Making The Decision: How Discernment Counseling Can Help You

By Darby Faubion

Updated March 24, 2020

Reviewer Kristina Ellen

Difficulties in relationships can at times have a way of making us feel overwhelmed. When couples are experiencing serious troubles in their marriage, it can sometimes be difficult to know what the next step should be. Is divorce the best option, or should marriage counseling at least be attempted? Well, for those who are struggling to make the decision, there is something called "discernment counseling" to help with one of the most complicated choices you'll ever have to make.

Many couples can be intimidated by the concept of divorce, even when it may be the best option for them. Others have jumped to divorce when there was a potential that marriage counseling could have helped them. So, it is often wise to seek advice from a professional for an outside perspective and help.

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During discernment counseling, a specialist will guide both partners to a consensus on whether they would benefit from working on their marriage via therapy, or if the union is irreparable and divorce would be the best option for both parties. Having an objective professional's aid in the decision helps to look at the situation logically, and it can offer the comfort and confidence that the correct decision has been made.

Benefits of Discernment Counseling

Ending a relationship is usually a process, not a single event. Most of the time, one spouse or partner may already have their mind made up about where the relationship should go, while the other is still processing their feelings. 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.

Even if one person in the relationship has decided that the relationship should end, a couple can still benefit from discernment counseling. This type of counseling gives the couple a place where they can look at the history of their relationship and explore what their concerns and needs for the future are. This type of reflection may help prevent the loss of future relationships.

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.

Couples who participate in discernment counseling and later choose to pursue marriage counseling may find that the discernment counseling allowed them to identify core relationship conflicts. This will be helpful as each partner can learn to focus on what they can do to help improve the relationship.

Additionally, some couples who participate in discernment counseling find it easier to settle issues related to divorce if they choose not to preserve their marriage. Settling issues peacefully can have a positive impact on physical, emotional, and financial well-being.


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Anyone who is weighing the decision of whether to end or continue a relationship can benefit from discernment counseling. In fact, even in cases where both spouses have decided that ending their marriage is the best decision, discernment counseling may be helpful.

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 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.

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 change.

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.

Marriage counseling is usually focused on learning effective communication skills and implementing a plan of action to help preserve a marriage. Discernment counseling, on the other hand, is used to help couples decide if they want to pursue strengthening their relationship or if they prefer to end it. 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. Because it requires commitment, 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.

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

Some people choose to take their time before making a decision to either rebuild their relationship or decide on 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.


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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). Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

"Riddhi has really helped me to find real solutions to my problems and concerns. For the first time I am able to understand HOW to accomplish my goals and not just that goals exist. I still have a long way to go but she is helping me: -cope with divorce -overcome anger issues I have -repair my self esteem -recognize my triggers."

"Dr. Harrell was there for me and helped me get to the issues of my problems and triggers. I am a much better person and feel like a new person. I am pursuing a dream that I never thought would be possible to achieve. Me and my wife are again on speaking terms with a small glimmer of hope. I honestly wouldn't be where I am now without her support."

FAQs

What is discernment counseling?

It's a type of couples counseling. It focuses on couples who are considering divorce or breaking up but are unsure if they should. 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. Discernment counseling was developed for couples who are unsure, and you may be able to make a decision with it.

Is discernment counseling helpful?

Just like any form of couples therapy, couples discernment counseling can be helpful. Deciding on the fate of a relationship is hard work, and a discernment counselor will look at the relationship objectively. This can help the couple decide whether to stay or go. The counselor themselves cannot make the decision, but with enough information, the couple can decide whether or not they should stay or leave. The goal of the relationship may not be to stay but to have a good reason to leave and leave amicably.

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 each person individually. The individual may speak about their feelings and goals for the sessions. The couple eventually has a session together. The discernment counseling is considered successful if the couple comes to a decision, but there may be more sessions that the couple can request if they are still undecided.

The counselor will ask the people in the relationship, quite a few questions, including:

  • Why do you want to end the relationship? 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?

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 all the time. Many people go to marriage counseling for different reasons, and you would be surprised how many people end up in 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 not only fix a marriage but 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.

With that said, it usually is better if both people go, but it can be done by yourself. Besides that, 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. Here are just a few reasons why a couple may go to counseling.

  • To learn how to communicate better. Many relationships fall apart due to miscommunications, and couples counseling can help repair any problems with communication that you or your partner may have.
  • Couples may want counseling as a tune-up for their relationship. For some couples, it's like taking your car to the shop to check for any flaws.
  • Some couples who are thinking about ending their relationship may attend as a last effort.
  • A couple may go to counseling because the relationship feels dead. Maybe the couple doesn't fight that much, but the spark just doesn't seem to be there, and this can be just as bad as a relationship where the emotions are flying high.

How do you rebuild trust?

Losing someone's trust in a relationship will damage it quite a bit. Whether you were unfaithful, lied about finances, or did something else to make your partner no longer trust you, losing that trust can make the relationship feel like there's no hope left.

Rebuilding trust takes effort on both sides of the relationship. The person who broke the trust has to admit wrongdoing and show that they are willing to change. Meanwhile, the person whose trust was betrayed needs to forgive and learn to give their partner another chance if they feel like that's the wrong thing to do.

Plus, it does take time. It takes a long time to build trust, and it can take seconds to blow up that trust into little pieces. Picking up their pieces and starting again takes work. Counseling may help with this.

How can I bring the spark back?

If the spark has fallen out of your relationship, learning how to bring it back is a challenge in it of itself. For some, the spark is a vague concept, but you may know what it is. It's the passion and chemistry you have for each other. It's not only sex but intense love.

You may need the help of a therapist to get the spark back. With that said, here are some other ways you can do so.

  • Try new hobbies together.
  • Try something new in bed.
  • Go to a new location.
  • Kiss more.
  • Remember what created those sparks in the first place.

It all depends on the couple and seeking a therapist may be your first bet.

Conclusion

When faced with the hard decision of pursuing or ending a relationship, 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, and a professional can help you decide if your current partner is the one. Take the first step today.


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