What is discernment counseling?

Discernment Counseling is a process for couples with a “mixed agenda” for their relationship. That means at least one partner is ambivalent or unsure if working on the marriage is the right thing for them, at that time. Often, one partner is leaning in, or wanting to save the relationship and one partner is leaning out, or considering ending the relationship or divorce. Sometimes both partners are actually leaning out but haven’t yet decided that divorce is the right answer for them.

Because divorce is generally a permanent solution to problems in the marriage, I recommend that care is taken to make sure it is definitely the right choice. Discernment Counseling helps the couple determine which of three possible paths seems to be the best choice given their situation. Path One is essentially maintaining the status quo, or doing nothing different. Path Two is separation or divorce. Path Three is taking divorce off the table for 6 months with a whole-hearted commitment from both individuals toward working on the relationship.

Discernment Counseling is a process for couples with a “mixed agenda” for their relationship. That means at least one partner is ambivalent or unsure if working on the marriage is the right thing for them, at that time. Often, one partner is leaning in, or wanting to save the relationship and one partner is leaning out, or considering ending the relationship or divorce. Sometimes both partners are actually leaning out but haven’t yet decided that divorce is the right answer for them.

Because divorce is generally a permanent solution to problems in the marriage, I recommend that care is taken to make sure it is definitely the right choice. Discernment Counseling helps the couple determine which of three possible paths seems to be the best choice given their situation. Path One is essentially maintaining the status quo, or doing nothing different. Path Two is separation or divorce. Path Three is taking divorce off the table for 6 months with a whole-hearted commitment from both individuals toward working on the relationship.

Why do discernment counseling?

As a long term marriage counselor, I have learned that when a couple comes into marriage counseling with a mixed agenda, the leaning out partner tends not to be fully invested in the process because he or she is not fully decided on whether to stay in the marriage. The problem with that is half-hearted involvement in therapy tends to create a less than optimal outcome and then the leaning out partner tends to feel “Well, I’ve tried counseling and even THAT didn’t work.” Couples who enter into marriage counseling after actively choosing Path Three through Discernment Counseling tend to do much better than couples who come into marriage counseling with a mixed agenda.

Discernment Counseling was developed through the Minnesota Couples on the Brink project at the University of Minnesota Family Social Sciences Program under the direction of Dr. Bill Doherty. Initially only a few therapists provided Discernment Counseling through this program, but a beginning training was first offered to practicing marriage and family therapists in June 2011. Beginning in the fall of 2012, a small group of experienced therapists started a 10-month advanced training to be well versed on the process. I am one of the advanced trained therapists and have worked with many couples in Discernment Counseling since that time.

What does discernment counseling look like?

First, it is NOT marriage counseling. The decision is made on a session by session basis–whether to continue with Discernment Counseling, to make no decision, or to choose one of the 3 paths. The first session is up to 2 hours long. The first hour is with both partners and a series of specific questions are asked about the relationship history. Then one partner stays in the therapy room while the other partner waits in the waiting area for the next 15 -30 minutes, after which they switch places. The remaining time is with both partners back in the room to discuss what has been learned in the individual time. Any subsequent sessions will be 60-90 minutes long and will look similar to the first except the check in with both partners will be much briefer. The focus in these sessions will be to help the leaning out person make a decision on a path and to assist the leaning in person with the challenges of waiting for a decision to be made. Generally, we will also try to increase the understanding of what each person brings to the problems in the marriage to better assist both people for future regardless of which path is chosen.

To learn more, please visit the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project.


Still unsure?

We get it! Getting help is a big decision.  If you are curious to learn more about how family counseling works before jumping in, submit your name and email address and we’ll send you more information.

Still unsure?

We get it! Getting help is a big decision. If you are curious to learn more about how family counseling works before jumping in, submit your name and email address and we’ll send you more information.