For Therapists

You may have clients who could use the Discernment Counseling services of the Couples on the Brink Project. Here are three kinds of clients that might fit:

  • An individual therapy client who is considering divorce and might benefit from exploring with the spouse whether to divorce or try to work on the marriage—something that can be difficult to do with a therapist who has worked with one of the couple.
  • An individual therapy client whose spouse has said he or she wants a divorce that the client does not want. You are not usually in a position to invite the other spouse in for a session, and a referral for marital therapy may be seen as pressure by the “leaning out” spouse.
  • A couple therapy case where you are stuck in a place of ambivalence on the part of one or both of the spouses, and where a consultation for the couple by an outside counselor might help them decide whether to commit to the therapy or move on to divorce.

We developed Discernment Counseling as a special process because traditional change-oriented marriage therapy is often unhelpful when on one or both partners is ambivalent about working on the marriage.

The goal of discernment counseling is to help couples have greater clarity and confidence in their decision making. The immediate decision is framed not as whether to stay together or divorce but whether to continue moving towards divorce or committing to six month effort to restore the marriage, with divorce off the table for that time period.

Discernment counseling involves 1-5 sessions working with the couple together and each partner separately. The first session is two hours and the subsequent ones 1.5 hours. The discernment counselor explores three narratives: the divorce narrative (what has gone wrong), the repair narrative (how they have tried to fix things), and a possible reconciliation narrative (what path might lead to restoring health to the relationship).

The discernment counselor explores these narratives in order to help the couple see their journey in a more complex way and to see what options then become most compelling. The emphasis is on self-differentiation and self-responsibility and how growing in these areas can contribute to a relationship decision. The counselor respects the reasons for divorce while trying to open up the possibility of restoring the marriage to health. The counselor offers support and understanding along with challenge, but does not make therapeutic interventions aimed at improving the marriage.

Frequently one spouse wants to stay married and the other is leaning out. The discernment counselor works with each partner separately, focusing on the decision making process with the spouse who is leaning out and on constructive efforts to salvage the marriage with the other. In both cases, the spouse learns to understand his or her own role in the problems and potential solutions, rather than focusing on changing the other.

If the ultimate decision is to try to reconcile, the discernment counselor switches from discernment counseling to beginning a six month course of couples therapy and making referrals to additional resources in the community as needed, for example, alcoholism assessment, couples retreat weekends, or personal therapy. In some cases, the discernment counselor may refer out for the couples therapy if there is a better fit elsewhere in the community.

If the ultimate decision is to divorce, the discernment counselor helps the couple connect with lawyers and other divorce professionals who will support them in having a constructive, collaborative divorce.

To understand further how we think about marriage and divorce, see our  Statement of Principles.