What is discernment counseling?

Discernment counseling is one of the best forms of couples therapy when you and your partner can’t decide whether it’s best to end or continue your relationship. It’s equally successful when neither of you can decide what you want or if one of you wants to work on the relationship and the other wants to end it.

Unlike other forms of couples therapy which typically aim to strengthen the relationship, resolve issues, and improve communication, discernment therapy works by helping both you and your partner consider all the options available to you before deciding what you want to do.

Discernment counseling is particularly effective if you’re thinking about breaking up or getting a divorce, but you’re not sure that’s the right move to make. By considering all the possible steps you could take along with the potential outcomes, you’re in a better position to make the right choice that will make both of you happy.

Where does it come from?

Discernment therapy isn’t a type of cure that will fix your relationship. Instead, it’s designed to ensure you’ve properly thought about the different choices you have available to you before you make a hasty and ill-considered decision that could drastically affect both of you.

Bill Doherty developed discernment counseling as part of his work at the University of Minnesota. He created it because there’s no other kind of couples counseling that focuses on the needs of couples who can’t decide what to do.

How does it work?

To help you and your partner determine the next steps to take in your relationship, discernment therapy proposes three options:

  1. End your relationship
  2. Commit to putting in maximum effort for six months to make your relationship work
  3. Postpone your decision

During your first session, your therapist will ask you and your partner a series of questions to gain an overall understanding of your relationship, why each of you feels the way you do, and what you need to improve your relationship if you want to continue. 

They may ask you:

  • What occurred in the relationship that caused you to think about ending it?
  • Have you done anything to try and improve your relationship?
  • Are there any children involved?
  • If children are involved, how will they be affected if you end your relationship?
  • At what point were you happiest in the relationship?

Following the initial session, the discernment therapist will meet individually with you and your partner to discuss your feelings and plans. After this, you and your partner will meet jointly with the therapist for a final session.

During this session, your therapist will help you understand the feelings, wants, and needs of your partner and vice versa. With this information, you’re in a much better position to make a smart choice about the future of your relationship. 

If you decide to end the relationship, this will usually be the final therapy session. But if you make a goal of committing to making things better for six months or you choose to postpone your decision, you may want to attend further couples therapy sessions to keep your relationship on track.

Does it help?

Unlike many other forms of couples therapy, the aim of discernment counseling isn’t to fix problems in a relationship. Instead, its goal is to determine whether any problems present are able to be fixed. Your therapist will work with you and your partner to determine how each of you is contributing to the issues in your relationship and consider potential solutions.

This form of therapy is thought to be successful when both you and your partner have a better understanding of what’s gone wrong in your relationship and how you want to move forward.

Discernment therapy is especially helpful when one partner is considering ending the relationship and the other wants to fix it. By attending discernment counseling sessions with a therapist, you may reduce potential conflict as you decide what to do next. If you do decide to break up, therapy can help make the separation process easier and more friendly. 

If you decide to save your relationship and continue with couples therapy, you may find your future sessions more helpful, as you’ve already identified the major problems in your relationship and know what each of you needs to do to help improve it.

When doesn’t it work?

Just like every other type of therapy, discernment counseling doesn’t work for everyone. While it can be great if you and your partner have differing opinions about what you want to do next, it’s not suitable for all couples.

Discernment therapy isn’t the best choice when one partner has already decided they’re going to end the relationship and they’re only attending therapy sessions because the other partner is forcing them. Both partners need to be willing to take part in discernment counseling without coercion for it to work.

Is discernment counseling for you?

If you and your partner can’t decide whether you want to end or work on your relationship, discernment counseling may be helpful. Many of our couples therapists are trained in this specialist type of therapy and can help you understand all the options you have available to you.

Before you make a decision you’re not totally confident in, make an appointment with a Cyti therapist. You may discover an alternative you never even considered that works out well for both you and your partner. Discernment counseling plans typically last less than five sessions, so you may come to a conclusion faster than you previously thought.

About the author: Sonya Parrott

Sonya is a Marriage and Family Therapist with over 13 years of experience in the mental health field. Her background includes working with Families, Adults, teens, and children in individual, family, couple, and group settings. She has extensive experience and training in the areas of Anxiety, Depression, Substance Use, Post Traumatic Stress, Family conflict, and Codependency.

Read more about Sonya here >>

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. If you are in a crisis or any other person may be in danger,  these resources can provide you with immediate help:
Suicide and Crisis Lifeline 988
24 Hour Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1.800.273.8255
Crisis Text Line Text TALK to 741741