In at least 30 percent of couples who come to therapy, partners enter the consulting room with different agendas—one wants a divorce, the other wants to save the marriage.
That’s the conservative assessment of Bill Doherty, renowned couples therapist, who says the stakes are high in this scenario and traditional couples approaches fall short with these mixed-agenda couples.
To address the unique challenges of helping these couples, Bill developed a process he calls Discernment Counseling. It’s neither couples therapy nor individual therapy. It’s a short-term process—5 sessions—designed to help partners achieve greater clarity about what’s at stake and get to a place of agreement about what to do next.
As Bill has explained, a central strategy of Discernment Counseling is that most of the work goes on in separate conversations with each spouse. Here’s how it plays out in an initial 3-hour session: In the first 40 minutes, Bill sees partners together and listens to both their stories and perspectives on the marriage.
Then he spends more than an hour seeing each partner separately focusing on each one’s agenda—leaving or saving the marriage—and trying to open up a deeper understanding of that partner’s contributions to the marital dynamics and areas of potential change. At the end of each individual conversation, he helps the partner prepare a summary to be shared with the other. The session ends with Bill’s feedback.
The goal is not to solve problems or make decisions about staying or splitting. In fact, divorce is off the table during Discernment Counseling. It’s to give both partners greater understanding of their own roles in the marriage dance, identify what change is possible, and move partners towards agreement about the path to pursue next.
Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.
William Doherty, PhD, is professor of family social science and director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project at the University of Minnesota. He’s the author of the forthcoming book, The Ethical Lives of Clients: Transcending Self-Interest in Psychotherapy.