The last 10 to 15 minutes is with the couple, beginning with each sharing what they took from our individual conversation. Often leaning-out spouses will say that they got some more insight into their contributions to the problems and are willing to return for another Discernment Counseling session, and leaning-in spouses will focus on the personal changes they want to work on in the coming days. 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.
A central tenet of this way of working and the main way of avoiding doomed, halfhearted 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. That way, if a leaning-out partner says that the “marriage counseling isn’t working,” I can point out that they haven’t tried marriage counseling yet: Discernment Counseling is helping them decide whether to try marriage counseling. I tell them it’s like taking an antibiotic, in that you can’t say that the antibiotic isn’t helping if you haven’t taken it yet. We’re working on a decision about whether to try the medication, or let the disease takes its course. It’s important that Discernment Counseling be a short-term process, or else it will seem like endless couples therapy.
I didn’t always have a name for this process; sometimes I’d call it “decision-making counseling,” or “premarriage counseling,” or “ambivalence counseling.” I now see an advantage to have a formal name that communicates to clients that there’s a structure to the process that’s distinct from the structure of couples therapy. The name came out of my work with a group of collaborative divorce lawyers who wanted to refer clients to something that didn’t sound like marriage counseling of the kind that hadn’t worked for these couples in the past. They wanted it to sound neutral about the couple’s final direction, and sending them to a discernment process didn’t imply that they should try to avoid divorce.
Discernment Counseling creates a holding environment for mixed-agenda couples where both partners can bring their best selves to this crisis in their marriage. I help the leaning-out partners of the marriage in a more complex way that helps reveal their own contribution to the problems. For leaning-out partners who’ve been dealing with abuse, ongoing affairs, or other serious irresponsibility from their partners, I help them firm up their resolve to change the intolerable situation. Leaning-in partners get to do something constructive other than wait for the other to decide the fate of the marriage: they can make constructive changes in themselves to try to reboot the marriage. I’ve been amazed at how much challenge leaning-in partners will accept from me in Discernment Counseling because they know I want to help them pull their marriage out of the fire.
Discernment in Action
Jennifer and Michael came in a demoralized state after Jennifer had discovered that Michael was still having contact with a former coworker with whom he’d had an emotional affair—secret meetings and long, personal talks about Michael’s marriage and other things, but no sex. Jennifer saw a divorce lawyer to learn about collaborative divorce, and the lawyer referred the couple to me. Michael said he felt lifeless in the marriage, with no attraction for Jennifer and a feeling that he should stay married to her out of duty to their four young children. After three efforts during their 15 years of marriage, he was down on marital therapy. They’d been to nice counselors and had made some progress in learning how to communicate, but otherwise therapy had been a downhill trajectory. Michael felt like the junior partner to a senior-manager wife who gave him orders, and didn’t see a future for the marriage. Jennifer was furious about the affair, but wanted to work on the marriage. If Michael’s bent was to retreat into despairing passivity, hers was to push him to confront his ambivalence, commit to ending the relationship with the other woman, and work on being a full partner with her.
When I learned this basic information with each of them separately on the phone, I offered Discernment Counseling, rather than a first session of marital therapy. Michael opened up more in the individual conversation than in the initial couples time, telling me he felt he’d entered the marriage on a rebound from a turbulent romance with another woman, and had chosen Jennifer as someone safe. What he didn’t realize was how “controlling” she’d turn out to be, especially after they’d had children. He mainly let her have her own way, giving himself over to his work and to being a good father, but something inside was dying, and his friendship with a coworker made him feel alive as a man again. It showed him how unhappy he was at home. Prior therapy had felt like plodding through “communication issues,” with no real change in their dynamic as a couple, and he felt that he was being cast as the bad guy for not being a more emotionally open partner.
This was a classic presentation from a man in a declining marriage who’d been through the wringer of couples therapy a few times. Michael was pessimistic about trying more therapy, not only because of past failures, but because he now believed that he and Jennifer simply weren’t compatible. They were both good people, he said, but no longer good for each other.
As the Discernment Counselor, my first stance was to listen and empathize with his loneliness and hopelessness, and then to try to understand how he got into the emotional affair and what he’d learned from it. That’s the compassion part of Discernment Counseling. The other part is expanding the divorce narrative to include personal contributions to the problems. I worked to help him see that he hadn’t been a passive victim of an overbearing wife, but had participated fully in creating their parent–adolescent dynamic. Having an emotional affair was a temporary safety-valve release from the marital pressure, but it was ultimately bound to distance him more and elicit more emotional pursuit and attempts at control from Jennifer.
Discernment Counseling is all about helping both parties own their own contributions to the marital problems before deciding to exit a failing marriage, and opening up a possible reconciliation narrative they might create together. Leaning-out spouses accept the challenge of self-examination more readily when I’m seeing them one on one and not pushing them to work on the marriage. Ironically, when hopeless spouses like Michael see their own contributions more clearly, they sometimes feel more hopeful instead of more despairing. You can’t change your partner, I point out, but you can change yourself, and that might change things in the marriage.
So as not to lean too hard on preserving the marriage, I then frame the benefits of working on self, whether or not the marriage endures. After all, partners will bring these personal challenges—problems with boundaries, assertiveness, attachment, or sexuality—into their next relationships, probably with the added complications of stepfamily life. The question becomes whether to do the needed work on oneself in this marriage with these kids and in this family, or to do the work in future relationships. You can’t divorce yourself, I say; you take yourself with you into every new relationship.
Michael was receptive to looking at himself, but kept returning to the incompatibility theme. Jennifer and he were too different in their needs and temperaments, he said, and he couldn’t be the person she was asking him to be. These days, many clients have learned they shouldn’t say “my spouse is a jerk,” but “we’re just too different as individuals to make a marriage work”—either from the beginning, or because “we’ve grown in different directions.” This has a conveniently no-bad-guys flavor, which divorcing celebrities trumpet in the press when they announce that they’ve remained the best of friends.
Couples therapists inevitably bring their own values and perspectives to these cases. After 40 years of marriage and 33 years as a marital therapist, my own view of incompatibility is that it’s much overrated. Every couple is incompatible if you dig deeply enough. I believe that people who once fell in love, made a lifetime commitment, and bore children together don’t divorce because of their differences, but because of how they deal with their differences over the years. We choose to accentuate our differences, real and imagined; it doesn’t just happen to us. You can bring a perfectly good marriage to its knees in a year or two by deciding personal differences—which didn’t seem so objectionable before—are intolerable. Short of flagrant pathology, we can make healthy choices to work with the differences between us and our lifemates. That’s what I told Michael, and it was enough to intrigue him into staying with the Discernment Counseling process.
With Jennifer alone, the compassion part of the process involved listening to her pain about Michael’s emotional affair and her frustration at carrying on with a partner who’d been checked out for many years. As with most leaning-in spouses, her focus was on her partner and her tools for getting him to shift course—by being affectionate (which wasn’t reciprocated), scolding (that had predictable results), or aloof (which could send a message that she didn’t care). Because Jennifer mostly wanted to talk about Michael, my job was to get her to look at herself as an actor in this marital crisis. Depending on how open the leaning-in spouse is to self-exploration, the focus can be on only the immediate behaviors that are making things worse or on his or her overall role in creating problems in the marriage. Jennifer was frantic enough in the first session that she could only focus on her role in the current crisis.
I assume a coaching role with these hopeful spouses, helping them stop pursuing through too much affection or bouts of criticism, while not distancing and rejecting. I can be quite challenging with the leaning-in spouse, something they let me do because I identify with their goal of saving the marriage. I suggested to Jennifer that the best thing for her to do while Michael was trying to figure out his own decision was to work on her personal boundaries and anxiety management. She struggled with what I said, but had to agree since it was obvious that her way wasn’t working.
At the end of the first session, Michael reported that he’d had some new insights about his role in the marital problems and previous counseling, and that he was willing to continue the Discernment Counseling. Jennifer focused on what she was going to work on to handle her anxiety and not push him for a commitment. The subsequent three sessions followed a similar format, but with much more individual time: a brief check-in as a couple, then work with each separately, and a couple check-out. I continued to work on the themes of the first session, keeping the focus on the decision of whether to try to reconcile or move toward divorce. With Michael, I talked more about his affair partner, and he came to realize that he’d have to cut off contact with her if he chose the reconciliation path. I told Jennifer that this was part of my discussion with Michael, so that she didn’t have to keep repeating her expectation that he end the affair if he wanted to work on the marriage.