Sometimes couples therapy is ineffective because both people are not motivated to work on the relationship. Although a couple may show up together in the counseling office, their motivation levels and goals for the session may be very different. Anger, hurt, resentment, and hopelessness can interfere with the desire to improve or repair. Disconnecting emotionally is a way of dealing with unresolved pain. Or one person may have given up hope that change is possible and have resigned themselves to living with the distance and disconnection. They may feel wary or reluctant to reinvest in the relationship and risk getting hurt again. Discernment work helps couples to have a deeper understanding of how the relationship deteriorated and gain clarity about their motivation to see if it can be repaired.
Discernment Counseling is a short term (usually between one and five sessions) process designed for couples where one or both are considering a separation or divorce. The purpose is not to work on improving the relationship but to develop clarity and confidence about next steps. Three potential paths are considered: 1) maintaining the relationship as is, 2) pursuing a separation/divorce, or 3) committing to a course of couples counseling to see if the relationship can be improved. The discernment process ends when the couple has identified their next step.
Path One — Maintaining the status quo: At first glance, this may not seem a desirable option — after all, if the relationship was satisfactory the couple wouldn’t be seeking help. But sometimes it an understandable choice for the circumstances. Perhaps there are children involved that influence the decision to avoid a separation, or finances may make it impossible to separate and maintain two households. Or they are just not ready to make such a life-altering decision at this time. Having worked through the discernment process, both people have a better understanding of how their relationship evolved to this point, and have decided that they do not have the desire to do further work on it at this time. Choosing to stay together, but with a deeper understanding of their relationship, can help the couple to have more compassion for themselves and each other.
Path Two — Moving toward separation or divorce: Divorce is among the biggest decisions that people make in their lives, and most people have considerable ambivalence and anxiety about making that choice, even if they have already started the divorce process. Taking another opportunity to re-evaluate the relationship can help people to feel more confident that this is the best choice for them and lessen the chances of future regrets. In addition, understanding one’s own role can be immensely helpful in making personal changes that will increase the likelihood of a more satisfying future relationship.
Path Three — A six-month commitment to couples therapy: Both people agree to give their best effort to try to repair and improve the relationship. The couples counseling begins only when they have identified an agenda for change, and both people are clear about what they are doing to relate differently to each other. During this time the divorce option is off the table so that the problems in the relationship can be adequately addressed. When the six-month mark is reached, the couple evaluates the relationship. Have they made changes that have given them hope and the desire to stay together? Or, despite their best efforts, do they conclude that their relationship has run its course? If this is the case, couples usually have a deeper understanding of themselves and each other and are able to part on better terms.
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