Discernment Counseling

Discernment Counseling is a structured protocol consisting of five two-hour sessions designed for couples when one partner wants to save the marriage (or relationship) and one partner is uncertain or wants to end the relationship. It was developed by Dr. Bill Doherty over the past 20 years at the urging of Family Law Judges and Family Law Attorneys and out of his own frustration around not knowing exactly how to work with a couple when there is a “mixed agenda,” meaning they want different things in relation to their primary relationship.

The counseling sessions are structured in the following manner in the hope of arriving at one of three possible outcomes or “Paths.” Below is the structure utilized for Discernment Counseling and the three possible outcomes or “Paths” to take.

  1. Individual assessment of each member of the couple. (50 minute session for each)
  2. Five two-hour sessions structured in the following manner:
    1. 15 minute check in with the couple (what is your frame of mind today; anything important to report from the prior week);
    2. 40 minute individual session with one partner (usually the ‘leaning out partner’ first)
    3. 40 minute individual session with the other partner
    4. 15 minute check-out (“what is your ‘take away’ from the session this week?”)
    5. A minimum of five sessions is recommended, but of course, either partner can discontinue the Discernment Counseling at any time and/or partners sometimes want to move ahead with Path 3 (see below) and begin the six months of intensive couples therapy to see if the relationship can be saved.


  1. Leave things as they are for now;
  2. Proceed with separation or divorce (couples often continuing coming to therapy for guidance in this process, especially if there are children involved);
  3. Commit to six months of intensive couples counseling (and any adjunctive individual therapy, workshops, classes or reading that might be indicated).

When couples choose to separate or divorce they are usually more cooperative and respectful if they have been in Discernment Counseling before arriving at the decision to end their relationship. This, of course, contributes to better managing the complicated process of beginning to co-parent as a separated or divorced couple. In truth, you have to get along better as a divorced couple than you did as a married couple to co-parent effectively. Many couples need support to make this transition as emotionally healthy as possible for their children.