Discernment Counseling: Make It Or Break It
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Discernment Counseling: Make It Or Break It

There often comes a time in the unpredictable terrain of relationships when partners find themselves at a dead end, not knowing which way to go. Are they going to keep moving forward and try to fix what went wrong, or should they say goodbye and go their separate ways? Discernment counseling can be a helpful tool in navigating the complexities that come with the major decision of ending a relationship.



Table Of Contents

What Is Discernment Counseling?

How Do I Begin Discernment Counseling?

How Long Does Discernment Counseling Last?

Discernment Counseling Helps You Decide Between 3 Paths

What Happens In A Path 3?

How Do I Know If Path 2 Is Best For Me?

The Bottom Line




What Is Discernment Counseling?


Discernment Counseling is a specific type of treatment designed for couples who are on the verge of divorcing or going through a separation. This type of counseling is a relationship-focused intervention designed for couples who are unsure of their future relationship. It is specifically intended to address the difficulties that arise in “mixed-agenda” relationships, in which one partner actively works to save the marriage while the other is either reluctant to make a commitment or is thinking of divorcing (Doherty & Harris, 2017)


Discernment counseling is intended to assist couples in gaining understanding and perspective into their relationship dynamics and assisting them in making well-informed decisions about their future. This is in contrast to traditional couple’s therapy, which largely focuses on resolving issues and improving communication.


During a short period of sessions (usually one to five), the therapist helps the couple determine if divorce is the best path forward for their marriage. At the conclusion of the therapy process, a final decision is made on whether to pursue a six-month commitment to marriage counseling or move forward with a divorce. (Doherty et al., 2016).





How Do I Begin Discernment Counseling?


Reaching out for help is the first step in starting a discernment counseling journey. Here’s a starting point for you:


Locate a Competent Counselor: Look for a therapist or counselor with experience working with couples facing ambiguity in their relationship and who specializes in discernment counseling.


Arrange a First Meeting: Get in touch with the counselor to arrange a meeting during which you can talk about your expectations, worries and goals for discernment counseling.


Adhere to the Process: Acknowledge that both partners must be committed to and forthright in the discernment counseling process. Prepare yourself to participate completely in the process, even if it causes some discomfort at first.



Photo by Alex Green



How Long Does Discernment Counseling Last?


Discernment counseling is usually brief and intense, in contrast to traditional therapy, which can last for several months or even years. Each of the five to six sessions typically lasts for ninety minutes. The shorter time frame highlights how urgent the decisions are and how quickly they must be made (Hardy, n.d.).





Discernment Counseling Helps You Decide Between 3 Paths


To help them make decisions, clients in discernment therapy are given three options:


Path 1: The Status Quo

Known as the “status quo path,” Path 1 means keeping things as they are in the relationship with no major adjustments. This road is chosen by couples who want to keep things as they are, no matter what obstacles or worries they may have. Even if they may see that things need to get better, they are not yet prepared to make a significant change.


Path 2: The Divorce

On the other hand, Path 2, also referred to as the “divorce path,” entails admitting that separation or divorce may be a realistic option. Couples that follow this path acknowledge that pursuing their relationship may not be consistent with their principles or long-term objectives. With an eye toward a cordial breakup, they decide to start the process of separation. This is a difficult path to choose, but couples that go down it put their personal happiness first and strive for a more satisfying future, even if it means splitting up.


Path 3: The Reconciliation

The third approach, which is appropriately called the “reconciliation path,” gives couples a chance of preserving their union. In this case, partners consent to put off discussing a divorce and make a commitment to attend couples counseling for a predetermined amount of time. This method focuses on encouraging mutual growth, understanding and communication within the relationship. Together, with hard work and determination, a couple sets out on a path of discovery and transformation in an attempt to strengthen and fortify their union. (Doherty et al., 2016; Doherty & Harris, 2017)





What Happens In A Path 3?


If a couple decides to commit to six months of couple’s therapy, each partner will have one-on-one sessions during parts of the sessions. To find out if they can bring the relationship back to a healthier state, each partner pledges to work on both themselves and their relationship.


Understanding the couple’s past and their relationship’s history is one of the first steps in couples counseling. The therapist aims to understand how they came to be together, the nature of their partnership and the particular problems or conflicts that brought them to therapy.





How Do I Know If Path 2 Is Best For Me?


It’s never simple to decide to end a relationship. Nonetheless, a few signs can indicate that it’s the best choice:


Persistent Patterns: It may be an indication that your relationship is not going to last if you find yourself caught up in a never-ending loop of disagreement and animosity.

Irreconcilable Differences: Attempts at communication and compromise may not be successful if there are underlying differences that prevent long-term compatibility.


Personal Development: There are times when moving on from a relationship that no longer reflects your values and goals is necessary for your own personal development and fulfillment.





The Bottom Line


Conclusively, couples who are navigating the rough waters of relationship ambiguity find that discernment counseling is an indispensable guide. It provides a methodical framework for reflection and decision-making, enabling people to map out their lives with clarity, empathy and self-awareness. Discernment counseling can be a catalyst for growth and positive transformation, helping couples move toward greater authenticity and contentment in their lives—regardless of whether it results in reconciliation or separation.







Doherty, W. J., & Harris, S. M. (2017). Helping couples on the brink of divorce: Discernment counseling for troubled relationships (pp. ix, 229). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/0000029-000


Doherty, W. J., Harris, S. M., & Wilde, J. L. (2016). Discernment Counseling for “Mixed-Agenda” Couples. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 42(2), 246–255. https://doi.org/10.1111/jmft.12132


Hardy, N. (n.d.). Discernment Counseling: Treating Couples Unsure About Continuing Their Marriage. The Family Institute at Northwestern University.










Written By: Dr. Wasif MD

Edited by: Madison Vargas, BS

Medically Reviewed By: Dr. Kyle Zrenchik, PhD, LMFT

Published : 04/16/2024


Disclaimer: ALL IN Therapy Clinic aims to improve people’s lives. We do this through providing effective mental health counseling by passionate professionals. Inspired by this, we write content for your own education. Also, our content is researched, cited, reviewed, and edited by licensed mental health professionals. However, the information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Additionally, it should not be used in place of the advice of a qualified healthcare provider.

Written and reviewed by

Madison Vargas

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