Discernment Counseling

Discernment counseling is a subtype of marriage counseling. I worked with couples for many years and one of the most difficult and challenging situations is when one person in the couple wants to divorce and the other one does not. There can also be a situation where one person in the couple is undecided but really leaning towards divorce and the other is fighting for the marriage. This makes marriage counseling not only difficult but nearly possible.

Why marriage counseling doesn’t work?

For many couple’s marriage counseling can and does work.  However, if one person is not invested marriage counseling can be a very frustrating experience.  When only one person is trying, the partner feels even more alone than ever before.  Marriage counseling will highlight this experience.  When this occurs, some couples will feel counseling makes it worse.  It’s not actually the couple’s counseling.  Couple’s counseling brings the couple’s issues to the surface.  Usually couples counseling is just a microcosm for the issues in the marriage. If this is done without both parties fully vested in making the marriage counseling it can, if fact, lead to more pain.  In order for marriage counseling to work, both people must have a main goal of staying together and putting in the intense work to make changes.

In my experience, what happens in a mixed media couple (a couple where one leans out and one leans in): 

One person is expecting the other person to change everything in a very quick manner in order for them to want to work on the marriage. Unfortunately, this does not work. One of the reasons why this does not work is because the partner that’s leaning out is usually already pretty emotionally disconnected from the other person in the marriage. When the leaning-in person changes, usually the leaning-out person does not really feel much emotional response, and therefore does not feel any more motivation to work on the marriage.  The one leaning out typically is hoping the other will do the work to help them want to stay and change.

Discernment Counseling is a combination of marriage counseling and individual counseling. The sole purpose of discernment counseling is to help each individual explore whether or not they want to stay within the same marriage/couple, divorce or do marriage counseling. A great book on Discernment Counseling for counselors is Helping Couples on the Brink of Divorce: Discernment Counseling for Troubled Relationships by Dr. William J. Doherty PhD (Author),‎ Steven M. Harris (Author). If you are in a couple and wondering if you should work on the marriage you might want to try reading Should I Stay or Should I Go?: A Guide to Knowing if Your Relationship Can--and Should--be Saved Kindle Edition by Lundy Bancroft (Author),‎ JAC Patrissi (Author)

Who is Marriage counseling for?

Marriage counseling is for those that are committed to making the change necessary for the marriage to work and grow. Marriage counseling takes a commitment from both parties to put in the work necessary to make changes in the relationship. There is no way to change a partner’s mind if they are questioning whether they should stay or go. This work has to be done in the individual session with the partner. You can, however, work on you and make changes in your behavior. You can do this through discernment counseling or individual counseling. You can also start a relationship journal to reflect on your contributions to the discourse of the marriage. Here is a great book outlining a relationship journal: Feeling Good Together: The Secret to Making Troubled Relationships Work by David D. Burns (Author) Changing you can really change the marriage. Again, you are changing your partner’s mind. You would be the catalyst of changing the negative environment. You would be changing you.

Why discernment vs. individual counseling?

The reason one might choose discernment rather than individual counseling is because exploring with one partner in a marriage might not give a clear picture.  In order for the exploration to be clear and understood by therapist there should be an understanding of the true dynamics of the relationship. Typically in individual counseling it is difficult to see the other person‘s perspective because you’re only looking at one person’s point of view. Therefore, meeting both as a couple and individually it seems to be a perfect balance.

Is Discernment Counseling you?

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Are use you or your partner thinking about leaving?
  • Have you had thoughts or fantasies about leaving the marriage?
  • Are you hoping for change in the marriage but feel defeated?
  • Are you feeling like you want to leave the marriage but are concerned about the ramifications?
  • Do you say to yourself, “I wish I wanted this marriage to work, but I just don’t feel connected.”?
  • Have you made specific plans to discuss separation or divorce with your partner?
  • Have you discussed separation or divorce with a close friend or family member?

If you have answered yes to any of these questions Discernment Counseling might be for you and your partner.  If you partner is not willing, consider talking to someone on your own. Your therapist will ultimately help you figure out if discernment counseling is for you.