Lisa walked out of her fourth couples therapy session with James with the same feeling she had walked in with four weeks ago – confusion and irritation. Their therapist was fine, but it felt so much like they were just spinning their wheels. Even though the therapist seemed to be trying to get them on the same page, Lisa could feel that nagging sense that something wasn’t right. James seemed frustrated that he even had to be going to the appointments, even though he kept saying it was fine. When Lisa confronted him on this at home, he said, “Well, I just don’t know if it’s worth it, really, maybe this isn’t something we can fix.”
“What are you saying?” Lisa asked, surprised and with a sinking, sick feeling in her gut.
“I’m not sure. I just don’t know,” James said.
Lisa could hardly think about what this might mean for their kids, let alone the two of them. Surely there was still something in their relationship worth saving? Wasn’t there? Why wasn’t James trying at all?
When couples realize their relationship is in trouble, it seems to make a lot of sense to seek out couples therapy. Why shouldn’t we be working on the relationship if there are so many issues?
The problem is that couples therapy is hard work and takes two committed partners. When one partner or even both partners aren’t 100% committed to doing what it will take to work on their relationship, couples therapy can feel like spinning wheels. It’s difficult to get anywhere productive when one or both partners are wondering if separation might be a better option. That wondering comes into the therapy room disguised as anger, righteousness, silence, etc., and it just sits there blocking any potential for progress.
Discernment counseling lets us all acknowledge that sometimes, it’s not the right time to work on the relationship. Sometimes, we need to take a few moments to figure out if we can get on the same page in one direction or another. Sometimes, we need some professional help in order to really explore everything that is going on between us and in our own minds.
Discernment counseling might be right for you if:
- You’ve tried couples therapy and you ended up feeling just as stuck – or more – than before.
- You know you are completely willing to work on this relationship, but your partner has suggested either in words or actions that staying married may not be what s/he wants.
- You just aren’t sure if you even want to put in the effort anymore, but your partner is insisting that couples therapy is what your relationship needs.
- You know this is a major turning point for your relationship and you want to reach a point of feeling more confident in the decision you’ll make. You might feel two ways about it and are finding yourself stuck, sometimes thinking staying is not an option, and sometimes thinking separation or divorce doesn’t feel right either.
Discernment counseling is a specific protocol for couples who are trying to decide on a direction. Both partners usually agree that whatever is going on right now is not working for them. Beyond that, however, they just aren’t sure. In discernment, partners are given time to speak individually with the therapist, as well as together as a couple.
The process is intended to be intensive and brief, therefore the entire course lasts between one and five sessions. Some couples find that one discernment session is enough to help them agree on a path, while others make full use of the five sessions. The goal of discernment is to help a couple agree on a path forward, whether that path includes separation or giving couples therapy a real effort.
While the discernment counseling process does not intend to fix relationship problems, it can be very helpful in identifying some of the patterns that might be contributing to relationship dissatisfaction. It can give the couple a deeper understanding of how they got where they are, so that they know better how they might move forward either together or apart.
Hopefully, those who could benefit from discernment will seek it out. No matter where you are and no matter what your ultimate decision is about your relationship, it will have been worth the time and energy to arrive at a decision you feel confident about for you and your family.
Nicole Stone, MS, LMFT