A New Option for Couples on the Brink of Divorce

Are You On the Brink of Divorce?

Sarah’s* marriage was on the brink of divorce. She discovered her husband Jon’s emotional affair with a coworker in typical digital age fashion: via a text message that popped up on his phone, which he had left open on his night stand. This was the second time in their 14-year marriage that Jon had strayed. He had a brief affair six years ago, shortly after the birth of their second child. The couple worked long and hard in therapy to rebuild the relationship. Now Jon begged her for one more chance, but Sarah was done…until she thought about her two young children and wondered whether she could summon the energy to try once more.

If you are reading this article, chances are your marriage is not working. You may be on the brink of divorce. Perhaps you have tried couple therapy in the past without success, and lack the motivation to attempt it again. Maybe you or your spouse are unsure whether you even want to save the marriage. And yet, you aren’t convinced you’re ready to call it quits. You wish there was a type of therapy that can assist you and your partner in making a decision about the next step.

Discernment counseling (DC) can help you decide. Developed by Bill Doherty, PhD, for the Minnesota Couples on the Brink project, DC is a short-term protocol (typically 1-5 sessions). The focus is not on solving marital problems, but on seeing whether they potentially can be solved. Discernment counseling is considered to be successful when a decision has been made to pursue one of three paths:

Path One: Take a time-out and make no decision right now

During the discernment process, Sarah acknowledged she is not prepared to break up the family, but would not consider couple therapy until Jon gave up the relationship with his coworker. She wanted him to work through his issues in individual therapy. Jon agreed to do so. They will revisit their options at a later time.

Path Two: Move toward separation and divorce

Tony had been sober for seven months when he and Courtney married after a whirlwind courtship. He relapsed on their honeymoon, sending the marriage to the brink of divorce. Their marriage consisted of a string of promises made and broken, relapses and recoveries. Tom swore his most recent relapse was his last. Courtney realized she no longer loved Tony, but worried that leaving him would cause him to drink again.

While in DC, Courtney explored the ways in which she enabled Tony, as well as the reasons she thought she was responsible for his sobriety. She acknowledged to herself and to him that the marriage was over.

Path Three: Commit to six months of intensive couple therapy

Scott couldn’t stand the mess and disorganization anymore. Amy, his wife, lost bills, forgot appointments, and was late to everything, including their wedding. Everywhere she went in the house, she trailed piles of discarded clothing and dirty dishes. They fought all the time. Amy would cry, promise to get it together, and nothing changed. Scott couldn’t live with Amy, but didn’t know if he wanted to live without her.

Amy spent her life struggling with undiagnosed ADD, which no one recognized until the initial discernment session. She was referred to a psychiatrist, who confirmed the diagnosis and prescribed medication. The couple expressed great relief to learn she could work with a coach to improve organization skills, and they could learn helpful communication tools in couple counseling.

Marriage Counseling Doesn’t Work With Mixed-Agenda Couples

In order to be effective, traditional marital therapy requires honesty and willingness to change on the part of both partners. The couple mainly is seen together by the therapist, who operates under the assumption that both wish to improve the marriage. Studies show that almost one third of couples entering therapy are mixed agenda couples, in which one is leaning in and desires to save the marriage, while the other is leaning out and is on the brink of divorce. When one person is ambivalent about the relationship or is engaged in an outside affair, addiction, or other treatment-interfering behavior they are not sure they wish to give up, therapy is destined to fail.

Discernment counseling primarily is done with each partner individually, and the content is kept confidential. This affords both the opportunity to be open with the therapist concerning all factors that may be affecting the decision-making process. The counselor encourages exploration of one’s own contributions to the problems in the relationship, supports the leaning in spouse in holding on to him- or herself and avoiding behaviors that will push their spouse further away during discernment, while helping the leaning out partner reach a decision with clarity and confidence.

When a couple opts to stay the course and revisit the decision at a later time, they are welcome to return for more discernment counseling. Should they decide to move toward separation and divorce, they may want to continue working with the therapist on transition, especially if children are involved. Those couples who choose reconciliation can begin the process with the DC counselor or someone of their choice.

Discernment counseling is not suitable when:

  • one spouse has made a final decision to divorce and wants counseling to encourage the other spouse accept that decision
  • there is a danger of domestic violence
  • there is an Order of Protection from the court
  • one spouse is coercing the other to participate

Are you the leaning out spouse? Consider whether it’s worth investing a few hours of time to explore your decision in a safe, non-judgmental place. Is  your spouse on the brink of divorce?  He or she may be more inclined to attend counseling that is time-limited and doesn’t require making behavior changes. Discernment counseling is the therapy for those who can’t decide whether to stay or go.

To learn more about Discernment Counseling in Berwyn, PA and Margate, NJ, contact Linda today for a free phone consult: 610 889-2089.

*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.