Discernment Counseling is a way for partners to pause, take a breath, and look at their options. It's different from Couples Therapy, which is aimed at improving the relationship. As a Discernment Counselor, I don't assume that all partners want to preserve the relationship, only that they are willing to take a look at what's happened and decide whether to try to repair it or end with dignity.
Many enter a long-term relationship with the intention of a lifelong union. But some partners reach a crisis point where ending the relationship is now a possibility. Sometimes, it's after years of emotional distance, financial problems, sexual problems, and/or constant arguing. Other times, it's after an affair(s), an illness that creates an emergency, or grief from someone that has passed away.
Whatever the reason; usually at least one partner thinks that ending the relationship is the only way to solve the problem, while another partner wants to hang on and make things better. Then they fight about whether to end the relationship. If a legal process begins before partners have had a chance to contemplate and discuss options available to them, an adversarial energy is created of alienation and conflict. Before long, all hope for the relationship or for a constructive dissolution is gone.
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Initial Call with Clients:
When partners are looking for assistance with their relationship, often one of them reaches out to me for help. During that initial call with one of the partners; sometimes they may relay to me that they are not sure what direction they need to take and that they may be “leaning out” of their relationship. They go on to describe that they are at a point in the relationship where they are “stuck” and don’t know how to get “unstuck”. Further, some may describe that either they or their partner(s) have had an emotional and/or physical affair(s). Others describe that they are tired from the negative cycle, they are not sure they want to work on their relationship going forward, and/or that Couples Therapy is not an option for them because of past experience.
I then review with them the different models I offer partners: Couples Therapy, Healing Separation, Discernment Counseling and/or Non-Adversarial Divorce Support. I explain that my practice specializes in relationships and that my office is a judgement-free zone and a safe space to discuss any relationship, religious, and/or cultural belief, gender, and all forms of sexuality.
We then make a plan that I will speak with the other partner(s). When I speak with them on the phone; I quite often encounter someone that is equally hurting and stuck, but in many instances, wants to work on the relationship and go to Couples Therapy. These “mixed-agenda” partners are at different places; as one may want to relaunch the relationship (aka: the “leaning-in” partner) and the other is not sure (aka: “leaning-out” partner). There are also occasions where all partners are “leaning out” and so there is no one paradigm that fits all partners.
When at least one partner continues to state they are not able to enter Couples Therapy, in many instances, I recommend to those partners to consider scheduling a Discernment Counseling session. Sometimes clients utilize one or a few Discernment Counseling sessions and then they contact me stating they would like to schedule a Couples Therapy session and discontinue Discernment Counseling. Every set of partners is different.
What is Discernment Counseling?
- Discernment Counseling is not Couples Therapy
- Discernment Counseling is a short-term process (maximum 5-7 sessions) for those partners where at least one is undecided if they want to work on the relationship any longer, will not agree to Couples Therapy, and/or has participated in Couples Therapy in the past.
- Discernment Counseling is an opportunity to gain clarity and confidence about what next steps to take in their relationship.
- Discernment Counseling is a look at each side of the problem (yours and your partners’) in a discreet and confidential setting.
- Discernment Counseling will help you to review any past Couples Therapy and whether it was been helpful.
- Discernment Counseling will help you better understand the possibility of solving the relationship problems and saving the relationship or making an informed and careful decision about whether to head toward a Healing Separation, or ending the relationship in a mindful, conscious and non-adversarial way.
- Discernment Counseling consists of exploration of three narratives: the divorce narrative (what has gone wrong), the repair narrative (how they have tried to fix things), and a possible reconciliation narrative (if there is a path that might lead to restoring health to the relationship).
- Discernment Counseling is not legally-binding, nor is it a legal service and/or legal advice. It is recommended if clients have legal questions, that they follow-up with a legal professional.
- Discernment Counseling emphasizes the importance of each party seeing their own contributions to the problems, rather than blaming. This relationship skill will be useful in future relationships even if this one ends. The emphasis is on self-differentiation and self-responsibility and how growth in these areas can contribute to a relationship decision.
Discernment Counseling Is NOT Suitable When:
- There is a danger of domestic violence.
- There is an Order of Protection from the court.
- One partner is coercing the other to participate.
I work with individual adults, couples, partners, and co-parents. People usually come in for sessions because there is some kind of cycle that keeps repeating despite their best efforts. The stress that is created by these negative cycles can, in overall, affect: the way we eat, how much chronic pain we may feel, how well we optimize our career and/or volunteer efforts, whether we exercise, and how well we care for ourselves. This, in turn, can affect the choices one makes, career path, parenting, friendships and adds some level of dissatisfaction in our life and sense of purpose. I want our sessions to give you a boost of support and perspective, and most importantly, to align with your goals. Together, we will frequently evaluate progress toward these goals. We will address challenges from new perspectives and evaluate if there are any strengths in your current situation, in addition to the challenges, so we are objective.
My Training and Qualifications:
I am a Licensed Professional Counselor, AASECT Certified Sex Therapist, and Board-Certified Coach. In my practice, I see individual adults and partners for who are primarily coming in to talk about relationship-based challenges.
The model I utilized early on in my career with partners was Couples Therapy. I have trained with industry leaders such as: Drs. John and Julie Gottman, creators of Gottman Method Couples Therapy, and Dr. Sue Johnson, creator of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. As I continued to work with partners, I realized that many needed other options because at least one partner was not in a place where they felt Couples Therapy was right for them. This is what propelled me to seek out Discernment Counseling training; as I had to provide other options for these partners. Please see my Qualifications Page for more information on my background and training.
Co-Parenting is Part of Discernment Counseling Sessions:
- If you have children, my background as a former teacher and school counselor, and current licensed professional counselor, will provide the professional assistance of how to support the emotional, physical, and educational needs of the children. I also have two Masters' degrees; one in Counseling and the other in Education. We work on specific strategies and tools to improve Co-parenting communication and agreements.
- It is important for divorcing partners to minimize any possible emotional trauma for any child involved, including adult children, and themselves. Keep in mind that children can still thrive during and after a divorce, as long as they have at least one parent or guardian who provides a safe, nurturing and consistent home for them. Children will feel pain and grief, and it’s up to the co-parents to unify together to provide the emotional support that is needed to help the children adjust and heal over time. This emotional support at times can also include providing the proper therapeutic licensed professional to work with your family and/or child. Children and younger tweens can benefit from play therapy and the whole family can benefit from creative arts therapy.
- It is recommended for co-parents to consider this non-adversarial process to keep their main focus on the health and well-being of their children.
- Discernment Counseling is not Couples Therapy!
Discernment Counseling Has Been Shown to:
- Enable partners to participate in a setting that is mindful, compassionate and de-escalates conflict.
- Put a pause into the relationship (for the 5-7 sessions) and speak openly and honestly about their “reasons to stay and their reasons to go” in terms of the relationship.
- If clients do eventually move toward divorce after having participated in Discernment Counseling, they report substantially reduced legal fees and ability to participate in a non-adversarial divorce such as Mediation or Collaborative Divorce.
- Increase your ability to co-parent amicably using the skills reviewed in our sessions.
Benefits of Working with Me:
A benefit in working with me is that I provide email/text support outside of sessions, so when clients hit a “speed bump”, in terms of conflict, or feeling “stuck”, I am there to help them work through it. This aspect of my practice enables my clients to move through this process in a less reactive and more mindful way, as this model reinforces a non-adversarial approach which is supportive of their emotional and physical health, and that of any children.
Additionally, I provide homework, which may include short videos, assessments, and tools for self-reflection, mindfulness, and self-compassion, which supports our work outside of sessions. It is of course completely up to my clients if they would like to incorporate homework and/or other resources that I offer. All of these extras impact progress. In order for change to occur, it will be important for you to explore your own feelings and to consider new approaches in order for change to occur.
How Are Sessions Structured?
Sessions are longer in duration than Couples Therapy; as the model only permits meeting a maximum of 5-7 times. Each session follows a similar format: I meet with the partners together for the first part of the session, then I meet with each partner individually, then we conclude each session with each partner back in the session room together.
Discernment Counseling Steps:
This first session (150 minutes) is very important for us to meet and begin to establish a basis of understanding. As a result of Discernment Counseling, some partners decide that they want to re-launch their relationship and thus enter into Couple’s Therapy. However, there are some partners that determine that what is right for them is to separate or divorce. In those instances, I help them to mindfully and consciously “unwind” out of their relationship in the healthiest way possible and to remind them of the importance of self-care during this time to prevent illness, trauma, etc. For those who are parents, discussion of their role as co-parents and the importance of the kids in terms of this process, is a priority. Co-parenting and Discernment Counseling often overlap; as we prioritize usage of positive communication tools to keep a strong focus on the kids. Follow-up Sessions 2 through 7 are 120 minutes.
All clients have different paths. Some do all 7 sessions, some do a few, and then some transition to Couples Therapy or Non-Adversarial Divorce Support and/or Co-Parenting. Some clients will pause their Discernment Sessions and circle back at another time. Not all partners have made a decision by the 7th session; we will see what is best for you.
After the initial calls with each partner; we then schedule Discernment Session #I. In additional, you will receive a welcome email which describes the series of 5-7 sessions, and an electronic intake form for each to fill out.
During Discernment Session #1, clients share with each other where they are in terms of the relationship and whether they think they can move forward in repairing it. They also discuss what each of them has done to try and repair this relationship, how often any partner may have thought of separation and/or divorce, and “reasons to stay and reasons to go” in terms of the relationship. I also learn more about what brought these partners together in the first place and then review again the different models that I offer partners: Couples Therapy, Discernment Counseling, Healing Separation, and/or Non-Adversarial Divorce Support.
Additionally, we discuss which model might be right for them. In many instances, clients have already been on this website and come prepared with questions about these models.
In other instances, clients have determined from their initial calls with me that they want to proceed with Discernment Counseling. Regardless of the model chosen by partners; I have also found that my background as an AASECT Certified Sex Therapist is also critical to assist clients where some underlying issues may be related to intimacy.
We then proceed to Sessions 2-7 of Discernment, which are 120 minutes in length. Sessions 2-7 are usually a minimum of two weeks apart to allow for each partner to work on themselves, to self-reflect, to have enough time to do the homework in-between, and possibly seek individual therapy which I strongly recommend if they haven’t done so already. At any point during Discernment Counseling, for example, the partners can decide together that they want to transition to a different model such as Couples Therapy with me.
I work with the partners to slow things down; so that we can have meaningful conversations to put some structure around this very unsteady time in their lives. Some “leaning out” partners are very disappointed at the thought of slowing things down, taking more time to discern, and/or plan farther in advance if they are going to reside out of the house.
It is essential that parents/guardians know what they are doing in terms of their relationship before telling their children; even their adult children. I strongly recommend to parents/guardians that we discuss in our sessions what to tell children, before any children are apprised as to the status of their relationship. If an affair is the reason for the Discernment Counseling, it is not advisable to inform children, even adult children, of issues that are between the parents, such as: which parent had the affair and/or who the affair was with (unless there are issues with safety for the children).
Partners are encouraged to be mindful and compassionate with themselves, each other, and the kids, in terms of how they go through this process. Discernment Counseling is considered successful when people have clarity and confidence in their decision. Please share this page with people who are in your support network, such as, your individual therapist and friends and family, so they can have a better understanding of the Discernment Counseling process you are in.
Co-Parenting Counseling: Incorporated into Discernment Counseling Follow-Up Sessions (if applicable)
Partners are strongly encouraged to be involved in individual therapy and/or some kind of personal growth or awareness process; as an additional support to our Discernment Counseling sessions.
Origins of Discernment Counseling Model:
Discernment Counseling was developed by Dr. Bill Doherty, in combination with the University of Minnesota and, The Couples on the Brink Project, because traditional change-oriented, Couples Therapy was found to be often unhelpful when at least one partner is ambivalent about working on the relationship.
The Discernment Counselor helps the partners see their journey in a more complex way and to determine what options are right for them. The counselor offers support and understanding along with challenge but does not make therapeutic interventions aimed at improving the relationship (if partners decide to transition to Couples Therapy, this is the model where the repair of the relationship is undertaken).
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 partners learn to understand their own roles 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 Couples Therapy. However, if the ultimate decision is to divorce, the Discernment Counselor inquires if the partners would like to continue to work together in order to explore whether they can pursue a constructive and collaborative divorce.
- To learn more about Discernment Counseling, read this article in the Wall Street Journal.
Moving Toward Divorce After Transitioning from Discernment Counseling:
- When clients have done the mindful work that Discernment Counseling entails, and then as a result decide to end their relationship, clients are usually in a substantially better place, even while they are mourning the loss of their relationship.
- At any partners’ request, I can discuss Non-Adversarial Divorce aspects such as Mediation and Collaborative Divorce.
- If clients are also co-parents, they have learned the tools from our sessions to partner on behalf of their child’s emotional and physical health and well-being.
- Clients are better able to participate with their legal and/or tax advisor(s) with clarity because they have been part of a mindful-process, one that stresses self-discovery and lessening of their own reactivity.
Healing Separation Sometimes Overlaps with Discernment Counseling:
There are times when clients enter Discernment Counseling where there is one partner that is seeking more space, and in those cases, I give them information about Healing Separation. A Healing Separation, for example, can include staying in the same home in separate bedrooms, living in separate residences, and/or moving back and forth between their main home while each co-parent stays somewhere else to keep the kids in one residence, etc. Some clients will try one or several of these different types of living arrangements during their Healing Separation. The length of time for your Healing Separation would be also a good topic to discuss in our follow-up sessions. A Healing Separation may include some time together on a regular basis.
To get the most out of a Healing Separation, it is necessary for each partner to increase their own self-care, personal growth, and self-reflection. Healing Separation is structured time apart which can help partners heal a relationship that isn't working. For many, after going through this process, it results in transforming and relaunching the existing relationship. Thus, moving it from conflict, emotional distance, lack of trust, and/or lack of intimacy, to a more connected and loving relationship. For some though, Healing Separation results in one or all partners moving forward to end the relationship. When partners agree to go through a Healing Separation, it is necessary for them to put aside time to contemplate what part each has played and to reflect on what each has done to try to bring positive change to the relationship.
Please click on the links below to learn more about each option:
- Healing Separation
- Discernment Counseling
- Divorce / Non-Adversarial Support
- Divorce Recovery
- Couples Therapy
- Sex Therapy
- Infidelity and Multiple Affairs
- Co-Parenting Counseling