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. The challenge for that 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. We called these “mixed agenda couples.” Traditional marriage counseling tends to be ineffective for them 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 specifically for “mixed agenda couples” where one is leaning out and other is leaning in. The goal is clarity and confidence in a decision about the future of the relationship, based on a deeper understanding of what has happened to the marriage and each person’s role. 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 about the future is framed as whether to continue toward divorce or to carve out a reconciliation period of six months in couples therapy to work hard on saving the marriage, and then make a decision on divorcing or staying married. Alternatively, they can decide not to decide for now, and stay the course. Discernment counseling has a maximum of five sessions.

Unlike traditional marriage counselor, the bulk of the work in discernment counseling is with each person separately. The leaning out spouse is helped to make a decision that has integrity for self and others, based on a better understanding of his or her own contributions to the problems. The leaning in spouse is counseled to being his or her best self to the crisis, and to neither pursue nor distance from the partner right now, with the hope that the partner may decide to work with them to make the marriage healthy in the future. If the ultimate decision is divorce, the discernment counselor helps steer them towards divorce professional who will help them have a fair and healing divorce for them and their children. If the decision is to try to reconcile

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