Discernment Counseling

discernment counseling

If you’re considering divorce, the Clash’s song “Should I Stay or Should I Go” may be a nagging tune that will be the soundtrack of your life for months, maybe even years.

Limbo in your marriage is a horrible place to be. Yet, that’s exactly what happens to couples who can’t decide if one scenario is better than another.

It can be agonizing.

If this sounds like your marriage, you and your spouse may be a perfect fit for discernment counseling.

History and Development

Discernment counseling was developed by Dr. Bill Doherty as part of his Family Social Science work at the University of Minnesota.

It was developed for mixed agenda couples having trouble trying to decide whether or not to stay married. Instead of traditional marriage counseling, which focuses on solving relationship problems, discernment counseling helps couples discern what they want to do with their relationship.

Discernment counseling specifically delves into the complexities of couples facing divorce ambivalence. Couples on the brink go through ebb and flow periods in their marriages and can get stuck trying to decide if they’re still in love or not and whether they feel more pulled to saving a marriage or ending it.

Rarely are both spouses on the same page at the same time in a troubled marriage.

A spouse who wants to stay and save the marriage is referred to as a “leaning in” partner. A spouse who does not want to stay and is more inclined to end a marriage is referred to as a “leaning out” partner. Ideally, discernment counseling works best when there is one of each type of spouse in a marriage.

If both spouses want to end the marriage, then divorce usually is the outcome. If both spouses want to save the marriage, then traditional counseling is the generally prescribed course of action.

Leaning-in spouses are usually eager to try discernment counseling. Leaning-out spouses usually find sessions beneficial even if they ultimately decide to go ahead with the divorce.

Discernment counseling works best when couples are stuck in half-hearted limbo. Working to discern and reveal the inner workings of the state of mind and where on the divorce spectrum each spouse is can protect both spouses from being ambushed or baffled if a divorce eventually takes place.

This type of counseling is a research-based way to help mixed agenda couples approach a marital crisis constructively. It helps them decide whether they would be better served by divorce or making an all-out effort to save their marriage.

Principles and Theory of Discernment Counseling

The goal of discernment counseling is to get to one of three outcomes. A therapist’s goal is to help couples better understand their relationship.

Discernment counseling does not push for any particular outcome, and therapists do not take sides or have an agenda.

However, most troubled marriages can be restored if both partners dedicate themselves to make that happen. Discernment counseling provides the first step to see if couples have a potential path to healing their relationship.

Using newfound clarity will help spouses choose one of the following options:

Path 1 – Status Quo

Using what you have learned gives you the incentive you need to continue to work through your issues on an individual basis.

Path 2 – Divorce

After additional insights, some couples decide that divorce is the best option for them. Couples might be directed to consider collaborative or a mediated divorce instead of an expensive and combative split involving attorneys and lots of legal costs.

Path 3 – Couples Counseling

Suppose you decide you and your partner want to continue to strengthen and save your marriage. In that case, this option provides you with a path to transition to longer-term couples therapy with the common goal of restoring your marriage to a healthy state.

Discernment counseling will take place over several months but with only up to five sessions total. In many cases, couples both attend an initial session together. In that session, therapists typically will focus on four key core questions:

  • What happened in the relationship that caused the partners to consider ending it?
  • What has been done to try to fix the relationship?
  • How do children factor into the decision to end the relationship?
  • What were the best times each partner experienced in the relationship?

After the initial session, one person will meet individually with the therapist. In individual sessions, therapists will focus on getting to know each person, their communication style, strengths and weaknesses, and handling conflict.

Following individual sessions, couples then meet jointly again to review and recap insights based on what was discovered.

In a final session, couples will decide which of the three paths they want to pursue.

The goal of discernment counseling is not to solve relationship problems. Instead, it is a way to determine whether the problems that exist can be solved. There is no pressure placed on resolving those issues, which may take more extended and more in-depth efforts.

How Can Discernment Counseling Help?

There are several potential benefits of discernment counseling.

The focus is on moving forward. Instead of dialing into past events and behaviors, discernment counseling focuses on the path ahead.

That path answers one big question. Do you want to save your marriage, and is there a way to do it?

The goal is to reach a decision of whether to get a divorce or not. Instead of delving into solving individual problems, discernment counseling focuses on the single big picture question.

You must make this decision before you can progress to all the smaller issues undercutting your relationship.

Individual time and space are part of the process. Therapists will give each spouse the distance they need to think clearly and reach conclusions about their relationship.

Work is accomplished separately and safely without spousal influences. This leads to breakthroughs and clarity that have not otherwise been available.

It provides third-party feedback. A therapist can provide insights you or your spouse might not see if you’re alone in your own bubble. Unbiased observations can bring new clarity and solutions that will create the framework for a reasoned decision.

It provides closure. Instead of being stuck in marriage limbo, discernment counseling can help bring actionable relationship steps to the table, creating a path forward and closure for both you and your spouse.

Limitations and Concerns

Although discernment counseling can help many couples make decisions regarding their relationships, it is not appropriate for everyone.

For instance, if one spouse has already decided to end the marriage and has agreed to discernment counseling only to placate the other one, then discernment counseling will not work.

Also, discernment counseling is not advisable unless both spouses are willing to participate. In cases where domestic violence or coercion is present, discernment counseling is not a good fit.

Because marriages in limbo can ebb and flow, one spouse may not always be willing to participate actively in counseling. This is fine because discernment counseling is different from traditional marriage counseling.

You and your spouse often attend one-on-one sessions to separately gain clarity about their marriage vs. attempting to resolve problems.

By its nature, discernment counseling isn’t open-ended. In other words, there are a limited and finite number of sessions (no more than five) that spouses will participate in.

At the end of each session, you and your spouse will decide whether you want to meet with a therapist again or not.

Find a Discernment Counseling Therapist

Special training is required for divorce professionals who want to engage in discernment counseling. At a minimum, therapists will take an online course that fulfills up to 16 hours of continuing education credits.

Many therapists also choose more intensive training and can become certified in discernment counseling when they complete additional hours of study.

To learn more about discernment counseling and find a certified discernment counselor in your area, you can go here.

You can also do a search online for a discernment counselor near you or contact your doctor or a marriage counselor you may already know.

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