There’s only one way to botch discernment counseling.
Ask Bill Doherty, cofounder of the Doherty Relationship Institute, and he’ll tell you: “We always say the only failure is if nobody’s learned anything.”
Doherty is a trailblazer in the field of discernment counseling, a relatively new type of treatment for couples on the brink of divorce.
It’s geared toward what therapists call “mixed-agenda” couples, in which one partner wants to stay married and work on the relationship and the other partner is ambivalent about whether there’s anything left to save. Experts estimate that just under a third of couples who seek therapy fall into this category.
Couples meet with the discernment counselor between one and five times in order to decide which of three paths to pursue: stay married as they are; begin the separation or divorce process; or take divorce off the table while they commit to six months of couples therapy. Unlike traditional couples therapy, the discernment counselor meets separately with each partner, with the exception of the very first session.
And as for how to succeed in discernment counseling? According to Doherty, it’s about gaining more clarity and confidence around the relationship’s direction, and about understanding how the relationship got to this point. That is to say: There’s no fixing anything, just looking at it as objectively as possible.
Discernment counseling can be an early component of traditional couples therapy
Of couples who go through discernment counseling, most ultimately part ways.
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Marital and Family therapy looked at 100 mixed-agenda couples who’d gone through discernment counseling. Results showed that 47% opted for reconciliation, 41% moved to separate or divorce, and the rest stayed married as they were. When the researchers followed up two years later, just under half the couples who had tried to reconcile had gotten divorced, and most of the others had reconciled.
This study is one of the only pieces of research on discernment counseling — as a standalone treatment for couples on the brink of divorce, it hasn’t been around that long.
But Kathryn Smerling, A New York City-based psychotherapist who helps couples going through divorce, told me that it’s something she typically incorporates into traditional couples therapy. Before diving into therapy, she said, she sees each partner separately — and if one seems ambivalent, she’ll offer a version of discernment counseling herself, rather than sending them to another specialist.
Couples who go through discernment counseling learn much about themselves, in addition to the marriage
Rachel Zamore, a marriage and family therapist and the founder of InnerWell Integrative Counseling and Couples Therapy in Vermont, told me her clients tend to be business leaders and “high-profile” people who want something “discreet and efficient.” For one thing, she said, they don’t want to run into a neighbor in the waiting room; for another, their busy schedules may not permit them to attend weekly couples therapy for an open-ended time period.
In addition to discernment counseling in her office, Zamore also guides couples on private retreats, often in a location of their choosing.
Zamore characterized the discernment-counseling process as both practical and logical, and I could see what she meant: There’s a limited time frame and a clear structure geared toward making a decision.
Yet discernment counseling also struck me as somewhat existentially freeing: There’s no value judgment placed on staying together or going your separate ways, as long as you’re making an informed decision.
After I spoke with Doherty, I picked up an article he’d published in 2015, in the magazine Psychotherapy Networker, about the journey that led him to discernment counseling. I read it with a highlighter and there were some pages that wound up almost entirely neon — passages that struck me as a reimagining of what modern marriage can and maybe should be.
One such passage: “Working at their marriage, even if it fails in the end, helps the spouses grow up, and maybe discover something invaluable about their relationship and about themselves that they might otherwise have missed.”
It would seem then, as though discernment counseling is about more than just evaluating the viability of the marriage. It’s also about using the marriage as a lens through which to view yourself — your strengths and your shortcomings that you may bring to other areas of your life, now and in the future.
This might sound hippy-dippy — no one ascends to the altar thinking they’re about to embark on an introspective journey and a relationship that may or may not last. But for couples seriously considering splitting up, this idea has important practical implications as well.
In the Psychotherapy Networker article, Doherty recalls telling one woman who was considering divorcing her husband: “You have a lot of work ahead, whether you stay married or you divorce.”
Successful discernment counseling is partly about learning not to make the same mistakes again
The way Zamore sees it, “working” on the marriage is immensely valuable, even if the relationship ultimately dissolves.
She told me, “Sometimes people say, ‘I can really see this in a different light now. I can see how I contributed to this. I can see how I’ve been saying it’s because my spouse has been so critical of me; but I can see how my pulling away and shutting down has actually been so critical to this.'”
Even if they decide they don’t have the emotional energy to restore this relationship to health, Zamore said, the person might think: “I can see how [my behavior] impacts my relationships with other people, like my kids. And this is something that I would probably carry with me into future relationships.”
Through her work with couples in both discernment counseling and traditional couples therapy, Zamore has learned that people who accept the inevitability of change tend to do the best in relationships.
“Being able to embrace circumstances and experiences of our lives as an opportunity for growth and development as opposed to something that’s either making us unhappy or making us happy,” she said, is a key to relationship satisfaction. “We can have more agency than maybe we realize.”