I was recently counseling a couple who were really struggling. Their effort at counseling had been quite low; very little of what had been discussed or assigned was being implemented. Oddly, both of them seemed more committed to counseling than the marriage. There was a sincere desperation that marked the conversations.

As we talked about the key dynamics that needed to change, there was agreement on most every point. It was bizarre. They would both admit was they needed to change to each other and did not get defensive when their spouse agreed with them.

The problem was that this was our third session like this. We were like a football team. Everyone was lined up and knew their assignment. We read the defense accurately and were confidant that the play call would be effective. Each of the players had rehearsed his or her function and could execute the play. What was wrong?!

After a little conversation about the repetitive nature of our sessions, we concluded they had given up. They were not leaving the marriage (not yet anyway); they had just given up on it. There was no sense of hope that anything (even if seemingly well suited to their situation) would do any lasting good.

The question became, “How do you overcome giving up?” Every answer seemed to begin with try harder and that was just redundantly restating the problem a second time all over again. It was like the comic book villain whose special power was feeding off of energy. Everything the good guys did to attack him made him stronger.

Here was the solution we reached – gratitude. I began to highlight the difference by telling a story (slight historical fiction) about my son. He comes home from school and is very frustrated by his math homework. The problems don’t make any sense and the longer he tries the more daunting the few pages become. Eventually he looks at me and says, “Papa, I just can’t do it.”

Seeing the sincere despair on his face (and getting the opportunity to respond to a story I authored) I said, “Bud, I’m proud of you. It would be easy to quit and go to your room to play with your toys. But I admire you. You’re the kind of kid who stays at the table. That’s impressive. And that’s why I know you’re going to do great things. You have a character that is stronger than a math problem is hard.” Then we hugged and figured out the math problem (at least when I get to make up the story).

The point to the couple was this. Don’t do anything you are not already doing. Just say “thank you” for the things that are already happening. Any time you see something that your spouse could have left undone or unsaid, affirm them. Any time they are in the room when they could have stayed away, express appreciation. Any time they ask a question when they could have let silence stand, say thank you and then respond.

Why this homework? I believe there is a link between gratitude and hope. Without hope, effort is lifeless. It’s like eating celery; the act of chewing takes more calories than the vegetable contains so the digestion results in a net loss of calories. Gratitude was an attempt to create jumper cables for hope in an attempt to put life back into their most basic efforts.

What do we take away from this case study reflection? First, counseling is about more than giving the right answer. Second, counseling requires flexibility when “the right answer” isn’t working. Third, gratitude can be more effective at overcoming giving up than a new technique.