Being in a bad relationship is a lot like being stuck on a poorly constructed boat. Small holes poke through and you plug them up long enough to hold, but eventually a big one gushes in. Now you have to decide: Let that sucker sink, start swimming or bail out the water fast.
Yet even when faced with a sinking ship, lots of couples can’t agree on how to get out alive. One wants to keep patching holes together, the other wants to make a beeline for shore. (Some want to blow the boat up right there with both of them on it.)
Enter a lesser-known form of therapy that offers one possible lifejacket. Called discernment counseling, it’s a departure from traditional couples counseling in at least one notable way: It’s not meant to save the relationship; it’s meant to determine if there’s anything worth saving.
It’s mostly geared toward married couples who seem headed for divorce, but some therapists are starting to apply its methods to other forms of counseling, too. We first heard about it when profiling Natalia Juarez, a therapist who guides her clients through messy breakups, including those who wish to win their exes back. “You absolutely don’t need to be married to use discernment counseling,” therapist Natalia Juarez tells me. “The fact that so much of the information out there is geared toward adults who are married excludes large groups of people — teenagers, partners, friends.”
She says discernment counseling is “fundamental in assessing the health of any relationship,” and even comes in handy when people have already broken up. “When helping someone decide to get back with an ex, one of the first steps is to evaluate whether or not this is a good idea.”
Juarez spends the longest time with her clients on this part of the work — a relationship report card to figure out what’s going on, and if it’s a relationship worth trying to salvage, or where the wrong turn came and why it ultimately didn’t work out. “First, we do an assessment of the relationship,” she says. “Is this something that could be worked on with communication, or would it be better to move into recovery, letting go and moving on.”
She takes clients through a six-point evaluation (what she calls the 6 C’s) of the relationship that determines where the issues were, and what’s fixable and what isn’t. “For example, a client can discover that the key problem is communication or compatibility, and then they can decide for themselves if it’s worth working on or it’s not possible (an example being if someone isn’t compatible on having children),” she explains.
It’s her own adaptation of the original counseling method, but it’s similar in its goal of relationship clarity. Developed by professor and therapist Bill Doherty of the Doherty Relationship Intitute in Minnesota, discernment counseling is a brief set of counseling sessions (usually one to five) for what he calls “mixed-agenda couples.” In such scenarios, one member of the couple is determined to be the lean-in partner, while the other is the lean-out.
A therapist trained in discernment meets individually with each partner and also as a couple together, and they attempt to figure out what went wrong, when and why. They figure out how they each contributed to it. If one person is distraught or blindsided by the other’s desire to end it, they work through that, too. Four questions are typically covered over the sessions, according to Good Therapy:
- What happened in the relationship that caused the partners to consider ending it?
- What has been done to try to fix the relationship?
- How do children factor into the decision to end the relationship?
- What were the best times each partner experienced in the relationship?
The point is, the goal isn’t to make you come together per se, just to see clearly where both parties are. “The leaning-out partner is supported where they are emotionally, and the leaning-in spouse is equally supported in their own emotional state,” Doherty’s website for the method reads. “Discernment counseling avoids starting half-hearted couples therapy with these mixed-agenda couples. It accepts ambivalence rather than trying to work around it or overcome it.”
It starts with a two-hour session, but as Business Insider notes in a recent profile on the method, the couple will spend about eight hours total to figure it out. By the end, they’ve hopefully reached the sort of clarity that lets them finally make a decision: Keep sinking as they are, start divorce proceedings or commit to six months of counseling to try to save it. “The name discernment counseling is important because sometimes the person who is leaning out will run the clock out on marriage counseling,” Doherty told Today. “They’ll show up, but won’t really try, then will pronounce that marriage counseling didn’t work. What I say is, ‘We don’t know if marriage counseling will work. We haven’t tried it yet. We’re deciding whether or not to do it.’”
Also, the lean-in person might start acting terribly because they don’t want things to end, and they don’t know how to handle it. Doherty tells Today that discernment helps with that, too, so no one keeps damaging the marriage or children. “A lot of times when the decision’s been sprung on somebody, they complain and scold and call the relatives and tell the kids, ‘Mommy’s trying to throw me out of the house,’” Doherty told Today. “We help the leaning in spouse bring their best game to this crisis, as opposed to that desperate game you bring when you get that message.”
And while therapists like Juarez have incorporated the counseling into breakups, Business Insider notes that some marriage counselors are starting to learn the training so they can incorporate it as a kind of pre-counseling work in traditional therapy, too. Before even starting marriage therapy, they first determine in individual sessions if one of the partners is actually ambivalent, or if they’re really interested in making it work.
That’s a good development, because Doherty says some 30 percent of couples who show up looking for marriage counseling actually need discernment counseling instead. And that’s a good thing too, because most of the people who go through discernment end up splitting: Doherty studied the results of the counseling method in 2015 and found that 41 percent divorced, and 47 percent of the couples reconciled — until, that is, two years later, when half of those couples who reconciled had divorced. In that sense, discernment counseling starts to look like a kind of pre-exit counseling — a way of avoiding a terrible divorce when divorce is inevitable regardless.
I did find at least discernment counseling site that seemed biased toward making the relationship work. On a page for the leaning-out partner, the text yells, “DID YOU KNOW THAT 40% OF COUPLES WITH MINOR CHILDREN WHO DIVORCE LATER REGRET IT?”
That sounds a lot like pressure to hang in there for the kids. But when I run that site language by Juarez, she says that it’s extremely critical to help couples understand what it really means to breakup. “There’s no more merit in staying than there is in leaving,” she says. “It all depends on the circumstances of the parents and the relationship. That said, I think it’s good for people to understand the severity of this sort of a decision, especially when children are involved, and to know that if they do choose to leave, knowing that they have completely evaluated their decision will give them the most peace of mind.”
In other words, if you’re at least aware enough to know you’re on a sinking boat, discernment counseling helps you row the boat to shore before you drown, and get out as unscathed as possible, even if you’re just going to walk in separate directions. “When you’re grounded in your reasons for ending a relationship, this makes for a better breakup and will give you some peace of mind,” Juarez explains. “Of course, you may still be very sad — that’s natural — but you can trust your decision and it’ll get you through the challenges of separating.”