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.

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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.

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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.

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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.