“Discernment is a light of protection and direction in a world that grows increasingly dark.” – Elder David A. Bednar

Are you or your spouse considering divorce, but not sure if it’s the right path? Have you previously tried traditional marriage counseling, yet still feel stuck? Piggybacking on my last blog, this blog expands on the common “stay-or-go” struggle by illustrating the ins and outs (no pun intended) of Discernment Counseling.

Let me back up first. I’ll go out on a limb and bet that the vast majority of people who get married have visions of a happy, lifelong partnership. Sometimes, however, couples go through crises, such as financial problems, sexual frustration, incessant arguing, extramarital affairs, health scares, or emotional distancing, to name a few. Typically, Partner A thinks divorce is the only solution and Partner B wants to work things out and stay together. These polarizing perspectives can then result in fights about whether or not they should divorce, which often leads to further conflict. At this point, it becomes messy, unproductive, and harmful to both partners.

Discernment Counseling, an approach developed by Dr. Bill Doherty, is for couples who don’t necessarily need therapy, but mediation. While traditional couples counseling assumes that both parties are committed to working on their marriage, Discernment Counseling is designed to help couples decide on whether they should stay together or call it quits. The purpose of it is for clients to gain greater clarity, understanding, and confidence regarding the next steps of their relationship, which involves holding each person accountable for their contribution to their marital problems. The technique involves three paths: stay the same and decide later, mutually decide to divorce, or renew the marriage via a reconciliation plan. It’s meant to assist people in thoughtfully considering all of their options.

When one person is “in” the marriage and the other is thinking of leaving, I like bringing them both in my office to explore their relationship, as well as the future of it. Together, I ask them a series of questions involving their past repair attempts/techniques, hopes for the session, how they’ve reached this point, the role children have played in their decision making, the last time they felt joy in their relationship, and what’s changed since our last session.

After meeting with them as a couple, I then meet with them individually, usually starting with the “leaning-out” partner, Partner A. We examine, from their viewpoint, the main reason the marriage isn’t working, what’s making them lean out from the relationship, their contribution to the current status of the marriage, and what can be done so they lean in more. For the client who’s leaning in (Partner B), I ask what keeps them in the marriage, encourage them to remain patient, acknowledge their contribution to the marital downfall, work on their own issues, and focus on how they can take care of themselves in the relationship. Further, I ask Partner B if it’s possible that Partner A could lean back in (which is fairly telling). I then meet with both partners, who share with each other what they discussed with me during our individual time. When a decision has been made, I assist the couple with pursuing a constructive divorce, developing a plan for reconciliation, or taking a time out and returning to Discernment Counseling at a later date.

TAKE-AWAY: If you find yourself straddling the relationship fence, I’d encourage you to take some time to explore your authentic feelings and desires related to the marriage, as well as your options going forward. If you’re the “leaning-in” partner, it might be beneficial to practice ways to calm down and focus on learning more about yourself. For both partners, it’s crucial to reflect on your contributions to the marriage breakdown, as it takes two to tango.