Focus on the Family Refuses to Give Evidence for Their Claims About the Hope Restored Marriage Intensives


If you are new, read this first: This is Part 1 of a series on Hope Restored Marriage Intensives.  Part 2

About me: I'm a devout Evangelical Christian who attends church, tithes, volunteers, and serves. I've been leading divorce recovery groups in conservative churches since 1998. I have donated thousands of dollars to Focus on the Family. I've listened to their broadcasts since the 1980s, subscribed to their magazines, and gotten dozens if not hundreds of their books. I sent my kids on their overseas Brio missions trips. I am criticizing Focus on the Family's articles on abuse and divorce. I am not criticizing their other articles on adoption, foster care, politics, or other topics.


 

Focus on the Family Claims their Expensive "Hope Restored" Marriage Intensives are Miraculous

Imagine that your spouse treats you meanly: sometimes belittling you, criticizing you, mocking your opinions, indifferent to you, or even hitting you or the kids. Imagine that you hear about this $6,000 marriage intensive run by the top Christian counselors around. You're so desperate, you're willing to do anything.

But is it a good use of your money? Does it really work? The president, Jim Daly, says their results are miraculous but are they?

Focus on the Family refuses to give a shred of evidence (see their response to my email, below). They want us to take their word for their success rates, but where's the proof? Have any neutral third-party organizations contacted all their former participants? If a survey was done, why won't they share a summary with us?

At the bottom of this post are the stories of three women who attended and felt betrayed by Focus on the Family. They didn't get a miracle, even though they hoped for one.

The president of Focus on the Family, Jim Daly, calls Hope Restored "marriage ER." ER means "emergency room." In other words, he's saying this is a program for marriages that need emergency intervention. The average person knows Jim isn't talking about marriages that need a few more communication skills, problem-solving techniques, or conflict-resolution strategies. These are really bad marriages, destructive or dangerous marriages.

It would be reasonable to assume that anyone willing to pay $6,000 is desperate. There might be child abuse, violence, serial adultery, property damage, coercion, threats, criminal behavior, pedophilia, family-destroying addictions, or extreme indifference and neglect.

 

Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family

But notice how Jim Daly defines an "emergency": It's a marriage that is headed to divorce, a marriage that might end legally.

Most reasonable people would define emergency differently. They would define domestic violence as an emergency. They would define a cheating husband or wife as "an emergency."  They would consider a child-abusing parent to be "an emergency."

Is this just a poor word choice, or is that genuinely Focus on the Family's view—to avoid divorce, not to fix the marriage and make it safe?

Apparently, avoiding divorce is their true goal. Their ideology values one thing: to keep your marriage legally intact even if you are not safe. Their big fear is that you'll go to divorce court, as president Jim Daly says on this Hope Restored web page.

fotf hope restored avoiding divorce is the goal

But there are worse things than divorce. There's suicide, homicide, domestic violence, and child molesting, for just a few examples.

Yet, when Hope Restored brags about its success, it's usually about how many marriages are still together two years later. For example this 2019 statement on president Jim Daly's personal blog about Hope Restored's 80% success rate of keeping couples married for two years. (Remember, that a lot of divorces where there is abuse take more than 2 years to finalize.)

jim daly blog hope restored claim

Or Jim Daly's 2016 claim of nearly 85% of marriages saved from divorce. Note that 3 years later, they reduced that success rate to 80%.

jim daly blog hope restored claim2

Attendees who divorced to escape abuse say that this marriage intensive, run for years by the same leadership, even though it has changed ownership, pressures the wife to be better but lets the husband off the hook. Here's one woman's story about spending $16,000 and going to three 5-day programs, all at the Branson, MO, location run by Robert Paul and Mark Pyatt, and co-founded by Greg Smalley. (And speaking of Greg Smalley, his own daughter got a divorce. If the guy who co-founded Hope Restored — and his wife who is a counselor there — cannot fix his own son-in-law, what makes him think his program can fix your narcissistic spouse?)

Notice how Focus on the Family is getting more conservative about their success claims. It used to be nearly 85%, now 80%.

But recently Hope Restored made a new claim on their website, that marital satisfaction improved too.

hope restored fotf success rate 80 in 2 years 2-27-21

When I saw the claim about improved marital satisfaction, I was curious. I had never seen that before. Surely they must have had a new survey done. If so, I'd love to know the specifics.

    • Who did the survey?
    • Did it meet scientific standards?
    • What were the questions? How were they asked?
    • How many couples did they survey?
    • Was it the entire group of prior attendees?
    • And if so, how many years did they go back? How many couples did not respond at all?

These are very important questions. You see, marriage intensives don't have a good track record for abuse situations. I have hundreds of people in my 3,000-member online group who say they attended one or more multi-day marriage intensives or retreats, such as Hope Restored or Weekend to Remember. And they didn't fix anything—at least not for long. Any "miracle" was short-term. In the end, they needed a life-saving divorce to protect their life and sanity because their spouse didn't actually become safe.

I wrote to Hope Restored, using the email on their website. And here is the reply I got. (Short version: thanks for your questions. Sorry, we are unable to give you any evidence of our claim.)

fotf hope restored satisfaction evidence

The "Miracle" Claims Are False

Hope Restored and Focus on the Family make big claims, saying they have a "proven intensive model," but they refuse to show any proof. They just want us to trust them and their reputation. They literally claim their program does miracles. Here's a paragraph from president Jim Daly's blog dated June 3, 2014. He says the results are "nothing less than a miracle." And he even claims the counselors are "able to stop the bleeding and stabilize the couple." But they don't. Below are three statements from participants whose marriage didn't improve. In my opinion, he sounds like a modern-day snake oil salesman. Think about it: How can any licensed therapist who has any integrity claim that in three days, or even six days, Focus on the Family can fix a violent batterer, a pathological liar, a serial cheater, or an addict?  They can't.

jim Daly miracle hope restored fotf

 

And remember, Focus's official policy prohibits divorce for physical abuse and emotional abuse, no matter how bad it gets. The abuser can lock their family in a room, restrain them with chains, beat the children, and put a gun to their spouse's head, and Focus on the Family still does not condone divorce. Here is their own official divorce policy statement.

So if you wish to attend, that's up to you. If you want to go, and say you did everything you could to save your marriage, then, by all means, do it. If you want to give it "one last chance," you won't get any criticism from me. Some of us feel we just need to try everything. Just go in with your eyes open.

These programs fail a lot. If 1-in-5 couples divorce in less than 2 years, then how many are divorced at the 5-year point? Maybe another 1 in 5? Divorcing a spouse with a pattern of deception, cheating, or abuse is a process that might take more than two years to finalize. Perhaps it's better to use $6,000 to hire a good attorney instead.

More than 200 people in my private Facebook group (made up of mainly Christian marital abuse victims) say they've attended multi-day marriage intensives or retreats that did not do a "miracle."

 

Hope Restored Brings in Money

Focus on the Family's public tax records show that the year they added this program (tax year 2014) they brought in $2.5 million from their marriage enrichment programs. Now, 7 years later, with two more locations open, and the benefit of a big-name advertising agency (Ambassador Advertising Agency was paid more than $10 million in tax year 2014), and their million-name email list, who knows how much they bring in? Who knows how many people they lure with their miracle claims? It's a lot of money and a lot of frightened wives. We know that 1-in-4 highly religious couples have experienced interpersonal violence, so there are plenty of Focus on the Family listeners who eagerly sign up.

 

(Focus asked the IRS to reclassify them—from being a "nonprofit" to being a "church"—so we no longer have any public reporting on how much income they receive from these programs.)

 

But we do know this from people who've attended, Hope Restored isn't good at fixing abusive, addicted, or cheating spouses. The focus is on communication skills. And frankly, learning communication skills doesn't fix abusers, cheaters, or addicts. It just makes them better manipulators.

 

Abusers are clever. They know that Focus on the Family insists on reconciliation in cases of abuse. They count on Focus on the Family to side with them. That’s why they aren’t afraid to go to Hope Restored marriage intensives. Especially in the case of abusive husbands, the men know the counselors there will put all the pressure on the wife not to divorce him. In contrast, the counselors give husbands a lot of praise and loving “support” for acknowledging their difficulty in controlling their emotions. (How do I know? I have interviewed multiple people. I have more than 200 members in my private Facebook group who say they've attended one or more overnight marriage intensives or retreats and their marriages got worse.)

 

The shocking truth one attendee discovered... 

"My husband had tried to kill me....  Hope Restored staff prohibited me from talking about the abuse"

We did three week-long intensives. The first week-long intensive was court-ordered. We went right after our 2-year restraining order ended. (He had tried to kill me.) An off-duty police officer had to guard my door at night while we were there. I hadn't seen or talked to my husband, other than in court, for 2 years. Boy, did he put on an act for the staff. The therapists LOVED my husband. They encouraged me to get back together with him. Told me it was safe. They pretend to be the experts but they know nothing about how to get abusive men to stop abusing. They prohibited me from talking about the abuse we were enduring. Sure, they sometimes have tools that helped me in other relationships. Nonetheless, through talks with the founders of Hope Restored, I came to understand that every intensive, marriage weekend getaway, etc., is always a manipulative stunt used to make the organization a lot of money. They are not interested in learning how to protect and help those that come to them that are being abused."

The staff I interacted with were: Robert S. Paul, Mark Pyatt, Bob Burbee, Gary Brugman, Brett Sparks, Christine Arnzen, and Ken Bryant.

Another participant said... 

"I wish they would be upfront about their program"

 

"When you arrive at the Michigan retreat, they give out a book that says that certain kinds of situations will not change. My husband's serial adultery was one of them.  I wish they would be upfront. But they took our money anyway. At least 3 of the 5 couples in our program were in seriously destructive marriages, and I stayed in touch with them. They haven't seen a miraculous change. We had good leaders, including Ryan Pannell, and I thought he did an excellent job. But our marriage was at a level they couldn't fix. I felt safe and comfortable, and they did mention the possibility of divorce, but bottom line: The program is not what they advertise.  In front of the Hope Restored staff, my husband would admit his fault, but behind closed doors, it was all my fault and he continued his affairs. I don't think my hope was restored, and I told the staff that. My pastor and my family supported my decision to file for divorce." 

 

A third participant said, 

"If there is abuse in your marriage, Focus on the Family will not be your answer"

 

"The counselors focused only on communicating the ministry’s marriage model and learning communication skills, nothing else.  Childhood abuse from parents, porn use, psychological and emotional abuse appeared avoided, even though attendees cried as they shared the impact of these events on their individual lives....

"I asked the head counselor, “How can I apply what you are teaching to my situation?”  His answer was, “I can’t help you.” Yes, you read that correctly.  Moreover, the only wisdom he added was, “He is not a safe person for you.” There you have it.  $4,000 later, and I hear, “He is not safe for you.”  “I cannot help you.” That is the overall summary of their advice to me during the week.

"I went to Focus on the Family for help, but in return, I received a heavier load than I carried before.  Anyone who studies narcissism at any depth quickly learns that narcissists do not see themselves as victims but as superiors.  My husband has openly admitted to this. But after being sympathized with as a helpless victim, he grew stauncher and more arrogant in his resistance to me and health in our marriage.  If the counselors had any heart or even any serious training on these issues, then maybe the story could be different.  But in light of my experience, if there is abuse in your marriage, Focus on the Family will not be your answer."

 

 

What Do They Teach at Hope Restored Marriage Intensives?

Vice President Robert S. Paul wrote the Hope Restored Marriage Intensive manual. He's been part of Hope Restored since the early days when it was called the Smalley Institute and National Institute of Marriage. The stated goal on their website is to keep you married. That is their only success metric. The very first thing they do is try to scare you that divorce destroys kids. The first 4 pages are dedicated to that mission. For actual quotes see "Part 2: What does Hope Restored Teach about Kids and Divorce?" The manual uses all kinds of gaslighting and manipulation to convince victimized spouses that their feelings are the problem, not the arrogance or cheating or violence that caused their feeling of anger, betrayal, and fear. Instead of calling a spade a spade, they call these marriage-destroying sins "buttons" that your spouse pushes. This makes the injured spouse feel guilty in some way for their feelings, and for letting their "buttons" be pushed and reacting, rather than putting the responsibility where it belongs: on their spouse's abuse or adultery or drug/alcohol/gambling addictions.

(Below, screenshot from the manual, page 19)  Here is a shocking statement in their manual: that the abuser, cheater, liar, or addict is not to blame for causing their spouse fear.  It is YOUR reaction to their sinful conduct and attitudes that's the problem. it’s the FEAR CYCLE that’s at fault. What unbelievable nonsense.

 

"One of the most powerful things about actually seeing your fear cycle is that you can begin to see that the very things you do in reaction to your button getting pushed, in turn, push your partner's buttons.... No one person is to blame for a fear cycle, both partners contribute to the lack of relational safety."

If your cheating or abusing spouse feels a "lack of relational safety," so be it. The Bible says we are to "not associate" and "not even eat with" such people. Their fear is real, and it's good for them.

no one is to blame for the fear cycle hope restored manual

What utter rot. So a malicious, egotistical, lying, or cheating spouse is not to blame for making his/her spouse's life fearful, tense, scary, or chaotic? He/she actually gets off the hook entirely!  Hope Restored mutualizes the problem. They try to tell you it's not the adultery or the coercion that's the problem.  It's the FEAR CYCLE!  [I'm shaking my head. Who wants to pay $6,000 to be told this silly stuff?]

 

(Page shown below) The manual includes exercises where victims share their deepest fears with their abuser, which is dangerous to their safety. Hope Restored naively tells you to give your spouse new ideas and ways to hurt you. Couples counseling where there is abuse is unethical and possibly even illegal. The manual also paints a picture that divorce would harm the kids for life, even though 30 years of research says that some homes are so bad, divorce is beneficial for children.

 

Photo of a portion of page

 

Hope Restored Counselors (publicly listed on their website)

What kind of people want to work for an unsafe marriage intensive like this?

These people do!  Remember, these counselors have no skin in the game. It’s not their life, wellbeing, children, future, physical health, financial stability, or mental state.

The counseling staff is listed on this public website: https://hoperestored.focusonthefamily.com/meet-our-counselors/ and their coaches are also listed publicly https://hoperestored.focusonthefamily.com/meet-our-coaches/ as of 2-7-22. (If you wish to add people to this list or if you no longer work for Hope Restored, please contact me at lifesavingdivorce.com/contact. I will update the list periodically based on public websites.)

Robert S. Paul

Brett K. Sparks

Ryan Pannell

Sara Lynema

Dana Sutton

Robert K. Burbee

Jennifer Acord

Ben Adamson

Leslie Bashioum

Stephen Bell

Tracy Bell

Verletze Berndt

Christopher Bruton

Ken Bryant

Lisa Bulter

Lyndsey Cherry

Rachelle Colegrove

Wendy Crawford

Jonathan DiStaulo

Pamela L. Frey

N. Joel Fry

Michael Harris

Pam Hazell

William Hemphill II

Travis Hill

Rachel H. Hillmer

Cindy Irwin

Brain Tase

Hannah Littlepage

Carol Loya

Max Loya

Todd Monroe

Vick Morgan

Alex Mazichuk

Cynthia Nicholson

Tanya L. Parker

Nathan J. Phillips

Nikki Pinkley

Carol Rasche

Mayra Richards

Ryan Rose

Scott Schmidt

Shar Schroyer

Eric Joseph (Joey)

Kara Stone

Laura Tate

M. Kelly Ward

Monique Wells

Nick White

Janet Williams

Terence W. Williams

Tim Williams

Michael Todd Wilson

Kathy Wingo

Sarah Young

 


Are you considering a life-saving divorce and need support and clarity? I’d like to invite you to my private Facebook group, "Life-Saving Divorce for Separated or Divorced Christians." Just click the link and ANSWER the 4 QUESTIONS. This is a group for women and men of faith who have walked this path, or are considering it. Supporters and people helpers are also welcome.  I’ve written a book about spiritual abuse and divorce for Christians, The Life-Saving Divorce: Paperback: https://amzn.to/3cF1j25  Or eBook: https://amzn.to/3CCBsnr

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