Making The Decision: How Discernment Counseling Can Help You

By Sarah Fader

Updated December 12, 2018

Reviewer Kristina Ellen


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.

Benefits Of Discernment Counseling

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

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 best for both parties. Having an objective professional's aid in the decision helps to look at the situation logically, and offer comfort and confidence in that the correct decision has been made.

Many couples agonize over the thought of divorce and therefore stay in an unhappy marriage simply to avoid the turmoil. However, staying in an unhappy marriage that causes misery is no better. Consequently, they often wonder whether they should have committed to the divorce when they had a chance.

Sitting and wondering will do no good - making a decision is crucial. It is also the first step in the rest of your journey, regardless of which path you collectively decide to make. Almost invariably, once you go through discernment counseling, you do not either get divorced or go back to your old life. You either get divorced or commit to actively working on your marriage and making significant changes. It is simply the first step in a larger path.

While emotional wellbeing and making the best possible life decision are the most important factors in the decision to stay together or separate, discernment counseling may also save the couple money. If the decision is made to go straight to divorce, instead of seeking marital therapy and then getting divorced, thousands of dollars are likely to be saved. However, this is hardly the incentive, and discernment counselors will always suggest the option that they assess to be correct for the couple, which sometimes is marital counseling.

What's The Difference Between Marriage Counseling And Discernment Counseling?


Marriage counseling is focused on making the marriage work, no matter the cost, while discernment counseling is deciding if the marriage can or should work. Discernment counseling often occurs before or after marriage counseling, or sometimes even both.

For marriage counseling to be effective, both partners must be on the same page in agreeing to put in the effort; however, many couples simply are not there. That is why discernment counseling is an important step to understanding what each partner is willing to offer and making the most realistic decision.

Marriage counseling often lasts months or years, while discernment counseling is short-term, around five sessions or sometimes even as little as one, depending on where the couple is in their decision-making process.

What Happens During Discernment Counseling?

Discernment counseling assesses the desires and needs of each partner in a structured manner by an objective individual. So, while your own emotions are overflowing during thoughts of potentially getting divorced, you might not be able to think straight; however, having someone listen to you and filter out what seem to be your strongest yearnings can offer what you truly are looking for in the long term.

Sometimes, there are certain questions the couple may be overlooking that a discernment counselor would ask. This offers them all the information they need about the potential of either divorce or marriage counseling, so they aren't left with the "ugh, I wish I had known back then" feeling down the road.

Sometimes, people will be tempted to undergo marriage counseling simply to say they "tried" before getting a divorce; however, discernment counseling is important because it makes clear the commitments you will need to make in marital counseling for it to take any effect. For example, if one partner is unwilling to change their contributions to the marriage, marriage counseling is likely futile and emotionally harmful to one or both partners - meaning that proceeding with divorce could be a better option.

In situations where one spouse desires a divorce while the other wants to work on the marriage, discernment counseling can help them settle with as little fighting and emotional hardship as possible.

During the counseling, the couple will be met with both together and separately. How the relationship came to this point and whether past counseling has helped, harmed, or been ineffective will be explored to support the final decision of the couple.

Who Is Eligible For Discernment Counseling?

Anyone having troubles in their marriage is a candidate for discernment counseling - even if they believe they have already decided on how to proceed. A common misconception is that only those who are unsure of their intentions can benefit, but it can be useful to far more. Even in cases where one, or sometimes even both, of the spouses, think they want a divorce, discussing the way the relationship got to that point may ensure that this desire is permanent, and won't be regretted in the future. Or, occasionally, illuminate that this is only a temporary desire.

It can also be a time to assess the requirements of the relationship after the marriage has ended - should the couple try to remain a friendship, or go their separate ways? If there is a friendship, how often should they try to speak to each other? This can be especially important to examine if the couple has children.

Discernment counseling is not a way to force one partner or another into something they do not want to do, but to gain a full understanding of each spouse's desires and find a resolution. Many assume it is a way to convince one partner to give marriage counseling a try, but it is specifically meant to benefit those who doubt that marital therapy will have any effect, and offer them more clarity - perhaps enforcing their preexisting assumption.


Within discernment counseling, there are often partners who "lean out" or "lean in." Those who lean out are usually seeking the counseling to reinforce their preexisting desire to leave the marriage, and potentially divert the blame away from solely themselves. Those who lean in often feel desperate to hold on to the marriage and struggle to understand what precipitated this change. However, discernment counseling can benefit both those who lean in and out by offering clarity, understanding, and confidence that the right decision is being made given the circumstances, especially when one partner is leaning out while the other is leaning in. This is the case for approximately 30% of couples who seek to counsel.

What Happens If You Choose Marriage Counseling?

If, as a couple, you do choose to commit to marriage counseling during discernment counseling, many therapists will suggest you try it for approximately six months, then check back in to see that it is still the best course of action.

However, couples who have done discernment counseling before marriage counseling will have a bit of an advantage in the sense that they will begin already in the knowledge of their goals, and what each spouse must change for the therapy to be successful.

It is important to be aware that marriage counseling is not a "cure-all." If either partner refuses to contribute, simply attending marriage counseling will not make a difference.

Can You Choose To Do Nothing?

Yes; for some, the decision that comes out of discernment counseling is simply to leave the marriage as it is and see if the trouble is just a "phase" that will pass. Or sometimes, people are simply not ready to decide, so they decide to put it off, potentially to come back to discernment counseling in the future.

What Happens If You Choose Divorce?

If the decision is divorce, discernment counseling can act as a tool to ease into the large change. Many professionals state "divorce is a process, not an event," meaning that having a support system will be useful. Discernment counselors can also alert their clients to what to expect in this process, which can be especially useful when one spouse is "further out the door" than the other. With this ease into the divorce in an environment of understanding, the couple will be more likely to maintain a positive relationship after the divorce, which is especially useful when children are involved.


Getting Help

If you are having troubles in your marriage and think you may be interested in discernment counseling, or even just want to learn more about it, you can talk to a well-versed counselor online at

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