Discernment Counseling for Couples on the Brink of Divorce

A common scenario in marriage therapy is what has been termed the “mixed agenda couple:” one partner desperately wants to work on and save the marriage, while the other partner is ready to call it quits and file for divorce. Marriage therapy ultimately focuses on repairing the relationship. As a result, the “leaning out” partner often feels disinclined to participate in any meaningful work. This can create a frustrating therapy experience. Discernment counseling is a revolutionary approach created by Dr. William Doherty aimed specifically at working with the mixed agenda couple. It offers a new model for couples on the brink of divorce, which encourages them to pause, take a breath, and look at their options.

During the initial stages of creating discernment counseling, Dr. Doherty and his team set out to find ways to offer divorcing couples the opportunity for a “rest stop on the road to divorce,” providing couples time to appraise whether divorce is the best option or if reconciliation is a possibility. They conducted a survey of couples who had already begun the legal process of divorce. They wanted to determine how many of these couples believed that reconciliation was still possible and how many were interested in services to help them reconcile their marriage. The results showed that in about 12% of the couples, both spouses believed that it was still possible to save their marriage, and in about 1/3 of the couples, one spouse believed their marriage could be saved and the other did not. In about 10% of the couples, both spouses were interested in reconciliation services, and in over 1/3 of the couples, one was interested and the other was not. These findings indicate that in about 45% of the couples in the divorce process, one or both spouses hold some degree of belief that their marriage can be saved, and they would consider help with reconciliation. Thus, if hope can still exist for disintegrating marriages, and traditional marriage therapy often falls flat with couples on the threshold of divorce, then a different counseling approach is essential.

Discernment counseling is different from traditional marriage therapy in a number of ways. Marriage therapy, which is most commonly open-ended in length, seeks to help people solve their problems and restore their marriage to health. It also assumes that both partners are willing to work on the marriage. Discernment counseling, on the other hand, is short-term and places emphasis, not on solving the marital problems but, on seeing if the problems can potentially be solved. This process also helps couples decide between three possible outcomes: to try to restore their marriage to health, to move toward divorce, or to take a time out and delay the decision. Whether the couple decides to divorce or to restore the marriage, the counselor will help to locate professionals to aid in a constructive divorce or formulate a reconciliation plan to create a healthy, successful marriage. This process occurs within a maximum of five counseling sessions. The first session is approximately two hours in length, and the subsequent sessions are one-and-a-half hours in length. The sessions are divided between conversations with the couple together and individual conversations with each spouse. The discernment counselor respects the couple’s reasons for contemplating divorce, while trying to open up the possibility of restoring the marriage to health. Emphasis is also placed on the importance of each partner seeing his or her own contributions to the problems and the possible solutions.

Successful discernment counseling occurs when both partners come to a deeper understanding of themselves and what has happened to their marriage, and have reached a decision with clarity and confidence that allows them to move ahead with their lives in a healthy way. In some instances, this deeper understanding presents possibilities for reconciliation, and in other instances one or both partners decide that divorce is their best option. If you are a couple who is considering divorce, but you are not completely sure if it is the right path for you, or if you want to work on your marriage even though your spouse is moving towards divorce, then discernment counseling may be helpful for you. For more information or to schedule an initial discernment counseling session, please contact The Summit Counseling Center at 678-893-5300.