One Spouse Doesn’t Want Therapy But Is In Your Office. What To Do?

We've all been there. A couple enters the office for an intake. During the session (or worse, at the end during the final "doorknob blitz" of information), one of the spouses admits they don't really feel a need for couples therapy. You freeze.

This spouse is NOT suggesting divorce. They are simply stating they’re not into this therapy thing. They lack motivation, energy, or belief therapy is the path towards a better marriage. 

What we generally do, as convinced relational therapists, is dive ahead, believing if we show them what great therapy looks like, they'll want to stick around. 

But what usually happens, (shush, let's keep this real quiet), is what we call half-hearted couples therapy. It usually ends within a few sessions. The end is almost never with a formal termination but rather scheduling conflicts, pre-planned trips, or some other event that has them "postponing" the work. In your heart you know you won't see them again. 


What we know, we don't like to admit:
We can only help people who believe we can help and who are ready to put in the work.


The difference however, between individual therapy (say, someone is thrown at your office to "get fixed") and couples work, is that with couples you have the other spouse usually eager to work on the marriage. How do we accept the disagreement between the spouses about the value of therapy without moving ahead to half-hearted couples therapy—or throwing out hands up in the air and telling them we can't help? 

Drumroll here... may we suggest The Readiness for Couples Therapy Protocol.

Designed to address the therapy ambivalence in a graceful, non-anxious way, the goal would be to pre-empt half-hearted couples therapy before starts, while not ignoring the eager spouse's desire for change. 

This protocol is a cousin of Discernment Counseling, which requires twin ambivalences: uncertainty about staying in the marriage and reluctance about starting therapy. 

The Readiness for Couples Therapy Protocol is for the couples when divorce is not on the table but one spouse is dragged in, expresses doubts about whether therapy could help, and in general acts like a reluctant client as the first session gets rolling. 

This protocol gives you an approach that is neither cheerleading for therapy nor an abrupt termination because you don’t have two customers for therapy. It's designed to be used during an intake session or session two if that's when you realize what's going on. It's a pivot approach to offer the couple what they really need: help to figure out whether to do serious couples therapy with you. 

You're seconds away from getting the instant-download training.

Growing Your Practice With a Specialized Approach to Couples On The Brink

One of the under-discussed realities of our practices is that if we all do the same thing, how does a couple chose which therapist to hire? There are many factors of course, from location, pricing, warmth of your photo, and very occasionally, a client is searching out a particular model. 

From the perspective of potential clients, we all basically do similar work and it can be hard to stand out without feeling like a gross marketer. 


With our Discernment Counselors, the service not only sells itself, but it is highly desired by the people served. 


If you are not sure you want to be married anymore, couples therapy is often a non-starter. The pain and uncertainty you experience is really unpleasant. If you have an individual therapist, he or she may be very supportive but they inherently are just hearing one side of the story and can only do so much. Similarly, if your spouse is bringing up divorce and you're in individual therapy, the therapist can only do so much without both of you in the room. 

For the potentially-leaving spouse, Discernment Counseling offers a robust opportunity to go deep and see if there are any last "rocks not yet turned over" to explore with a therapist who is also meeting and listening to your spouse share their perspective. 

Without the intensity of both people in the room full time (most of Discernment Counseling occurs in individual conversations), each person has a place to relax and be really honest with themselves and be challenged by the therapist, with the goal of clarity and confidence about a direction for the marriage, based on a deeper understanding of what's gotten them to this point. 

Unlike a complex theory or model of therapy, the Discernment Counseling approach is a no-brainer for these couples on the brink. No fancy words needed. It's exactly what they want: time to slow down, take a look at where they are, and decide on a direction--with no pressure to change or solve their problems. Some people fire their couples therapist to get into Discernment. Some people in search of couples therapy (while not really believing it'll help) find discernment counseling and are thrilled, calling that counselor even if the location or hours are not ideal. 

Final benefit of discernment counseling: it's short-term. We have a handful of therapists who love this work so much it's all they do! They get the serious energy jolt of tough couples, and for those who chose to pursue couples therapy, these therapists have very happy referral networks to send the couple for the longer term work. This lets therapists arrange their calendars more freely, without having 15+ clients who come weekly who have to be cancelled if the therapist wants to travel or take time off.

Can Couples Therapy Work on Ambivalence Towards the Marriage?

Some therapists feel they're great couples therapy advocates. They can smoothly and eloquently "sell" their skills and the positive outcomes they've seen over the years. This may all be true but for someone not sure they want the marriage, you can bounce along for a few sessions until the reality of where they're at emotionally will halt the couples therapy.

Discernment Counseling often creates  a visible sigh of relief from clients when told about it. When divorce is actively on the table, hovering over any work undertaken in therapy, discernment counseling is designed for that exact crisis in the marriage.

If someone is drowning, they want a flotation device, not swimming lessons.

Discernment Counseling is a safe place for spouses who may be in very different places: one leaning out the door, potentially confused and feeling guilty, and the other spouse leaning into the marriage, perhaps frantic, angry, and dysregulated.

These discernment counseling sessions are like a flotation device where people can pause, reflect, look at themselves and their relationship, and then decide on a direction—whether divorce or serious couples therapy. 

You may say you can go deep pretty fast with couples. This is a great skill and one we admire. But if someone is not sure they want to be married, and the other spouse is acting against their self-interest by freaking out, it's vital to have time with each alone. Discernment Counseling offers. 

Using the best of our relational therapy skills while focusing on each spouse separately, we go deep in a broad assessment of what has happened to get to this point, and their own personal contributions to the here and now. The work is for understanding at this point, not for fixing or changing—because there is no contract yet for change. 

You may say you do this in individual therapy. The real difference and potency of the Discernment Counseling as a couples protocol is the fast depth with an individual who you then coach (and this is the moment that sometimes creates magic, but always creates a new experience for the other spouse) to give a "summary" of what they've just learned from their time alone with you, the therapist, while they were in the waiting room for 30 or 40 minutes. Each spouse gets a summary to the other, each giving and getting some very powerful in the same moment.

These spouses are both drowning and each deserves a life vest, but we cannot forget they are ultimately drowning together as a couple. By creating an experience of individual time and couple sharing, Discernment Counseling takes the heat off and re-engages each person in their own role and their own work needed, whether it's in this marriage or any future marriage.

Don't just listen to us. Hear the testimonials, read more, watch a couple webinars, and discover why Discernment Counseling has created reinvigorated practices for senior therapists and offers its own "newbie life vest" for newer therapists who can be entirely railroaded by couples on the brink of divorce.

A Marriage Isn’t Over Until It’s Over: Research On Divorce Ambivalence

 

It’s commonly believed that when people enter the legal divorce process, they have come to accept the reality that divorce is inevitable.  Even therapists and lawyers tend to assume that once divorce papers are filed, ambivalence about divorcing is over and the only task ahead is to help couples have a constructive end to their marriage.  Recent research shows that these assumptions are not founded.  In fact, many divorcing people aren’t sure they want their marriage has to end.

The first empirical study on attitudes towards reconciliation during the divorce process was conducted by Doherty, Peterson and Willoughby (2011), who surveyed a sample of 2,484 divorcing parents.  They found that about 25% of individual parents indicated a belief that their marriage could still be saved, and about 30% indicated an interest in reconciliation services.  That study was replicated by Hawkins, Willoughby and Doherty (2012) who found similar levels of belief that the marriage could be saved (26%) as well as interest in reconciliation services (33%).

A third study (Doherty, Harris, and Wilde, in press) asked about specific attitudes towards the divorce in a sample of 624 individual parents who had filed for divorce.  The study found that just two-thirds of participants were certain they wanted the divorce.  The rest were ambivalent or did not want the divorce.  Parents who were not certain about the divorce were highly interested in help to save their marriage.  Keep in mind that this study, like the other ones mentioned, were conducted with people who were well into the divorce process. Unpublished data from clients in initial consultation with lawyers has found that half of initial clients were ambivalent about getting divorce or didn’t want the divorce; only half were certain.

Other surveys of divorced people have found indicators of ambivalence about divorce. Several surveys reported that half of divorced individuals wished they had worked harder to overcome their marital differences and avoid their divorce (see Hawkins & Fackrell, 2009, for a summary). Hetherington and Kelley (2002) reported that in 75% of divorced couples at least one partner had regrets about the decision to divorce one year after the breakup.  In a qualitative study, Knox and Corte (2007) found striking levels of rethinking among currently separated spouses.  They reported: “Clearly, one effect of involvement in the process of separation was a re-evaluation of the desirability of initiating a separation to the degree that they would alert others contemplating separation/divorce to rethink their situation and to attempt reconciliation” (p. 79).

In summary, research now shows that divorce ambivalence is widespread among people who have entered the divorce process.  It’s not over just because the legal divorce process has started.

 

WHO TO TALK TO—AND WHO NOT TO!

I’ve seen people in your shoes—a spouse announces a divorce—make a bunch of mistakes when it comes to talking with others.

One mistake is to not tell anyone, often out of shame or to avoid recognizing the threat at real. The result is isolation and stewing in one’s juices.

A second mistake is to tell the world. You’ve seen it: everyone at work, church, and the book club gets told. The spouse is furious for being made to be the bad guy for a marriage crisis. And people start taking sides.

A third mistake is talking to a few wrong people. Top on the list is your children—young or out of the house. Let some dust settle before bringing them in and churning them up. Make sure your emotions have stabilized first, or else you will be inviting them to take care of you, and maybe side with you. Wait a bit to see if you spouse wavers on the divorce idea. And don’t talk to your spouse’s relatives and friends—that will feel like back stabbing.

So who should you talk to? Ideally just one or a couple of very trusted friends or family members. Here are some criteria to use in choosing confidants:

• Someone who will listen and empathize but not take your side against your spouse.
• Someone who will be reluctant to give advice and prefers to help you sort out your own options.
• Someone who will not tell you to just accept the divorce as inevitable.
• Someone who shows compassion for your spouse and not just you.
• Someone who is positive about marriage (avoid marriage skeptics) and is able to hold hope for your marriage.

So here’s my input: open up, don’t go through this crisis alone, but choose your confidants wisely. Tell them what you need—caring, support, constructive challenge, and friend for you and your marriage.

Discernment Counseling Networker Article

This is a new Psychotherapy Networker article that best summarizes the place of Discernment Counseling in contemporary culture and in the world of psychotherapy.  At the request of the editor, it also deals head on with a morally ambiguous area for many therapists: whether to work vigorously to support the marriage of an on-the-brink couple who have no children. (For some therapists, divorce is mainly about the kids.)  I’m proud of this article (it went through five drafts!) and hope you enjoy it.

-Bill Doherty

Read the article here.

Discernment Counseling For Couples Therapists

How to do Discernment Counseling 
for Couples on the Brink of Divorce


The dirty little secret of couples therapy is we have great models and protocols that work for couples who want to actively work on their marriage.

What happens when one person is mostly out the door and the other is desperate to save the marriage?

We call these mixed-agenda couples.

One person is leaning out of the marriage and nearing a final decision to divorce. The other person is leaning in and ready to do whatever it takes to save the marriage. Even among couples who have filed for divorce, as many as 40% are mixed agenda.

This creates quite a bind for a couples therapist. Whose agenda do you go with?

How do you engage the leaning out partner who isn’t even sure they want to stick around for a second session, let alone do intense couples therapy?

How do you engage the leaning in partner without colluding to change the other’s mind? If you hold back from encouraging a dive into couples therapy, aren’t you then siding with the leaning out partner?

The leaning in spouse is usually freaking out. This may come out in anger, sadness, frustration, or any other strong emotion that we humans go through when we are told something as powerful as “this marriage is over.”

In our hyper individualistic culture, this “leaning in” spouse often seems immature and quite unappealing in their behaviors, thus “proving” they are worthy of being left.

During this time of emotional storms, couples often find themselves pulled by family, friends, therapists, clergy, and divorce professionals, each which their own view about marital commitment and divorce. Everyone means well but couples are ravaged by competing advice and often a lack place of safety to calmly explore all the complex feelings they’re having.

Enter Discernment Counseling.

A Discernment Counselor creates a holding environment for these couples to understand each other and decide on a direction for their marriage, whether that is divorce or one last try to make it work. It’s a short term, intensive process lasting 1-5 sessions.

The discernment process focused the partners on three paths.

  • Path one is the status quo—the relationship as it has been.
  • Path two is separation/divorce.
  • Path three is a six month commitment to couples therapy (and sometimes other resources) with divorce off the table, after which they can make another decision about whether to stay or leave.

To give you a sense of how Discernment Counseling works, we’ll share the first session and how most sessions go.

!!! Be warned: the individual time is very intense, often very well received, and even a very far leaning out spouse often gets enormous value and wishes to return for a second or third session.

!!! Warning two: Simply reading this blog post is not likely to create great results. There is a lot behind the scenes.

In the first session you start with Couple time (35-40 minutes.)

Discernment Counseling Infographic

The heart of this time is a series of questions for each partner to respond to separately, with no couple interaction and minimal feedback from the discernment counselor, who listens, occasionally clarifies, and takes notes.

The four core questions in
the first session of Discernment Counseling:

Divorce narrative: “What has happened to your marriage that has gotten you to the point where divorce is a possibility?” (Listen for the complexity of the story, one sided versus two sided, critical incidents.)

Repair narrative: “What have you done to try to fix these problems so that you didn’t get to this point? It might be things you tried individually, as a couple, or with outside help.” (Get each person in, and then ask follow up questions, particularly about past couples therapy.)

Children’s question: “What role, if any, do your children play in your decision making about the future of your marriage?” Generally don’t comment or ask follow ups on this one.)

Best of times: “What was the best of times in your relationship since you met? A time when you felt the most connection and joy in your relationship.” This gives you a sense of what drew them to each other. .” This gives you a sense of what drew them to each other and often ends this couple time on a positive note. Gently steer them to only speak about positives here.


Then you move to individual conversations, usually starting with leaning-out partner. 
(about 35 minutes each)

Generally, start with the leaning out partner

With the leaning-out partner alone:

You can start with a general question such as what the couple time in the session was like for them. Or if you are seeing a lot of pain or tension, you can start with a simple “How are you doing?” The goal is emotional connection.

Validate their pain and frustration with the marriage as it has been. If appropriate, rule out path one—the way things were can’t continue for this person.

If they are focusing only on their inclination to divorce, summarize the reasons you are hearing for divorce, and say that it’s clear they have thought through the reasons for path two (review the paths). Ask if it would make sense to spend some time on potential reasons to choose path three.

Make it clear throughout that you are helping them decide whether to work on the marriage (path three), as opposed to helping them change the marriage now.

Explore their sense of their own contributions to the problems in the marriage. Don’t skip this conversation in the first session no matter how distressed the person is; otherwise, you will have created a contract that does not allow this exploration in subsequent sessions.

Offer the beginning of an interactional, systemic view of their marital problems: the dance they have done together. You want to help the person see themselves as an active player in the couple dynamics, although be careful to not suggest they are responsible for their partner’s personal contributions such as alcohol abuse or an affair.

Ask if they want to do another session.

Ask what he/she would like to say to the partner in the way of summary. Coach on what to say, with a focus on self-learnings and willingness to keep discerning. Even if the person has been reluctant to look at their own part, a minimum sharing might be: “I have some new things to think about concerning my role in our problems, and I would like to return to another discernment counseling session.”

Bring in the partner for this sharing, with no expectation of a response from the one listening.


WITH THE Leaning-in partner alone:

Ask how they are feeling at the moment.

You will generally get more frankness about this person’s pain and anger. Listen with empathy, then move on. Don’t allow the leaning in partner to go on for 10-15 minutes with their frustration about what’s happened to them in the marriage.

Clarify the person’s desire to save the marriage, and why.

Ask if they would like your help to save the marriage.

Frame the three paths, and offer to help open the door for path three.

Note hard versus soft reasons raised by the leaning out spouse. See if the leaning in spouse “gets” the concerns of the other and is willing to work on legitimate ones.

Focus first on helping the leaning in spouse hear what the other partner is saying about reasons to end the marriage.

Focus on constructive coping with the crisis: neither pursue nor distance, don’t scold, triangle with others, do self-pity, make threats. Suggest a reading: The Divorce Remedy by Michele Weiner-Davis.

Focus on learning about self and what needs to change in this relationship or another in the future.

Clarify the person’s interest in another session.

Agree on a summary to be shared with the partner at the end of the session.

Usually best to focus on:

  • a desire for path three
  • what the person has heard and gotten in the spouse's concerns
  • what aspects of self that he/she wants to work on, as well as reiteration of desire to go with path three.

Couple time (10 min.)

The partner you just talked to gives his/her summary.

No expectation of a response from the other partner, but let them say something if they seemed inclined to do so.

Depending on the time left and what’s happened in this session, offer some words of appreciation for their work in the session and a theme or two that emerged. Say that each wants to do another session, and schedule that.

It’s often good to emphasize not to expect relationship changes between sessions since that’s not what discernment counseling is for.


This is the nuts and bolts of Discernment Counseling.

Feel free to use elements of it when you see mixed-agenda couples. If you want to learn to do it well and consistently with a wide range of couples, there are many subtleties that come only with training.