Helping couples on the verge of divorcing
Discernment counseling is a model of couples therapy developed by William Doherty, Ph.D. This approach was designed as a way of working with mixed agenda couples – that is, where one spouse is wanting to end the marriage (the “leaning-out” spouse) and the other wishes to work on the marriage in order to save it (the “leaning-in” spouse). Dr. Doherty found that many couples who are presenting for therapy often have differing agendas, and that therapists often end up supporting the leaning-in spouse and not giving sufficient attention to the leaning out spouse’s reasons for wanting to leave. Alternately, the therapist might be convinced by the leaning-out partner’s pessimism to decide that therapy is pointless if both partners aren’t agreeing to work on it. In either case, the couple remains frustrated and polarized, with one side or the other feeling that their perspective is not given sufficient weight. What distinguishes discernment counseling from other couples therapies is that the process is not geared toward working on the marriage per se, but rather towards helping the couple attain a greater level of clarity and confidence about their eventual decision regarding the marriage. It is made clear to the couple at the outset that discernment counseling is a short-term process of one to five sessions, with the goal of deciding to pursue one of three paths:
Path 1 – Stay in the marriage as it is;Path 2 – Pursue separation/divorce;Path 3 – Agreeing to take divorce off the table for six months and committing to working on the marriage for that period, to see if the relationship can be moved in a positive direction. The purpose of discernment counseling, then, is not to work on the relationship but rather to decide whether to work on it. Sessions are conducted differently than in most models of couples therapy, in that the bulk of the work is in talking separately with each spouse. The rationale for this approach is that the separate conversations not only allow each partner to speak freely and without interruption but also allow the therapist to better understand and empathize with each partner’s experience.The therapist talks with each person to:
- Identify underlying patterns in the relationship that have contributed to distress and conflict
- Help each person see their own contribution to the problems in the relationship – specifically, to help each person see what aspects of their personality and behavior have been problematic in the relationship
- Encourage each partner to try to understand their partner’s perspective and feelings
- When applicable, guide each partner to prepare a brief statement sharing some part of what they have learned about themselves in the individual conversations
With discernment counseling, even when dissolution of the marriage is the result, there is a better chance that the divorce process will be less vindictive and conflictual, and that each partner will have gained a better understanding of themselves, their partner, and the relationship. To find a therapist who has been trained in Discernment Counseling,go to: https://discernmentcounseling.com/ Doherty, W.J. and Harris, S.M. (2017). Helping couples on the brink of divorce: Discernment counseling for troubled relationships. American Psychological Association.