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.

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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 focuses 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.