Discernment Counseling vs. Couples Therapy: Gaining Clarity and Confidence when Divorce is on the Table

What is discernment counseling?

Many couples who seek out marriage counseling have thought about divorce and some are “on the brink” of divorce. Discernment counseling is a brief form of counseling meant for couples who are considering divorce. Sometimes people have talked to a divorce attorney at this point to see what it would be like to move forward with separating while others have just been thinking about it. Not all people are 100% certain that they want a divorce when they file, and before filing, this therapy provides the opportunity to see if that is the best option.

This approach was created by Dr. Bill Doherty and Dr. Steve Harris at the University of Minnesota to provide a method for mental health professionals to work with couples in this intense emotional decision-making process. In this process, the provider works with you to identify what you would like to do in regards to your marriage or relationship moving forward.

What type of couples go to discernment counseling?

Many couples are dealing with issues relating to communication, trust, fidelity, emotional distance, and questioning their love for one another. Others have been preoccupied with their careers, kids, or busy lives and have not nurtured their relationship. Often people will feel like they are roommates with their spouse and want things to change. People feel stuck and are unable to find anything that makes a change.

When do we need discernment counseling over couples therapy?

Discernment counseling is when a couple is not ready for the couples therapy process. In couples therapy, the partners are working together towards the same goals. In discernment counseling, typically, there is one partner who is “leaning in” and would like to try and repair the relationship and one who is “leaning out” and interested in separating. Discernment counseling can help you decide if both partners want to commit to repairing the relationship and start couples therapy.

What is the discernment counseling process?

This counseling is typically 1-5 sessions long. In this process, the provider works with you and your partner together and separately at times to identify what the both of you would like to do in regards to your marriage or relationship moving forward. In the discernment counseling process, your provider works with each partner to identify their concerns and assist with what is underneath the decision-making. The end goal is for the partners to have greater clarity and confidence in how they would like to move forward.

How can it be helpful?

Discernment counseling offers structure in decision-making when divorce is on the table. It is a space free of outside influences and allows you to think for yourself and your future. In discernment counseling, both partners are offered the time and space to understand their own and their partner’s perspectives. If a couple does choose to proceed with couples therapy, most likely they will already have discovered some of their core conflicts and will be able to use their discernment sessions as a foundation upon which to build. If a couple chooses to separate, the goal is to have more clarity and confidence in their decision.

How do we start?

Get in touch with a mental health professional who practices discernment counseling. They will set up a session with both of you and start the process.

  • Erin Guyette, MS, LAMFT