An area of interest of mine that I’d like to write a little about is a model of couples work called discernment counseling.  Discernment counseling is a short term counseling model that aims to help couples who might be on the brink of ending their relationship gain clarity and confidence about the decisions they make in regards to the future of their relationship.  Discernment counseling was based on a model of counseling initially introduced by Betty Carter at a conference in the 1980’s and then revamped and revived by Bill Doherty (2017) after working with a family law judge who was noticing that many couples were in the process of divorcing that seemed ambivalent or unsure that divorce was the right choice for them.  It seemed like some couples get on the divorce train and don’t feel like they can get off it once the train starts moving.

divorce photoDiscernment counseling aims to help couples on the brink of ending their relationship gain clarity and confidence in the next steps of their relationship.  I first became interested in helping couples make decisions about their relationships when I obtained an Advanced Certificate in Divorce Mediation from Hofstra University in 2007.  While we weren’t trained specifically in discernment counseling (it wasn’t really a “thing” back then), we were trained in the therapists role in a divorce mediation process.  Essentially, as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist on a divorce mediation team, my role would be to assist the couples in making the best decisions for their relationship, children, family, etc. as they moved through the divorce process.  While the attorneys on the team advocated for the law and in the best interest of the client(s), my presence would lend the attention to the relational factors that needed to be considered in order for the clients to feel empowered in their divorce process and in order for the clients to make the decisions they needed to make that were in the best interest of their families.

I often find couples proceed with divorce because “that’s what you do” when something goes wrong in the relationship (betrayal, cheating, domestic violence, sex addiction, etc.) and aren’t really aware or encouraged to look at all the options that might be out there for them: couples therapy, discernment therapy, planned separation, and/or just taking some time, taking a deep breath, and putting decision making on hold until everyone is in a better place.

Discernment Counseling and Sex Therapy

You might be wondering how a SEX THERAPIST gets involved with helping couples decide what the appropriate path is for their relationship when facing discernment concerns.  Well, often times, my clients come see me for sex therapy but the situation has gotten so dire, usually around sex AND other issues, that there is a leaning out partner (someone who is thinking they might not want the relationship/marriage any more).  While I begin most couple and relationship work with the intention of working on the couple/relationship, some times for a variety of circumstances, the relationship moves into a place where couples therapy doesn’t have a chance of being successful unless the mixed agenda couple (one partner leaning in/one partner leaning out) has a clear path to work on their relationship.  Sometimes a sexual issue is enough to push a couple into a place of discernment- “do I stay or do I go?”.  Often times it is a sexual issue that got the couple into the room, but other issues that contribute to the overall general concerns, are in need of a discernment process.

Do any of these situations sound like you or your situation?

  • If we don’t fix our sex life, I don’t think I can go on in this relationship/marriage.
  • I don’t want to get divorced or break up but I’m getting to a point in our relationship that I think that is what has to be done in order for me to have a sexually satisfying relationship.
  • My partner has said that divorce is inevitable if we don’t get more on the same page sexually.
  • My partner had an affair and is thinking about divorce.  I want to work on the marriage, my partner doesn’t think it can be saved.  I’d do anything to save this marriage.
  • We’ve both been sexually unhappy for a while.  We’ve tried different things swinging, non-monogamy, etc. but I just want to be sexually satisfied in my primary relationship.  I’m thinking about ending things so I can start over with someone else.
  • Our sex life has never been okay and I think that divorce is the only answer for me getting a happy sex life.

Provided there is a leaning in (read more for definitions) partner in each of these scenarios, discernment counseling could be a good option for couples in this situation.

Discernment is a valuable process for many couples and relationships, because working with a relationship where one partner is leaning out and one partner is leaning in a couples therapy doesn’t always prove to be successful. Unless we have a commitment to work on the marriage and work in therapy, results from couples therapy aren’t often successful.

phone call photoHere I’ll go over the basics of discernment counseling.  I often go over these points in the first phone call to each partner(s) in efforts to orient each partner to what it is that we are going to be doing in the discernment process.

Goal of Discernment Counseling:

The goal of discernment is to help couples arrive at greater clarity and confidence in their decision making about the future of their marriage based on a deeper understanding of the problems in the marriage and each person’s contribution to them.

  • Greater clarity and confidence in their decision making about divorcing.
  • Better equipped to understand their prospects for reconciliation.

Discernment Counseling focuses on getting the clients solidly on one of three paths:

Path 1: Status Quo Path- Marriage goes on as it is.

Path 2: Separation or Divorce Path- Proceed with Separation/Divorce

Path 3: Possible Reconciliation Path- Both partners agree to a 6-month all-out effort to make the marriage healthy without divorce on the table, to see if they can get the relationship to commit.   A PROVISIONAL commitment.

Discernment Counseling

  • Is not therapy, we don’t problem solve but if problems come up, we can note them as problems that need to be addressed if Path 3 (Intensive Therapy) is chosen.
  • The goal is to help you decided whether to try to solve your problems or choose a different path.
  • No change should be expected in the relationship during the discernment process as this isn’t therapy.
  • We are going to ASSESS the situation, not TREAT the situation. You won’t get assignments as couples, but may get separate assignments based on where you stand.
  • The point of discernment counseling is to prevent half-hearted couples therapy attempts and failures in couples work.

Who is Discernment Counseling Good For:

When one is leaning in, and one is leaning out (mixed agenda couples)

Leaning In Partner- partner who is leaning towards maintaining the relationship and reconciliation and are motivated to fix the relationship

Leaning Out Partner– partner who is leaning towards ending the relationship or wants out, but has not made any final decision

Mixed Agenda Couple– when one partner is leaning out and the other leaning in

When is Discernment Counseling Not Recommended:

  • When both partners are leaning out.
  • When divorce is 100% inevitable and everyone is out the door.
  • When you just want a safe place to announce to your partner that you want a divorce
  • When someone(s) not sure if I want to stay in this marriage, but they are SURE they want to work on it and give it a try and they aren’t a mixed agenda couple. They want to roll up their sleeves and try couples therapy.

What it looks like:

Length of treatment: 1-5 sessions, no need to commit to all sessions, we will only commit to one session at at time

Session Time: Generally each session is 100 minutes, with one-to-one conversations, and conjoined conversations


Does this sound like something that would be helpful to you or your clients?  If so, please feel free to reach out using the form below!