It’s true we are neither marriage savers nor divorce advocates.

We are somewhere in the middle, being of service to hurting relationships, using everything we know to support people towards healing, but without a pre-ordained outcome that the marriage will continue or end.

For the couples we’re talking about and serve through Discernment Counseling, one spouse may be freaking out about the prospect of a divorce, and the other spouse is skittish about being too honest about how seriously they are planning to leave.

You may feel the triangulation – and you should.

Our influence is never neutral.

We influence the direction of the relationship by the questions we ask, the empathy we show (more for some pain points than others), and which spouse’s narrative we find more real versus lacking insight.   

Our clinical instincts influence the direction of the therapy and hence the direction of their lives. But we don’t talk as a field about better and worse ways to engage these couples on the brink. We are each left to decide how to proceed, leaving couples at the mercy of our subjective clinical intuitions.

The rub is that these couples often come to our offices with wildly different narratives about the marriage and with different goals for its future. 

We may have a calm, articulate spouse laying out all the ways the marriage is completely broken, and another spouse crying, yelling—the opposite of calm and articulate because their world has just been shaken. They are each pulling us with their magnetic force field. 

Not only do we bring clinical intuitions, but also values about whether marriage in general is worth fighting to preserve (if possible), or more like a business relationship to move on from if it’s no longer working. 

The neutrality myth can get in our way.

The loudest person in the room, or the one with the most pain, should not “win” with their bid for attention and direction for the therapy.  We have to have a deeper schema for how to approach these couples.

Here's the thing.

We therapists are not neutral about a parenting pondering abandoning their child.
We are not neutral when a client is plotting their own suicide.
We aren’t neutral when someone is cutting their body.

But the myth prevails that it is possible to be neutral in the scenario of:

  • two adults who once made a lifelong commitment to each other
  • disagreeing on the fate of their relationship, having hired us as a marriage therapist 

Here’s where we personally stand when we discover we have a mixed agenda couple on our hands. 

Full Stop: we simply WILL NOT START REGULAR MARRIAGE THERAPY if one spouse isn’t clear they are committed to the marriage—at least committed enough to stick around and work on it.

One of the initial priorities in any marriage therapy intakes is to understand whether commitment to the marriage is there or not there for one or both people.
Without commitment, we cannot proceed with any pretense about setting relational goals and working on them.

If we won’t do regular couples therapy in these situations, what do we do?

Enter Discernment Counseling.

Putting the commitment issue front and center, with both partners fully signing up for this service.

The goals are not to improve or save the marriage but to gain clarity and confidence in a direction for the marriage based on a deeper understanding of what’s happened to the relationship and each person’s contributions to the problems. 

Simply put, the goals are clarity, confidence, understanding—not change or improvement (both of which require serious energy and commitment.) 

In Discernment Counseling, both spouses agree to make an investment to better understand what’s happened and what their options are now. They are asked to remake that decision session by session, with only one scheduled at a time (up to five).

In other words, they each get to decide, each time, whether to come back.  

We put three paths on the table (do nothing, separate/divorce, or work on the marriage in an all out six-month effort in couples therapy).

Your role is NEVER to tell people what to do, but instead, with permission granted from both individuals, your role in Discernment Counseling is to:

  • Help each person expand their narrative about what’s happened to the marriage and what they have brought to the marriage and its challenges.
  • Honor the leaning out person’s pain while helping them see how their behaviors/thoughts/actions have contributed to the problems.
  • Encourage the best self in the leaning in spouse and help them go deeper to understand their spouse’s pain and their own role in creating that pain.
  • Offer the leaning out spouse an alternative future if they were to commit to couples therapy, as well as a look at their own part in the problems, while being careful not to start the therapy until both have fully signed on for the effort.
  • If one or both decide to divorce, help them (and their children) have a soft landing with the help of skilled, collaborative divorce professionals.

We never get a vote, but we do have influence as experts who know how healthy marriages work and how unhealthy marriages can heal.

And by having Discernment Counseling as a shared name for this type of service, the public and we as clinicians have locate a trusted network from which to make referrals and ensure the best possible experience for both spouses.

That is what we can offer, without telling anyone what to do but also without falling into the neutrality myth.

In its ideal form, the outcome is tremendous personal development and personal growth for both people.

And that, we think, every therapist agrees is a good thing.