What Is Discernment Counseling?

Reached an impasse in your relationship? You don't have to go through it alone.

couple putting on wedding ring


Marriage counseling can be an important tool in maintaining a healthy relationship. When both partners are committed to staying in the game and working through the issues, having a third party to help you through the ups and downs can be clutch. But what about when one or both parties is no longer sure that they want to stick around? Support in this moment is crucial as leaving a relationship can be one of the most difficult decisions you’ll ever make. That’s where discernment counseling comes in. 

What Is Discernment Counseling?

Discernment counseling is a guided process through which couples can thoughtfully decide, together, on the best next step in their relationship. A short-term therapy solution, it is conducted over the course of five or fewer intensive two-hour sessions. 

In this targeted form of counseling, the goal is not to repair or improve a relationship, but for a couple to gather all the emotions and information necessary to decide whether they want to stay in the relationship long enough to repair it in the first place.  

"Marriage therapy needs all ten toes in," explains expert Emily Cook. "If you’re not 100 percent, start with discernment."

Meet the Expert

Emily Cook, Ph.D., is the owner of Bethesda, Maryland-based Emily Cook Therapy. She is a licensed marriage therapist and a certified discernment counselor. 

Is this starting to sound like something you might benefit from? Read on for an overview of what can be a life-changing process, including how it differs from traditional marriage counseling, and what to expect in the sessions. 

When to See a Discernment Counselor 

Per Cook, couples that most often seek discernment counseling are "mixed agenda" couples: One partner is leaning in and wants to salvage the relationship, while the other is leaning out. The length or status of a relationship doesn’t preclude anyone from benefiting from the process. You can be engaged and unsure of whether or not you want to go through with the wedding, or married for years with kids to consider. Whenever the impasse occurs, discernment is designed to help you make an all-aspects-considered joint decision about what to do next.  

"This is not the work to fix the relationship," explains Cook. "This is the work to decide whether or not to fix the relationship."

Couples can also arrive at discernment in different ways. Some will already be in counseling but have reached a roadblock in their progress. Others may have never sought counseling previously, but a catastrophic experience or revelation might have them reevaluating if the relationship is worth continuing. In the former scenario, a couple may choose to continue working with their current counselor but switch to discernment mode (if their counselor is trained in the process), or they can opt to be referred to a new counselor. 

Benefits of Discernment Counseling

The decision to end a relationship is not easy, nor is it something to be taken lightly—especially if you share children, a home, or the same social circles. Having professional support can help you feel less alone in the process, and, most importantly, help you constructively start to envision what a path forward will look like—with or without your partner. 

At the same time, discernment also helps correct any unintentional bias someone might encounter if they’re grappling with the decision in solo therapy sessions. "When you’re going to an individual therapist for a relationship problem, that person is only getting your side [of the story]," says Cook. "Their job is to be on your team. If I’m the leaning out partner telling every bad story, the therapist might guide me to leave."

Marriages, Cook goes on to explain, can be disserviced that way. While a deep dive on your own issues can be a necessary precursor to making a decision about your relationship, "it’s not in our best interest to make a decision about a relationship without the relationship in the room," she says. A discernment counselor is trained to hold space for and honor your partner's experience as well as your own, to give the bond you and your partner share attention and care, and to help you come to a decision together instead of separately. 

"Before we can do the work of couples therapy, we have to both agree that's what we want to do," adds Cook. "Or, before separating, let’s really understand why that’s the best decision for us." By providing that foundation, discernment enables a couple to more confidently enter the next chapter of their lives, no matter what it may look like.

Discernment Counseling vs. Couples Therapy 

Perhaps the most important difference between discernment counseling and traditional couples therapy is the initial buy-in. In marriage counseling, both members of the couple are present because they want to stay in the relationship and see its health improve; in discernment, at least one member is seriously considering leaving the partnership. This impacts the structure of the rest of your sessions. In marriage counseling, you’ll attend for an unspecified period of time and develop tools to improve communication and build trust. Think of it a bit like physical exercise: a preventative measure necessary to maintain the health of the relationship, so it doesn’t reach an unrepairable point later on. The goal of discernment, however, is to make a change—not to improve or maintain. For this reason, it has a specific time limit: five sessions or less.  "This is really helpful for the partner that’s leaning out because they’re not committing to couples therapy," says Cook. "When they hear it’s a maximum of five sessions, they think: I can handle that."

Another important difference between the two is that in discernment, your counselor is able to keep secrets. Whether that’s something big (an affair, gambling debts) or something small (you don’t love your in-laws), if it’s impacting your decision to stay, your counselor is not beholden to share it with your partner during these sessions, and you’re free to discuss it within the privacy of your one-of-one conversations. In regular counseling, the expectation is that all issues will be laid out in the open. "In marriage counseling, the 'patient' is really the relationship, and I’m working with the two members of the partnership to heal it," explains Cook. "It’s not helpful if people don’t share what’s really going on."

What to Expect in Discernment Counseling 

Developed by the Doherty Relationship Institute, the discernment process is quite manualized. As a practitioner, Cook offers a maximum of five sessions, which are capped at two hours each. In each session, the couple arrives together and leaves together, but spends a significant portion of the session in one-on-one conversations with the counselor. 

Per Cook, the first session focuses on four questions, which are discussed jointly:

  1. What has happened so far that got you here? 
  2. What have you done already to fix the problems? 
  3. What role, if any, do children play in your decision? 
  4. What is a golden memory of a time in the relationship when everything was really wonderful?

Next, the couple separates for individual discussions with the counselor. Some of the tough, but necessary, questions asked include: What have you contributed to the problem? What are your non-negotiables? What would it be like to break up, or to call off your wedding? How would you tell that story to your next partner?

At the end of the session, the couple comes back together with their therapist for a debriefing conversation. They’ll determine if they’ve reached a decision, or if they want to come back for another session (Discernment sessions are not scheduled in advance. You decide at the end of each session if you want to do another one.). In subsequent sessions, you’ll do more individual work, but the ending question is always the same: Do we have the information we need to decide how to move forward with your relationship?

While there are a variety of paths into discernment counseling, there are three predominate paths out: 

  1. Committing to the work of couples therapy 
  2. Proceeding with separation 
  3. Maintaining status quo 

That third option might seem like a cop-out, but it’s important to know that your discernment counselor is not there to force your hand. "Sometimes the right thing is to have more time pass, and having that option on the table is comforting for a lot of folks," says Cook. If the decision is status quo, she adds, she’ll work with the couple to structure however much time is going to pass to help them get closer to a decision.

Related Stories