Discernment counseling refers to a specific type of counseling that helps couples decide whether or not they want to continue their relationship. It can be especially effective when one partner wishes to leave the relationship while the other partner desires to stay together. Discernment counseling tends to be brief (typically five sessions) and while costs vary, you can expect to pay around $150 per hour.
What Is Discernment Counseling?
Discernment counseling helps mixed-agenda couples identify and understand viable options for their relationship.1 Different from divorce counseling, it is specifically beneficial for clients who identify as “unsure” or “in limbo” about breaking up or getting a divorce. In some cases, it helps couples commit to staying together or revisit separation at a later date.
History of Discernment Counseling
Discernment therapy was coined by a professor by the name of Dr. William Doherty who worked at the University of Minnesota. There he worked with many divorce lawyers to understand the thought processes of individuals going through divorce and found that many people who filed for divorce were actually not sure they wanted a divorce.
What’s the Goal of Discernment Counseling?
The overarching goal of discernment counseling is to support clients struggling with divorce ambivalence. It helps couples choose the next step in their relationship. Sometimes, this means ending the relationship. Other times, it means committing to trying to salvage it. Therapists usually work with clients to collaborate on a shared goal—stay married, seek a divorce, or commit to couples counseling for at least six months.
Discernment Counseling vs. Couples Therapy
Unlike couples therapy, discernment counseling focuses exclusively on working through ambivalence and toward acceptance—not specific issues. Furthermore, it does not assume that there is a right or wrong way to proceed. Couples receive clarity and confidence about where they want to take their relationship and get on the same page about their goals. Your counselor can also provide valuable tools for how to keep moving forward and appropriate referrals for ongoing care.
What Can Discernment Counseling Help With?
Discernment counseling helps with indecisiveness about staying together. If the couple feels like they’re at a standstill, it offers practical solutions. While it’s not about fixing the relationship, it does help couples decide whether they want to fix things. For example, if children are involved, one person might be hesitant to end the relationship. Some couples may feel a great deal of uncertainty about a marriage after an affair. Or, if it comes down to splitting significant assets, they might be worried about financial repercussions.
Who Is It Right For?
Couples struggling with how to move forward can benefit from discernment therapy. If they aren’t on the same page, it can be a significant step before pursuing traditional counseling. This form of counseling doesn’t assume that divorce is a failure or that staying together is a success. It operates under the assumption that couples can feel empowered to make a collaborative decision about their future.
Limitations of Discernment Therapy
Discernment counseling is inappropriate in cases of domestic violence or imminent crisis related to suicidal thoughts, substance misuse, or child abuse. In these cases, safety becomes the priority, and both partners will typically receive a referral for individual therapy or a higher level of care.
Discernment counseling is also inappropriate when:
- Someone has already decided they plan to leave. If this happens, both may benefit from individual therapy.
- One partner is coercing or begging the other to attend. Both parties should be willing and engaged in the process.
- Couples have already committed to working on their relationship. If that’s the case, they can pursue couples therapy.
Examples of Discernment Counseling
Discernment counseling works primarily with ambivalence, disagreement about the future, feeling “out of love,” or specific issues like wanting to stay for the kids.
Here are three examples of discernment therapy:
One Partner Wants to Leave While the Other Wants to Stay
This dynamic is one of the most common reasons couples seek discernment counseling. Many times, partners feel differently about the relationship. One partner may feel detached and ready to move on. The other may feel anxious and want to make things work. Discernment therapy can help them feel more proactive about the future. If divorce is imminent, it can help both partners feel better prepared.
Feeling “Out of Love”
It’s normal for couples to feel like they have drifted apart or no longer love each other as the years pass. Discernment counseling can help them commit to try to restore their love. It can also help them decide whether ending the relationship is a better option.
Wanting to Stay for the Kids
Although divorce has become more accepted in mainstream society, many couples still hesitate to end the relationship if they have children together. Discernment counseling can tackle some of this uncertainty. Staying in an unhappy marriage can have a detrimental impact on children, so determining whether you want to commit to either working it out or ending it, and keeping your children informed about divorce, is crucial.2
Potential Outcomes of Discernment Counseling
There can be varying outcomes for those who seek discernment counseling:
Attending Couples Counseling to Work Through Issues
Sometimes discernment counseling can help couples realize they are both committed to working through the relationship issues and wind up going to couples counseling to learn how to manage problems and move forward together.
Get a Divorce
Discernment counseling can also lead to divorce, where one or both partners may come to the conclusion that the marriage is not something they want to continue investing in.
Maintain the Status Quo
Another outcome of discernment counseling is continued feelings of limbo and confusion about what steps they should take and what to do next, remaining in the same situation. Discernment counseling may still help them improve their communication and get a better understanding of what the problem is.
How Much Does Discernment Therapy Cost?
Discernment counseling usually costs more than individual therapy; however, because it is brief, the overall treatment cost may be less. Discernment counseling fees generally range between $120-$350. Cost fluctuates based on the therapist’s location, level of expertise, and length of each session. Keep in mind that all mental health services typically cost more in geographical areas with a higher cost of living.
Insurance rarely covers couple or discernment counseling. That’s because insurance only covers treatment that meets medical necessity in treating a verified psychiatric diagnosis.3 In some cases, insurers may cover couples counseling if the demand for counseling is directly related to an individual’s psychiatric diagnosis. That said, this rarely applies to discernment counseling.
How to Find a Discernment Counselor
When looking for a discernment counselor, it’s worth asking friends and family whether they have any recommendations. Or, if you’re in individual therapy, ask your current therapist for a referral. If you’ve already met with a divorce attorney—but are still on the fence about divorce—the lawyer may have referrals, too. You can also use an online therapist directory where you can sort by location and specialty.
As mentioned, these counselors are not couples therapists, although some couples therapists provide discernment counseling services.
Who Is Able to Offer Discernment Counseling?
Mental health professionals with a qualifying license can provide discernment counseling. When searching for a prospective clinician, consider looking for someone with training from the Doherty Relationship Institute.
Questions to Ask a Discernment Counselor
When thinking about pursuing discernment counseling, consider asking your potential counselor about their experience and training, among other things.
Here are seven questions to ask a discernment counselor:
- What experience do you have with discernment counseling?
- What specific training do you have with discernment counseling?
- How will you help us during this time?
- What do you expect us to do in between our sessions?
- What happens if we still can’t agree about what to do next?
- How often will you expect us to meet, and for how long?
- What usually occurs after we finish treatment?
What to Expect at Your First Session
The first session is typically the longest, lasting two hours, with subsequent sessions clocking in at about 1.5 hours. The first part of the session consists of a comprehensive intake. You may complete an assessment over the phone or online before meeting with your therapist, which they may review during this first session.
The intake consists of getting to know you and your partner. You will provide the relevant details of your relationship and share pertinent information about your physical health, mental health, career, housing, and support system. During this time, your therapist will review informed consent and describe how this form of counseling will work. If you have any questions about scheduling or fees, this is an excellent time to ask!
After obtaining relevant information, your counselor will meet with each of you individually. They will spend this time examining your role in the relationship, goals for moving forward, and the accountability you hold towards past mistakes. Ultimately, your counselor wants to ensure that this work is a choice. Neither partner should be forced into the process. If that’s the case, the counseling won’t work effectively.
Is Discernment Counseling Effective?
One study found that discernment counseling increased a sense of clarity. It also helped participants accept divorce as a possibility, offering a space to “say what needed to be said.”4 It’s also relevant to note that roughly 25% of individuals in the divorce process believe their marriage could be saved with hard work; about 30% reported interest in reconciliation.5
Feeling lost or uncertain in your relationship may seem scary, but remember, you’re not alone in this struggle. Many couples experience difficult moments in their relationships, and sharing these concerns with a qualified mental health professional can be valuable. Discernment counseling helps you and your partner identify what’s best for both of you.