About Discernment Counseling: For Clergy and Other Referral Professionals

Clergy, health care providers, and human services professionals are all approached by people in marital crisis who are considering divorce. In fact, people are more likely to turn first to a trusted professional with whom they already have a relationship than to a therapist or lawyer. The challenge for the professional is to provide crisis assistance for a trouble marriage but not attempt to become a long term marriage counselor for the couple. Sometimes a referral to a marriage counselor is the best option, especially when both partners are motivated to work on the marriage.

But often one of the partners is reluctant to try to save the relationship and the other partner is highly motivated to try. Traditional marriage counseling tends to be ineffective because the counselor either expects both parties to work on the relationship, rendering the leaning out spouse the uncooperative one, or encourages the hopeful spouse to just let go of the marriage, leaving that individual feeling undercut and angry.

Discernment Counseling is a new service created after our research on the reconciliation interests of divorcing parents. It is brief, focused counseling for individuals and couples who are ambivalent about whether to divorce or work to repair their marriage. The goal is clarity and confidence in the decision, including whether there are avenues for reconciliation that the couple had not yet explored. It is not framed as marriage counseling to improve the relationship, and "leaning out" spouses are not pressured to be better partners at a time they are not sure they want to stay married. The decision is framed as whether to continue toward divorce or to carve out a reconciliation period of six months to work hard on saving the marriage, and then make a decision on divorcing or staying married. Discernment counseling has a maximum of five sessions.

When one partner is leaning out of the marriage and the other is strongly interested in saving it, the counselor works with them separately on their agendas. The leaning out spouse is helped to make a decision that has integrity for self and others, and the leaning in spouse is counseled with a "hopeful spouse" protocol. The goal is for hopeful spouses to bring their best self to this crisis (instead of the worst self which an unwanted divorce often elicits), to use the crisis as a wake up call for self-reflection and constructive personal change, and to neither pursue nor distance from the partner while the partner sorts out a decision. There are two potential positive outcomes from this counseling of the hopeful spouse: either the partner decides to try the reconciliation path or they both continue more constructively on the divorce path.

To understand further how we think about marriage and divorce, see our values statement.