Imagine this: You’ve been married almost twenty years and you have two teenagers. You and your spouse are disconnected emotionally, and have been for some time, yet it’s easier to continue the usual routine of focusing on work and launching your children than to make any motion towards change. One day your spouse tells you that they want a divorce. It’s not exactly out of the blue, since you’ve been feeling the disconnect as well, but there has been no real dialogue about it. What next?

Or this: You’ve been married five years and have two young children. The knowledge that there is something off with your relationship creeps up on you. Your needs aren’t being met by your spouse, and the two of you always seem to be fighting. You didn’t sign up for this. You feel stuck between a rock and a hard place – you don’t want to stay in this type of relationship, but you can’t envision being on your own, especially with the demands of your children at this age. As you talk with your friends and family about the situation, you get different advice, and you can’t decide how to move forward. What next?

Many couples who decide to divorce make the decision in crisis. They can’t see a way forward and their disconnect is usually huge. Often this disconnection has snuck up on them slowly, through perhaps years, even decades, of dysfunctional patterns of communication; through not having needs met and not knowing how to effectively communicate these needs; through a build-up of resentment and frustration; through not knowing or never having learned what to do to make things better. This is an incredibly stressful and lonely place to be. Many put up with it for a long time and then suddenly can’t any more. At that point, they just want out.

Others seek marriage counseling, but when couples are on the brink of divorce, marriage counseling can be tricky. If you’re not communicating well with your partner, if there is a big disconnect between you, you most likely think that most of the issues are your partner’s fault. This sets up a difficult atmosphere of pointing fingers and not a lot of commitment to do your own work to make the relationship stronger.

There is another way forward other than marriage counseling or divorce as the first step. Discernment Counseling, a protocol developed by William Doherty, Ph.D., is a fairly new development in the couples counseling world which gives space and intention to this decision of “What next?” The Discernment Counseling therapist supports the couple to move forward deliberately instead of reactively, with confidence instead of uncertainty. A deeper understanding of what’s gone wrong in the marriage emerges, including one’s own contributions to the issue. I often tell my couples that my goal for them is that they don’t look back five, ten, even twenty years from now and realize they’ve made the wrong decision. And the best way to not have regrets is to explore all of one’s options thoroughly.

Three options are explored in the process of Discernment Counseling: to stay with the status quo, to move towards divorce, or to commit to six months of marriage therapy. This process of decision-making is short-term, taking only one to five sessions.  

If the couple decides after discerning that they want to work on their marriage, the decision is taken seriously. Not only does the couple sign an agreement stating their commitment to the process, but they also bring to marriage therapy their own personal agenda for change, explored during the individual times which comprise the bulk of the Discernment Counseling sessions. Committing to marriage therapy does not mean that you are moving from being on the brink of divorce to staying married forever. It means that you are committing to six months of marriage therapy with divorce off the table, with you and your partner giving it your best effort. It means that you are committing to six months of seeing if you can make a go of your marriage with your spouse on the same page as you. It means you want to give your marriage a last best shot for keeping your family intact.

The decision of moving forward with divorce is also explored intentionally. The Discernment Counseling therapist can not only support you to make this decision if it is the best one for you, but can also assist with supporting next steps in the process, including examining different pathways through divorce and what would work best with each individual’s values and hopes. Often, a huge concern is how divorce will affect the children. A Discernment Counselor can support clarity around guiding one’s actions to minimize this potential damage.

And sticking with the status quo? Although not many couples go this route, it is still an option to be explored, and sometimes the best one. Couples may decide to stick with the marriage as is, at least for now, due to a failing parent that needs a lot of attention or a child almost ready to leave home. They may decide to revisit the process after a period of time.

When couples come in to see me for Discernment Counseling, they are usually desperate. One spouse is poised to leave the marriage, or thinking seriously of it, while the other might be willing to do anything to save it. Disconnection, often severe, exists between them, but they also have a wealth of shared history, including children, extended family, close friends, homes, pets, routines. Their whole identity might be tied up in being in this marriage, this family. Yet their disconnection is severe enough that divorce is on the table. What to do?

I love Discernment Counseling because it gives stressed couples a safe space to process and reflect on this fraught question, as well as clarity and confidence about the future of their marriage – be it divorce, marriage counseling, or the status quo. Although what we explore is challenging, and often brings tears, it stops the gears of reactivity for just a little while so that this life-altering decision can be made with intention.

More information on Discernment Counseling, including names of trained and certified Discernment Counseling therapists, can be found here.