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I Do. Now I Don't. What Is Discernment Counseling?

Updated: Sep 27, 2021

Original Post 2019 Joseph Shaub, MA, JD

Bill Doherty, one of the deans and wise elders of the American couples therapy community has written for years about the "mixed agenda couple." One partner is "leaning in" to the relationship and the other is "leaning out." Couples therapy with such couples is almost invariably frustrating for the therapist and the couple and a lot of time and money gets spent thrashing around in a non-productive uncoordinated dance.

Doherty and a number of therapeutic and legal colleagues in Minneapolis fashioned an approach to supporting these couples and called it Discernment Counseling. it is a truly valuable addition to the skills of the couples therapist. However, the first thing we must understand is that Discernment Counseling is not couples therapy.

What Is Discernment Counseling?

You take your ring off. You put the ring on. You take it off. You put it on - twirl it around your finger as you contemplate your painful dilemma. "Am I in or am I out?

Every couple in serious distress has three basic paths before them. They can either:

  • Continue on the same course they are on,

  • Proceed to separation and end the relationship, or

  • Commit to a course of couples therapy in which divorce is "off the table."

Discernment Counseling is a process by which a trained counselor facilitates this decision-making process. The major work is done in one-on-one sessions with the counselor, not together, as in couples therapy. Each hour-and-a-half session begins with a brief check in with the partners together, which is followed by an individual meeting with one partner and then an individual meeting with the other. This is followed by a brief joint meeting in which each person may share what their current understanding and feelings are about continuing in the process. The partners decide by the end of each meeting whether they wish to come to another meeting. While Discernment Counseling can continue for up to 5 or 6 meetings, the participants decide at the end of each meeting if they wish to continue.

Discernment Counseling is not therapy. The partners do not work on their relationship in this process because it is not clear, yet, whether they are on the same page insofar as working on the relationship is concerned. The purpose of the process is, rather, to (get ready!) discern whether they both wish to work on the relationship.

The Leaning Out Partner

Usually the leaning out partner has ending the relationship in the foreground of their thinking as they enter the process. The 5-6 (max) meeting process is intended to help that person discern whether he or she wishes to stay in and work on the relationshp or accept in their minds and hearts that it is over for them. (Of course, there is the third option of continuing in the relationship unchanged, but this is a very rare-though not unheard-of option). If the choice is ultimately to work on the relationship in therapy, the commitment must be to "roll up your sleeves" and work on the relationship in couples therapy with divorce "off the table" for six months. That is considered to be sufficient time to make an intelligent and good faith determination if couples therapy is gaining enough traction to bring hope for positive change to the "leaning out" partner.

The Leaning In Partner

The task of the leaning in partner is usually quite different. In the majority (but not all) of the cases, this partner wants the relationship to continue. The withdrawal of their partner and apparent disengagement from the relationship causes anxious fear of loss that can feel off the scale for them. This person usually has to navigate between intense (often badgering) pursuit and shut-down disengagement ("If you want space, I'll give you all the space you need.") Either of these approaches will make it difficult for the leaning out partner to either feel safe in the relationship or experience enough of their partner's presence and engagement to feel like there is a relationship to work on and save. Bill Doherty recommends this person read Michelle Weiner Davis' excellent book The Divorce Remedy.

Goal of Discernment Counselng

Simply put, the goal is clarity. After session 1..or 2..or 3, 4 or 5 we try to come to an understanding of your future course. We work to clear away the confusion and choices that are driven by fear and anxiety so that you, as a the couple, can be on a stable platform to either pursue healing therapy or to disengage with integrity (or stay the course).

Further References on Discernment Counseling

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