Discernment Counseling: When Ending the Relationship is on the Table
Home/  Blog/ Discernment Counseling: When Ending the Relationship is on the Table

Discernment Counseling: When Ending the Relationship is on the Table



For couples considering divorce or break-up? Discernment Counseling helps provide answers.


Gain confidence and clarity about the future of your relationship through this short-term decision-making process. 


By better understanding Discernment Counseling, you will be more equipped to begin the process and gain the most out of it.







No one marries believing that someday they will be considering divorce. Unfortunately, roughly 780,000 marriages end every year for one reason or another according to the CDC Statistics on Marriage. The reasons marriages divorce marriages today seem to end because of reasons such as that “we grew apart from each other” and “having no shared interests” or “financial problems and disagreements”.


Of course, there are also those marriages that end because acute and devastating problems such as abuse, addictions, or affairs.


Whatever the reason that you may be considering a marital separation or a divorce, you are certainly aware of the immensity of this decision, and the life-long impact your decision carries on yourself, your spouse, and potentially your children/family.


When couples find themselves in this situation, often they consider marriage counseling. Naturally, they see a problem in their marriage, and they seek experts to help them address those problems. However, this may not as sensical of a choice as you may believe. Instead, you may be better served by Discernment Counseling.


Let me explain.


Dr. William Doherty and Dr. Steve Harris, marriage and family therapists and researchers at the University of Minnesota Department of Family Social Science explain “Discernment counseling is appropriate for couples who are married or in a long-term committed relationship where breakup is a real possibility” and one or both partners are not entirely committed to staying or going.


They know what they are talking about, as they are the ones whom created divorce discernment counseling via their Couples on the Brink program.


Dr. Kyle Zrenchik, couples and sex therapist at ALL IN was one of the first people trained in Discernment Counseling and has helped nearly 200 couples in this type of work. “Slowing things down for a minute, and really assessing the viability of the relationship is often the best intervention”.


In other words, sometimes the best decision to make is to talk.



What is Discernment Counseling?


Simply put, Discernment Counseling is a short-term decision making process, lasting anywhere between 1-5 sessions. It has the goal of you both having greater clarity and confidence regarding the future of your marriage, based on a deeper understanding of what brought you to the point where divorce is an option.


Discernment counseling focuses on the problems of “mixed-agenda couples” where one person is the  “leaning-in partner”, or the one trying to preserve the marriage, and one person is “leaning out partner”, or the one considering ending the marriage. Thus, since one (or sometimes both) people are considering ending the relationship, they are not quite yet ready for Couples Therapy.


Discernment Counseling helps the couple to determine whether or not they should even try to save the relationship.


Typically conducted by a trained and licensed couples therapist, the couple meets and talks about what happened to their marriage, will discuss their options and the motivations they have, and will come to a decision about the future of their marriage.


This provides each partner with an opportunity to identify and address what is not working in the marriage.


For partners considering leaving the marriage, this provides you an opportunity to be heard, be understood, and talk about what is making you consider leaving (and making you consider staying).


For partners wanting to fix the relationship, this provides you an opportunity to deeply understand what has happened from your spouse’s point of view, and what your spouse needs in order to make this marriage work. Your spouse may ask of you things that you are not willing to do.


Regardless of what is discussed in Discernment Counseling session, it is far better to get the problems out in the open, understood, and discussed. In a study done about reasons for divorce, researchers found that nearly 50% of all people that get divorced later regret their decision.


For many, this regret is because the couple did not fully understand why they got divorced in the first place; they may have had some idea of what the real problems were, but they needed to look a bit more deeply to really discover what the underlying problems were.


This may help them better understand if the problems are best solved by working with divorce professionals, pausing things for a while, or committing to an all-out-effort of couples therapy.




How does Discernment Counseling differ from Couples Counseling?


Couples Counseling is based on the premise that the couple is ready and willing to work on the relationship, identify and address underlying problems, and adopt changes to see desired improvements.


Discernment Counseling, on the other hand, is a short-term process to help the couple determine whether or not they even want to work to improve the marriage. Simply put, it is for couples where one or both partners are not sure they even want to stay together.


In many respects, it looks similar to traditional couple therapy; you work with a therapist, you are protected by the same privacy rules, you meet as a couple (rather than individually). The key difference is that you are deciding what to do with the marriage, rather than committing to improving the marriage.

 Discernment Counseling




Is Discernment Counseling Effective?


When conducted by a trained counselor, Discernment Counseling is highly effective in helping couples decide the future of their marriage.


Unlike traditional couples counseling, discernment counseling does not measure success merely by counting the number of “saved” marriages. Instead, discernment counseling is considered successful when the couple decides confidently about the future of their marriage.

When considering divorce, a couple is faced with three potential paths.

Path 1: Status Quo

Path 2: Divorce/Breaking up

Path 3: 6-months of Couples Counseling (or any other way to create the desired change)


Path 1: Status Quo.


This is a path best when couples are not yet in a place to determine whether or not they want to divorce or continue the marriage.


Perhaps they need more time to think about it. Perhaps they want to go through a separation process.


Maybe one or both partners needs to complete individual therapy, addictions treatment, or another obligation first before the couple can accurately and confidently decide the future of their relationship.


10% of all couples that being Discernment Counseling choose this path. For many however, they feel like they have already been in a place of “status quo” and are tired of it and rule this path out.



Path 2: Divorce/Break-up.


This path is best when one or both people are unwilling to work on the marriage or stay together. In order to prevent against a hasty or mis-informed decision of Path 2, it is best for participants to clearly know and identify what are the underlying problems in the marriage.


Also, through that discussion, one or both of them have come to the conclusion that the marriage is unfixable and, thus, unlikley to improve.


Path 2 can be the correct choice for a variety of reasons. For example; if the spouse that is considering divorce is unwilling to work to improve the marriage and is unwilling to stay married.


If one or both partners are unwilling or unable to make the changes necessary to meet the needs of the other person, that may also lead the couple to choose Path 2.


Since the goal is having confidence in your decision, it is important for participants of Discernment Counseling to openly and honestly talk about the flaws in the relationship, and their true willingness to work to change the problems.


60% of all couples that participate in Discernment Counseling choose Path 2.


Please note: every marriage has problems, and most marriages have one or more big problems. If you are considering Path 2, just be sure whether or not the problems are “fatal flaws” before choosing Path 2.



Path 3: All-out-effort.


40% of all couples that participate in Discernment Counseling choose Path 3. When choosing Path 3, couples are typically committing to the following:

  • An all-out-effort, over a period of 6+ months, of Couples Counseling to see whether or not the relationship can improve.
  • A commitment to discontinue any discussion about divorce with your spouse during the all-out-effort.
  • To only discuss your couples therapy with people who will be supportive.
  • To work on yourself individually in addition to your work as a couple, participating in individual therapy if necessary.
  • To treat each other with respect.
  • To be as flexible as possible with your time and schedule in order to make change happen.


It is important to note that Path 3 is not a decision to stay together forever. It is a decision to commit to a 6-month (or more) process to see whether or not the relationship can be reconciled.


During Path 3, you will likely be equipped to answer the question “Is this relationship something I want to continue indefinitely, or something I need to exit?”.




Does my therapist tell me if we should get divorced or stay married?


No. A Discernment Counselor’s job is not to tell whether or not to stay together as that is not their call; they don’t have to live with the consequences, and they do not have a crystal ball to know which route is better for you.


Instead, a Discernment Counselor will help you decide what is best for you and your family. The decision must be yours.


While some therapists will tell clients whether or not they should stay married, that is largely considered unethical and coercive, though it is usually not done maliciously.




Is Discernment Counseling covered under insurance?


To answer that definitively, it is best to consult your insurance company or to talk with your Discernment Counselor. Typically, discernment counseling alone is not covered by your insurance.


However, if you therapist conducts Discernment Counseling as a component of your mental health treatment plan, then it almost always will be covered by your insurance.


Determining what services are and are not covered can be complicated.




How to begin Discernment Counseling?



If you would like to talk with a Discernment Counselor at ALL IN about beginning this process, look at these specialists in Divorce Contemplation.


Consider also reading related topics including this one on Marital Separations, and this one about the Effectiveness of Couples Counseling.


Disclaimer: ALL IN Therapy Clinic aims to improve people’s lives through providing effective mental health counseling by passionate professionals. We publish quality material for your own education. Our publications are researched, cited, reviewed, and edited by licensed mental health professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of a qualified healthcare provider.




Written and reviewed by

Dr Kyle Zrenchik, PhD, ACS, LMFT

Dr. Kyle Zrenchik is the Co-Founder of ALL IN, the Creator of the Couples Erotic Flow model for treating sexual issues in individuals and couples, Designer of the Deep Dive programs at ALL IN, and is one of the most well-respected couples counselors in the Twin Cities.

Need Help ?