What Is Discernment Counseling?

Updated July 08, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Wendy Galyen, LCSW, BC-TMH

Every relationship has its ups and downs. However, there are times when a couple may be at an impasse and are not sure if they want to stay in their relationship. Discernment counseling is designed for these couples. Discernment counseling couples seek out this type of therapy so that they can get help working out their differences, or mutually decide to end their relationship. The goal of couple discernment counseling is to make an amicable decision and consider all options available. This type of counseling is best for those who are considering breaking up or getting divorced but have not come to a decision on how to move forward with the separation, or if they are indeed ready to part ways.

How Did Discernment Counseling Start And What Are The Steps?

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Discernment counseling was developed by a man named Bill Doherty. He worked at the University of Minnesota and realized that few techniques are specifically designed for struggling couples. There are counseling programs for those with addiction issues, behavioral health counseling, bereavement therapy, social-emotional therapy, cognitive therapy, and many more types of counseling and therapeutic programs. Doherty saw this gap, and couples discernment counseling was developed to help people figure out what their relationship is. If they want to continue it, it also helps them work through coming to terms with divorce or separation in a civilized and amicable way.

Determining the next steps in a couple’s relationship is essential, especially if they have children.

A counselor or therapist typically starts by asking the couple jointly:

  • What happened in the relationship that left the couple considering parting ways?
  • What efforts have been made to fix the relationship, if any?
  • Are there children in the family, and how have they affected the decision to end the relationship?
  • What are the best memories and times each partner experiences in the relationship?
  • What would each partner like to see improved in the relationship to fix things?

Next, discernment counseling typically provides a couple with three options:

  • Ending the relationship
  • Postpone a decision to end the relationship, while they work on their differences
  • Establish a period, such as six months, where both partners promise to put their best effort into saving the relationship

From there, the discernment counselor will opt to meet with each partner separately to discuss how they feel, what they want to see happen, and their personal agenda. This can be done as in-person counseling or online counseling. Determining the agenda of each is important so that the therapist knows if they need counseling for a mixed agenda. This means that one party wants to stay married, and one is ready to move on, away from the relationship. Discernment counseling avoids starting marriage counseling when it will not be productive; it is only productive when both parties want to stay married but need to work out their differences.

Next, the counselor will have their couple meet, once again, together to summarize what was discussed individually. This is an essential step because one person in the relationship may be afraid to say they want to leave the relationship but don’t to spare their partner’s feelings. However, they are more apt to open up to the counselor about their feelings and motives. Sometimes it is easier to start separation discussions when the counselor is the one who discusses the desire to separate from one or both parties.

If it is determined that both couples want to at least attempt to repair their relationship, the discernment counselor will either become a marriage counselor or refer the couple to a few different marriage counselors. If divorced is wanted by one person but not the other, the divorce discernment counseling or discernment counseling for mixed relationships would be recommended. On the flip side, if divorced is wanted by both parties in the relationship, then separation is most likely inevitable. While counseling can help reduce the amount of stress that is building in an undesired marriage, couples discernment counseling will help open the lines of communication where they may have stalled at home. Attending counseling avoids making half-hearted efforts when it is unknown what the other partner truly wants. It also helps to bring important topics to the surface for discussion and self-evaluation.

How Is Discernment Counseling Different Than Marriage Counseling?

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Marriage counseling is different than discernment counseling since discernment counseling is a short process with a specific goal: to determine if the marriage can be saved. Discernment counseling is typically two to five sessions, and time is spent with each person privately, as well as together.

Couples counseling, on the other hand, which is also called marriage counseling, is designed to help a couple regain their marriage and overcome any issues that are problematic in the relationship. Couples counseling is usually a much longer process than discernment counseling with a goal of keeping the couple together at the end of the process.

While marriage counseling is not required after discernment counseling, it can help significantly.

Why Should We See A Discernment Counselor Rather Than Start With A Marriage Counselor?

Discernment counseling is a specific niche in the industry. Its sole job is to provide clarity to whether a relationship can be fixed, and see if the issues brought up can be left in the past. While a discernment counselor can help a couple identify the specific contributing factors to their defunct relationship, as well as explore potential solutions, it is not designed to fix problems. It’s a short-term talk therapy with one objective: determining will a marriage work, or will it end?

Statistics On Discernment Counseling

When Doherty released data on his methodology of counseling struggling partners, he came to the following realization:

  • 47% of couples chose reconciliation and moved onto marriage counseling
  • 36% successfully reconciled
  • 41% decided to separate or get divorced
  • 80% went through with the divorce
  • 12% of couples chose to stay in flux; they did not want to divorce but also did not want to fix the issues
  • 51% of couples had at least one party contact a lawyer before starting discernment counseling

While the study was comprised of a small sample of married couples, it fell in line with national statistics of married versus divorced couples.

How Much Training Does A Discernment Counselor Attend?

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Discernment counseling is typically a continuing education class for those who are already licensed, mental health professionals. Advanced training can be taken for those who want to specialize in discernment counseling so that the therapist can become a certified discernment counselor. Discernment certification is not required in order to conduct the practice, as a marriage and family therapist license allows counselors to see patients who are in need of discernment therapy. Additional certification helps to differential oneself from competing practices.

When Is Discernment Counseling Not Recommended?

Discernment counseling is not appropriate for couples who already want to end their marriage or where one party is clear that they want to leave the marriage. None of these couples will gain anything from discernment counseling, in almost all cases, as the future outcomes have already been clearly established.

Discernment counseling will also not benefit couples who have domestic violence within their marriage. Counseling is not productive when one party is forced to counseling. When domestic violence is a part of the relationship, much more time needs to be spent with both the victim and the abuser, separately. Discernment counseling cannot help in this instance.

What Is Discernment Counseling Not?

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Discernment Counseling is not a guarantee that your marriage can be saved. It is not a one and done therapy session, and it is not a way to convince your partner to stay when they have adamantly expressed they want to leave.

Discernment counseling is definitely not a magic wand or magic pill. It cannot force the relationship to work; it’s the individuals that need to work, as a team, to make their marriage work. Discernment counseling is also not an instantaneous repair for a broken marriage. It will help to identify problems that need to be addressed so that the couple knows what they need to work on; however, it’s not a cure.

Discernment counseling helps those who are unhappy in their marriage but don’t know what is wrong. It helps to identify problems and provide clarity so that the couple is not going in circles trying to figure out what is not working. Discernment counseling also gives couples the confidence that they can work through problems, together, if they are willing to do the heavy lifting.

Compared to other therapies, discernment counseling is a relatively new approach to helping couples with a troubled marriage. It helps to identify problems and makes it easier for a marriage counselor to get to the source of the issues. Without discernment counseling, it could take several sessions of marriage counseling before the partners feel comfortable enough to open up about their real problems with the relationship. By having individual meetings in discernment counseling, it shortens the amount of time to get to the source of the issues and does not violate client/patient confidentially.


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