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What is Discernment Counseling

What is discernment counseling? How does discernment differ from traditional couples counseling? Who would be a good fit for discernment counseling? What are the goals in traditional couples counseling? How can I have the conversation with my partner that I am interested in counseling?

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Ali Devine, MS, LPC, SAC-IT

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Ali Devine, MS, LPC

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Video Transcript

Laurie: Hi, my name is Laurie Groh. I'm co-owner at Shoreside Therapies. Today we have again with us Ali Devine. Welcome, Ali.

Ali: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Laurie: Good to see you, good to see you. So today, we're going to be talking about discernment counseling. So not a lot of people know about discernment counseling. So I thought this would be a great opportunity to ask Ali a little bit about it. I also do it in my practice, and I am a fan of it. I think it's really, really useful and really powerful. So I want to start out first, Ali, by asking you what actually is discernment counseling?

Ali: Yeah. So I think people, when they think about going to counseling in a relationship, often think of the traditional couples counseling and discernment is obviously different from that. I think the main thing is discernment counseling is intended to kind of aid in the decision-making process about whether or not you want to move forward in a marriage or another type of long-term committed relationship. So with that, I think a lot of people have some uncertainty about proceeding with couples counseling, particularly if one person is not sure if it could be helpful or if the marriage can be saved.

Laurie: Right. Right. And I think that's true. A lot of times couples will come in or reach out to us and ask us to do couples counseling and they might not necessarily really want to do couples counseling, might not be ready for it. And so discernment, right, that helps with the decision-making. Should I actually be, you know, moving forward with couples counseling? So that brings us to the second question, which is what is the difference between discernment counseling and the traditional couples counseling?

Ali: Yeah, so I guess to kind of back up a little bit, too. So there are three options in discernment counseling that couples are kind of deciding on. And oftentimes, I guess the uncertainty about proceeding with couples counseling, like I said, is... is the marriage saveable? Is it going to be improved with couples counseling? Maybe they've had a bad experience in couples counseling, so one person is not as interested in pursuing that. And so the three options on the table are continuing in the relationship or marriage as it is, proceeding with a commitment to some period of couples counseling where both partners are committed to making the necessary changes to improve the relationship, or proceeding with a divorce.

Laurie: Yeah those three options, yes, I think that part's really important. So when somebody comes in, ultimately the goal of that therapy is different. It's you're making a decision with discernment counseling. So either the couple stays as is. They do the work, they make a commitment. And typically, how long would you say people commit? Is it three months? Is it six months? Does it vary depending on the couple?

Ali: Yeah, I mean, I think it would it would vary depending on the couple. I think six months is a good baseline, probably recommended in order to see some more long-term changes in the relationship for couples. But in discernment, you kind of decide session by session if you want to proceed. And I guess the biggest difference between couples counseling and discernment is that in discernment, you're making a decision about whether or not to pursue couples counseling or to pursue a different route. It's not intended to resolve the issues in the marriage, learn better ways to communicate, figure out how to enjoy quality time together. It's kind of helping both partners to explore the ambivalence that's in the relationship about whether or not to continue. And my role or your role in counseling, would be to kind of assist in the decision-making process and help both parties feel confident in the decision that they choose to make.

Laurie: Right. And make sure that both people are invested in the actual couples counseling.

Ali: So, yeah, I think it avoids that.. where one person's kind of getting dragged into the couples counseling and doesn't have the level of commitment that the other partner has. And I think the dynamic that we often see in discernment is that one partner is more invested in preserving the relationship or has more faith that the relationship can kind of work the issues out, whereas the other partner might be kind of more on the fence about that.

Laurie: Right, right. Typically, there's one that tends to be leaning out and one tends to be leaning in. Sometimes people can both be leaning out. But that's also an important process to go through, even if both partners are kind of in that space leaning out because this helps decide. Right. And then just to go over it, the decision is: stay married as is not making any changes, go forward with couples counseling, third option would be separation or divorce. So I just wanted to review that because I think I lost the last one a minute ago.

Ali: Yes. Yeah. So the three options, my role is to help you decide. It's a big decision, I think. And so if divorce is on the table or couples counseling is on the table, I think it's good to make sure that both partners feel committed to the choice that they make and confident in that choice.

Laurie: Right. And doing that due diligence of making sure that you're taking time, even though most people are taking a lot of time and thinking about what they want to do. This gives a really strategic way about doing that, right? Yeah.

Ali: Yeah. And discernment is a lot more structured, I'd say.

Laurie: Yes, yeah. So who would you say would be a good fit for discernment counseling?

Ali: Yeah. So I think any couple in a long term commitment, obviously people in marriages but also people not in marriages, maybe a domestic partnership or have had a long-standing committed relationship and where the decision of possibly ending the relationship is on the table, one person is considering at least one is considering whether or not the relationship can move forward. And I think this is often a result of sort of.. long term dissatisfaction in the marriage due to maybe infidelity or patterns of miscommunicating just where this has sort of built up for a long time and it's crossing your mind or you're seriously considering it and not sure if you, if you want to remain in the marriage, but also for people who have uncertainty about proceeding in couples counseling, maybe both partners are leaning more in and would like to stay in the relationship, but aren't necessarily sure what kind of work it would require and don't know about the commitment involved in couples counseling.

Laurie: Right. I think you bring up a really good point where somebody might want to do that in theory, of what couples counseling looks like. But when you start going into couples counseling, it's a lot of work. It's a big commitment. And somebody might not really understand that both people have to do the homework. You know, I mean, I'm the one that probably needs to do the work, right? I mean, that's what it comes down to, is figuring out, hey, you also have to do the work. It can't just be asking your partner to do things. And a lot of times couples will come in sort of hoping that the therapist is going to say, actually, just you, just you need to make the changes. And so I think kind of having a realistic idea of what couples counseling can help with and what it might not be able to help with. And that just gives a good springboard into doing the work, making sure that somebody is committed to actually doing the couples counseling work.

Ali: Yeah, and like I said, it's anywhere from one to five sessions where we're kind of going through this decision-making process, exploring what the options are. So it's not necessarily a long-term commitment. It's really about sort of drilling down on what the options are and where you stand so that you can make a really good choice.

Laurie: Yeah. So what would you say, Ali, would be a way for somebody to approach their partner with this idea of doing discernment counseling?

Ali: Yeah. So I think the biggest thing is to not bring it up in an argument or as a threat, I think people have varying perspectives on counseling, but a lot of times people aren't necessarily comfortable with the idea of going to counseling. Maybe you want to kick the can down the road a little bit longer or, you know, maybe you've had bad experiences before, but making sure it's not brought up in an argument or as a threat. If we don't do this, this is what's going to happen. So I think making it a safe space where both partners are kind of on a neutral ground is a really big and important thing.

Laurie: Yeah, I think that's a good point. I think that's a good point because that allows for the seriousness of it, too. Because sometimes I'll be working with an individual. And they said, well, I've been asking my partner to do couples work for a while. And then when you start to ask a little bit about how the topic is brought up, it's usually right after a fight or during a fight versus like, hey, I just really want to talk with you. And this is why I think this could be good, which brings a totally different spin on the conversation.

Ali: Yeah. And I think focusing on what the shared goals are of the couple. Right. Both of you want to be happy. Both of you want to make the right choice in your relationship or marriage. And so when you bring it up, focusing on what are the things that we both want, and this is how counseling could help us to get to that.

Laurie: Yes, that shared goal, yeah.

Ali: And I think time to process, too, because it might be.. it might catch someone off guard, they may not have considered it or maybe they're not as aware of how desperate you feel to fix or change or understand the problems in the marriage. So giving someone time to process, they don't need to say yes or no right away. But just bringing it up like hey i'd like to do this and then following up a little bit later.

Laurie: Yeah. I like that idea of take a minute, take maybe a week, take a little time and then I'm going to come back, I'm going to come back. I like that part. Sometimes life gets ahead of us and then the conversation just doesn't go anywhere. So making a commitment, once you bring it up to come back and talk about it. And if that answer is still no...

Ali: Yeah, like hey, I'd like you to think about this

Laurie: Yeah, Yeah. And I will bring it up in another week. You know, even giving somebody a timeline I think can be helpful to of like.. We'll talk about it again. Doesn't have to be this big scary thing, but we need to talk about it. We need to make a decision of what to do, especially if somebody is very unhappy and feeling that tug of I need to make something different. I need to make a change somehow. I can't be in this space much longer.

Ali: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.

Laurie: Yeah. So tell me a little bit, I know our time is going to be up soon, but tell me a little bit about, you know, when you first started, we talked a little bit about the length of time that discernment counseling lasts. So maybe break that down a little bit for people.

Ali: Yeah. So in discernment counseling, the first session is kind of to help you get an idea of where each person is at in terms of what they're thinking about the three paths. So continuing in the marriage as is, and most people who seek discernment initially are like, we can't do that. Deciding to do couples counseling or deciding to end the relationship. So the first session is really structured in that way. And initially, we would meet with both members of the couple and kind of get a together picture of what's going on. And then you break off separately and each partner kind of has the opportunity to explain why, why they're at that point in the marriage, what they see as a contributing factor to getting there and future sessions kind of really explore what each party would be willing to do to continue in the marriage versus what are the reasons that divorce is on the table and is it possible that you guys could work towards changing those things in couples counseling?

Laurie: Yeah, and I do think it's nice to have the couples sort of in those individual sessions so that they can work on what they need to or what they want to focus on and what are the actual issues that they're experiencing and sort of getting a real idea of what it would take. What would couples counseling really take from you? And being real honest like this is what it would look like. This is the thing you would have to give up or this is the thing you'd have to do, and challenging a little bit of some of the ideas that, you know, we were kind of laughing about before. But that idea of my partner is the one that actually has to change. Yeah.

Ali: So, yeah, I think the biggest thing that I would probably want people to know is that couples counseling involves both partners to look at their underlying issues that contribute to unhelpful patterns in the relationship. And both partners have to be willing to commit to that change in order to see the results that they want to see. So discernment helps you kind of understand whether or not that's possible if one or both of you are willing to do that.

Laurie: Yeah, yeah. Which is really helpful, which is really helpful no matter what path. I mean, that is one thing about the discernment counseling is that it's not necessarily meant to push somebody in the direction of couples counseling, which I think that part's important to understand, too, and to keep reiterating to our clients that we're here really to help decide and make a decision. We aren't here to sell you on couples counseling. Sure, that'll be great if you did that work. But it's not always the right option. It's not always the right path for everybody. And sometimes staying the same can be the right path for somebody. If there's a sickness in the family, if there's, you know, the financial things that need to get figured out, that would be a time when maybe you just have to keep it the same. But actually being on the same page with your partner in that decision is really important.

Ali: Right. Yeah, I completely agree.

Laurie: Yeah, so, Ali, is there anything else you want to add? Anything else you want to share about discernment that we didn't go over today?

Ali: Well, I just, you know, I'm taking couples for discernment and also for couples counseling. I think discernment is a good place to start if you're not exactly sure what you're willing to commit to and want to learn more about what it would take to do couples work or, you know, especially for the partner who is kind of more leaning towards divorce, just kind of getting a realistic idea of reasons for or against that decision for yourself and making sure that you feel confident in proceeding in that direction or like you said, staying as it is, if there's maybe a situation where you're going to reassess in six months. So just that I offer both options and that I think it's important for couples to know that discernment is out there so that people don't proceed into kind of like a half-hearted couples counseling attempt and feel a lot of frustration.

Laurie: Right. Because it can be really frustrating if two people are on totally different pages working on separate goals or maybe one person doesn't want to work at it. So that is a good step to make that decision first. All right. Well, thank you so much, Ali.

Ali: Thanks for having me.

Laurie: It was great talking with you again. And so if anyone wants to talk more with Ali, you can go to her profile on our website at Ali Devine, her information's there. And you can go ahead and sign up to have an appointment right away with Ali. She has some openings, I think this next week even, so, it would be really great.

Ali: Yes, evening appointments.

Laurie: Evening appointments. Yes. So important, right? Yes. All right. Thanks, Ali. Take care.

Ali: All right, bye.

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