Discernment Counseling: the new approach for couples on the brink

Discernment counseling is a way for couples to look at their options before making a final decision about divorce. It is most appropriate for couples where one partner wants to preserve and repair the relationship and the other is leaning towards ending it. Research shows that this kind of “mixed agenda” is common among couples approaching divorce, and there is a dearth of special services for them. It’s also a common (and difficult) presentation in couples counseling. Discernment counseling differs from regular marriage counseling in three ways: a) the goal is not to solve problems in the relationship, but to figure out whether the problems can be solved; b) the process involves mainly individual conversations with each partner, since they each have different needs and agendas, and c) it is always short term.

What can couples expect to gain from discernment counseling? 

  • Clarity and confidence about next steps for their relationship
  • A deeper understanding of what has happened to their relationship and each person’s contributions to the problems

What does discernment counseling involve?

The counseling focuses on three paths: ending the relationship via separation or divorce, carving out a six-month period of time to for an all-out effort in couples counseling (and sometimes other services) to preserve the marriage/relationship, or staying the course and deciding later. The sessions involve mostly individual conversations with the discernment counselor, along with sharing about what each partner is learning in these conversations. The counselor respects the reasons for ending the relationship while opening up the possibility of restoring the relationship to health.

The counselor helps both partners see their individual contributions to the problems and the possible solutions. Understanding one’s own contributions to the problems can be important to the success of future relationships even if this one ends.

Discernment counseling is considered successful when people have clarity and confidence in their decision, and when they more fully understand what’s happened to their relationship.

How many sessions are there?

Discernment counseling can be as brief as one session and as long as five sessions. You decide each time whether to come back for a subsequent session. The sessions are usually 1.5- 2 hours.

Discernment counseling is NOT suitable when:

  • One partner has made an final decision to end the relationship and only wants counseling to encourage the other spouse accept that decision
  • One partner is coercing the other to participate via threats of any kind
  • There is a danger of domestic violence
  • When there is an Order of Protection from a court.

Welcome to the DRI Alliance for Marriage and Divorce Professionals!

DRI Alliance for Marriage and Divorce ProfessionalsWe are very proud of marriage therapists and divorce lawyers joining forces, all supportive of life-long marriages and yet recognize the ambivalence of one or both spouses to continue in the marriage or pursue divorce as a solution to marital issues.

Our joined Discernment Counseling training (1-5 session work with marriage counselors around whether to work on the marriage, divorce, or keep the status quo for now) and the intake process for mediators and divorce lawyers to recognize and address ambivalence and help couples decide if they should “look under every rock” as we say or whether the marriage is ready to end with a “safe landing” designed to respect any children, and each person in the marriage and the family unit as a whole that will continue to exist after the marriage ends, just in a new form.