Making The Decision: How Discernment Counseling Can Help You

By: Darby Faubion

Updated June 25, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Kristina Ellen

Difficulties in relationships can have a way of making us feel overwhelmed. When couples are experiencing serious troubles in their marriage, it can feel difficult to know what the next step should be. If you are having trouble in your marriage, you may find yourself asking if divorce is your only option.  You may have considered marriage counseling but aren’t sure where to begin. 

The decision of whether to try and restore a fractured marriage or end the relationship in divorce should be given as much thought as entering into the marriage deserves.  Many couples find it helpful to seek the advice of a marriage counselor to help get an outside perspective and to have someone neutral to discuss thoughts and feelings with.

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What Leads Couples to Consider Divorce?

It’s probably safe to say that no one gets married with the hope of being divorced one day.  Unfortunately, people change and when hardships occur, many couples find themselves faced with deciding if divorce is the next step for them.  The reasons couples consider divorce may be as simple as personality conflicts that seem irreconcilable to cases of abuse.  Some of the most common reasons people divorce include the following.

Financial difficulties:  If spouses have different opinions or values regarding the use and management of money, it can cause a great deal of strain on a marriage.  When spending is out of control, it can lead to the loss of automobiles or homes or the inability to pay monthly expenses which can make increase the tension between spouses.

Children from previous relationships:  Even though many people may not freely admit it, there is usually a significant difference in how individuals treat their own children vs how they react to and relate with children that belong to someone else.  Establishing parent-child roles and enforcing rules may be difficult.

Ineffective communication:  Many times, spouses simply don’t know how to communicate with one another unless they are arguing.  If one spouse prefers to talk calmly and rationally and the other does not know how to control their emotions to support effective communication, it can cause major disruptions in the relationship.

Lack of sexual intimacy:  Men and women often view sexual intimacy differently.  Religion and cultural norms may also play a factor in the differences of opinion that spouses have regarding intimacy.  When one spouse feels deprived sexually, it can lead to anger and increased frustration.

Extramarital affairs:  When trust is broken by the act of an extramarital affair, it can be difficult to rebuild a healthy relationship.  Even the most loving and understanding person can find himself wondering if another affair will happen or can begin to question even the most innocent behaviors of the other spouse.

What is Discernment Counseling?

One option that couples may find useful to help navigate their way through tough marital decisions is discernment counseling.  Discernment counseling is an approach to therapy for couples who are unsure of their desire to remain in a marriage, but who are conflicted about divorce as an option.  It was originally developed by Bill Doherty, PhD. 

Unlike traditional couples counseling, discernment counseling focuses on helping couples decide if they want to continue their relationship or if ending the marriage is the best option.  Discernment counseling has been shown to be an effective way to open communication for married couples even when previous attempts to address their issues were not successful. 

The focus of discernment counseling is to give a couple the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings regarding their hope for the future of their marriage.  Unlike marriage or family therapy, discernment therapy is not intended to solve marital problems.  It is a brief process that focuses on getting a couple to the point of deciding if they wish to pursue more in-depth counseling to preserve their marriage or if they feel the marriage is irreparable. 

Benefits of Discernment Counseling

Discernment counseling creates an environment of patience that allows both spouses the opportunity to process their own feelings while setting a positive tone for their future relationship, married or not. Taking the time to consider all options and process thoughts and feelings is especially important when children are involved.

Because discernment counseling gives the couple an opportunity to not only discuss their current feelings, but to explore their concerns and anticipated needs for the future, they may benefit from this type of counseling even if one or both spouses decides that the relationship should end.  Discernment counseling offers couples a chance to reflect upon the things that they think are positive and negative aspects of their marriage and to consider what changes, if any, can help prevent the loss of their current marriage or any future relationship. 

Finding an experienced counselor to help identify the negative issues within the relationship and to explore possible solutions allows couples to discuss their feelings with someone who is neutral. This type of intervention is believed to be especially helpful for couples with mixed agendas. For these couples, discernment counseling can help reduce potential conflict between partners if they decide to separate, possibly easing the strain of their separation.

Discernment counseling gives couples an opportunity to identify the main conflicts within their relationship.  If they choose to pursue marriage counseling, they may find that communication is less of a struggle after discernment counseling.  Additionally, identifying conflicts prior to engaging in marriage counseling can be helpful as each partner can learn to focus on what they can do to help improve the relationship.

Couples who participate in discernment counseling and decide that divorce is the best option may find that settling issues related to divorce are easier than those who do not experience discernment counseling.  This can be a good thing as settling issues peacefully can have a positive impact on physical and emotional health and may help prevent financial hardships related to divorce later. 


Many times, the "what if" questions are the ones that we think about, but don't ask. In discernment counseling, couples are given an opportunity to ask questions about themselves and each other.

Discernment counselors may meet with each spouse separately and then together. Meeting with spouses separately allows each person to express feelings of uncertainty or frustration with someone who is objective. When the spouses are brought together, the discernment counselor will be able to guide the session by knowing what each person has been thinking and feeling while allowing the couple an opportunity to work through their ideas about the fate of their relationship.

Discernment counseling is considered successful when a couple can discuss their feelings and options for the future of their relationship with more ease. 

What Discernment Counseling is not

Discernment counseling is not a way to force one partner to submit to the other's desires for the relationship. Rather, it is a tool that couples can use to gain an understanding of the other spouse's feelings while trying to reach an amicable resolution.

Discernment counseling should not be used to coerce the other partner into marriage counseling in hopes of preserving a relationship. As difficult as it may be for one spouse to accept, if the other spouse truly has decided that the relationship should end, attempting to sway that spouse's opinion is not healthy. In this situation, it may be a good idea for each spouse to pursue individual counseling so that they can process their feelings and learn ways to cope with the anticipated change in the relationship.

What Is Marriage Counseling?

Marriage counseling, often referred to as couples therapy, is a type of psychotherapy (talk therapy).  The purpose of marriage counseling is to help married couples recognize issues and resolve conflicts within their marriage to help improve their relationship.  Marriage counseling can be a beneficial tool in helping couples learn ways to communicate with one another, strengthen the bonds of marriage, or decide if ending the marriage is the best interest for them.

Typically, marriage counseling is provided by licensed professional counselors or marriage and family therapists.  While one spouse may see a marriage counselor independently, it is generally more effective if both spouses participate in sessions and work together to achieve their desired goal.

Marriage Counseling vs. Discernment Counseling

Depending on an individual's needs, there are several types of counseling choices available. While both marriage counseling and discernment counseling focus on marriage and relationships, there are differences.

Discernment counseling is used to help couples decide if they want to pursue strengthening their relationship or if they prefer to end it. Marriage counseling, on the other hand, is usually focused on learning effective communication skills and implementing a plan of action to help preserve a marriage.  If a couple participates in discernment counseling and concludes that they want to work on preserving their marriage, they can then shift into marriage counseling to address their concerns.

Marriage counseling requires openness and dedication to resolving issues.  Many people now choose discernment counseling before marriage counseling since it allows them the chance to decide if they are willing to put in the effort of rebuilding their relationship with the help of marriage counseling or therapy.

Discernment counseling is relatively short-term compared to marriage counseling, which may last several months or longer.

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If you choose to participate in discernment counseling and decide that trying to save your relationship is what you and your spouse want, talk with your counselor about transitioning from discernment counseling to marriage counseling. Most counselors who offer discernment counseling specialize in Marriage & Family Counseling and may be able to offer their services to you as you pursue rebuilding your marriage.  If the discernment counselor you engage only specializes in discernment counseling, he/she should be able to provide you with the contact information for a marriage or family therapist. 

This, too, Shall Pass... or Will it?

Some people choose to take their time before deciding whether to attempt to rebuild their relationship or to divorce. This is okay.

Sometimes taking a little time to think things through and to see if trouble passes are all a couple needs. If you and your spouse feel like this is something you want to do, make sure you set some guidelines for this part of the process.

  1. Decide what behavior is and is not acceptable. When a relationship is strained, or when a couple is "taking a time-out," there are times when one or both spouses may make decisions that make the situation worse. If you and your spouse want to give your relationship some time before making a final decision, discuss what behavior is or is not something you can live with. For example, you may not mind if your wife goes out to dinner with her girlfriends. However, dinner and a movie with another man may not be something that you're comfortable with. The idea is to allow time to find yourself again without causing increased strain or hardship on the relationship.
  2. Make sure you spend time with one another. No one can get through an argument or difficult relationship without communication. Plan an evening or a day where you unplug from social media and television and talk to one another. You may find that you enjoy your spouse's company more than you remembered. Granted, you might decide that pursuing the relationship long-term is not what you want.
  3. Do not allow others to speak negatively about your relationship. Having friends or loved ones that you can talk to during difficult times is important. However, it's just as important for those people to understand that they are there to be supportive of you and whatever decision you make. If you have family or friends who talk negatively about your spouse or your marriage, set boundaries for what is acceptable conversation and what is not. Just like discernment counseling is not meant to be used as a way to coerce your spouse, your support system should not use their influence to sway your decision about your relationship.

What Happens If You Choose Divorce?

No matter how many counseling sessions a couple participates in, there are still some who choose divorce. It may not be the solution that was originally hoped for, but it may be the only solution in the end. This does not make you a failure. It also does not mean that your future relationships will end in divorce or separation.

Divorce is a process. It is an emotional journey and, unfortunately, it can leave emotional scars. Learning to live life independently, rather than as part of a couple, can feel overwhelming. Because of this, it is a good idea to seek individual counseling during and after the divorce. Pursuing ways to protect your emotional health and well-being is important and can have a positive impact on your future.


What Happens If You Choose Counseling?

If you think counseling is something you are interested in, you may choose in-person or online counseling. In-person counseling gives individuals an opportunity to meet with someone face-to-face, usually in an office setting, to find support and learn coping mechanisms related to the relationship or divorce. For those who would like counseling, but who find themselves questioning whether they have enough time or money, online counseling is a great alternative.

At BetterHelp, our goal is to make professional counseling accessible, affordable and convenient. There's no need to sit in traffic or take time out of your day to drive to an appointment. Our team of experienced and accredited psychologists, marriage and family therapists, clinical social workers, and board licensed professional counselors are available to you from the comfort and privacy of your own home (or wherever you have an internet connection).


When faced with the hard decision of pursuing or ending a marriage, many people don't know where to turn. Discernment counseling could help you evaluate your circumstances and feelings so you can decide what you want for the future of your relationship. Knowing when to seek help and where to get help is important. No matter what you're experiencing, a fulfilling relationship is possible.  Take the first step today and let the team of professionals at BetterHelp, like those below, help you. 

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FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

What is discernment counseling?

Discernment counseling is a type of counseling that offers couples the opportunity to discuss their thoughts and feelings about their relationship and to decide if they are willing to continue a marriage.   It focuses on couples who are considering divorce or breaking up but are unsure if this is the best option. It can also be used when one person wants to end the relationship, but the other believes that the relationship should continue. This is known as discernment counseling for mixed agenda couples. Some relationships are complex, and a couple may not know if ending it is the right thing to do. Couples discernment counseling can help couples on the fence make a decision.

Is discernment counseling helpful?

Just like any form of couple's therapy, couple's discernment counseling can be helpful. Deciding the fate of a relationship is emotionally hard work.  With the help of a discernment counselor, couples can learn to look at their relationship objectively and decide if pursuing measures to preserve the marriage is something they want to do.   For some, the final decision may not be to stay but to decide to end the marriage and learn how to do so with as little difficulty as possible.  

One of the reasons why discernment counseling was developed is because it helps certain types of situations. For example, discernment counseling avoids starting half-hearted conversations in traditional couples therapy. It cuts right to the chase.

What happens in discernment counseling?

Every session of divorce discernment counseling can be different, but they tend to have similar themes. For example, the sessions may begin with the therapist meeting with each person individually. The individual may speak about their feelings about the marriage and goals for the sessions. After meeting with each spouse individually, the discernment counselor will meet with them together.  The discernment counseling is considered successful when the couple comes to a decision about the future of the marriage.  Some may choose to engage marriage counseling to try and save the marriage while others decide to end the marriage. 

In discernment counseling sessions, the counselor will ask the people in the relationship, quite a few questions, including:

  • Do you want to end the relationship? If you do, what was the reason, or what were the reasons?
  • Have you done anything to fix the relationship? If so, what have you tried?
  • Do you have children? If so, do they factor into your decisions any?
  • Tell me about the good times in the relationship.

Similar questions may be asked as well. This helps the counselor understand the whole picture or at least two different sides of the picture.

What percent of couples go to marriage counseling?

According to this post on Bradley University, 44 percent of couples go to counseling, and that's before they're married. Marriage counselors can be instrumental for married couples, but they help a young or new couple prepare for marriage and the challenges they come with it.

Can I go to marriage counseling by myself?

Yes, you can go to marriage counseling by yourself. One person may not want to go to counseling, may be too busy, or perhaps only one person needs counseling to fix the marriage. There are many reasons why just one person may go to counseling.  If you want to see a marriage counselor, you may feel ashamed. To many people, marriage counseling is a sign that a relationship is falling apart. However, this is not true. Seeking counseling is a sign of strength, because it shows that you want to put in effort to moving forward. Although it is possible to see a marriage counselor alone, if the objective is to save the marriage, it is generally best to include both spouses at some point.  Individual marriage counseling allows you to speak freely without worrying about your spouse since your counselor can't tell your spouse what you said.

Why do couples need counseling?

Couples may need counseling for many reasons. Some couples find that marriage counseling helps them communicate better.  This is especially important because many relationships fail because of a lack of effective communication skills.  If marriage difficulties occur, some couples prefer to try to salvage the relationship and build a stronger one.  Marriage counseling can be helpful as it offers a way for spouses to talk freely with an objective and neutral person to offer support and guidance for working through issues.  Here are just a few reasons why a couple may go to counseling.

How do you rebuild trust?

Losing trust in someone or having someone lose trust in you can feel devastating.  The effects that lost trust can have on a marriage can be detrimental.  However, it is possible to rebuild trust.  It’s important to note that rebuilding trust takes a dedicated effort from both spouses.  The spouse who committed the act that caused trust to be lost must be willing to admit what happened and ask forgiveness.  For many spouses who feel betrayed, simply being asked by the one who did wrong for forgiveness opens a door of emotions that lead to healing.  Giving forgiveness may not feel easy, especially if the hurt was deep.  However, it is a necessary part of moving forward and learning to trust again.  Couples who are dealing with trust issues need to realize that rebuilding trust takes time and work.  Seeking the help of marriage counselor can be helpful to couples who aren’t sure where to begin but who know they do want to rebuild their marriage.  

How can I bring the spark back to my marriage?

When couples face difficulties, it is not uncommon for one or both spouses to say, “My marriage has no spark.”  “Spark” is the term often referred to in a romantic or intimate relationship or marriage and it involves the passion and chemistry between couples.  This encompasses both the sexual part of a relationship as well as the emotional and physical intimacy of a relationship.  The key to any successful relationship is communication.  If you feel like your marriage lacks the excitement or spontaneity that you once enjoyed, talk to your spouse.  If communication is strained or if you need help, seek the advice of a marriage counselor to help guide you through the process of learning to effectively communicate.   Lastly, if you want the spark back in your marriage, you have to be proactive.  Even what seems like to be simple things can have a great impact on your relationship.  Hold hands and kiss more.  Go on a date.  Take a walk in the park.  Anything you can do that directs the focus of the relationship on you and your spouse and nothing else can help reignite the spark of your relationship. 

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