Discernment Counseling

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC and Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated July 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Some marriages may go through time periods when conflict and disagreements can feel like too much to overcome. Spouses may get to the point where a decision needs to be made regarding whether to enter the divorce process or take an alternative approach to address concerns in the marriage. In these cases, discernment counseling can help couples make that decision. Many people find it helpful to seek the advice of a discernment counselor to get an outside perspective, receive guidance, and have someone neutral to talk to about their thoughts and feelings.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Online therapy can help you move forward in your relationship

What leads couples to consider divorce?

Conflicts that can lead a couple to contemplate divorce might arise for a variety of reasons, ranging from personality conflicts that seem irreconcilable to a failure to effectively communicate. The following are common reasons couples experience tension that may benefit from discernment counseling:

  • Financial difficulties

If spouses have different opinions or values regarding the use and management of money, this disconnect can cause strain on a marriage. Financial duress can lead to the loss of possessions or the inability to pay monthly expenses, which can create further conflict and increase the tension between spouses.

  • Children from previous relationships

Establishing parent-child roles can be hard with a spouse’s children from a previous relationship. Enforcing rules and setting boundaries may be complicated for the other partner, and this dynamic can produce difficult emotions for the children and the parents. 

  • Ineffective communication

Many times, spouses don’t know how to talk to and understand one another. Trouble communicating can cause major disruptions in a relationship, often leading partners to feel ignored or disregarded. Marital and family therapy, including discernment counseling, can help spouses enhance their connection and gain a deeper understanding of one another’s perspectives.

  • Lack of sexual intimacy

When a couple is not on the same page regarding intimacy, conflict can arise. Professional medical advice can sometimes resolve this type of concern if one partner has an underlying medical issue affecting intimacy. In other cases, family therapists can uncover and potentially resolve the source of a lack of intimacy.

  • Extramarital affairs

Trust can be broken when one partner is unfaithful, making rebuilding the relationship difficult. Research shows that infidelity is one of the most common contributing factors to divorce.  

What is discernment counseling?

Discernment counseling is a therapy modality for couples who are unsure of their desire to remain in a marriage, but who are also conflicted about divorce as an option.

It was originally developed by Bill Doherty, PhD, at the Doherty Relationship Institute in Minnesota. Discernment counseling is a widely accepted type of couples therapy among mental health experts.

The initial commitment for the couple is typically a two-hour session. During this session, each person decides separately if they would like one more session, up to a maximum of five. The goals for treatment are clarity and confidence in the direction of the marriage, based on a deeper understanding of what has happened in the past and each person's contributions to the underlying concerns.

Unlike traditional couples counseling, discernment counseling focuses on helping couples decide whether they are interested in continuing their relationship or if their marriage has reached its conclusion and it is time to talk about next steps. This type of therapy can be especially useful for “mixed agenda” couples, or those where one partner wants to divorce (known as the “leaning out partner”), and one does not. For these couples, discernment counseling can help reduce conflict between partners if they decide to separate, possibly easing the strain of their separation or divorce.

A couple’s discernment counseling intervention will typically lead to one of three outcomes: maintaining the status quo and remaining married, beginning the process of divorce or separation, or entering into a six-month commitment to engage in continued counseling help, with divorce off the table for that timeframe. Discernment counseling can facilitate communication between spouses, even when previous attempts at marital therapy were not successful.

Discernment counseling sessions aim to give a couple the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings regarding their hope for the future of their marriage. This part of the therapy is typically a brief process, often lasting for about five sessions, that focuses on getting a couple to the point of deciding whether they wish to pursue more in-depth help to preserve their marriage, or if they feel that it is in their best interest to divorce. 

Benefits of discernment counseling

Discernment counseling can create an environment of patience that allows many couples the opportunity to process their own feelings while setting a positive tone for their future relationship, married or not. 

Discernment counseling gives both spouses an opportunity to not only discuss their current feelings, but to explore their concerns and anticipated needs for the future. It offers couples a chance to reflect upon the positive and negative aspects of their marriage and to consider what changes, if any, can help prevent the end of their marriage.

If a couple chooses to pursue marriage counseling, they may find that communication is less of a struggle after discernment counseling. Mixed agenda couples can clarify which issues are most central to their conflicts. 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, or how to amicably start the separation process.

Couples who participate in discernment counseling and decide that ending the marriage is the best option may find that settling issues related to divorce is easier, which can have a positive impact on mental and emotional health and may help prevent financial hardships related to divorce.

Additionally, the discernment therapist may meet with each spouse separately for individual conversations. 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 can guide the session through their knowledge of what each person has been thinking and feeling, while providing the couple with an opportunity to work through their ideas about the direction of their relationship and whether ending the marriage is really the best option.

iStock/dragana991

Differences between marriage and this counseling

While both marriage counseling and discernment counseling focus on marriage and relationships, there are differences. Discernment counseling is relatively short-term compared to marriage counseling, which may last several months or longer. If you choose to participate in discernment counseling and decide that more comprehensive marriage counseling is what you and your spouse want, you can talk with your counselor about transitioning from one to the other. Most counselors who offer discernment counseling also have university training in more general areas of marriage and family therapy and may be able to offer their services to you as you pursue rebuilding your marriage. Alternatively, they may provide you with a referral to another counselor. 

What happens if you choose divorce?

iStock/FatCamera
Online therapy can help you move forward in your relationship

Divorce may not be the solution that was originally hoped for, but it may be the solution that makes the most sense for your situation. This outcome does not mean that your relationship is a failure or that future relationships will end in divorce or separation. It simply means that you and your spouse have decided divorce is the best course of action for you. 

Divorce can be an emotional journey. Learning to live life independently, rather than as part of a couple, can feel foreign and overwhelming. Because of this, it can be helpful to seek divorce counseling or individual therapy during and after a divorce. 

Online therapy for couples

An increasingly large body of evidence points to online therapy as a useful method of counseling for couples in distress. A wide-ranging analysis of an online course of therapy interventions for couples found that treatment could enhance relationship function and improve symptoms of individual mental health concerns. Researchers noted that online therapy can address common barriers to treatment present with in-person therapy, including geographical limitations, high costs, and time constraints. 

If you’re working through complicated emotions regarding relationship concerns and a possible divorce, consider utilizing an online therapy platform like BetterHelp. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with one of thousands of licensed mental health professionals based on your preferences and areas of concern. And because there are no costs associated with office space or similar forms of overhead, online therapy is affordable—BetterHelp subscriptions start at $65 to $100 per week (based on factors such as your location, referral source, preferences, therapist availability and any applicable discounts or promotions that might apply), and you can cancel anytime. 

Takeaway

When faced with the hard decision of working on or ending a marriage, many people don’t know where to turn. If you’re in a similar situation, discernment counseling can help you evaluate your circumstances and feelings so that you and your partner can decide what you want and need for the future of your relationship. For further help with the complicated emotions that can accompany relationship tension, consider reaching out to a mental health professional online. No matter what happens in your relationship, you deserve to move forward in life and thrive. 

Receive evidence-based counseling
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started