VIDEO: When One Partner Wants Out

Discernment Counseling for the Mixed-Agenda Couple

Bill Doherty

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.


William Doherty, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota, where he directs the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project. With his daughter Elizabeth Doherty Thomas, he cofounded The Doherty Relationship Institute, which offers online training in discernment counseling.

Want to help your clients who struggle with intimacy, sexuality, divorce, and the very purpose of marriage? Check out Bill's recent article on our cultural attitudes toward divorce---and why they need to change---in our July/August 2015 issue of the Networker, Should This Marriage Be Saved?: Therapists & the Dilemma of Divorce.

To read our FREE blogs on Couples, click here.

Topic: Couples

Tags: boundaries | conversation | counseling | couples therapist | discernment counseling | divorce | individual therapy | intimacy | learning | psychotherapy | sex | therapist | therapy | William Doherty | Couple's Therapy | doherty | bill doherty | divorce counseling

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2 Comments

Sunday, April 24, 2016 1:30:21 PM | posted by Paula Susan
Enthusiastically, I applaud you. What you say makes every other theory obsolete. I am in a peer support group discussing cases with a group of seasoned psychiatrists, social workers, psychologists, addiction counselors for about 19 - 20 years. What I hear is that by doing this, or accepting "secrets" in that meeting with the individuals and keeping them confidential (for the time) I am colluding. What are therapists working with if THEY don't know what is going on. False therapy to make money and to unknowingly collude with the partner who either doesn't have the courage to speak their truth or is having a love affair? So I am the lone guy. And, I know how to handle the process if one is having an affair. How to help that person make decisions. It would take too long to explain all that and how I work with the partner or suspend therapy until the one partner has decided and work with that one to that end. There are so many creative ways of working in complex cases! It's our mandate to do the absolute best we can and that requires knowing - deep knowing - what is going on!!!

Saturday, October 3, 2015 1:34:51 PM | posted by Gary Schoener
As usual, Bill provides some good insights and a very interesting way to approach marital counseling. It makes a ton of sense. I am wondering what sort of a release is used because the privacy situation is complicated by the fact that he will know information from each that might impact his work with the other. Also, I assume two separate client charts are used. Finally, what happens if one drops out and one would like to continue with Bill?

Gary Schoener