“I want in, but my spouse wants out!” Have you heard of Discernment Counseling?

By Matt Stevenson, Licensed Marital & Family Therapist

“I think my marriage is over, and I just don’t know what to do!”

As a Licensed Marital & Family Therapist, I hear this all too often. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is a very common reason couples contact our counseling offices. Rarely does anyone reach out for help like this, unless there is some kind of crisis going on. So, what can be done to help a couple in this situation? The relationship has reached the point where one or both spouses is contemplating ending it, whether through separation, or divorce. Maybe you’ve been the one worrying about whether or not your spouse is really committed to the relationship. Or, maybe you’re so frustrated with the way things are, and can’t visualize a happy future together, that you’re the one looking at ending the relationship. Maybe you’re not personally in this situation.  Maybe you have a friend, or family member who’s marriage is on the brink.  Either way, all of us can usually relate to this situation in one way or another!

 Is “Couples Therapy” always the right option?

Many couples in a marriage or relationship crisis, who are contemplating divorce or separation,  would agree the logical choice would be to engage in couples therapy in effort to address the issues and problems that led to that crisis.  This would hopefully help them rebuild trust, intimacy and love. Anyone who cares about that relationship would advise them to seek out some professional help to attempt to fix their problems, right? But is couples therapy always the best option? There’s a certain mindset that a couple needs in order to make progress in couples or marriage counseling. Basically, both members of the couple must have some motivation to change themselves, for the sake of a happier future together. In couples counseling, equal time is spent in the therapy session, addressing each of the partners on what that individual needs to either do differently, or see differently in order to benefit the relationship. Many couples are able to be successful in couples counseling when they have this mindset. Each partner is equally committed to the relationship, and willing to do some work to make both of them happy and secure. There is a sense of commitment safety in the relationship. When each partner knows that the other is equally committed to a future together as they are, there is a sense of safety, and they both can grow and thrive. 

The problem arises in couples therapy, when one partner expresses that they’re leaning out of the relationship. They are frustrated with the way things have been, and are heavily contemplating “wanting out.”  When there’s one spouse leaning out of the relationship like this, the other spouse tends to lean in. In other words, the more one spouse leans out, the more the other one wants to do whatever it takes to get them to come back to the relationship. What often ends up happening is a sort of “push/pull” dynamic where one partner pushes away and the other one tries to pull them back in. One of the strategies that a leaning-in spouse will use is couples therapy. In a desperate attempt to get their partner to talk about their problems, they reach out to a professional who will help them “fix” this problem. And a caring therapist, naturally, is all too happy to do this. As a marriage & family therapist, myself, I absolutely LOVE helping people in relationships make the necessary changes in order to be healthier and happier. So when a couple comes in looking for help, I don’t want to waste any time. I just want to dig into their story and see where things can be better. Thus, you might be able to see how the goals of the leaning-in spouse and the  couples therapist are basically the same. But then there’s the leaning-out spouse to think about, right? This is the person who explicitly, or secretly wants out, and is inherently less motivated. It’s not hard to tell when this is the case. One person, the leaning-in partner, is ready, willing and able to begin talking about all the things going wrong in the relationship; and what this or that marriage book said they should do; and this or that friend said they should do. Meanwhile, the leaning-out partner checks the clock, secretly wishing the session would hurry up and end, already! In this situation, the therapist just becomes one more person telling that leaning-out partner what they should do. The therapist, with good intentions, teams up with one partner, while positioning against the other, and ends up perpetuating the push/pull cycle that was already in place. And at best, this makes for what I call “half-hearted couples therapy.”

What is Discernment Counseling?

What can be done in this situation? If not traditional couples therapy, then what?  Instead of diving right into couples therapy, some decisions have to be made. Each partner must be given the opportunity to be honest about their motivations, and come to some agreement as to what direction to take. As a marriage & family therapist who has seen this push/pull dynamic many times, I have found a process known as Discernment Counseling to be a very effective solution. Allow me to explain… Discernment Counseling is simply a decision-making process that allows these “mixed-agenda couples” to see the push/pull nature of their relationship, so they can discern what the next step might be. In other words, it’s a process designed to help them work through the confusion of their thoughts and feelings in an effort to make a more informed decision as to whether or not couples therapy, for the sake of reconciliation, is a good fit. As a Discernment Counselor, I help each member of the relationship see their own contributions to their problems, and to be able to change the way they operate, so they can have the best chance possible for reconciliation. I work to give each partner (in individual and couples sessions) a judgment-free environment where they can be honest about their position in the relationship. And it allows both individuals to make informed decisions about what to do next. In this decision-making process the couple is presented with three viable options:

  1. To keep things just the way they are,
  2. To pursue divorce or separation, or
  3. To stop the divorce process for a period of 6 months to engage in couples therapy in a serious attempt at reconciliation.

Each individual is given the opportunity to fully process each option in an effort to discern which is the best for them. Then, I spend time with them as a couple to help them decide which would be worth pursuing.

 Where do we go from here? 

Just to be clear on something: Even though I make a distinction between Couples Counseling and Discernment Counseling, each are very valuable for any couple in need of relationship help! I’m a big fan of couples therapy, and I encourage any couple to seek out the help you need if your marriage or relationship is in trouble. This is especially true if you find yourself relating to the “leaning-in/leaning-out” predicament that I described earlier. If this is the case, the first thing you need to do is seek out a professional couples therapist. However, I would suggest adding one specific criteria to your search – Does the therapist have any special training or certification in Discernment Counseling? Therefore, if you and your partner are on the verge of dissolving your relationship through divorce or separation, I truly believe that Discernment Counseling can help you. I have worked with couples on the brink for years now; and I’m currently finishing up my certification as a Discernment Counselor through the Doherty Relationship Institute. I would be happy to work with you and your partner or just serve as a resource to point you in the right direction. My encouragement to you is this: I truly believe there is hope for any relationship if you are intentional about it! So BE INTENTIONAL TODAY!!

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