Making the decision to end a marriage will be one of the biggest decisions anyone can ever face because it will affect them for the rest of their life - especially if they have kids. With so much at stake, this is not a decision most people take lightly - and with good reason.
But what happens if despite years of contemplation, soul-searching and/or marriage counseling, one or both spouses are still no closer to clarity on which path to take than when they began? Or what if one spouse wants out of the marriage but the other isn't sure?
Today's post is an interview with Dr. Dana Baerger. Dana is a psychologist who maintains a private psychotherapy practice in Chicago and is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
She is also among a select group of mental health professionals who is a certified discernment counselor which is the topic of today's post.
What is Discernment Counseling?
Discernment counseling is a therapeutic approach designed to help couples who are seriously contemplating divorce. It's often described as assisting couples who are "on the brink" - in other words, people who are struggling with the decision to initiate either couples therapy or divorce proceedings, and who feel torn, ambivalent, or hopeless.
This counseling approach was developed by Dr. Bill Doherty at the University of Minnesota, where the original "Couples on the Brink Project" surveyed couples who had recently filed for divorce in family court. Dr. Doherty is a marital and family therapist who worked for years to develop an effective and compassionate treatment approach to couples in which at least one partner is deeply conflicted about remaining in the marriage.
How does discernment counseling work?
When a couple contacts me, I have separate telephone conversations with both parties. This enables me to spend some time getting to know the couple, gathering a preliminary history, and developing a sense of each spouse's concerns.
Once I understand the couple's goals, we meet together in session. It's important to note that discernment counseling sessions are solution-focused and this may be different from any prior couples counseling the couple has had.
In discernment counseling, we remain focused on identifying possible outcomes for the marriage and choosing among them, while reflecting on the needs of everyone involved.
How long does it take?
Discernment counseling lasts between one and five sessions. The number of sessions is limited in order to ensure that the discernment work doesn't drift into half-hearted couples therapy, which is likely to have a low probability of success.
Sometimes, even a single session can help the couple identify a productive path forward. Couples make the decision whether to return for additional sessions at the end of each meeting, so we're always asking whether or not they've gotten the clarity they need.
How is discernment counseling different than traditional couples counseling?
Discernment counseling differs from traditional couples counseling in a number of ways. First, as I mentioned, the number of sessions is limited, which helps support focus, intensity, and momentum.
Second, the sessions are solution-focused. We're not treating a couple's marital issues. Instead, we're identifying what those issues are, and assessing the extent to which they're reparable. In other words, sessions are not used to explore the couple's history, but rather to explore their possible futures.
Finally, even the structure of the sessions is different. While the couple meets conjointly at the beginning and end of each session, the intense work is done with only one spouse in the treatment room at a time. This offers couples a safe, private space in which to fully explore all their emotions and fears regarding the relationship.
What are the benefits of discernment counseling?
Discernment counseling can help spouses who feel demoralized or exhausted get "unstuck" and choose a path forward.
However, possibly the greatest benefit I've seen in my practice is that it offers couples an opportunity to obtain what Dr. Bill Doherty calls a "consultation on the marriage." I've found that couples often request and benefit from receiving detailed, supportive feedback on their marriage.
We explore in depth the reasons why the marriage isn't working, as well as the reasons why prior couples therapy may have failed to produce the results the couple wanted.
Who is this type of counseling best-suited for?
Discernment counseling is suited for anyone who would like greater clarity regarding the future of their relationship.
Who is it not suited for?
It's important that both parties want to participate in discernment counseling, and that both feel free of coercion. Discernment counseling wouldn't be appropriate if one spouse was making potential settlement threats unless the other participated, for example.
Discernment counseling is also not appropriate for violent relationships, or relationships in which physically aggressive or abusive behavior is a concern.
What are the different possible outcomes of discernment counseling?
In discernment counseling, we explore three possible outcomes:
First, the couple may choose to remain in the marriage as it has been.
While a small minority of couples ultimately choose this path, it does work for couples who are not ready to either end the marriage or to work on the relationship, and who would like to take the insights gleaned from their discernment sessions and reflect on them over time.
Second, the couple may choose to move on to separation and divorce.
Third, the couple may choose to commit to a period of couples counseling.
Discernment counselors typically recommend that couples commit to six months of treatment, and that they then reevaluate their progress. While all of the marital issues will likely not be resolved within six months, couples will have a sense of their general trajectory and well-being.
What would next steps be for the couple based on each outcome - in other words, where does the couple go from there?
If a couple decides to postpone decision-making about the marriage, I'll check in with them every six months or so to find out how they're doing.
If a couple decides to take steps toward legal separation and divorce, we usually discuss the different types of divorce, in order to identify the process that best fits their needs. Divorcing parents often want to discuss how to tell their children, as well as how to minimize on-going conflict and increase mutual respect and cooperation. I can refer couples to mediators or attorneys with whom I think they'd fit well.
Finally, if a couple chooses to pursue couples counseling, I can refer them to a therapist who I think will help them reach their goals.
Couples can also choose to work with me.
How does a couple typically find their way to you?
Probably the most common way is via the internet, believe it or not, after a spouse has learned about discernment counseling and done some research on it. I also receive a lot of referrals from family law attorneys and primary care physicians.
As a discernment counselor in Chicago, I tend to see couples who have been married for multiple decades, who have seen multiple prior couples therapists without success, and who are deeply pained by the possible end of their marriage.
There are so many factors to consider in these situations, and so many different people's needs to balance. I'm always struck by how thoughtful couples strive to be about the crisis that they're facing, even in the midst of great personal pain.
To learn more about Dana and the work she does, visit: www.drbaerger.com.
And if you don't live in Chicago, here's a directory of Discernment Counselors in the US.
If you and your spouse do decide to divorce, the choices you make before you start the process are critical.
Regardless of how many years you've been married, whether you're the one who wants the divorce, your spouse does or you're both on the same page, the choices you make before you start your divorce will likely set the tone for how the entire process will unfold for you and your children.
And how peaceful, fair, child-focused and cost-effective your divorce will (or won't) be.
But you can only make smart choices if you take the time to get educated and prepare for divorce first.
That's exactly why we created a downloadable kit for smart people like you - to help you do just that!
Click on the link below to learn more about what's included in the kit and sign-up to get yours:
Other Useful Resources: