Making The Decision: How Discernment Counseling Can Help You

Updated October 7, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Discernment counseling is a good option to consider when a couple has trouble in their marriage and is thinking about ending the relationship. 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 or if couples therapy could work. You may have considered marriage counseling or couples 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 people find it helpful to seek the advice of a marriage counselor for discernment counseling to help get an outside perspective and to have someone neutral to talk through thoughts and feelings to help them stay married. For some people, individual therapy or a family therapist is the best option.

Discernment Counseling Can Help You Weigh All Your Options With More Clarity

What Leads Couples to Think About 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 to a failure to effectively communicate. 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 due to mixed agendas. 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 create potential conflict and increase the tension between spouses. Traditional marriage counseling sessions often deal with financial conflicts between partners.

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 a former partner. Establishing parent-child roles and enforcing rules may be difficult. Family therapists see many people who are experiencing these types of relationship issues.

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. Going to marital and family therapy can often help the people involved gain a deeper understanding of each other’s perspectives.

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. Professional medical advice can sometimes resolve this type of problem if one partner has an underlying medical issue affecting intimacy. In many other cases, marriage counseling can uncover and resolve the problem.

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 wonder if another affair will happen or begin to question even the most innocent behaviors of the other spouse. This questioning can then proceed to undermine trust in the other partner, making infidelity more likely.

What Is This Kind Of Therapy?

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 counseling 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 at the Doherty Relationship Institute, and licensed therapists can take an online course to gain expertize in this type of counseling. Discernment counseling is now a widely accepted type of couples counseling offered by licensed mental health professionals.

The initial commitment for the couple is simply the first 2-hour session. During this session, each person decides separately if they would like one more session, up to a maximum of five. The goals are clarity and confidence in a direction for the marriage, based on a deeper understanding of what has happened to the marriage and each person's contributions to the problems.*

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. This type of therapy is especially useful for mixed agenda couples with one leaning out partner and one who does not want to divorce. The outcome options include three paths: maintain the status quo and remaining married, divorcing or separating, or making a six month commitment to engage in marriage therapy with divorce off the table for that timeframe.  Discernment counseling is proven to be an effective way to open communication for married couples, even when previous attempts at marriage and family 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. Unlike marriage or family therapy, discernment counseling is not intended to solve marital problems. Discernment counseling is a brief process often lasting for about five sessions that focuses on getting a couple to the point of deciding if they wish to pursue more in-depth help to preserve their marriage or if they feel the marriage is irreparable. On the other hand, traditional marriage counseling and family therapy are focused on resolving conflicts in a marriage relationship.

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. This type of counseling help takes time to consider all options, and processing 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 discernment 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 the 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 discernment 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 conflict between partners if they decide to separate, possibly easing the strain of their separation or divorce.

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.  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 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. One spouse might benefit more than the other person by clarifying their mental health issues.

Discernment counselors may meet with each spouse separately for individual conversations and then together with the other person. 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 and whether ending the marriage is really the best option.

This help is considered successful when a couple can discuss their feelings and see the choices for the future of their relationship with more ease.

What Discernment Counseling is Not

Discernment counseling is not intended to force one person in the couple to submit to the other’s desires for the relationship or accept a divorce process. Rather, discernment counseling is a tool that couples can use to gain a deeper understanding of the other spouse’s feelings while trying to reach an amicable resolution. Discernment counseling can help clarify the most central issues causing the marriage to fail. It is not a type of therapy to replace what marriage and family therapists do.

Discernment counseling should not be used to coerce the other partner into marriage counseling in hopes of preserving a relationship for mixed agenda couples. As difficult as it may be for one of the spouses to accept, if the other person 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?

Typically, marriage counseling is provided by licensed professional counselors or marriage and family therapists. While one partner 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, often referred to as couples therapy, is a type of psychotherapy (talk therapy). The purpose of marriage counseling is to help married couples stay married while recognizing issues and resolving 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.

Marriage 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 in a divorce or separation. 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.

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 therapy and traditional couple’s therapy 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, they 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 before seeking counseling. 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.

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.

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 also decide that pursuing the relationship long-term is not what you want.

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 or cheer on the leaning out partner.

What Happens If You Choose Divorce?

Discernment Counseling Can Help You Weigh All Your Options With More Clarity

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 a divorce. Pursuing ways to your emotional health and well-being is important and can have a positive impact on your future. No matter how many counseling sessions a couple participates in, there are still some who choose divorce. Divorce 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.

What Happens If You Choose To Talk With a Counselor?

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 therapy, 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, and out online site works for you whenever you need it.


When faced with the hard decision of pursuing or ending a marriage, many people don’t know where to turn. The benefits of discernment counseling are helping 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, and discernment counseling is a great option. No matter what you’re experiencing, a fulfilling relationship is possible. Take the first step today and let the team of professionals at BetterHelp assist you.

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