Maybe you’ve been there, or maybe you’ve heard about it from a friend, or could all too easily imagine it: sitting in the therapist’s office with your partner, one of you desperately wanting to save the marriage and the other person… not. Not committing to the marriage, not committing to the therapy work, but also not asking for a divorce. The therapist is struggling, perhaps bargaining with one spouse to commit to working on the relationship for a few sessions. After a reluctant agreement, therapy begins and it doesn’t really go anywhere. Eventually the therapist recommends individual therapy to help each person better understand what they want, which is unlikely to help the relationship since each therapist only has one side of the story. (While individual therapy alongside couples therapy can help improve the marriage, alone it often does not solve the couples’ relationship issues.)

This type of couple is a “mixed-agenda couple.” It’s where one person is leaning in and one person is leaning out of the relationship. Traditional marriage therapy, which may not recognize and address this upfront, can be ineffective for this type of couple and can result in both people feeling worse about the marriage, their partners, themselves, and couples counseling in general.

Discernment Counseling assesses for this state at the beginning of therapy. In marriage therapy the goal is typically understood to be to heal and strengthen the relationship; in Discernment Counseling the goal is to get clarity and confidence about a direction for the relationship based on a deeper understanding of what’s happened to the marriage. This is typically done in a few sessions (versus couples therapy which may last several sessions as the work of improving the marriage is happening). The discernment process is designed to help clients answer the question, “Are you willing to work on changing your contribution to the marriage?” As such, it is an important first step of marriage therapy that should not be skipped or addressed lightly. If at the end of the Discernment Counseling phase both partners say yes, they move forward with more intensive couples therapy (often for a pre-determined agreed period of time, such as six months; this time differs for all couples). Then they revisit the question of whether or not to divorce. That question is likely to be much easier to answer since they will have much more knowledge and clarity about their own contributions, needs, wants, and the viability of the marriage.

Discernment Counseling not only helps people get clarity on what direction to take the marriage, it helps each person understand what patterns they brought to the dynamics and how they contributed to the relationship. This is important whichever road the couple decides to take; after all, you can only divorce your spouse, not yourself. Discernment Counseling sets a positive tone for the couple’s future relationship. By slowing things down and reducing emotional conflict, it sets people up to either work on the marriage more meaningfully and rationally or divorce more amicably. This is especially important if the couple has children. Discernment Counseling results not only in clarity on what direction to take as to working on the marriage or divorcing, it also importantly results in confidence in this important life decision.

If you think Discernment Counseling is right for you, find a trained professional by visiting our Couple’s Therapy page.