What is Discernment Counseling?

Couple fighting

Many popular theories or frameworks for couples counseling fail to acknowledge that often times one person wants to be in the relationship, and another person is hanging on by a thread or at least not sure that they want to continue. The Gottman Method has a lot of great tools but is often criticized for being too simplistic and making the possibility of divorce or separation a virtual footnote in their several hundred-page manual. Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) also has been criticized for assuming that both members are there to make things work. In fact, it wasn’t until 2008 that the notion of specific approaches to working with mixed-agenda couples or ambivalent clients came about as an evidence-based practice. Many schools do not teach anything about discernment counseling.

Discernment counseling is a brief form of therapy designed to help the couple, and especially the person who is trying to decide if they want to stay, to come to that decision. The saying “they decided to get divorced” is rarely true. Discernment counseling often takes only one to five sessions. Couples generally explore three possible paths. The first is they essentially do nothing and continue with the status quo. The second is that they pursue divorce or separation. The third is that they commit to what can be up to six months of counseling and give their best efforts to make things work. All three approaches acknowledge that the relationship may just not work, but even going through the process can have other benefits. This process may require you to give your partner space.

Discernment counseling explores what happened to the relationship (because presumably, it was good at one time or it never would have developed). It asks each partner to consider their role (it usually takes two) and what they can change. It brings up the possibility of the impact on children if there is a role that children could play.

The person who is considering leaving generally needs to be the person who decides they at least want to explore whether they make sense as a couple and want the relationship to continue. The discernment process can help couples who may choose to separate to at least realize what they could do better in future relationships and how to separate more amicably. Often to the disappointment of the person who wants to stay in the relationship, discernment counseling often focuses more on the person who is considering divorce, as it only takes one person to permanently end a long-term relationship.

If there is a mixed agenda, it is important to have a counselor who is trained in discernment counseling. Traditional couples therapy just does not work in most cases until the couple has decided if they are both wanting to stay in the relationship or at least are at a point where they are both ready to try traditional couple therapy.