When a couple is having serious difficulties and one of the spouses is considering a divorce, it’s often hard to know what to do next. Discernment counseling is a relatively new possibility you might want to consider. Options more commonly taken are:
- Trying to work things out on your own
- Couples counseling with a therapist or church counselor
- Trial separation
It’s very challenging when one spouse is “leaning out” of the marriage while the other is still “leaning in.” Then all of these options may be unsatisfactory or at least hard to agree upon.
Viewing divorce as the last resort, trying to save saving the marriage via therapist-led couples counseling is a fairly common choice.
However, couples counseling is a different proposition when both spouses want to work on the problems in the marriage than it is when one spouse is leaning out. A couples therapist normally meets with the spouses together. This becomes problematic when one spouse is leaning out since the spouses have different agendas. And often the spouse who is leaning out doesn’t even want to try couples counseling.
To address shortcomings of couples counseling for these mixed agenda couples and to face head on the ambivalence of the “leaning out” spouse, a relatively new kind of counseling called “discernment counseling” has been developed.
The objective is to help each spouse develop clarity, understanding and confidence about two main things:
1) their individual contributions to the problems in the marriage and
2) whether the best direction forward is to:
- stay together and continue to try to improve the relationship on their own;
- make use of couples counseling over a set period of time to try to work out the main issues in the marriage; or
- separate and divorce.
Discernment counseling is not open ended like couples counseling. It has from 1-5 sessions. It could be viewed as a crisis intervention. After each session the couple decides whether they want to continue with the discernment counseling.
In discernment counseling, the therapist spends the bulk of the time talking individually with each spouse. At the end of each spouse’s session, they invite in the other spouse briefly to hear what important realizations have occurred.
A therapist who wants to offer discernment counseling first obtains the necessary training.
Divorce should be the last resort for a marriage, especially when there are children. If a marriage in serious trouble, each spouse has contributed to the problems. It’s much easier to focus on and blame the other than it is to look closely at one’s own shortcomings. These same shortcomings are often carried into future relationships where they contribute to future problems. Even if the outcome of discernment counseling is to separate or divorce, it can provide an opportunity for important self-reflection and growth.
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