Giving Your Mixed Agenda Partner Space

Mixed agenda couple
Couples often come to counseling with mixed agendas. Working through this process is often called discernment counseling. While schools and even some of the most advanced training like the Gottman Method and Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) tends to focus almost exclusively on the assumption that the couple wants to stay together, that is not always the case for both partners. One person may be 95% out the door and only in counseling as one last ditch effort or perhaps to show the courts that they gave marriage counseling a try and it didn’t work. On the other hand, some may be in counseling with the primary objective of determining if they want to stay in the relationship and be more like 10-50% committed. When this happens, the person considering time apart, separation, break-up, or divorce often wants space. If you are the leaning-in person (want it to work), frequently, the worst thing you can do is try too hard. Unless your partner tells you they want you to try harder, be more romantic, etc., it is usually best to give them space (especially if they ask for it). The logical conclusion the leaning-in partner often makes is if they provide them with space, they will decide they are happy without them. This is, of course, a risk, and there are no guarantees. What often happens instead is that the leaning-in partner becomes smothering. Understandably, many leaning in partners have some combination of sadness, anxiety, depression, and desperation. These qualities do not often come across as attractive, however, when your partner is considering ending the relationship. It can be helpful to be intentional and be as positive as possible. You don’t need to be a doormat, but if the leaning-out partner asks you to stop doing something, that is usually good advice. You don’t need to be fake. You don’t need to try and pretend there is nothing wrong. But you can try to be the authentic self that you were before problems started and the self your partner fell in love with. Discernment counseling is the type of counseling where you explore whether the relationship should go on. It often entails more individual sessions than traditional couples counseling, but it is still a mix of the two. Counseling can help the two of you talk through what has gone wrong, whether you want to fix it, and hopefully get you on the same page. At worst, couples often emerge from this experience prepared to have a healthier next relationship. Many couples realize they still have a lot going for them, and proven techniques and hard work can keep them together. Clients often look at me in these scenarios as if they want me to tell their partner what they must do. I may get an occasional comment like, “tell him he has to honor his vows,” or “tell her this will destroy our children for life. I do not believe that is more role or even an ethical or legal role to take. Most counselors want relationships to work out, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a natural bias toward that, but our job is to try and keep that bias at bay. If one person is part way out the door, discernment counseling may be what you need