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Couples On The Brink

What is Discernment Counseling?

Discernment counseling is counseling for couples who are at a standstill in their relationship. Often these couples are unsure whether they want to stay together or get divorced. This type of therapy aims to help couples understand their options and avoid prematurely terminating their marriage. Additionally, it helps couples decide if they truly are committed to staying together, rather than wasting time and energy in traditional couples therapy.



Discernment counseling is different from other types of couples therapy because it does not exist to help couples work on their relationship. Rather, it helps couples decide if they are capable of fixing their problems. And it helps them decide if they want to do so as a team. Generally, this type of therapy is brief. Couples will attend one to five two-hour sessions of discernment counseling before moving ahead in the direction of their choice.

It is common at the end of a relationship for partners to be on different pages. One partner may want to stay married and wholeheartedly believe in couples counseling, while the other partner may already have one foot out the door and is less than enthusiastic about going to therapy. When this happens, it is called a mixed agenda couple. Studies have shown that even among couples that have already filed for divorce, more than one third are mixed agenda couples. Discernment counseling was created for this very situation. In the case one partner is leaning towards divorce and the other is desperately hoping to preserve the marriage. During these times, a couple may need help considering their options. Be it separation or divorce, keeping things as they are, or committing to staying together and working on their marriage. If separation is the only option, hiring a family lawyer is the best way for protecting yourself in a divorce.


“…I don’t claim to be doing couples therapy until I have an informed agreement with both partners to work on the marriage. Discernment Counseling is helping them decide whether to try.

– William J. Doherty

What Does Discernment Counseling Look Like?

The first step in discernment counseling is one two-hour session with both partners present. During this time, a therapist will speak with each person individually to assess whether or not the problems in the relationship are solvable. Then the counselor will meet with both partners together, offering the couple support as they choose how best to proceed in the relationship.

There are three possible options that a couple may choose while in Discernment Counseling. The first option is to keep things as they are, to remain in the marriage as it is and accept that things are not going to change. The second option is separation or divorce. Together, both partners can decide that they no longer wish to be married and proceed from there. The third option a couple may choose is to commit to attending six months of couples counseling together. During this period, both partners agree to attend regular couples counseling sessions and to stay committed to one another within the container of marriage. After the six months are complete, they can reassess their relationship and decide once again how to proceed.

If a couple chooses to commit to this period of therapy, some of the sessions will be one-on-one with each partner individually. During this time, the therapist will focus on getting to know each person, what their strengths and weaknesses are, their style of communication, and the way they handle and engage with conflict. As a result, each partner will develop a deeper relationship with him or herself as well as be able to examine the ways they participate in their marriage.

Why is Discernment Counseling Useful?

Discernment Counseling is helpful for couples because it lays out a structured path during a confusing and emotional time. A discernment counselor will create a safe container for the couple to speak openly about where their marriage is at. This space is free from the opinions of friends and family, from work colleagues and other acquaintances. It offers couples a chance to fully explore the choices available to them. During this time, each partner will begin to understand the core issues present in the relationship and the ways in which they contribute to them.

In Discernment Counseling, both partners are offered the time and space to understand their own and their partner’s perspective. If a couple does choose to proceed with couples therapy, most likely they will already have discovered some of their core conflicts and will be able to use their discernment sessions as a foundation upon which to build.

Regardless of whether you are leaning towards divorce or believe your relationship is worth saving, Discernment Counseling is a great opportunity to clearly understand your options and make the best decision for both you and your partner. Contact us to schedule an appointment today.

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