Contemplating Divorce? You Might Benefit From Discernment Counseling

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 25, 2024by Regain Editorial Team

You may have reached a critical crossroads in your marriage: either you, your spouse, or both of you are thinking of getting a divorce. For most people, this isn’t a decision to be taken lightly, and many couples need time to think before choosing to dissolve a longstanding partnership. If you’re in this situation, discernment counseling may help you find your way forward. 

Discernment counseling is a short-term, therapist-guided process in which a couple attempts to honestly evaluate the state of their marriage. It typically lasts just a few sessions, ending when you decide either to divorce or to put serious work into repairing your relationship. The process can be eye-opening, and even if you decide not to stay married, going through discernment counseling may help you ease the pain of splitting up.

Find the clarity and confidence to move forward

Discernment counseling vs. couples therapy

When you imagine counseling for people considering divorce, you might be picturing something like traditional couples therapy: both parties working with a relationship counselor to find ways to reconcile. But couples therapy is often ineffective when both partners aren’t fully committed to finding a way to make the marriage work. If one person is ambivalent or is leaning toward divorce, discernment counseling could be a better option.

Discernment counseling is a relatively new form of therapy originally developed by University of Minnesota professor Bill Doherty, Ph.D. Unlike typical relationship counseling, its goal is not necessarily to help couples remain together. 

Instead, it’s meant primarily for “mixed agenda” marriages, in which one party is hoping to repair the relationship while the other is feeling that divorce may be the best option. The purpose of discernment counseling is to help both spouses discuss the possibility of ending their marriage openly and honestly, with a therapist acting as a neutral mediator. Ideally, the process should help both clients gain clarity on how they want to proceed.

Can discernment counseling save your marriage?

If your spouse has suggested discernment counseling, you may be hoping that it will be an opportunity for the two of you to work through your differences and restore your marriage. However, it may be important to temper your expectations. Discernment counseling is generally undertaken when one person is already giving serious consideration to divorce. It’s usually a sign that the problems in your relationship are quite severe.

A 2015 study reported that 41% of couples who underwent discernment counseling decided to divorce by the end. Of those who chose to try to reconcile and work on their marriages, 45% were on the path to divorce two years later.

These results make it clear that the discernment counseling process is not necessarily a cure for marital discord. That’s not its intended purpose. However, some couples who go through this type of therapy do choose to work toward repairing their relationships rather than divorcing. This early study suggests that a little under 20% may take this path.


Why pursue discernment counseling?

Though discernment counseling isn’t meant to resolve the issues pushing a couple toward divorce, it can serve a few important purposes:

Resolving indecision

When your marriage is under severe strain, it can be very difficult to know whether remaining together or going your separate ways is the right choice. The counseling process offers you a space and a procedure to give this question the consideration it deserves, away from the distractions and annoyances of everyday life. Experienced therapists can suggest useful ways to think through this decision.

Helping you better understand yourself and your spouse

Discernment counseling involves a great deal of introspection and discussion about the course your marriage has taken. Many people find that they come away with unexpected insights into how things became so strained. You might gain a deeper understanding of your spouse’s viewpoint and your own contributions to the breakdown of your marriage.

Providing a sense of closure

2020 paper reported that many individuals who divorced following discernment counseling felt the process had given them a greater sense of “acceptance and resolution”. By making it clear why the marriage wasn’t working, their experience in counseling made it easier to let it go. Even if you don’t reconcile with your spouse, discernment counseling could help you pick up the pieces and move on.

Improving cooperation

Many of the clients in the study referenced above also said that discernment counseling helped them divorce more amicably, reducing bitterness and conflict. They also felt they were better able to work together on co-parenting their children following their divorce. This may be an important reason to consider discernment counseling — parental cooperation can be a major factor in a child’s behavioral and psychological health after divorce. 

How does discernment counseling work?

Assuming you do choose to participate in discernment counseling, what can you expect from the process?

While different counselors may take somewhat different approaches, most follow the general structure developed by Doherty and his colleagues. It’s a fairly brief process consisting of between one and five sessions with a trained therapist.

The first session is generally the longest, as the counselor will need to gather a fair amount of information about you, your spouse, and your relationship. They’ll want to know things like:

  • How long have you been together?
  • What’s caused you to consider divorce?
  • Do you have children? If so, how do they affect your thoughts about divorce?
  • How have you tried to resolve the issues in your relationship?
  • What are you hoping to get from discernment counseling?
  • How would you tell the story of your marriage?

After getting a sense of the state of the relationship, the counselor will talk with you both about what you need in order to decide the future of your marriage. They’ll also usually have one-on-one conversations with each of you. At the end of the session, your therapist will often ask you and your spouse to briefly share any insights you’ve gained or any ways that your thinking has changed.

Then they’ll ask if you want to return for another session. For some couples, one meeting is enough to clarify how they want to move forward, and the counseling process ends there. Others may need more time to think through their decision.

Once one or both partners decides to pursue divorce, or both agree to work toward restoring the relationship, discernment counseling ends and the next phase begins. 

What if you still can’t decide?

Most couples come to a clear understanding of whether or not they remain in the marriage within five sessions of counseling. However, a small minority still find themselves ambivalent. 

Discernment counseling does not keep going indefinitely for these couples. Instead, they’ll continue to think through and discuss their options on their own. 

Still, the lessons learned in the counseling process can often help undecided couples assess their needs and goals more clearly as they move forward. The 2015 study on discernment counseling outcomes found that only five couples out of 100 were continuing with the “status quo” two years later. The others had either sought divorce or decided to try to repair their marriages.

What happens after discernment counseling?

If you and your spouse decide you want to stay together, you may still have quite a bit of work ahead of you. The good news is that your odds of healing your marriage are much better if you’ve both committed to this goal. 

Your discernment counselor will likely refer you to a couples therapist who can help you strengthen your emotional connection, find better ways to communicate, and work through the issues that have pushed you apart. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy reports that around 75% of people who engage in couples counseling feel that it improves their overall relationship quality.

What if you choose to divorce? In that case, you may still benefit from working with a therapist. Ending a marriage can be very stressful and emotionally painful. A mental health professional with experience in divorce may be able to help you process these challenging feelings while avoiding destructive conflicts. This can also help you adjust and move on more readily after the divorce is complete. 

Find the clarity and confidence to move forward

Online counseling for couples considering divorce

Having a therapist to help you talk through the decision to reconcile or divorce can be very helpful, but you don’t necessarily need to meet with them face-to-face. Some couples prefer online counseling, which can often be more convenient. Because you can work with your therapist in the comfort of their own home, scheduling sessions is often easier, and the discernment process may feel less clinical.

Online therapy can be quite effective for many couples. A 2022 research study found that there was no difference between in-person and videoconferencing when it came to patients’ ability to connect with their therapists, improve their relationship health, and find relief for mental health symptoms. Pursuing discernment counseling over the Internet could be a useful option, especially if you think it might be difficult to attend sessions face-to-face. 


Ending a marriage or trying for reconciliation can be among the most significant choices in your life, and you won’t be the only one affected by the outcome. Discernment counseling can help you and your spouse work through this weighty decision in a rational, honest, and civil way. No matter what choice you make, the counseling process could help you feel a greater sense of closure.

For Additional Help & Support With Your ConcernsThis website is owned and operated by BetterHelp, who receives all fees associated with the platform.
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started
This website is owned and operated by BetterHelp, who receives all fees associated with the platform.