In a previous post, Discernment Counseling Part 1, I discussed that Discernment Counseling is not couples therapy. I have a busy practice because I do not automatically try and put a couple on the path toward re-launching the relationship if at least one person states that they have doubts about wanting to continue the relationship. Therapists can sometimes feel like they have “super powers” and want to fix things when that does not honor the goals of the clients. Putting a couple directly in to couples therapy when the therapist knows that one person is “leaning out” of the marriage, will certainly will honor the goal of the “leaning in” partner, which is the one who wants to stay in the relationship. When at least one partner is leaning out of the relationship, and is not ready to commit to couples therapy, Discernment Counseling provides a pause button for the situation. It allows both partners the ability to discuss reasons to stay and reasons to go in the relationship without promising to continue in the relationship. My role is to help each client be heard and to help foster a productive conversation, to include how each of the partners is feeling about the relationship currently, and when do they each think things started to negatively change.

Please take a look at my video Discernment Counseling #2 of 3 video:

How Many Sessions Are There?

Discernment Counseling usually involves a maximum of 5 counseling sessions. The first session is usually 150 minutes, and subsequent sessions are 120 minutes.

Discernment Counseling is Not Suitable When

*One spouse has made a final decision to divorce and wants counseling to encourage the other spouse accept that decision

*There is a danger of domestic violence

*There is an Order of Protection from the court

*One spouse is coercing the other to participate

Discernment Counseling was developed by the University of Minnesota, The Couples on the Brink Project, and in combination with Dr. Bill Doherty, as a special process because traditional change-oriented marriage therapy is often unhelpful when on one or both partners is ambivalent about working on the marriage.

The goal of Discernment Counseling is to help couples have greater clarity and confidence in their decision-making. The immediate decision is framed not as whether to stay together or divorce but whether to continue moving towards divorce or committing to six-month effort to restore the marriage, with divorce off the table for that time period.

The Discernment Counselor explores three narratives: the divorce narrative (what has gone wrong), the repair narrative (how they have tried to fix things), and a possible reconciliation narrative (what path might lead to restoring health to the relationship).

The Discernment Counselor explores these narratives in order to help the couple see their journey in a more complex way and to see what options then become most compelling. The emphasis is on self-differentiation and self-responsibility and how growing in these areas can contribute to a relationship decision. The counselor respects the reasons for divorce while trying to open up the possibility of restoring the marriage to health. The counselor offers support and understanding along with challenge, but does not make therapeutic interventions aimed at improving the marriage.

Frequently one spouse wants to stay married and the other is leaning out. The discernment counselor works with each partner separately, focusing on the decision making process with the spouse who is leaning out and on constructive efforts to salvage the marriage with the other. In both cases, the spouse learns to understand his or her own role in the problems and potential solutions, rather than focusing on changing the other.

If the ultimate decision is to try to reconcile, the discernment counselor switches from discernment counseling to beginning a six-month course of couples therapy and making referrals to additional resources in the community as needed, for example, alcoholism assessment, couples retreat weekends, or individual therapy.

If the ultimate decision is to divorce, the discernment counselor inquires if the couples would like to work with him/her to explore whether they can pursue a constructive collaborative divorce.

Here is Video 3 of 3:

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Is Discernment Counseling the same as Marriage Counseling?

A: No. Discernment Counseling is short-term help for deciding whether to divorce or work more on the marriage. Marriage Counseling, which is generally opened ended in length, aims to help people solve their problems and restore their marriage to health.

Q: How do you determine success in Discernment Counseling?
Although it would be wonderful if all troubled marriages could become healthy and satisfying for both parties, we understand that this is not always possible. Therefore, our basic criterion  

Q: Can you use Discernment Counseling with couples that are not legally married and/or are same sex couples?

A: Although the project came out of concern for married couples in the legal divorce system, other couples can be offered services. This could include cohabiting and same sex couples, particularly if they are raising children and concerned about the impact of a break up on their children.

Portions of this document have been taken from:

I work with couples and individuals in my psychotherapy and coaching practice. My clients make progress! I offer email support in-between sessions to my clients as part of our work together. Find Your Strengths at Let’s continue the “conversation”, text 203-948-0938 or email me @

Thank you so much for reading my blog!

Kelley Hopkins-Alvarez, Licensed Professional Counselor, NCC, BCC
Address: 100B Danbury Road, Suite 201D, Ridgefield, CT 06877 (behind Union Savings Bank)