifested (e.g., do participants shout, cry, hit, withdraw, leave the area)?
  3. When does it happen—on the weekend, following a visit to in-laws, when the person is drinking?
  4. Where does it happen—exact location or place (e.g., at home in the bedroom or kitchen, in the car, at mother's)?
  5. Who is present when conflict occurs—the couple only, a child, other person?


One useful way to approach this question is with a simple “magic wand exercise.”

“If you could wave a magic wand and make everything just like you want it to be, how would it be?”

Additional helpful questions may be:

“What would you be doing (feeling, saying) if everything were just like you wanted it to be?”

“What would he be doing (saying, feeling) .-.-.?”

“Where would you be? (i.e., what would the setting look like) .-.-.?”

“Who would be there?”

The goal of step 2 is to draw the clearest, most detailed picture of what the patient wants or needs, and this goal must be kept firmly in mind. Both cognitive and affective wants and needs should be expressed, and either may be primary for description. “What would you feel like if everything were just like you wanted it to be?” may be an easier question to answer than “What would you be doing?”


Getting from “what is” to “what is desired” may be as simple as making a list of things to be done or as complex as working out a detailed therapeutic plan involving a series of counseling sessions, a suggested reading list, assigned exercises, and conjoint couple therapy. The result of step 3 should be a practical plan that sets forth, in as clear a manner as possible, what must be done and who will do it.

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Masters and Johnson emphasized that most sexual problems are not the result of deep-seated psychosexual conflicts, but are derived from sexual ignorance and sociocultural deprivation. Further, the interpersonal relationship is the appropriate therapeutic focus rather than the identified patient. Short-term conjoint treatment with the addition of assigned home tasks, as opposed to a long-term psychoanalytic or dynamic approach, can be highly successful in resolving sexual problems.26

The goal of treatment in general is that of the (direct) removal of symptoms rather than the (dynamic) attainment of insight. Behavioral modification is founded on learning theory, where dysfunctions are seen as consequences of disturbed learning, conditioning, or habit.66 The behavioral approach emphasizes skill training in effective sexual behavior, reducing anxiety about performance, and increasing communication between partners.67

The PLISSIT Model is a conceptual scheme for the rapid treatment of sexual concerns.59 P-L-I-S-S-I-T stands for four increasingly deep levels of therapeutic intervention: (1) permission, (2) limited information, (3) specific suggestions, and (4) intensive therapy. It is a concept that can be used by therapist and nontherapist alike. The first three levels are considered brief therapy (or counseling) and are applicable for the majority of sexual concerns. The PLISSIT approach can be used in a variety of settings and is suitable when there is little time available. The model can be tailored to the degree of competence (knowledge, comfort, counseling skills) of the physician, because each level requires increasing amounts of training or experience.


Permission is described as giving permission to the patient to experience certain attitudes, feelings, or behaviors including reassurance of normalcy. Permission giving does not require a great deal of preparation on the part of the physician.

Permission may be used, when appropriate, to normalize covert behaviors, such as thoughts, fantasies, dreams, and feelings and to dispel anxiety of guilt. For example, a man may experience an erection while playing with his son on his lap, and lactating mothers have been known to wean their infants early because of psychologic discomfort experienced after becoming aroused during breastfeeding.31 Reassuring patients that such arousal is normal and the result of tactile stimulation rather than sexual thoughts or fantasies can be very helpful in assuaging guilt.

A word of caution about permission .-.-. while it is ultimately up to the individual client to choose whatever behavior that he or she wishes to engage in, “blanket” permission giving by the physician may not be appropriate if the client is not making an informed choice. Learning theory suggests, and clinical evidence substantiates, that systematically associating thoughts and fantasies with sexual activity is a powerful means for conditioning arousal to almost any stimulus.68

Limited Information

Limited information provides the patient with specific factual information directly relevant to her concern. Concerns about breast and genital size or shape, the normality of coital positions other than the missionary position, and orogenital sex are typical concerns. Additional sexual concerns include ideal or normal coital frequency, sexual relations during pregnancy, and masturbation. Patients often want to know whether certain behavior is wrong or bad or dangerous. Appropriate, informative reassurance can be remarkably helpful.

Two options are available to the primary physician when limited information is ineffectual in resolving patient concerns. First, he or she can refer the patient to a sex therapist or a psychologist with expertise in psychosexual problems. Alternatively, he can progress, if confident, to the next level of sexual counseling.

Specific Suggestions

In contrast to the first two levels of the PLISSIT Model, which do not generally demand behavioral modification, specific suggestions are direct attempts to facilitate behavioral change by the patient to reach her goals. The specific suggestion level, according to Annon, necessitates administering a sexual problem history. It is essential that premature, inappropriate suggestions not be given on hearing a patient's presenting labels. The specific, unique circumstances must be heard and unwoven first. Specific suggestions might include coital proscription, sensate focus,24 sexual self-awareness tasks,69,70 or the admonition to the male partner, “Don't use your penis sexually if you are anxious or not aroused.”71

This level of treatment lends itself well to physiologic dysfunctions including problems with arousal,25,26 orgasm,25,26 vaginismus,72 and dyspareunia.73 Treatment is generally most effective when the patient is seen with her husband and mutual understanding, communication, and cooperation is maximized.

Intensive Therapy

Intensive therapy is indicated when brief therapy (or sexual counseling) incorporating the first three levels of the PLISSIT model is unsuccessful after a few sessions. For most gynecologists without formal training, referral to a bonafide sex therapist or a psychologist with special skills in this area is indicated. Intensive therapy or sex therapy, as distinguished from sex counseling, involves the capacity to deal explicitly in a more sophisticated fashion with problems of interaction between the partners and individual psychopathology.59,68 There are times in the course of sexual counseling when it becomes obvious that significant psychopathology exists or that marital disharmony is extreme or primary. Decompensated psychotics may present with sexual problems. These patients should be referred to a psychiatrist.

Finally, we share the opinion “.-.-. that it may be unethical to involve a client in an expensive, long-term treatment program without first trying to resolve his or her problem from within a brief therapy approach.”68

Closing a Patient Appointment

Most experienced obstetrician-gynecologists have experienced the patient who, during the final moments, or even when standing up to leave, suddenly volunteers deeply painful, relevant, or pertinent information. What the physician may perceive as inappropriate timing reflects the patient's ambivalence and concern about raising an anxiety-laden issue.

One of our most dramatic counseling examples was a young woman who paused at the open door with her hand on the doorknob after her session had ended. Suddenly she turned back and said, “I was raped by the first boy I ever dated,” thus, opening a painful and potentially complex counseling issue. Recognizing the pain of this issue, an invitation was given for her to return to discuss the issue so that we could take as much time as she wanted. A follow-up appointment was immediately scheduled.

An empathic response followed by a kind and gentle invitation to return, and the scheduling of an appointment may be more effective than attempting to address the issue at the moment. This approach validates the patient's concern, conveys the physician's belief in her ability to resolve the concern, and leaves an opening for a therapeutic examination of the concern.68

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Transference and Countertransference

Transference is common in the counseling setting. Briefly defined, transference occurs when the feelings, positive or negative, that the client feels toward others in her or his life are transferred to the counselor.48,74 Countertransference occurs when feelings, positive or negative, that the counselor feels to others in his or her life are transferred to the patient.

Feelings can range from unreasoning dislikes, negative responses to authority, sexual feelings and needs, instant attractions or antipathies, to vague, uneasy, unidentifiable concerns. Sudden, intense feelings on the part of physician or patient should be examined by the physician as possibly transferred or countertransferred.

Respect for oneself and the patient will allow time to assess feelings without panic, misinterpretations, or a rush to bend or change the patient's or one's own feelings. Counselors who do not deal with their own issues and feelings are particularly vulnerable to these difficulties.

Transference and countertransference must be dealt with routinely in the life of every physician or counselor. It helps if the physician keeps his or her ego out of the session. Counseling is designed to provide the patient with an atmosphere conducive to growth and self-responsibility. It is irresponsible for a counselor to attempt to solve the patient's problems. Rather, the effective counselor provides a mirror into which the patient can see, as clearly as possible, the issues for herself and be enabled to confront and resolve them. Lasting change must come from within.

Doctor/Patient Sex

A Canadian position paper on sexual exploitation of patients by physicians states that “The physician must avoid initiating or responding to any form of sexual advances. To sexualize the relationship is a clear breech of trust.”75 This is, after all, merely a restatement of the Hippocratic Oath from the fourth century, BC:

“Into whatever houses I enter I will go into them for the benefit of the sick and will abstain from every voluntary act of mischief and corruption and further from the seduction of females or males, or freemen and slaves.”76

Sexual or romantic interaction exploits a patient's vulnerability and violates her trust. “It jeopardizes the well-being of patients and carries an immense potential for harm.”77

Helping is always “for better or for worse.”57 To assist others, we must ourselves be involved; we cannot be involved and remain neutral. Marital counseling is a pragmatic extension of the healing arts of the physician “for better.”

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