About Discernment Counseling: For Lawyers

All divorce lawyers and mediators know that some of their new clients are not sure that divorce is the right option for them. But when they try to determine if clients are ready for a divorce, they often do so in a cursory way by asking questions such as "have you tried counseling?" or "is a divorce something you are sure you want to do?" With one spouse wants the divorce and the other doesn't, the lawyer or mediator may simply state that under state law one spouse can unilaterally divorce the other, and then redirect the focus to the divorce process. This can leave the hopeful spouse feeling unsupported in his or her quest to save their marriage and sometimes determined to mount roadblocks.

Many lawyers and mediators are uncertain what services to recommend for these clients—those who are ambivalent and those who feel pushed into a divorce—except for marriage counseling that has often not worked in the past. Traditional marriage counseling tends to be ineffective in these cases 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, then the discernment counselor switches to couples therapy for a six month period.

Along with a group of Twin Cities collaborative attorneys, Bill Doherty has developed a brief Ambivalence Protocol for lawyers and mediators to use during initial consultations in order to assess divorce ambivalence and mixed agenda couples. The protocol teaches a way to refer couples to discernment counseling. Clients have reported that they are grateful to their attorney or mediator for exploring their readiness to proceed with divorce. And some attorneys have reported that those clients who went through Discernment Counseling and opted to proceed with divorce were more emotionally ready for the work ahead.

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