Discernment Counseling for Couples on the Brink of Divorce

Person in jeans and yellow cardigan leans in toward partner who is looking the other direction, apparently disinterested in resolving conflictSteve and Rebecca have been together for seven years, married for four, and have one toddler. Since the birth of their child, arguments between Steve and Rebecca have escalated to the point Rebecca’s threats of “I can’t do this anymore!” are met with shrugs. But after their last fight, she left to stay at her parents’ house for the weekend. It was a wake-up call for Steve, who wants to try couples therapy to improve communication and repair their partnership. Rebecca is tired of arguing and is still seriously considering a long-term separation.

Does this fictitious (yet all too real) couple sound like you and your partner? Is one of you leaning out of the relationship, unsure whether it is healthy to stay, while the other is leaning into the relationship and ready to make healthy changes? If so, you’re not alone. It’s not uncommon for couples experiencing the intense flames of conflict or the slow smolder of disconnection to view the future from different angles.

In times of relationship distress, counseling can be a valuable resource. The question is, what kind? In individual therapy, only one side of the story might be heard, making it difficult to identify a way forward that serves not just one partner but the relationship. Yet this situation also can present a real challenge to even the most experienced couples therapist, particularly in cases where one partner isn’t totally on board with the therapy process. Three popular and well-researched couples therapy models—emotion-focused therapy, imago therapy, and the Gottman Method—are each effective primarily with couples who want to actively work on their relationship and are wholly committed to each other.

Discernment counseling is a chance to slow the decline into disconnection and take a deep look at your options for your relationship.

To help address this complex situation facing couples whom he describes as “mixed-agenda,” Dr. William Doherty envisioned a new type of therapy for couples on the brink of divorce: discernment counseling. Discernment counseling is a chance to slow the decline into disconnection and take a deep look at your options for your relationship. A trained discernment counselor holds hope for both partners—no matter their positions—while a decision about the future of the relationship is reached, whether that decision is to divorce/break up or make one last effort at repair.

Discernment counseling is designed as a short-term counseling process that is focused on making a mutual decision on one of three paths forward. In other words, each of the paths represents a different form of “treatment,” and the discernment counseling sessions represent the conversations to decide which treatment is best for both partners. Here’s a closer look:

Path One: The Status Quo

Path one is to maintain the relationship as it has been. Many couples who enter discernment counseling rule out path one quickly—the status quo has become unsustainable, thus they are seeking help to make a decision that brings change. Sometimes, however, at the end of discernment counseling no clear commitment to leaving or staying has been reached. In these situations, couples can simply default to taking a break from the process and trying again for a decision at some point in the future.

Path Two: Separation or Divorce

Path two is to move toward ending the relationship. Although some path two decisions are not mutual, in that one partner chooses separation or divorce against the wishes of their partner, the goal of a path two decision would be for both partners to feel clear and confident about a decision to part ways. When couples choose separation or divorce, the discernment counselor makes them aware of additional resources, including individual therapists and divorce professionals who can facilitate a healing and fair separation process.

Path Three: Couples Therapy

Path three is to make a six-month commitment to couples therapy in an all-out effort to restore the relationship to health. Separation or divorce are taken off the table during the couples therapy process, and at the end of six months both partners are invited to make another decision about whether to stay or leave. Couples therapy, in turn, is more likely to succeed because both partners are committed to applying themselves fully to the hard work of change.

In the conversations that lead to a choice for the path forward, here’s what discernment counseling offers couples in distress:

  • Deepened clarity and confidence about a decision for the future of the marriage or relationship
  • Deepened understanding of what has happened to bring the couple to this point, and an understanding of the role each partner has played in problems to date
  • A mutually agreed-upon plan of action, should the couple decide to repair the marriage in couples therapy
  • Insights about each partner and the relationship that will carry forward into future relationships, should the couple end this one

If discernment counseling seems like a good fit for you and your partner, seek a trained discernment counselor in your area.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Emily Cook, PhD, LCMFT, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Teddy

    March 14th, 2017 at 7:27 AM

    Things can be so tricky when one partner is leaning toward one solution and the other wants something else entirely. It could be a good idea to at least go to a few sessions to determine if what you think that you want in this moment is really what you want the ultimate resolution to be. Your words might say that you are in this for the long haul but your actions could be telling an entirely different story. Working with a professional could be the answer that both of you are searching for.

  • Will

    March 14th, 2017 at 2:29 PM

    There will be some couples for whom this works wonders and there will be those where one or both already have at least one foot out the door. These are the couples who have already deep inside of themselves decided what they want to do. There can be no change really once that decision has already been made, whether they know it or not.

  • Birney

    March 16th, 2017 at 7:48 AM

    Do you ever find that those who simply try to maintain the status quo are just settling for less than what they deserve?

  • basia

    March 17th, 2017 at 9:41 AM

    Birney no I don’t think that. I think that for many people they do what is comfortable to them and for so many people what is comfortable is sitting back and allowing life to happen to them instead of making it happen for themselves.

    Now this might not be what either of us would do if living in the same situation but you know I don’t know the circumstances for anyone else so I just have to believe that they are doing what they feel is the right thing for them.

    I am not the one who has to live it therefore I am not the one who gets to judge it.

  • GTJ0

    January 19th, 2019 at 12:16 PM

    The goal of discernment counseling is for a couple to gain clarity and be able to make a mutual decision as to how they should both move forward, either towards reconciling their marriage or towards proceeding to divorce. But the problem that I see, and which I have yet to see discussed anywhere, is discernment counseling failure. That is, by having participated in discernment counseling, one partner determines, with clarity and confidence, that the marriage should end with divorce; and the other partner determines, with equal clarity and confidence, that the marriage should remain intact. The result will be that the first spouse will “win,” and will be able to force her decision on her spouse; while the second spouse will lose “lose,” and will have his decision ignored. In other words, the leaning-out partner starts out with a huge advantage in prevailing, and she ultimately controls the entire discernment counseling procedure. This especially difficult for those who are Catholic, whose faith does not allow for divorce and remarriage, and who are compelled to take a pro-marriage position.

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