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What to Do When You Can’t Decide About Divorce

Discernment counseling is a way to see whether marital issues can be fixed.

Key points

  • Research shows that many divorcing people aren't sure if they actually want their marriage to end.
  • Discernment counseling helps couples gain clarity and make decisions about the future of their relationship.
  • Benefits of discernment counseling include clarity, improved communication, and informed decision-making.

When marriages begin to unravel, partners often begin an internal, private, struggle. They wonder if their marriage can be saved, or whether they should end the marriage. They often vacillate between the two options but feel unable to decide. Some may talk to their spouse about problems in the relationship, while others blindside the spouse with a decision. Others try to hold the marriage together but are miserable.

If you are unsure, you are not alone. Divorce professionals often assume that once divorce papers are filed, ambivalence about divorcing is over. However, research shows that these assumptions are wrong. In fact, many divorcing people aren't sure they want their marriage to end.

The Data

The first research on attitudes toward reconciliation during the divorce process was conducted by Doherty, Peterson, and Willoughby (2011). About 25% of individual parents felt that their marriage could still be saved. Another study by Hawkins, Willoughby, and Doherty (2012) had similar findings.

A third study (Doherty, Harris, and Wilde, in press) found that a third of divorcing spouses were ambivalent or didn't want to divorce. Another found that half of clients were ambivalent about getting a divorce or didn't want the divorce; only half were certain. Half of divorced individuals wished they had worked harder to overcome their marital differences and avoid their divorce (see Hawkins & Fackrell, 2009). 75% of divorced couples at least one partner had regrets about the decision to divorce one year after the breakup.

Discernment Counseling May Solve the Problem

Discernment counseling was developed by Bill Doherty, at the University of Minnesota. While it is common for couples to go to therapy with one partner leaning toward breakup or divorce and the other hoping to stay together, there have been few techniques specifically designed for such couples. Discernment counseling was developed specifically to help people in these types of relationships, which he called “mixed agenda” couples. These are couples “on the brink.”

If you have found yourself debating whether to stay or go, consider discernment counseling before you make your decision.

I spoke with Ann Cerney, MS LPCC, LCPC about her work as a discernment counselor, mediator, divorce coach, and co-parenting counselor in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Life is full of uncertainties and challenges,” she says, “especially when it comes to making important decisions about our relationships. For couples contemplating the future of a troubled marriage, considering separation or divorce, or feeling confused about the best course of action, discernment counseling can offer valuable guidance and support.”

I asked Cerney what discernment counseling is, how it works, and the potential benefits it can bring to individuals and couples in need. How is this different from marital therapy? What is the goal of discernment counseling, and does it work?

“Discernment counseling is a short-term, solution-focused therapy approach specifically designed for couples in crisis. Unlike traditional couples therapy, which aims to deepen the connection and improve communication, discernment counseling focuses on helping couples gain clarity and make informed decisions about the future of their relationship.

“The primary goal of discernment counseling is not to fix the problems within the relationship but to assist couples in understanding the root causes of their concerns and exploring the available options. It provides a safe and neutral space for partners to express their thoughts, feelings, and uncertainties while being guided by a trained professional.”

What Is Discernment Counseling?

While not considered a treatment, discernment counseling can be conceptualized as an assessment process that helps partners determine the next steps in their relationship. In discernment counseling, couples consider three possible options: ending the relationship, establishing a 6-month period in which both partners commit to making the maximum effort to save the relationship (often while participating in couples therapy) or postponing the decision.

So how does discernment counseling work?

“The discernment counseling process typically involves one to five sessions. During these sessions, the counselor works closely with the couple to explore three main paths:

  1. Continue the relationship as it is, without any major changes.
  2. End the relationship and move towards separation or divorce.
  3. Commit to six months of intensive couples therapy with a clear intention to work on the relationship.

The counselor helps the individuals in the couple with decision-making using the three paths as a guide. They explore these paths in a structured way through self-reflection, self-disclosure, and openness to sharing insights. The counselor facilitates honest and compassionate communication. They ensure that both partners are heard and understood, allowing them to make informed choices about their future.”

The discernment counseling model allows the therapist to spend time with each partner, separately, probing into how they show up in the relationship, and how that contributes to the current situation where one is considering ending it. The goal is to understand each person's role in the relationship, focusing on the problem areas. There is very little time with the couple together. The focus when together is on hearing any insights from each other and on decision-making with that deeper understanding. All the time spent together is very structured, without responding to each other. In this way, the model differs from traditional marital therapy.

Ann lists the benefits she has seen in her work with couples.

  1. “Clarity and Insight: One of the key benefits of discernment counseling is that it enables individuals and couples to gain valuable clarity and insight into their relationship dynamics. By exploring the underlying issues and reflecting on their role, partners can better understand their concerns and make more informed choices.
  2. “Improved Communication: Discernment counseling provides a structured and compassionate environment for couples to communicate openly and honestly. It helps them develop better communication skills, which can be beneficial regardless of the outcome of their relationship. It offers an opportunity for both partners to gain a deeper understanding of their part in the relationship problems, to consider all three paths, and to decide with clarity and confidence about a future direction.
  3. “Reduced Conflict: The guided process of discernment counseling aims to minimize conflict and hostility between partners. By fostering empathy, understanding, and respect, couples can engage in healthier conversations, potentially reducing the emotional strain and resentment that often accompanies relationship difficulties. Even when the outcome is divorce, both partners often are better equipped to move forward with less hostility and blame, knowing that they each have contributed to the relationship problems.
  4. “Informed Decision-Making: Perhaps the most significant benefit of discernment counseling is the ability to make informed decisions about the future of the relationship. Whether it be choosing to commit to working on the relationship or opting for separation, couples can approach their decision with greater confidence and clarity.”

I consider a couple that I worked with. The husband has had an affair and tells his wife that the affair is over. She doesn’t trust him, and for two years the husband works to rebuild her trust. However, she remains hurt and unable to forgive the betrayal and begins to believe that she will never be able to let go of the past. She asks him to go to a therapist with her, and when they begin the first session, she blindsides him with her decision to divorce. Would discernment counseling have helped?

According to Bill Doherty, discernment counseling is not recommended for couples in which one partner has already decided to end the relationship and is only seeking counseling because they want the therapist to help the other partner accept it. Additionally, discernment counseling is not advised for relationships when intimate partner violence is a factor or if both partners are unwilling to participate without coercion.

Is Discernment Counseling Right for You?

I asked Ann how people would know if discernment counseling is right for them. She says: “Discernment counseling can be a valuable resource for couples who are unsure about the direction of their relationship or considering separation or divorce. It is a safe and non-judgmental space that allows individuals to explore their doubts, fears, and hopes. However, it is essential to note that discernment counseling is not a substitute for regular couples therapy or intensive marriage counseling.”

If you are ambivalent about the future of your relationship and need clarity and resolution, look for a trained discernment counselor in your area.

How to Know If Someone Is Trained in the Model

According to Bill Doherty, training in discernment counseling typically consists of an online course for licensed mental health professionals. Advanced training materials are available for those who wish to enhance their skills, and therapists can become certified in discernment counseling as they complete more hours of training. Be sure to ask how your counselor was trained in this model.

When partners are on the brink of separation or divorce, discernment counseling can provide a way to clarify whether the relationship issues can be fixed. The therapist works to help both partners identify how they contribute to relationship issues and explore potential solutions. Discernment counseling is considered successful when both partners have an increased understanding of what went wrong in the relationship and how they want to move forward.

© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2024


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