Discernment Counseling can be particularly useful when working with couples who are on the brink of separation but are not completely certain that’s the path they want to take. It’s a way to respect the ambivalence and guide the couple to a more thoughtful decision. This approach helps couples to better understand their relationship dynamics, their individual contributions to the problems, and to evaluate whether they can and want to solve their issues together. It is particularly focused on couples where one partner is leaning towards divorce (often referred to as the “leaning-out” partner) and the other wants to preserve the marriage (the “leaning-in” partner).
Unlike traditional couples therapy, the focus of Discernment Counseling is not to resolve relational issues. Instead, it is designed to provide clarity and understanding about your choices. It helps each of you gain clarity and confidence in your decision about the future of the relationship, based on a deeper understanding of what has happened to your relationship and each person’s contributions to the problems. This approach can lead to three potential paths: a decision to commit to therapy to work on the relationship, a decision to divorce, or a decision to take a time-out and decide later:
- Path 1 is staying together as you have been.
- Path 2 is the separation or divorce path.
- Path 3 is the reconciliation path. It includes a commitment to 6 months of couples therapy to see whether you can put your relationship into a healthier place for both of you. It is not the path of staying married or avoiding divorce forever. It involves taking divorce off the table for 6 months, during which time you both commit to working on yourselves and the relationship. At the end of the 6 months, you can evaluate any progress you’ve made and make a determination whether your overall relationship health is on a positive trajectory. At that point, you may have a better sense as to whether you want to pursue divorce or continue in your relationship.
Since Discernment Counseling is designed to bring you both to a definitive decision, it consists of a maximum of 5 sessions; however in practice this can range from anywhere between 2-5 sessions.
It’s important that both partners agree to these rules and understand that they are designed to create a safe and respectful environment that can facilitate a more clear-headed and mutual decision about the future of their relationship.
- Commit to the Process: Agree to fully engage in the discernment counseling process without making any immediate decisions about ending the relationship for the agreed-upon duration.
- Respect Each Other’s Perspectives: Acknowledge that each partner may have different feelings and thoughts about the relationship, and agree to listen to each other without judgment or interruption.
- Confidentiality: Agree that what is said in counseling stays in counseling, unless both partners consent to share it outside the sessions.
- Open Communication: Encourage open and honest communication both in and out of sessions. Avoid withholding significant thoughts or feelings that could be pertinent to the counseling process.
- Reduce Harmful Interactions: Agree to abstain from behaviors that are known to be hurtful to the other partner. This includes verbal aggression, name-calling, physical violence, and threats of divorce or abandonment.
- Pause Major Decisions: Agree to postpone any major life decisions or changes (such as large purchases, moves, job changes, or parenting decisions) that could add stress or influence the discernment process.
- Maintain Privacy: Refrain from involving children, family, or friends in the details of the discernment process to prevent outside pressures from influencing personal decisions.
- Keep the Focus on the Relationship: Commit to focusing discussions on the relationship issues rather than personal attacks or unrelated grievances.
- Boundaries on Social Media: Agree on appropriate boundaries regarding the use of social media to ensure privacy and respect for each other during the discernment process.
- Individual Reflection: Encourage individual time for reflection and self-care to maintain clarity and emotional stability.
- Mutual Respect for Individual Spaces: If living together, respect each other’s need for space and time apart within the household, acknowledging that individual processing is as important as joint discussions.
- No Major Relationship Changes: Agree not to make any significant changes in the relationship dynamic, such as starting or ending affairs, during the discernment period.
- Regular Check-Ins: Establish a routine for how often you will check in with each other about your thoughts and feelings regarding the process, without pressure to make a decision.