Discernment counseling is a form of counseling that assists couples with determining whether they want to pursue a divorce or reconciliation. It’s particularly useful for aligning the couple’s understanding of where the relationship is at and where it’s headed.
A while ago, I asked Theresa Herring, LMFT, to explain discernment counseling and how it worked. We received great feedback, but I knew we could provide even more information. I recently sat down with Theresa to discuss discernment counseling in depth. Below is a video and a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.
Josh: Hi, I’m Josh Stern. I’m a divorce attorney in Chicago and today I’m here with Theresa Herring, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who’s going to talk to us about discernment counseling. So, hi Theresa. How are you?
Theresa: I’m doing well. How are you?
Josh: I’m great. Tell me about discernment counseling. What is it?
Theresa: Discernment counseling is a newer type of counseling and it was designed for couples where one person was considering divorce or leaving the relationship and the other person is trying to save it. We used to do couples therapy with these types of couples and it was unsuccessful, because one person wasn’t sure they even wanted to be in the relationship, so putting the effort into couples therapy was more than they could handle.
Discernment counseling is 1 to 5 sessions and its aims are for couples to get clarity on the relationship, confidence about a direction for the future of the relationship, and a better understanding of each person’s role in the relationship and getting it to where it is today.
Josh: So, if one of the spouses is 90 or 95 percent sure that he or she wants a divorce, what’s his or her incentive to go meet with you as opposed to meeting, well, with a divorce attorney, with my office?
Theresa: That’s a really good question. So, the benefit to meeting with me would be that they would uncover some stuff that they probably didn’t realize about their role in the relationship. You can divorce your partner, but you can’t divorce yourself, so if you don’t know what got you to this point and what got this relationship to this point, chances are you’re going to repeat the same behaviors with future partners. There’s a reason second and third marriages have a higher divorce rates than first, and it’s because people tend to repeat patterns. With discernment counseling, you start to get some insight into the patterns you need to address, the personality traits that you want to to address and fix, so that you can be a better partner in the future. Also, you know, if you’re 90 to 95 percent sure, there’s still some wavering there and so maybe there is a chance that this is someone that you could see yourself being together long term even if it’s a small chance and to make the decision to divorce and walk away can be really anxiety producing and agonizing. So, if you’re not a hundred percent sure getting to that point where you’re 100 percent sure, or realizing that this is someone that you want to make it work with you can. These are good things to ask.
Josh: Can you tell me what the discernment counseling process looks? When a couple comes and sees you, what are the steps they’re gonna go through as they determine, or discern, whether they want to proceed with the divorce or to reconcile?
Theresa: So, the first session of discernment counseling is two hours long, and for the first third of the session, both partners are in the room. I go through a series of questions to really get an understanding about the couple, where they’re at in their process, what’s happened that’s led them to get to this point, just so I can have a pretty good understanding of where they’re at.
After I get that information, then I meet with one of them individually, and the other partner will be in the waiting room during that time. During that time, I’m really helping to challenge them to look at their role in the relationship and take some personal responsibility for how it got to where it is.
So, with the leaning in partner, the partner who wants to save this relationship, helping them see how some of the behaviors that they’re currently doing might actually be pushing their partner away. A lot of times they hear divorce, they freak out and they start nagging, they start yelling, they start protesting in whatever way because they’re terrified of losing their partner. This is a devastating thing to hear, so helping them be able to emotionally regulate and manage these emotions and figure out what behaviors they can change to give their relationship the best chance at reconciliation.
Then, with the leading out partner, I’m really looking at what is their role in how it got to where it is, because a lot of times it’s all the other person and that’s why they’re leaving, and, you know, all of that. So, really helping them understand that they played a role in this process and getting to where they are and then helping them look at what would make path three reconciliation, or it’s not even reconciliation it’s really just a pause, six months of couples therapy really all in effort and then deciding if whether or not it’s me reconciliation. So, what would get them to that point? What changes what they need to see in their partner, in the relationship, to consider that, consider reconciliation?
Sometimes I meet with the leaning in partner first, sometimes I meet with the leaning out partner first, but whoever I meet with first, going do that process and then I bring the other partner in for just a little summary. So, they’ll share just a little bit of something that they got out of our time together with their partner, and after that summary, I meet with the other spouse and it’s the same process. Then, at the end, I bring them both in together and they just share a little bit about some of the dynamics I’ve seen.
So, that’s the first session, and I asked each of them individually is this something they want to continue because I want to make sure that both of them feel like this is choice, that they’re not being dragged into this process, because if they are I’m not gonna do the work they need to do to get something out of it. So, making sure that they both feel like they are actively choosing this discernment process. You know, most the time they do decide to come in for another session and then I schedule that session and then the second to fifth sessions are about an hour and a half long. I bring them both in with just some brief questions in the beginning, and then once again meeting with them individually. Kind of digging in deeper and also having kind of that little summary at the end, and so that’s kind of how that goes.
Josh: It sounds to me like there might be competing interests here. One half of that couple might want to get divorced and the other half might want to stay married. So, why would they both decide to come to you? What’s the benefit for each half of that couple?
Theresa: So, you’re a hundred percent correct. There are competing interests and competing agendas. That’s why couples therapy doesn’t work, because the goal of couples therapy is to improve the relationship. So, if one person isn’t sure they want to be in the relationship, that agenda is not going to work for them. So, for the person who’s considering leaving, a lot of times there is some ambivalence there and that’s why they come to discernment counseling, so they’re able to get some clarity on the relationship. They’re also able to better understand their role in how they got to where they are, because they could divorce this partner, but they’re gonna see the same things in future relationships if they don’t figure out what they are and address them. So, whether they decide to stay with this person or they decide to divorce, they’re able to have this more clarity and confidence about moving forward. Then, for the leading in partner the person who’s trying to save the relationship, this is their best chance at saving the relationship because they’re gonna be forced to take a hard look at their role in the relationship and what they brought to the table and what they would need to change moving forward. That’s, you know, just for the their benefit personally, as well as the relationship if they decide they do want to reconcile.
Josh: What are the outcomes in discernment counseling? A couple comes and sees you and, you know, one of them wants to divorce, the other one wants to stay together. What’s on the table? What could happen?
Theresa: So, for discernment counseling, there are three possible outcomes, or paths as we call them.
The first one is path one, and that would be the status quo, so that is continuing on as they are. It’s not a particularly popular one, but sometimes it is the path that people choose, because discernment counseling is one to five sessions. At the end of five sessions, deciding to get a divorce or deciding to commit to six months of couples therapy might not be where they’re at, and so they choose path one.
The second path is pursuing or continuing with divorce.
Then, the third path is taking divorce off the table for six months and during those six months committing to couples therapy and really working hard individually, and on the relationship, to see if this is a viable relationship, but it can be a happy, healthy relationship.
Josh: So, if we have two people with some more competing interests, how do you know if discernment counseling was successful?
Theresa: So, I would know the discernment counseling is successful if both people are able to take some ownership for their part in getting the relationship to where it is, and for them to have some clarity on the relationship and some confidence about the future of the relationship, the decision that they’re making. So, if they can dissolve the relationship and feel confident that’s the right decision, as opposed to a little ambivalent, then that would be an indicator that it’s successful. Or, if they are able to realize “hey this this is something I want to see if I can make work” and really commit to making some changes individually, and as a couple, to see if that relationship is successful, that would it be another indicator that it would be a success.
Josh: I often meet with people who aren’t sure they want a divorce and often their spouse is sure, but they have some reservations. So, my question to you is: is there a place for discernment counseling at the start of a divorce case when one party is either taking steps to initiate or otherwise stated he or she intends to?
Theresa: So, I would say a lot of times people pick up the phone or shoot an email to a lawyer a little bit faster than they’re ready for because well-meaning friends, families, even sometimes therapists, will encourage them to lawyer up. I think that taking a break, putting a pause for discernment counseling, can be super helpful as long as there are some level of ambivalence for both partners. So, if one person is a hundred percent sure that they want a divorce, discernment counseling isn’t the answer because it would give this leaning in partner who’s trying to save the relationship some false hope, and I would never want someone to have false hope. So as long as they’re, you know, at least five percent unsure that they want the divorce, discernment counseling can be a really great option to, you know, get some more clarity about what happened, confidence about direction for the future, and just a greater understanding of what happened in the relationship and each person’s role in it.
Josh: So, then I’m asking to follow up a question, and perhaps I already know the answer, but it’s not too late to go to discernment counseling even if the divorce is started, is that correct?
Theresa: That is correct, and in fact I work with couples for discernment counseling who already started the divorce process. I just encourage them to speak with their lawyer about it. Sometimes things can come up in discovery that can make discernment counseling a little bit more complicated, so I do encourage them to just put a pause in the divorce process to really give themselves space to discern is this relationship something we could see ourselves continuing, is it something that we are committed to separating on? So, that would be my recommendation.
Josh: So, they go to the discernment counseling and, for whatever reason, they want to proceed with the divorce either one of them or both of them. How do you think discernment counseling affects the divorce process?
Theresa: In discernment counseling couples are really taking a look at their individual role in the relationship and part of I think what makes divorce so contentious is there’s a lot of blame being thrown around. So, if people are able to take personal responsibility for their part of the problem, they are able to have more compassion and empathy for their partner because they have a better understanding of how the relationship, how the marriage, got to where it is. Then, my hope and my expectation would be that the divorce process would be more amicable and therefore also less costly, emotionally and financially.
Josh: What do you think is the biggest misconception about discernment counseling?
Theresa: So, I think the biggest misconception about discernment counseling is that it’s couples therapy. Sometimes they’ve already tried couples therapy and it hasn’t worked, and so they really don’t want to come and see a couples therapist because they are one of them is not sure that they want to be in this relationship. But, really discernment counseling is about understanding a couple dynamics, but really from the individual perspective. So, most of the work in discernment counseling is done one on one with the discernment counselor. So, your spouse isn’t going to be in the room for most of the work, because you’re really trying to figure out what was your role, what changes you would need to make in order to proceed to path three, which is you know, taking divorce off the table for six months and committing to couples therapy, just to see if that’s an option. So, it’s not, yeah, it’s not couples therapy and I think that is one of the biggest barriers for people to come in, especially when they’re on the fence and thinking about divorce.
Josh: So, why did you start being a discernment counselor? What brought you into the field?
Theresa: So, I’m trained as a couples therapist, that’s what my master’s degrees is in, and my licensing, and my specialty in my practice, Centered Connections, is working with couples. I used to see these mixed agenda couples in couples therapy, where one person was leaning into the relationship trying to save it, they’re the ones that reached out to me, and then the other person was leaning out of the relationship and considering ending the relationship and divorce. I’d be working with these couples and I would feel like it was doing really good work, but there was always this distance between me and the leaning out partner because my role as a couples therapist is really to help them save and fix the relationship, and that leaning out partner wasn’t so sure they wanted to fix this relationship. So, after certain amount of sessions, eventually they would decide I don’t want to do this anymore, this is not for me, couples therapy’s not working. It would break my heart because I really truly wanted to help these couples and I saw potential in them individually and as a couple and so I thought there’s got to be a better way to do this. That’s when I found out about discernment counseling and I thought oh my gosh finally there is something that can really help these couples and really meet them where they’re at. So, now I get to do couples therapy with a couples who are gonna benefit and thrive from couples therapy and they get to do two discernment counseling with the couples who need this clarity about the relationship, confidence about a future of the relationship, and a greater understanding of how they got there.
Josh: So, if someone wants to contact you, or your business Centered Connections, what should they do?
Theresa: So, they can find me at Centered Connections dot com, they can also find me on Facebook where I’ve got a lot of relationship tips, Centered Connections Chicago on Facebook, and they can send me an email or call me on the phone all my contact information is on my website and love to hear from them.