The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Music Credits: Toxic Water, “We’ve Only Just Begun”
Marriage Counseling For Couples On The Brink Of Divorce
Never heard of Discernment Therapy? Today we are talking all about why the type of marriage counseling you’ve never heard of is the only one that can save a marriage on the brink of divorce. Sometimes marriage counseling fails. Why? Generally, it’s because one of the partners is no longer committed to the relationship or, more often, if they’re still committed in theory, they’re not committed enough to do the actual work required to repair the relationship. Inexperienced marriage counselors assume that when a couple seeks help, they want the relationship to work. Couples therapists who practice discernment therapy understand that is not always the case.
What I know from years of experience as a Denver marriage counselor and online couples therapist is that many couples come into couples counseling with “mixed agendas.” This means that one person really wants the relationship to work, and the other person is feeling ambivalent. Many times these couples are on the brink of divorce.
At these moments, it’s too late for marriage counseling. But even at this point, discernment therapy can still help save your relationship.
What is Discernment Therapy?
When couples get past a certain point, it’s too late for couples therapy or conventional marriage counseling. They may say they want marriage counseling, but on the inside, they are too angry or have lost their hope. Wise, experienced marriage counselors use a type of marriage counseling called “discernment therapy” or “discernment counseling” to get clarity about what’s really going on before plunging ahead into misguided, conventional marriage counseling.
Through discernment therapy, a good couples counselor can help partners get clarity about their commitment and motivation for change. Once that is in place, then marriage counseling can be successful. Without the necessary prerequisite of discernment therapy, marriage counseling for couples on the brink of divorce can easily fail.
Unfortunately, discernment therapy is not widely used among marriage counselors. Many have never even heard about it. For example, here at Growing Self we work with only the highest caliber, most effective marriage counselors, and most of them have never had discernment counseling training before starting with us. (We get them up to speed fast, don’t worry).
How to Stop a Divorce When It’s Too Late For Marriage Counseling
If it feels like the fate of your relationship is hanging in the balance of marriage counseling, and divorce is on the table, discernment therapy is the one approach that can potentially turn the tide. Not conventional marriage counseling. In this episode of the podcast, I’m discussing what dynamics are at play in a relationship on the brink, why these dynamics make conventional marriage counseling for the purpose of relationship improvement a bad idea, and how you can use the principles of discernment counseling to see if there is still hope for your relationship.
You can listen to “Discernment Therapy” on Spotify, on the Apple Podcast App or scroll down to listen right here on GrowingSelf.com. If you’re more of a reader I’ve also included cliff notes for you in this post as well as the full transcript of this episode.
Learn about Discernment Therapy and why it can make or break a marriage on this episode of the podcast. (And please share this post if you have a friend or loved one who’s marriage may be failing. This information could make all the difference for them!)
All the best,
Discernment Therapy: Episode Highlights
1. Different Relationships Require Different Types of Marriage Counseling: What’s the state of your marriage?
There are many reasons couples seek help from a Denver marriage counselor or an online relationship coach. But generally, there are three types of couples who seek Denver couples therapy, marriage counseling online, or relationship coaching depending on their orientation to getting help and the severity of their relationship problems. Which type are you?
Proactive couples: These couples are defined by the fact that they both love each other and have generosity and goodwill in the partnership, and a willingness to take positive action to benefit the relationship. They view marriage counseling or couples therapy as a positive, valuable experience and don’t hesitate to seek help as soon as they take notice of the initial signs that their relationship may be in trouble. These are strong, successful couples typically. Not that they don’t ever have problems. All couples have “issues.” Strong, happy couples just take proactive steps to resolve them. Marriage counseling works for them, and usually in just a few sessions.
Frustrated but committed and motivated couples: These are the “middle-of-the-road couples.” Many couples in this space have been struggling with unresolved issues for some time, and they experience a fair amount of stress in the relationship. They are fighting or having communication problems and tend to have the same unproductive arguments or ongoing relationship issues that aren’t improving. They have often been attempting to do everything they know how to do to create improvements, but have not sought effective professional support. Even though they’ve been putting off getting help and are feeling some frustration and resentment it’s not too far gone. They still have a fundamental love and respect for each other. Both individuals are still actively committed to the relationship’s success, and with the right support they can make real and lasting positive changes in their relationships. Marriage counseling works for these couples too, it just takes a little longer.
Mixed agenda couples: Mixed agenda couples develop over time, usually after many months, often years, of unresolved relationship problems. These couples tolerate relationship problems until they are no longer tolerable.The partnership has been in a downward spiral for a while, resulting from years of lost trust and respect. They are waiting on each other to change instead of exerting any genuine effort towards making the relationship work. They do not get help until one person is already halfway out the door, and divorce or a breakup is being seriously considered. Generally, when these couples arrive in marriage counseling one partner is frantic to stop a divorce and save their marriage. The other person may no longer be willing to participate in the relationship. At this point it is too late for marriage counseling. Couples in this place require discernment therapy before marriage counseling, relationship coaching or couples therapy has any hope of succeeding. If commitment, hope, and motivation are first restored through discernment therapy, then subsequent evidence-based marriage counseling may still be successful.
2. Why Relationships Fail
Discernment therapy works when other types of marriage counseling or couples therapy fail, because it puts the predictable dynamics of a failing relationship at the front and center. Good Denver discernment counselors know that relationships don’t often explode; they spiral down for a long time first. One of the first signs that a relationship is failing is that a negative relationship cycle takes hold. The sooner you notice that this is happening, and take effective action to correct it, the better.
Negative relationship cycles get going in small ways first, and then grow larger without intervention. When communication is a struggle, relationships tend to become polarized and contentious. If left unattended, it will only get worse. This may begin once you stop doing the nice small things you used to do. Or it could also start when you become outright disrespectful towards your partner. In return, they will likely feel entitled to mistreat you too. When a negative system starts taking hold, people react to each other’s negative reactions. It can get pretty bad over time.
Often, as this negative cycle continues unchecked, people can begin to feel entitled to treat each other quite badly. They can stop believing that better things are possible for their relationship. Worse, the pattern of negative experiences can make them lose trust in each other. At this point, people withdraw emotionally from a marriage. Interestingly, the person who spent years dismissing and minimizing the problems and was formerly resistant to marriage counseling is the one who’s often blindsided and anguished when their partner withdraws. Even though it may have felt sudden to them, the truth is that their partner had been quietly separating (emotionally) for quite some time.
When this truth becomes known, couples enter a crisis. A marriage counselor is often called (sometimes a divorce lawyer too). These are make-or-break moments for a marriage, and must be handled with sensitivity and expertise.
3. The Importance Of Discernment Counseling
When these “on the brink of divorce”couples land in marriage counseling, one partner “is leaning in” and the other is “leaning out.” Under these circumstances, routine marriage counseling and couples therapy will not be appropriate or helpful. Honestly, jumping right into marriage counseling in these moments can actually extinguish any hope for the relationship to be repaired. Instead, discernment therapy is necessary first.
The goal of discernment therapy is to help both partners get clarity about what is possible for the relationship — and what isn’t. From that point, they can either transition into evidence-based marriage counseling or couples therapy that helps them heal their bond… or separate in the healthiest way possible.
The primary goal of discernment therapy is not to improve or change the relationship. The purpose of discernment therapy is to ensure clarity about whether or not positive change is possible. Specifically, discernment therapy explores whether or not sufficient commitment and motivation exist for doing the work of couples therapy.
In most cases, couples find that there is still enough hope and commitment to try. In some cases, consciously “uncoupling” might be the best for both people involved. It can salvage a friendship or some aspects of the relationship, especially if they’re co-parenting. Discernment therapy can help start this healing process.
4. Discernment Therapy Strategies For a Mixed Agenda Relationship
If either you or your partner are unsure about whether your relationship has a future here are some crucial things you need to know.
- People who are “leaning out” fantasize about what their life will be when they’re out of the relationship. This may or may not be realistic. Through discernment therapy, the person leaning out can better understand and perceive the situation from a fresh perspective. It can also lead them to reflect on attachments and the implications without them.
- “Leaning out” partners are often emotionally beaten down after years of negative experiences with their partner in the past. They can often feel hopeless about things changing or improving. Discernment Therapy can help them understand, more realistically, about what is possible and what is not.
- “Leaning In” partners often feel incredibly anxious about the possibility of their relationship failing. Discernment Therapy can help them regulate their emotions, and also gain accurate understanding of why their partner is half out the door. Then it becomes possible to work on changing the dynamic that led to this crisis.
How Discernment Therapy Works
First, a professional will establish if individual sessions would be best for your situation. Like all ethical and professional therapy sessions, confidentiality is crucial. Counselors will talk to the partner who’s leaning out of the relationship. They will check if there’s still some motivation that can be restored. This process needs to happen before deciding to “repair” the relationship.
To the partner who’s not yet willing to let go of the relationship, the work may focus on making them understand their partner’s feelings more clearly. The session will focus on helping them manage their anxiety and getting them into a good place.
Note: Discernment Therapy sessions tend to be limited — generally 3-6 sessions max. If one partner is still highly ambivalent towards the relationship, and neither of you are ready to make decisions, that in itself is a decision. It allows couples to create a clearer vision of where they are, what they’re willing to tolerate, and what the next steps are for the relationship… one way or the other.
I hope that this overview of discernment therapy helped you understand the unique relationship dynamics of a failing marriage, and to use this understanding to see the path forward for yours. If your marriage is on the brink of divorce I sincerely hope you first consider discernment therapy in order to determine whether it can be saved. If it can, you may find that this was a painful, but necessary moment of reckoning for your marriage that opens the door to an incredibly satisfying new chapter for both of you. And, even if discernment therapy leads you to the conclusion that it’s for the best that you separate, you will be able to do so with the confidence that you really did do everything you possibly could have to make this work.
Wishing you all the very best on your journey of growth,
P.S. More resources for you:
- Our online relationship quiz can help you get clarity about your relationship’s current strengths and growth opportunities.
- Check out “When to call it quits in a relationship” for signs that growth and change are possible (or not).
- If your partner has just blindsided you with a divorce, check out “How to stop a divorce” for some tips for what to do next.
- And of course, if you’d like to try discernment therapy with one of the expert marriage counselors of Growing Self, we’re here. Schedule your free consultation to discuss your hopes and goals, and whether or not we can help.
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The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Music Credits: Toxic Water, “We’ve Only Just Begun”
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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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What are some strategies for the person who didn’t show up for years in the way your partner wanted or needed. They tried for years to encourage change, and now they are done/shut down. Now the partner who didn’t create an emotionally safe environment has the awareness and is going through personal growth. There’s been apologies, taking responsibility, listening, showing up in new ways. It’s not moving the dial. What do you suggest? We love each other, make a great team and have two young kids.
Meg, I’m sorry you’re having that experience but it’s not uncommon at all to feel like it’s too little too late. There has been too much damage done. That’s why I’m constantly on my soap-box trying to encourage people to take relationship warning signs seriously, and get help before your relationship is beyond repair. This podcast I made, “why relationships fail” talks about this phenomena. I’d encourage you to listen, I think you would find it validating. I am not sure whether it is possible for you to restore the trust and confidence in your relationship, but given the strengths of your marriage, and your kids, I hope that you at least explore it with the support of a qualified marriage and family therapist. Wishing you all the very best…. Dr. Lisa