Thinking About Divorce? Consider Discernment Counseling First

By: Deanna Conklin-Danao, Psy.D.
Last Update: November 01, 2016

I’ve seen many couples enter couples therapy as a last ditch effort to save their marriage. These efforts rarely succeed, not because the couples lack the right intent, but because the structure and process of couples therapy isn’t designed to answer their primary question: Do I want to be in this marriage at all?

For married couples contemplating divorce, I recommend Discernment Counseling as an alternative to traditional couples therapy. Developed by psychologist Bill Doherty, the objective of Discernment Counseling is to provide a process to get couples to address their ambivalence about their marriage and to make a clear decision as to whether to work on their marriage or move towards divorce.

No one should ever take the decision to divorce lightly. The emotional and financial stakes are too high and can be heightened when kids are involved. Discernment Counseling was developed to help people evaluate this difficult decision from all angles. It was also designed to set a clear path for either couples therapy or the divorce process to achieve a better outcome for both parties.

Dr. Doherty lays out the goals for Discernment Counseling on his website:

  • More clarity and confidence in a decision about the future of your marriage.
  • More understanding of what has happened to your marriage and the part each of you has played in the problem.
  • A game plan for change if you decide to work on the marriage.
  • A set of learnings that you can carry with you into future relationships if you end this one, and a better chance to be good co-parents if you have children

How does Discernment Counseling differ from couples therapy? Discernment Counseling does not focus on solving the problems in the marriage. Instead, each spouse works on deciding whether they want to work on the marriage at all. This is done in a very clear and defined process:

  • Time limited. Discernment counseling is designed to be limited to a maximum of five sessions. After each session, each spouse determines whether they have reached a decision about the marriage or if they want to continue with the process.
  • Structured sessions. Counseling sessions are 90 minutes long. Unlike couples therapy, where an entire session can be spent deconstructing a single argument, Discernment Counseling focuses on a broader view of the future of the relationship. The sessions are structured as having an opening time together, followed by individual conversations, and finally, a summary with everyone in the room.
  • Individual conversations. While both spouses come to every meeting, much of the time is spent in individual conversations. A key piece of Discernment Counseling is about understanding one’s own contributions to the problems in the marriage.
  • Three paths. In Discernment Counseling, decision-making revolves around the three paths: Path 1 – deciding to make no changes to the marriage; Path 2 – Divorce; Path 3 – a six-month commitment to taking divorce off the table and wholeheartedly working on the marriage in couples therapy.

Discernment Counseling requires the active participation of each spouse. Each spouse must speak with the therapist and commit to the process for at least one session. In most couples contemplating divorce, one partner is “leaning in” (wanting to save the marriage) and one partner is “leaning out” (wanting to end the marriage). In order for Discernment Counseling to work, at least one person needs to be “leaning in” in order to act as the advocate and champion for the marriage. If no one is championing the marriage, then there is unlikely to be any momentum for couples therapy to work.

When people end Discernment Counseling and decide on Path 3 – couples therapy for six months – they create a list of their personal goals to work on in couples therapy. These goals can be concrete ones such as stopping alcohol/substance intake or relationship goals like resolving, instead of avoiding, conflicts. Couples therapy is effective when each partner is willing to look at themselves, not just offer up a laundry list of complaints about the other person.

When a couple decides on Path 2, divorce, the goal is to set up a constructive divorce process and co-parenting arrangement. Divorce is never easy, but it doesn’t have to be devastating either emotionally or financially. Discernment Counseling can help put divorcing couples on the path to mediation or Collaborative Divorce, both of which are designed to be constructive, empowering processes – not lengthy battles.

While considering divorce is never an easy decision, it isn’t a black or white, right or wrong decision either. It is a very serious decision that deserves thoughtful consideration. So, instead of getting advice from your neighbor with the messy divorce, consider Discernment Counseling as a place where you can sort through the potential paths and feel more confident in your decision.


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