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Distanced Couple

Discernment Counseling

When a marriage is falling apart, many couples are facing the hardest choice of their lives. The questions that haunt them are: 

  • How do I decide what path to take?

  • Is this a phase in marriage that will pass? Is this just a personal crisis?

  • Do I even want to work on it?

  • Even if I make a decision to work on it, how can I be confidant that it is the right one for me, or for us?

  • What have I missed? Do I have a blind spot?

  • Is my partner capable of change?

  • Is it fair for me to ask him/her to change if that's not who he/she really is?

  • What happens to our children? Will they be better off with us staying together in an unhappy marriage?

  • Do I really understand the downside of divorce?

Whether to stay married or get divorced is a multi-layered decision process. One that will confound even the most people discerning people.


It can cause you to second guess yourself, ruminate over the decision and even drive you to depression.


Sometimes you'll be tempted to make a decision just to end the uncertainty.​

Many people find themselves in a pit of indecision. 



If both partners are willing to commit to change and fight for the marriage, then marriage counseling can help. It takes hard work over many months to learn the new skills to reshape a marriage. At times, one partner may grow weak but then the other partner pulls through. If one partner can not commit to try from the start, the process is handicapped from the beginning. 



There is the option of one person going to therapy alone. Showing up differently in a marriage may influence the marriage positively, but that may not be enough because the problem is usually rooted in the dynamic that has built up between the couple over many years. It usually takes both partners working together to break the harmful patterns that keep the couple stuck.




You could also just decide to give up and leave ... if you were confident that is really what you want. The truth is, you think you know what you want but you're not sure that it's the right path or you wonder if you are throwing in the towel too soon.

What is Discernment Counseling?


Fortunately, an approach is available to help couples get unstuck: discernment counseling.

The GOAL of DISCERNMENT COUNSELING is not to solve your marital problems but to see if they are solvable.


Specifically designed to help couples decide whether to try to work on their marriage or get divorced, discernment counseling focuses on helping couples:


  • gain the clarity they need to make that decision, and

  • the confidence to know that they are making it well.


Unlike traditional marriage counseling, which usually focuses on saving the marriage, discernment counseling focuses solely on helping couples decide what they want to do with their relationship.

Discernment counseling:

  • is a structured assessment process, not treatment,

  • is a brief, time-limited, process, typically, it is completed in five sessions or less,

  • slows down the impulse to act, while encouraging a longer view of your marriage and hopefully, a broader range of choices,

  • gets a couple unstuck and moving forward,

  • designed to provide a couple with the information you need to evaluate your relationship and take action - either to pursue a divorce or to commit to a 6-month course of intensive marital therapy,

  • identifies the core areas that each spouse needs to work on, thereby giving you the option of focusing future therapy clearly on what each person needs to change,

  • answers the question: "Are you willing to work on changing your contributions to the marriage?"

If both partners answer "yes" to this question, then they move forward and start working on their marriage intensely. After six months, they revisit the question again about whether to divorce, but by then they have more knowledge and clarity about the true viability of their marriage.



Even if one spouse decides that the marriage is over after 5 sessions of discernment counseling, the couple will have benefited by having reviewed the history of their marriage and explored the behaviors that got them to divorce. This may help them start a new relationship with less guilt about the past relationship.

As most divorce professionals have learned, divorce is a process, not an event. Usually, one spouse is farther along in the decision to divorce than the other, particularly at the start of therapy.

By creating a holding environment and allowing the slower spouse to "catch up," discernment counseling can help the couple set a positive tone in how they treat each other and reduce the high intensity conflict that is typical in divorce situations.


This is especially important if the couple has children and usually results in the couple using a mediator to handle the divorce (instead of two opposing attorneys).​


Couples who commit to marriage therapy after going through discernment counseling will have identified the core areas that each spouse needs to work on, thereby focusing the therapy on what each person needs to change. The couple will agree on a specific roadmap for therapy, how long it will take, and how much it will cost. The post-discernment therapy is usually for 6 months but can be adjusted if both partners agree.


In marriage therapy, the couple will learn with a new toolbox of relational skills and practice them each week with the goal of reinventing the marriage. We will check in each week to see what improvements are taking hold.


If the couple stays married, these new skills will serve as a foundation for the long-term marriage that they always wanted. Even if they ultimately decide to divorce, they move forward with new relational skills to help keep them from making the same mistakes in their next relationship.



Discernment Counseling is not suited for these situations:

  • When one spouse has already made a final decision to divorce,

  • When one spouse is coercing the other to participate, or

  • When there is danger of domestic violence.


Discernment counseling will include difficult conversations and require courage to face the wounds in your relationship.


It will not magically dissolve your indecision. 


It can't force a spouse who is determined to divorce to change his/her mind.

It won't instantly create a perfectly harmonious relationship between spouses who have let their relationship deteriorate.

But, for those couples who are unhappy and are stuck going in circles trying to decide what to do with their marriage, it can:


  • provide a safe place to finally have an honest conversation about the marriage,

  • tremendously help provide clarity about where they are at,

  • provide much needed relief of pent-up feelings, and

  • allow a couple to confidently move forward with whatever decision they make.

Discernment Counseling Flowchart
Discernment Counseling - 2nd flowchart
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