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Discernment Counseling: What Do You Do When Your Head Says “Stay” & Your Heart Says “Go”?

Are You Ready for Divorce?

TAKE THIS QUIZ and Find Out. 

Should you stay … or should you go? If you’re like most people, once that question pops into your consciousness, the way you look at your marriage changes – sometimes forever. You struggle to make a decision … sometimes for years. Discernment counseling can help you and your spouse get out of indecision and figure out what you want to do with your marriage moving forward.

Head and heart on scales.

What is Discernment Counseling?

Discernment counseling is a relatively new kind of couples counseling. It was developed  by Bill Doherty, PhD, in conjunction with the University of Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project.

Dr. Doherty designed discernment counseling for what he calls “mixed agenda” couples. “Mixed agenda” couples are couples in which one spouse is leaning toward ending their marriage, while the other spouse is leaning toward saving it.

Unlike traditional marriage counseling, the goal of discernment counseling is NOT to help you save your marriage.  Instead, it’s focused on helping you decide whether you and your spouse want to stay married at all.

More specifically, the goals of discernment counseling are:

  • To help couples get clear about what they want for the future of their marriage and to help them make a decision about their marriage with confidence;
  • To help couples gain a deeper understanding of what happened to their marriage; and
  • To help each individual spouse gain a deeper understanding of the role s/he played in getting their marriage to the point it’s currently at.
Serious young business woman holding holographic illustrations of a brain in one hand and a heart in the other.

How Does Discernment Counseling Work?

As anyone who’s ever tried marriage counseling knows – it’s a process!

Going to marriage counseling requires an open-ended commitment to talk about, and work on, your marriage. That commitment can last for months – or even years!

Discernment counseling, on the other hand, is totally different. It is “limited scope” counseling. That means it only lasts between 1 – 5 sessions. After that, a couple has made one of the only three decisions possible in discernment counseling:

  • To stay married, and to go to marriage counseling for at least 6 months to work on their marriage;
  • To get divorced; or
  • To do nothing and stay locked in indecision.

Discernment counseling is typically conducted in 1½ to 2 hour sessions. During each session the therapist will usually work with each spouse individually  and with both spouses together.

In the discernment counseling process, the therapist works to help each spouse get clarity about:

  • What happened to their marriage;
  • What role they played in bringing their marriage to this point; and
  • What they want to do about their marriage in the future.

Kristin Hall Sliwicki, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Discernment Counselor, explains the difference between discernment counseling and marriage counseling this way.

“Discernment counseling is a structured assessment process, not treatment.”

In other words, marriage counseling is designed to help you work on your marriage. Discernment counseling is designed to help you make a decision about your marriage.

Lightbulb superimposed ona the outline of a face over a stormy sky signifying making a decision with a decision coach.

How Does Discernment Counseling Differ from Decision-Coaching?

Both discernment counseling and decision coaching are designed to help someone reach a decision about the future of his/her marriage with confidence and clarity. Each process, however, achieves that goal in slightly different ways.

The primary difference between discernment counseling and decision coaching is that discernment counseling is done with couples. If both spouses don’t agree to go to discernment counseling, it doesn’t happen.

Decision coaching, however, is done with an individual. It doesn’t require both spouses to agree to attend. That can be both positive and negative.

It’s positive because you can do it yourself. You don’t need to rely on your spouse for anything. As a matter of fact, you can go through decision coaching without even telling your spouse you’re contemplating divorce.

On the other hand, because you are going through the decision-making process yourself, the decision you reach will necessarily be YOUR decision.  It won’t always include your spouse. (Although, a good decision coach will help you work with your spouse if you choose to do so.)

Another difference is that discernment counseling is typically done by a therapist. It’s designed to help each spouse explore the role s/he played in getting their marriage to the brink of divorce.

Decision coaching, on the other hand, is conducted by a coach rather than a therapist. While discernment counseling is focused on understanding the past, decision coaching is focused on creating the future.

What’s more, decision coaching does more than help you just make a decision. It also helps you create a plan for moving forward with that decision so that you can create a life you love in the future.

Having a plan helps you take action. A decision that you don’t act on is like no decision at all.

(To learn more about decision coaching, how it works, and how it can help you, click the button below.)


Sign with "Marriage" and "Divorce" pointing in opposite directions.

What if I Want a Divorce but My Spouse Wants to Stay Married? (Or Vice Versa)

No form of coaching, counseling, or therapy can keep a couple together when one spouse is determined to separate. But, until at least one spouse is committed to ending their marriage, there’s space to work on the marriage, even if that space is incredibly small.

In that tiny space, discernment counseling can often have a much bigger impact than marriage counseling.

Why?

First of all, it’s often difficult to get a spouse who’s leaning out of the marriage to commit to spending months or years in open-ended marriage counseling. They see the counseling process as being long and painful. Since they’re not even sure that going through that painful process will make a difference in their marriage,  they often aren’t willing to try it. (Or, to try it again!)

Discernment counseling, on the other hand, is time-limited. That, in and of itself, may convince a spouse who’s “leaning out” of their marriage, to try it.

Secondly, unlike marriage counseling, discernment counseling has a clear objective: to make a decision.

At the end of your discernment counseling process you and your spouse have either made a decision, or you haven’t. The results are clear and easy to measure.

Marriage counseling, on the other hand, doesn’t have an objective that is as clear as discernment counseling. When marriage counseling is over, a couple can’t always tell whether it was successful or not.

Sure, you may still be together once your counseling is over … but are you happy? Is your relationship obviously better? And, if it is better, will it stay that way?

Those are all difficult questions to answer, They’re also very subjective. That makes the outcome of marriage counseling much more murky than the outcome of discernment counseling.

Hand cutting a rope with scissors.

Who Should NOT Use Discernment Counseling

Even though discernment counseling can be an amazing tool, it’s not for everyone.

If you (or your spouse) has already decided for sure that you want a divorce, then going to discernment counseling probably makes no sense. You already know your marriage is over.

Discernment counseling is not a place where you go to “let your spouse down easy” simply because you don’t have the guts to tell the truth.

On the other hand, if you know your marriage is over, but your spouse just won’t let go, then going through the discernment counseling process might be helpful.

It can bring your spouse clarity and closure. It can also help both of you understand what went wrong in your marriage so that you can each take responsibility for the role you played. Doing that will help you avoid making the same mistakes again in your next relationships.

Discernment counseling can also help you and your spouse start to heal even if your marriage is irretrievably broken. It can give the two of you a safe space to talk about the way you want to go through your divorce so that it’s less destructive and less painful.

The key to making discernment counseling productive, though, lies in one word: honesty.

If you’ve already decided to divorce, and a discernment counselor is willing to help you and your spouse work through the emotional pain that your decision will cause your spouse, that’s fine.  

But lying to your spouse or your discernment counselor about your real intentions is only likely to backfire. Healing can’t happen when honesty isn’t part of your conversation.

(NOTE: Discernment counseling is not appropriate if you have been the victim of domestic violence or if your spouse is threatening you in any way.)

Woman on a storm floating on a cushion in the ocean with an umbrella over her head.

Does Discernment Counseling Make Sense for You?

If you’re stuck in indecision, struggling to decide whether to stay married or get a divorce, discernment counseling can be a Godsend. It can help you and your spouse take stock of your marriage, figure out what went wrong, and decide whether or not you want to try again.

Discernment counseling can help even when you and your spouse have totally different ideas about what to do with your marriage. It’s a perfect tool to help you and your spouse assess your marriage when one of you is leaning toward trying to save the marriage and the other is leaning toward divorce.

Yet, even though discernment counseling can be very effective, it’s still not easy. Deciding whether to end your marriage – especially a long-term marriage – is never easy.

At the same time, spending your life on the fence isn’t easy either. A good discernment counselor can help you and your spouse get off the fence so you can get on with your lives.

_____

A special thanks goes out to Kristin Hall Sliwicki, LCPC, LMFT, for her help with this article. Kristin is a Certified Discernment Counselor located in Libertyville, Illinois. She works primarily with couples who are trying to figure out what to do with their marriage. You can connect with her at prairielakescounseling.com.

This article was originally published in September, 2015 and updated on October 6, 2021.


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deciding to divorce, discernment counseling, divorce blog


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  • I enjoyed reading your article, Karen! I’ve been thinking about going to marriage counseling, so I’m glad that I stumbled upon your post. I think you’re absolutely right: going to counseling is a new way to clear your relationship of your problems. I’ll be sure to follow your suggestion by inviting my spouse to go with me. Thanks for the great tips; you’ve been very helpful!

      • Hi Karen. My husband and I have been married for 20 years and 4 teenage kids together. We have have spent the best and worse years of our life together, and we have been the best and worst of ourselves to each other. 4 years into our marriage, he had a 6-month affair. We reconciled, or tried to, but 3 years after that I spiraled into 1 year of partying and cheating. We went to couples counseling for several years after that and maintained our marriage for the next 8 years, during which we both felt like we had grown individually as well as back in love. But then 3 1/2 years ago, several major circumstances happened within less than a year of each other: he took a new job in which he traveled 70% of the time; I started a grad program; I had a major falling out with my parents in which I was “disowned” and not allowed to see my siblings, one of whom I’d been a caregiver for her cerebral palsy since her birth; and I was gang-raped while drunk at a bar. In the aftermath of this set of circumstances, my husband continued to travel frequently and kept things happy and light (as long as I didn’t bring up any of my issues) when he was home, while I turned to heavy drinking and promiscuity to cope. It was mostly random sex, and I did have one affair that was emotional as well as sexual. He remained unaware of my infidelity until 6 months ago when he found out about the affair by looking through my email. He tried to reconcile and even suggested an open marriage as a solution to his traveling and emotional unavailability, but I was honest with him and told him that would not be a good idea for me, and I told him about the hypersexuality that developed after the rape. We both realize that we have also each been dealing with depression over the last few years. We both want to heal and have sought individual therapy (he started 3 weeks ago; I have been in individual therapy for the rape for 2 years now). He now says he is thinking about a separation, and while that is the last thing that I want, I am willing to give him the space he is asking for. We just don’t know what kind of separation would be best, or if we should see a discernment therapist for this?

        • Oh my! You have definitely been through a lot! Kudos to both you and your husband for seeking out therapy and starting on your healing journey.

          If you want to give yourselves the best chance for success, it is super important to structure any separation you undertake so that everyone is clear on the goals, boundaries, and rules right from the start. I don’t know you well enough to advise you about what kind of separation you should or shouldn’t do. If you’re interested in learning more about how to structure a trial separation for success, and to learn the difference between a trial separation and a legal separation I invite you to check out my article” 3 Things You MUST Agree on for a Trial Separation to Work.

          As for discernment counseling, it’s a wonderful tool. But the point of discernment counseling is to help you and your husband figure out which of these 3 paths you want to take: 1)Maintaining the Status Quo; 2) Getting a Divorce; or 3) Going to Marriage Counseling and Working on Your Marriage. If you’re ready to make a decision between these 3 paths, then discernment counseling can help a lot. Otherwise, going to discernment counseling might not help you much. Either way, it would probably be worth calling a discernment counselor in your area and asking a few questions of him/her.

          I wish you the best.

          Karen

  • Thank you for this and other articles Karen. My wife and I have been together for 11 years and married for almost 9. Our marriage has not been the best,
    but it also hasn’t been the worst. My wife struggled with depression through most of our marriage on and off while I worked extremely long hours to support her and our 3 beautiful children. This year we had a house fire and lost everything, and during the recovery process my wife realized that our relationship has been a big contribution to the depression she fought for so long. I have anger, anxiety, and depression issues along with some pretty major sleep issues that I have been putting off addressing for a very long time due to our financial situation and a solid sense of denial. After the fire, my issues only worsened due to the overall stress of the situation baring down on me. Once she made her realization she began preparing to leave me mentally for months, but I caught on to her distance and confronted her about it. My wife unloaded and told me everything she has been bottling up for so long, and it was definitely ten times harder to swallow than the fire. Since she shed light on the severity of our situation, I have began taking the steps to take better care of myself and work on my mental health state. We both agreed in the beginning that neither of us wants a divorce, but she feels she needs time apart to heal from the years of toxicity our marriage carried. We sought professional help through marriage counseling and began a trial separation 2 weeks ago. We didn’t plan the rules properly so it was an absolute mess in the beginning, but I feel it is going to get better. We have not been able to get back in to see our therapist due to scheduling conflicts so we talked about a mess of things last night regarding where we stand at this point. We now have better rules in place, but one thing we both agreed on is it feels like there is a very slim chance that things will work out for us in the end. I guess what I’m wondering at this point is would this sort of counseling be more beneficial to our current situation or should we stick with our original marriage counseling? I want nothing more at this point to show her that I am willing to change my ways to help us, but its hard for her to trust that because of previous broken promises I made to her.

    • You’ve asked a really good question.

      If you and your wife are both committed to making your marriage work, then going to marriage counseling would be best.

      If one of you is thinking serioiusly about divorce, then discernment counseling would be best.

      The problem, however, is getting both of you to be honest – both with each other and with yourselves.

      Many times people go to marriage counseling as a last ditch effort to “make their marriage work” when they really aren’t committed to doing the hard work it takes to actually turn their marriage around. Instead they go to marriage counseling to make “one last try” without ever believing that they will succeed. So they only put in half effort. Not surprisingly, the marriage counseling usually fails under those circumstances.

      The benefit of discernment counseling is that it helps couples figure out where they’re really at. If both partners are truly committed to working on their marriage, then at the end of discernment counseling they commit to attending marriage counseling for at least 6 months. During that time, divorce is off the table.

      Of course, if, at the end of the discernment counseling one or both partners has decided s/he wants a divorce, then you start working on the divorce process rather than wasting everyone’s time in marriage counseling which isn’t likely to work at that point anyway.

      Which of these two choices would be best for you in your situation is, of course, for you to decide.

      Hope that helps!

      Karen

  • Hi Karen. We have 20 yrs of marriage and 3 kids we came as immigrants and we work hard to regain our financial status backhome but during the process we ficused more in material stuff and forgot our marriage.My wife a house and many other things to compensate and saying that what she wants to love me again and I did everything she asked but frecuently I get upset and complain because she was never happy or satisfied despitw my effort. Now she asked me about a month ago, for time to think what she want but we can’t afford 2 places so we’re having this time ” in house” and in the meantime she was having an emational affair with her first boyfriend when she was 16 yrs old and live in other country. I caught her and she want a discernment counseling and put both our marriage and this affair in stand by with out cut off this affairs because.she said if she decide to separare she can resume this relatioship with this guy. I want to things working out but she does not and she will have discernment couseling. She always says if would habe more money we can live apart but know she ask me to support al house expenses and doesn’t want to split them. My question what can I do in the meantime to recover her or I have to be prepare for the outcome

    • I’m sorry to say that discernment counseling is probably your best bet. I know you don’t want to get a divorce, and it doesn’t sound like you want to go to discernment counseling. But discernment counseling doesn’t mean you will get a divorce. It also doesn’t mean that you won’t get a divorce. The whole point of discernment counseling is to help you both figure out what you want.

      Another option is to go to marriage counseling. But here’s the problem with that. If your wife doesn’t want to to be married, and she isn’t willing to work on your marriage, then marriage counseling is a complete waste of time. So it would help if you could both figure out what you want, and what you’re willing to do to get what you want, before you start marriage counseling.

      As for the household expenses, that’s a hard issue too. Technically, you can’t FORCE someone to pay their bills. Of course, if you don’t pay the bills that are in her name, her credit will get trashed. But if the bills are in your name, you’ve got to pay them. Plus, if you don’t pay your utility bills or your mortgage, you’ll end up living without electricity, or even a house! That’s obviously a bad idea.

      Meanwhile, can you get her back? Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know if she’s really done or if she might change her mind. What I do know is that the way to get her back is the opposite of what most people think. They think that, if they can change their spouse, they can save their marriage. But the only person you can change is yourself.

      If you want to try to get your wife back, work on yourself. Stop complaining. (Yes, I know that’s hard!) Get yourself into therapy. Do what you can to pay more attention to your wife, and meet her needs. If you do that, maybe she will want to give your marriage another try. Maybe.

      Hope that helps!

      Karen

  • Hi. My husband and I have been together 13yrs married for 5 and i have decided to move out and initiate a separation. I have found a place and signed a 1 year lease. We have children from previous relationships and none together. My biggest issue is the resentment I have for not having the courage to do this sooner. I have moved out before about 6 years ago for about 4 months, I stayed local and we never really gave each other space. Nothing was resolved and we got married with me thinking it would help or solve our issues. We have been going slowly down hill over the last 11 years. We had a wonderful relationship the first few years then we started to argue. I was more dependent on him financially in the beginning than I would have liked then I went back to school and go t my nursing degree. Once I became financially independent we started having more issues. I have wanted to leave multiple times since but I just kept thinking things would change and we would be better or more honestly that this would be my life. My parents have a toxic relationship and growing up seeing my mom tolerate the verbal and mental abuse seemed normal, sad but normal. I wanted more for myself but i suppose i accepted what was. My mother is not a fan of my husband, I think partly due to he reminds her of my dad. I would say that I feel neglected and alone and unappreciated. I have voiced my cares and concerns countless times but nothing. We will be ok for a bit then not. When we are bad its bad. We will ignore each other for weeks he will sleep on the couch and it will be like we are strangers. I have to suck it up push my feeliings aside and act like nothing happened. This obviously affects our sex life in that I cannot get into the act when I’m always upset or mad at him. I have a son who is 23 and he has been in and out of trouble and jail and currently is in prison. Although he has his reasons to be angry with him for his past actions and behaviors he is always very disrespectful to me and gets upset that I will not just write my son off. So much more to that topic but it’s a huge sore spot in our relationship and marriage. My son has never liked ronald my husband and i always think that had he stepped up as a father figure 13 years ago could it have changed my son and our relationship? My daughter is 17 and she is no fan of my husband either because she sees how he makes me feel. I decided to move 45min away from our home to give myself the space i need to maintain the courage to keep the separation. Ronald wants me to stay in the home and work this out with therapy which we have tried in the past but I don’t feel I can have a clear head staying in our home. I don’t want a divorce at this time but I don’t want to be with him either. I need space I need time to feel less sad and angry i need time to really search my heart to decide if what we have is worth saving.

    • It sounds like you are doing what you need to do to try to keep a clear head and figure this out. I encourage you to try marriage counseling again, but this time with perhaps a more focus. Right now you’re not just”going to marriage counseling.” You’re trying to figure out whether your marriage can be saved. That makes things different.

      If your husband isn’t willing to go to marriage counseling if you’re out of the house, you can still try to work things out yourselves. That usually doesn’t go too well, but you never know.

      In the meantime, hang in there. Give yourself the time and space you need to make a decision you feel confident about, whatever decision that may be.

      Karen

  • Hi Karen, my husband and I have been together for 20 years, 10 married (been together since high school). There have been many trials and tribulations over the last 20 years. My husband is not a bad person but a better father than husband. We both have demanding careers and two children. Our eldest is attending college in the fall, the youngest attending high school. At the core of our issues we struggle with communication and to add my husband isn’t very emotional. He’s an introvert, doesn’t have any friends. Prefers to spend time with his immediate family which I have come to accept. When we argue which occurs at least once a month. He shuts down and we co-exist, for weeks at a time. Arguments usually start when I address an issue. He seldomly will ask to discuss any issues. He has stated that I don’t like who he is and nothing he does is enough. I grew up in a home where my father was verbally and psychologically abusive to my mother. I have very low tolerance for disrespect and will address when I don’t feel like I’m being heard. Most recently, due to my husbands job and other factors. We decided 6+ months ago that we should relocate.We can’t not agree on anything, where to live, how much money we should spend on a new home, etc.. which has led to endless arguments. I don’t feel my husband values my needs or wants. We can just don’t see eye to eye – we can’t seem to solve our own problems. At this point, I’m emotionally drained and I’m considering separation. Three years ago we saw a therapist but my father got ill with cancer so we didn’t continue. Really feel like I’m at a lost.

    • I’m sorry it’s taken me a while to respond. As one person, sometimes I have a hard time keeping up with all the comments here. BUT, the good news is that I’ve now written an article that I think can help you a lot. Its: Communication in Marriage: 3 Steps to a Healthier Relationship.

      Check it out, I think it can help a lot.

      In that article, I talk about the IMAGO Dialogue technique that Drs. Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt developed. I’ve heard good things about their relationship workshops. You can check them out HERE.

      I also think you might be well-served to go back to your marriage counselor. S/he may be able to help you establish a more productive communication pattern with each other.

      Best,

      Karen

    • CLICK HERE. That will take you to the main webpage for discernment counseling. On the top right corner of the website you will see an option to find a discernment counselor. Click on that and it will take you to a list of discernment counselors in your area.

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