Discernment Counseling: William Doherty on Helping Couples on the Brink

Treating the Mixed-Agenda Couple

William Doherty

From my practice experience and conversations with therapists around the country, I estimate that at least 30 percent of couples present with different agendas about whether to try to save the marriage or move toward divorce. The stakes are high in these kinds of scenarios. So what do you so with a mixed-agenda couple?

I propose Discernment Counseling as a short-term process with the goal of achieving greater clarity about whether to try to restore the marriage or to continue toward divorce. I don’t frame the immediate decision as whether to divorce or stay married for life, but whether to carve out a six-month period of all-out effort to restore the marriage to health, with divorce off the table during that time. At the end of six months, they can put the divorce decision back on the table, based on what they’ve learned about the possibility of successfully rebuilding their marriage.

A central strategy of this work is that although the couple comes in together each time, most of the work goes on in separate conversations with each spouse. In the first 40 minutes of the initial session, I see them together and get both their stories and perspectives on the marriage. I then spend more than an hour seeing each of them separately. I focus on each one’s agenda (leaving or saving the marriage, along with other agendas) and try to open up a deeper understanding of each one’s contributions to the marital dynamics and areas of potential change. At the end of each individual conversation, I help the partner prepare a summary to be shared with the other partner at the end of the session. We end with my feedback on their relationship story, with a focus on what’s possible to change, if they both decide to work on the marriage all-out for six months. We then decide about rescheduling.

The main way I avoid doing doomed, half-hearted couples therapy is that I don’t claim to be doing couples therapy until I have an informed agreement with both partners to work on the marriage. Discernment Counseling is helping them decide whether to try.


In our newest Webcast series—The Changing Face of Marriage—Bill explains how partners today are approaching relationships with a “consumer” mindset. It’s not just that they’re concerned for their loved one’s well-being, he says, but each partner is equally interested in his or her own psychological and economic welfare. With Bill’s instruction, you’ll learn the essential tools needed to help struggling partners assess their relationships with a mindful, inquisitive approach. When should you talk to partners together? Separately? And what questions should you ask? This Webcast series will help you find out.

Topic: Couples

Tags: conversation | counseling | discernment counseling | divorce | HEAL | mindful | relationships | SPECT | TED | therapist | therapists | therapy | William Doherty

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