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Discernment Counseling Is:
- An opportunity to gain clarity and confidence about what steps to take next with my help as a licensed therapist
- To look at both sides of the problems (yours and your partner’s) in a discreet and confidential setting
- To determine whether past counseling has been helpful,
- To understand the possibility of solving problems and relaunching the relationship, or making an informed and careful decision about whether to head toward ending the relationship
To learn more about Discernment Counseling, read this article in the Wall Street Journal.
Nearly everyone enters a long-term relationship with the dream of a lifelong union. But many couples reach a crisis point where divorce is on the table. Sometimes it's after years of emotional distance, financial problems, sexual problems, or constant arguing. Sometimes it's after a recent affair or an illness that creates an emergency.
Whatever the reason, usually one spouse thinks that ending the relationship is the only way to solve the problem, while the other partner wants to hang on and make things better. Then they fight about whether to divorce. Once the legal divorce process begins, the alienation and conflict can escalate, and before long all hope for the relationship or for a constructive dissolution is gone.
"It Doesn't Have to be This Way"
Discernment Counseling, a new way for couples to pause, take a breath, and look at their options. It's different from traditional couples therapy aimed at improving the relationship. We don't assume that you both want to preserve the relationship, only that you are both willing to take a look at what's happened to it and decide whether to break up or to try to repair it.
Discernment Counseling For?
Discernment Counseling is for people who are considering ending a relationship but are not completely sure if it's the right path for them. They want to take one more look before making a permanent decision with long-term consequences.
It's for people who want to give their relationship another chance even though their partner is moving towards divorce.
It is also for couples that have made a commitment to each other but are unmarried. Discernment Counseling is for heterosexual same-sex, or bi-sexual couples; basically any two people who have made a long-term commitment.
What Does Discernment Counseling Involve?
The Discernment Counselor helps individuals and couples decide whether to try to restore their relationship to health, move towards divorce, or take a time out and decide later. The sessions are divided between conversation with the couple together and individual conversations with each spouse. The counselor respects the reasons for divorce while trying to open up the possibility of restoring the marriage to health.
The counselor emphasizes the importance of each party seeing his or her own contributions to the problems and the possible solutions. This will be useful in future relationships even if this one ends. Discernment Counseling is considered successful when people have clarity and confidence in their decision.
How Many Sessions are There?
Discernment Counseling usually involves 5 sessions. The first session is usually 150 minutes, and sessions 2-5 are 120 minutes.
Discernment Counseling Is NOT Suitable When:
- One partner has made a final decision to end the relationship and wants counseling to encourage the other partner to accept that decision
- There is a danger of domestic violence
- There is an Order of Protection from the court
- One partner is coercing the other to participate
Discernment Counseling was developed by the University of Minnesota, The Couples on the Brink Project, and in combination with Dr. Bill Doherty, as a special process because traditional change-oriented, couple therapy is often unhelpful when one or both partners is ambivalent about working on the relationship.
The goal of Discernment Counseling is to help couples have greater clarity and confidence in their decision-making. The immediate decision is framed not as whether to stay together or divorce but whether to continue moving towards divorce or committing to six-month effort to restore the relationship, with divorce off the table for that time period.
Discernment Counseling generally involves 1-6 sessions working with the couple together and each partner separately. The first session is 2 – 2.5 hours and the subsequent ones are 1.5-2 hours. The discernment counselor explores three narratives: the divorce narrative (what has gone wrong), the repair narrative (how they have tried to fix things), and a possible reconciliation narrative (what path might lead to restoring health to the relationship).
The Discernment Counselor explores these narratives in order to help the couple see their journey in a more complex way and to see what options then become most compelling. The emphasis is on self-differentiation and self-responsibility and how growing in these areas can contribute to a relationship decision. The counselor respects the reasons for divorce while trying to open up the possibility of restoring the marriage to health. The counselor offers support and understanding along with challenge, but does not make therapeutic interventions aimed at improving the marriage.
Frequently one partner wants to stay in the relationship and the other is leaning out. The Discernment Counselor works with each partner individually at times, focusing on the decision making process with the partner who is leaning out and on constructive efforts to salvage the relationship with the other. In both cases, the partner learns to understand his or her own role in the problems and potential solutions, rather than focusing on changing the other.
If the ultimate decision is to try to reconcile, the Discernment Counselor switches from Discernment Counseling to beginning a six-month course of Couples Therapy and making referrals to additional resources in the community as needed, for example, alcoholism assessment, couples retreat weekends, and/or individual therapy.
If the ultimate decision is to divorce, the Discernment Counselor inquires if the couple would like to work with him/her to explore whether they can pursue a constructive, collaborative divorce.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Q: Is Discernment Counseling the same as Couples Therapy?
A: No. Discernment Counseling is short- term help for deciding whether to work or end the relationship. Couples Therapy, which is generally more opened ended in length, aims to help people solve their problems and restore their relationship to health.
Q: How do you determine success in Discernment Counseling?
A: Although it would be wonderful if all troubled relationships could become healthy and satisfying for both parties, we understand that this is not always possible. Therefore, our basic criterion for success is that the partners come to a deeper understanding of themselves and what’s happened to their relationship, and have reached a decision that allows them to move ahead with their lives in a healthy way for themselves and their families. In some cases, this deeper understanding opens doors to possible reconciliation, and in other cases one or both parties decide that divorce is their best option. We try to show couples what a reconciliation path might look like for them, but we honor the choices that people make for themselves.
Q: Can you use Discernment Counseling with couples who are not legally married and/or are same sex couples?
A: Although the project came out of concern for married couples in the legal divorce system, it can be very useful for any couple who is in a committed relationship. This could include cohabiting couples and same sex couples, particularly, if they are raising children and concerned about the impact of a break up on their children.
Portions of this document have been taken from: