A New Relationship Assessment Protocol: Discernment Counseling

Is your marriage in distress? Have things evolved to the point where you or your partner is seriously thinking of leaving the marriage? Does it seem like you might benefit from either couples counseling or a process to discern whether there is enough good in the marriage to try to salvage it? If so, Discernment Counseling might help you and your spouse spend some time seriously thinking about a decision that will impact both of you and your children for the rest of your lives.

There are generally only 4 or 5 “hard” reasons for couples to divorce. These include:

  • Untreated substance abuse
  • Untreated serial infidelity (or one partner wants to be polyamorous and the other does not)
  • Untreated physical or verbal spousal abuse
  • One partner decides they want to “come out” as the opposite sex of the person they were when they married (couples could decide to stay together in this situation, of course)
  • Criminal activity resulting in imprisonment (couples do sometimes stay together in this case as well)

“Soft” reasons often given for divorcing can often be worked on in couples therapy with enough improvement that couples decide to stay together. “Soft” reasons might include:

  • We’ve “grown apart”
  • We are just too opposite
  • I don’t love him/her anymore
  • I don’t feel like my spouse loves or desires me anymore
  • Our sex life is poor or non-existent
  • We just can’t communicate
  • We have conflicting parenting styles
  • We have too many conflicts over money

You could probably come up with a few reasons of your own or ones you’ve heard friends/relatives complain about in their marriage. Discernment Counseling can prevent ‘unnecessary’ divorces when ‘soft’ reasons are the presenting problem in couples therapy.

Additionally, studies now reveal that 35% of couples who are already in the filing stage of divorce say they still feel some ambivalence about divorcing. Discernment Counseling can give these individuals and couples a chance to slow down the divorce process and really think through a decision that will have an impact on them for the rest of their lives. Often couples have invested years in the relationship and are sharing in parenting responsibilities. Usually, they have accumulated many assets together, including a home, savings, and retirement accounts. Oddly enough, the more years couples have together and the more they have invested in the marriage, the more difficult real emotional intimacy becomes. I call this the cruel paradox of love and intimacy. The more we have invested, the more we allow ourselves to love and want our partner, and the more anxiety-provoking intimacy (both sexual and emotional) becomes.

If individuals truly want, love, and depend emotionally on their partner, then they might think: ‘Oh my God, what if my partner is unfaithful or what if, God forbid, my partner predeceases me?’ The potential emotional pain of the prospect of losing their partner becomes so frightening that individuals can withdraw or shut down emotionally in the relationship. This emotional withdrawal helps avoid feelings of vulnerability around emotions depending on their partner. Avoiding conflict and not expressing difficult feelings can have this same deadening impact on the relationship and ultimately decrease emotional intimacy in long-term relationships. Ironically this avoidance is a positive attempt to secure the attachment to their partner. They might think, “If I directly confront difficult feelings and issues with my partner, they may decide to leave me.”

The subsequent breakdown in communication, emotional and sexual intimacy, and shared positive experiences together (often including any sense of feeling appreciated by their partner) can lead one or both members of the couple to think that divorce might be the only solution to an ‘emotionally dead’ relationship. This situation can also lead to sexual acting out and marital infidelity before couples end up in my office and/or in the divorce courts.

When I meet with couples, I conduct a four-part assessment protocol that includes:

  • Meeting with the couple (75 minutes)
  • Meeting with one spouse (50 minutes)
  • Meeting with the other spouse (50 minutes)
  • Meeting with the couple. (75 minutes)

After this process, I can present the couple with my assessment of their issues and dynamics and we can collaboratively decide whether to proceed with couples counseling or Discernment Counseling.

What is Discernment Counseling?

Discernment Counseling provides a structured format for couples when one partner wants to end the marriage and the other partner wants to maintain the relationship. During 5 structured meetings, I work with each member of the couple individually for a large portion of the 100-minute session. I meet briefly with the couple at the beginning and end of each session. At the end of our time together couples can choose one of three options: 1) leave things as they are, 2) go towards separation/divorce, or 3) commit to 6 months of intensive couples therapy to determine the viability of the relationship.
If couples choose to go towards divorce, they have laid the groundwork for treating each other with respect during the divorce process. They can continue to meet with me for help in sorting out custody arrangements and co-parenting if there are children involved. This mutual cooperation will usually ensure a more harmonious co-parenting relationship for the future reconfiguration of their family.

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