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  • Writer's pictureJackie Schwartz, LMFT

How Discernment Counseling Can Help Couples Gain More Clarity

Couples therapy can feel daunting for many couples. It’s understandable given how much one’s emotional resources go into the process. Many couples don’t know whether or not couples therapy is right for them and sometimes this question prevents them from getting the help they desperately need.

Couples therapy is an investment that takes hard work over a period of time. Sometimes it can take longer than expected, but it’s usually at least a good 3-6 months to see real, lasting changes. Couples therapy is a more long-term intensive process that requires motivation, willingness, and a true desire to make positive changes to the relationship.

Let’s face it, not every partner that shows up to couples therapy is ready nor willing to put in the time and effort it takes to make a productive change in their relationship. There are many couples who do participate in couples therapy who have a half-hearted experience due to uncertainty about what they want in their relationship and how much investment they’re willing to put into the process.

Often enough, one partner is very motivated, while the other partner is more uncertain. These couples are called mixed agendas and the couple therapy process may not be as helpful since they are not on the same page with their goals. Some couples don’t qualify for a traditional couple’s therapy, but rather, a process that is called discernment counseling, which can be a useful precursor to couples therapy.

So what is discernment counseling?

Discernment counseling is a brief protocol (1-5 sessions) for treating mixed agenda couples where one partner is leaning out of the relationship and is reluctant to work on it in therapy, and the other partner wants to save the relationship. Studies suggest that as many as 30% of couples presenting for couples therapy fall into the mixed agenda category. These couples present a significant challenge for couples therapists because most models of couples therapy assume a basic willingness to save the relationship.

Discernment counseling is intended for couples who have made a permanent commitment to one another whether or not they are legally married. In discernment counseling, the goal is greater clarity and confidence in their decision-making about the future of their relationship, based on a deeper understanding of what’s happened due to each person’s contributions to the problems.

Some ways to know if a couple qualifies for discernment counseling are if any of the following is said (or felt) by a partner (or both).

  • I don’t know if I love my partner anymore; the love is gone.

  • We’re on the brink of divorce.”

  • Couples therapy is a last resort.

  • I don’t know if my partner can change.”

A clear distinction between discernment counseling and couples therapy is that we are not working on making changes to the relationship, but instead are addressing individual contributions to the problems, understanding why things are the way they are, and deciding whether or not the problems are resolvable and if there is a willingness to make a change. Discernment counseling is like emergency room care vs. long-term care from a primary physician.

In Discernment Counseling, there is a focus on decision-making about three paths:

  • Path One - is to maintain the status quo, and keep things as they are by not committing to couples therapy.

  • Path Two - is choosing to separate or divorce.

  • Path Three - is where we choose an all-out effort for couple’s therapy for the duration of six months. The ideal outcome is for the couple to choose path 3, an all-out effort to make positive changes to the relationship.

Usually, there is a “leaning in” partner and a “leaning out” partner to which there are different approaches. With the “leaning out” partner, the goal is to help them make a decision based on a more complex understanding of their marriage and their role in its challenges, assisting with developing a more connected perspective in the relational dynamic.

With the “leaning in” partner, the goal is to help them bring their best self to the crisis, demonstrating more understanding of the other partner’s experiences while working on the self. In a study of 100 couples, 46% choose path three, 42% choose path two, and 12% choose path one. According to Bill Doherty, “about 40% of the total couples were still married after 2 years of discernment counseling”.

If you and your partner are struggling to determine if couples therapy is right for you, it may be helpful to consider discernment counseling. Your therapist can provide the necessary information to assist you with making the right decision for moving forward. If you have questions about whether discernment therapy or couples therapy is the best next step, contact us today for your complimentary consultation at 954-391-5305.

Jackie Schwartz, LMFT provides both discernment counseling and couples counseling in our beautiful offices located in Coral Springs and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She also provides counseling online throughout the state of Florida via our secure telehealth platform. For more information about her approach to counseling, visit her about me page by clicking here.


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