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What is Discernment Counseling?

Ending a marriage is a big decision. It affects you, your spouse, your children, and even your extended family in a multitude of ways. How do you know if divorce is the right choice? Is it possible to fix the relationship? Do you want to fix the relationship?

Discernment counseling is a type of therapy that can help you examine your relationship issues and answer these questions.

Who is discernment counseling for?

Discernment counseling is for couples who are at a crossroads in their relationship. One spouse may be ready to call it quits while the other wants to find a way to make the marriage work. Or, both spouses may feel ambivalent about the marriage and unsure how to proceed.

When married couples find themselves at this type of impasse, discernment counseling with a trained professional can help clarify issues and recognize possible options. With proper discernment counseling, the couple will gain a better understanding of where they are so they can make a well-informed decision about the future of the relationship.

What issues does discernment counseling address?

Each spouse will be asked to look closely at what isn’t working in their relationship. They will gain a deeper understanding by exploring their role in that, what their motivations are, and why they feel the way they do. 

Depending on the couple, many topics may be covered in discernment counseling, including the following:

  • Differing communication styles
  • Persistent feelings, including anger and resentment
  • Whether forgiveness is possible
  • Perceived stressors in the marriage
  • Self-esteem issues 
  • Trust issues 
  • How each person feels about the relationship
  • How each person feels about divorce

In discernment counseling, a spouse who is ready to leave the marriage is able to be heard and understood. They can explore why they feel this way and under what conditions, if any, they might consider staying in the marriage.

A spouse who wants to maintain the marriage is able to voice what they want from the relationship, hear what their spouse needs, and decide if staying in the marriage is feasible under those conditions. 

The focus of discernment counseling is to clarify a path forward for both spouses.

After discernment counseling, spouses have three options:

  • They can take more time to explore their options with the new information gained through counseling.
  • They can pursue a separation or divorce if one or both feel the relationship is irreparable.
  • They can agree to a finite period of couples counseling (typically around six months) during which they table the discussion of divorce and mutually work on their relationship with the help of a couples therapist.

Is discernment counseling the same as marriage counseling?

These two types of counseling are not the same. Some overlap exists, but a significant difference lies in the ultimate goal.

  • The goal of marriage counseling is to save the marriage. Both spouses have some level of commitment to making their marriage work.
  • The goal of your discernment counseling sessions is to help the couple decide what to do next. If they decide to work on the marriage, an agreed-upon duration of couples therapy with firmly established game rules will follow.

Where can I find a professional who does discernment counseling?

Discernment counselors are mental health professionals who have been specifically trained in this type of counseling. You might be working with a therapist already who knows how to perform discernment counseling. If not, you may have to search a bit to find someone:

  • Ask your doctor or therapist for a recommendation
  • Call local counseling offices (private practices, community mental health centers), and ask if any of their practitioners are trained in discernment counseling
  • Search an online directory of discernment counselors

Suggested reading: Your Options If Your Spouse Wants a Divorce and You Do Not