What Is Discernment Counseling?

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 answering the question: What is discernment counseling?And talking about why this type of marriage counseling that you may have 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 a specialized form of couples counseling called discernment therapy or discernment counseling 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 stop a divorce and save your relationship.

What Is Discernment Counseling?

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, conventional marriage counseling, which is a common mistake that can sabotage couples 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).

Discernment Therapy: 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 what discernment counseling is, how it’s different from regular couples counseling, 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!)

What Is Discernment Counseling

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, which is ultimately what causes relationships to fail. 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 to stop a divorce and save the relationship.

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. 

  1. 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.
  2. “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. 
  3. “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 Counseling 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,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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.


  1. Emerson AJ, Harris SM, Ahmed FA. The impact of discernment counseling on individuals who decide to divorce: experiences of post-divorce communication and coparenting. J Marital Fam Ther. 2021 Jan;47(1):36-51. doi: 10.1111/jmft.12463. Epub 2020 Nov 6. PMID: 33159369; PMCID: PMC7894569.
  2. Discernment Counseling for “Mixed-Agenda” Couples.
  3. The Integration of Discernment Counseling and Emotionally Focused Therapy: Attachment-Based Therapy with Mixed Agenda Couples

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What Is Discernment Counseling?

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Music Credits: Toxic Water, “We’ve Only Just Begun” 

Free, Expert Advice — For You.

Subscribe To The Love, Happiness, and Success Podcast

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. And you’re listening to the Love Happiness and Success podcast.

That’s an interesting song by an interesting band to set the mood for an interesting topic. The band is Toxic Water with this song, We’ve Only Just Begun. And our topic today is about something that almost no one has ever heard of. But if your relationship is in trouble, it is the only kind of couples therapy that will actually save a relationship and stop a divorce. And that’s what we’re talking about today on the Love Happiness and Success podcast. If this is your first time catching the show, or welcome, I’m so glad you found us.

I’m Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I’m the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. And my background is as a licensed marriage and family therapist. I’m also a licensed psychologist, and I am a board-certified life coach. And I draw from all of those different modalities in order to provide hopefully helpful and actionable advice that will help you create love, happiness, and success in your life. And so today’s topic, as many are—is drawn from listener questions. I have been hearing from a number of you lately, through commenting on the blog at growingself.com, through Facebook Dr. Lisa Bobby, or on Instagram at @drlisamariebobby.

And the question is if I were to paraphrase, because this has come in many, many shapes, sizes, and forms. But as some version of, “Let me tell you about all of the horrible things that have been happening in my relationship and how I’m feeling about that. And can my relationship be saved? My partner doesn’t want to go to couples counseling? Is there any hope? Or I don’t know if I want to keep doing this? Is there any hope for my relationship? Or should I just let it go?”

I’m also hearing questions like, “You know, my partner is stonewalling me, they have one foot out the door, is it too late to save our relationship?” And, so really hearing from many people whose relationships are in quite a bit of distress and really understandably feeling very upset and heartbroken and even desperate about what do I do to fix this? Can it be fixed?

And I wanted to create this podcast just for you. Because there are some really important things that you need to know about this particular moment. And what could possibly help you repair this relationship. But even I think more importantly, what to avoid, if your relationship feels like it’s on the brink because there are a lot of things that could make it worse right now, instead of better. And there’s really one thing that can make it better. And I don’t mean to be overly, you know, inflammatory or scary. But I mean, this is borne out by a lot of experience.

And so once again, on today’s show, give you the real deal. So first of all, we’ll just like to orient you to where we are and what we’re doing. There are generally three different situations that will bring a couple into couples counseling, marriage counseling, relationship coaching. There are certain couples who are proactive, you know, they are committed, they care about their relationship, they want it to be as good as it possibly can. Oftentimes, they’ve had experience with some kind of therapy or personal growth work in the past. They’re like, they understand the benefits of counseling or coaching and they want to do it together. And so they are like, very proactive, and they come in for marriage counseling at the first sign of trouble, you know.

They’re maybe not feeling as great about each other. They’re communicating, communication is starting to feel hard. It feels like it’s difficult to create agreements or get on the same page. And they’re like, “You know what, I love you so much. We need to get into couples counseling and just fix this.” And so they go and they talk to somebody like me or somebody else on my team here at growing self. And you know, they come in for about four to six sessions. They do what they need to do. They walk out with tools and things that resolve and they’re like, “Oh we are so much better now.” And they go on their way.

And you know, might come back in the future. Life’s paces made things feel harder again, like, you know, moving or having a baby, or something like that normal, unexpected. But they really like, believe in growth, they’re reading books. They’re doing the things they’re talking to me. And these couples are incredibly advantaged and they keep their relationships healthy and strong. And so this is like, you know, a couple number one, and a lot of the education that I tried to do is to connect with couples in this stage, because when they do come in for couples counseling and support, they’re very easy to work with, they love each other, there’s a lot of generosity and good will. And it’s easy to make positive changes in a relationship that lasts. And it’s good. So that’s category number one.

Category number two, a certain percentage of couples will show up for couples counseling, marriage counseling, relationship coaching, when they’re actually fairly stressed and unhappy. They have been experiencing issues in their relationship, maybe they’re fighting, communication feels hard, they’re feeling frustrated, sometimes even resentful. But even though it has—nobody’s having a good time, there are still positive aspects of the relationship.

They’re still like, basic love and respect for each other. And they’re still motivated to like, work together, own their piece of the equations. “Yeah, I guess I do that.” And work on themselves for the benefit of their relationship. And there’s just a lot of commitment, you know. And so these are couples who—it takes longer to repair a relationship that has sustained trauma and damage through a series of regrettable incidents. But it’s not so far gone, that it’s impossible, feels impossible to do it. 

You know what I mean, there’s still an attachment, there’s still a desire to have a better relationship with each other. And so, you know, these are kind of like the middle-of-the-road couples, and a certain percentage of couples that come into couples counseling, I think fall into that kind of category.

Now, there is a third situation, which is really, really important for you to know, particularly if your relationship has not been in a good place for a while. There is a category of couple who will only initiate any kind of marriage counseling, couples therapy, relationship coaching, when one person is like halfway out the door. These are couples who have been kind of in a downward spiral for a while, often years. And over time, they have really—like degraded the fabric of their relationship— they have lost trust, they have lost respect. And you know, often times, as they say, the path to hell is paved with good intentions. These are couples who are like, oh, it’s not that bad, it’ll get better or you know if we just take a vacation or do XYZ things will change, or things will be better once we move, or once we do a thing or have a kid or whatever.

And so like they’re sort of waiting for something to change their relationship, as opposed to doing the work that’s required to change relationship. Or they’re very, very focused on that partner needing to change—maybe less involved in what they need to do to have a better relationship with each other. And so, you know, many reasons for that—couples counseling is too expensive, there are those people. But what happens over time is that relationships tend to become more polarized, and more contentious.

If communication is already struggling, it continues to get worse because there are these negative cycles that will take over a relationship. For example, if you are annoyed with your partner, and you feel that they are being unreasonable or disrespectful, or they’re not doing what they need to do. You—and by you, I mean we all of us will feel you know, somewhat entitled to kind of be a jerk to them or not talk to them very nicely, or stop doing small nice things for them that really strengthen the relationship. And so when we kind of pull back into that emotional withholding space or not being quite as nice, they very predictably again perceive us as being under reasonable and disrespectful and not very nice, which in turn leads them to feel entitled to not treat us quite as well. 

So as you can see, there’s this, there’s a systemic component to relationships that I’ve talked about before in previous podcasts, but it’s very powerful stuff. And when a negative system starts taking hold, people are reacting to each other’s negative reactions. And it can get pretty bad over time.

And so this third category of couple that I’m talking about, has had that going on in their relationship. And either they have not taken effective action to try to change it, which is like, “Okay, we have to go talk to somebody, it’s time to go talk to the marriage counselor.” Or—and this makes me crazy, they have sought support from “couples therapist” who do not have specialized training and experience in couples and family therapy, which is like 95% of the people out there offering couples counseling. They are trained as general practitioner therapists, or they don’t even have that. They’re like some, you know, self-proclaimed relationship coach who has a slick website and has been married before. 

So it feels eminently qualified to shepherd other couples through their own relationship issues. And, as you can imagine, in neither of these situations, does the couple who you know, reach out with a very sincere intention of getting help for their relationship, connect with someone who knows how to help them. And so they have, from their perspective, done couples counseling, you know. “We’ve done everything.” But they don’t know that the help they sought was not the right kind of help to mend their relationship. It was an evidence-based couples therapy, which really does make a difference.

So, that’s, I think, incredibly tragic. But anyway, so either they didn’t do anything, or they sought help, you know, with good intentions, but what wasn’t the right thing. And they have arrived in a space where one person—sometimes both but usually, one is like—I don’t want to do this with you anymore. I have stopped believing that this relationship can get better. I don’t trust you anymore. Not sure if I like you. And I don’t even know if I want to try to make this better with you. Because I’ve had so many bad experiences that I think maybe I’m just done.

And oftentimes, the person in this position of a failing relationship is the one who for some years previously, has been the one agitating for change, saying, “Why don’t you talk to me? Why don’t you do these things with me? Why don’t we work together, you know, around parenting or responsibilities, or I really just want to feel more emotionally connected to you.” Like this person has been trying for a long time to have a better relationship, to create that connection. And over time, they’ve just had bad experience after bad experience. And they get to a point where they’re like, “I think I have—I’m losing hope that this can be better. What am I doing?”

You know, and so they move into this emotional space. And as soon as they do, the person who prior to that, had been like, “Oh, it’s not that big of a deal. No, I don’t feel like talking right now. No, marriage counseling is too expensive. No, I think actually, that’s your problem. That’s not my problem.” But as soon as their person is like, “I think I’m probably done with you.” That galvanized this person who had been kind of, you know, minimizing and sort of like. Yeah, I don’t know—if they want to talk to you. All of a sudden, they’re like, “What do you mean? Let’s talk. How are you feeling? How are you feeling now? How are you feeling today? You told me how you’re feeling like 10 minutes ago, but what about now?” And they get all this you know, anxious energy into, “Oh my goodness, my partner is like, done with me.”

And it turns into this huge, like threatened attachment reaction. And they’re like, we are going to the best marriage counselor in Denver, today. I’m making an appointment for—spare no cost. I love you so much. And so they’re the ones calling my office being like, “Can I come?” And like, “What are you doing in like an hour? Can we come in an hour?” They’re like so eager to get started. And this is the context, unfortunately, of many, many people who—couples who show up for marriage counseling online, marriage counseling in person and Denver doesn’t matter.

But it’s like it’s gotten to this point where there is a desperate like Hail Mary kind of quality to it. And the person who formerly had been resistant to this whole idea is now the one often who is super motivated to do this. And they show up for couples counseling. Now, here’s the thing that is really important, and that you must understand if you’re like, resonating with any of what I’m talking about, or even if you’re thinking of like somebody you know who has gotten divorced or gotten close to it, like you’re probably recognizing some of the dynamics that I’m describing in this.

And I would say, probably 30% of couples we see are those proactive couples that are like, we love each other, let’s communicate better. Middle 30% are couples who are stressed and frustrated, but committed and motivated. And that final 30% of couples who show up for couples counseling are in that desperate sort of space. Now, I am going to tell you a big secret. This is something that I didn’t learn about in a—extremely good Master’s program and couples and family therapy. I did not learn about this in a PhD program that, you know, wasn’t about couples and family therapy, but we did some of it.

And I would say, you know, after having worked with many couples therapists over the years, and we probably have 40 couples therapists running around here Growing Self, and they are excellent. I mean, we are super selective about who we work with, we make them demonstrate that they will be effective for our clients. And we require them to be eligible for licensure as marriage and family therapists and you know, all kinds of specialized training and experience. And even them, I would say, probably 90 to 95% of them have never heard of what I’m about to tell you, until they start working with us.

There is an assumption that all—even highly trained couples therapists make—that when a couple shows up for that first appointment in couples therapy, the core assumption is that this couple would like to work on the relationship. They would like to have a better relationship for—with each other. And they are both willing to, you know, do the hard work that it takes on both sides to make positive changes in service of this relationship. And in service of their love for one another. That is the basic assumption of any form of couples counseling—that people are going to sit down. And they’re going to talk about the problems and they’re going to talk about how they’re feeling. 

And then, you know, after we figure out what’s going on what needs to change, you know, in the marriage counselor be like, “Okay, now that I understand what’s going on, here are some things that you guys can try in order to have a different experience with each other, or here are some of the experiential things, I think, would begin to change the way that you guys feel about each other. Let’s do these together.”

So it’s like, the goal of couples therapy is positive change, right? And what they totally miss and what will make marriage counseling fail, even if there is like a little shred of a possibility that it could be helpful, even for the most, you know, damaged couples—I hate to use the word but it’s true—is discernment counseling. Which takes a core assumption that I have two people sitting on my couch either in the actual therapy office or in the virtual therapy office. But these two people are a mixed agenda couple. They have very different feelings about this relationship. They have different goals for the relationship. They may have differing levels of commitment about whether or not they want this relationship to continue.

And what discernment counseling does is to say to this couple: couples therapy for the purpose of improving this relationship is not appropriate right now because at least one of you isn’t committed enough or hasn’t resolved their ambivalence about whether or not this relationship is something that you want to work on. And until you two are in agreement about whether or not you’d like to work on this relationship together, we can’t do couples therapy. What I can do with you is discernment counseling. This is a totally different thing. And the goal of this process is not to necessarily improve your relationship. It is to help both of you get clarity about what you want to do, and whether or not you want to try. And this is a very different way of understanding the 30% of couples who come in where one person is like, “I don’t know about you.”

What happens when couples, counselors—even very experienced ones—don’t have this idea in the forefront of their mind is that they jump into couples counseling with couples and they do the things that should work. If a couple is committed and motivated, that they will work if it’s in that kind of like—middle space of stressed yet motivated couples. And it doesn’t work with those highly distressed like desperate couples, one person is willing to do anything. And the other person might say the right thing and couples counseling, because they don’t want to be a bad guy. You know, they’ll be like, “Yeah, mhmm.”

But what happens over time is that they’re not following through with the things that are being discussed in couples counseling. They’re not really engaging with—a work. They’re not displaying, like empathy for their partner, or a willingness to take responsibility to keep their own side of the street clean. And it’s not because they’re bad people, it’s because they have had so many bad experiences in this relationship that they don’t know—really like on a deep level if they want to do it anymore.

And so here is what happens in discernment counseling and why this is so important. So if a—you’re working with a couples counselor who understands and provides discernment counseling, and they get a sense that this is the dynamic happening in your relationship, the first thing that they will do is actually advise separate sessions that are balanced. So it might be one or two or three sessions with you alone. One, two, or three sessions with your partner alone. And it is not individual therapy, there are still boundaries around confidentiality.

So ethical couples, counselors do not keep secrets for two people who are coming to see them together and this would still apply. But in those separate sessions, the couple’s counselor would be talking to the partner who is leaning out of the relationship emotionally, to try to get a sense of why that is. And to do some work to see if there can be motivation resurrected to actually improve the relationship or not. Because that has got to be determined before any work to repair the relationship is going to be successful.

On the other side, there is a partner who’s like leaning in, and this is the person who’s like, “Please, please, please save my relationship.” There’s often a lot of work that needs to be done with this partner, to help them understand, first of all, why their partner probably feels the way that they do. And also a lot of coaching around, “Okay, I understand that you want this relationship to be saved. And here are some—here’s a long list of things not to do right now, so that you don’t make this worse. And here’s some things that you can do.” Often times, we’re talking about ways to—like manage anxiety, and kind of get yourself into a good place in these individual sessions.

But so, you know, the first goal is to really, almost like make a deal with a couple who has a mixed agenda to say, “Alright, I want to meet with each of you two or three times, not forever, two or three times and the goal of this is to either decide, ‘Yes, there’s enough here to move forward into couples counseling. We both are committed to trying this for a period of time, like really sincerely trying for a period of time.’ The other choice is to say, ‘No, actually, after talking all the way through those I do not want to try. and then we have our answer.’ And it turns into conversations about how to, as Gwyneth says, “Consciously uncouple in the way that is highest and best for all involved.”

And then there is a certain subset of couples who, you know, don’t want to do either. And they just like, well, we’re just going to stay In the sort of, you know, purgatory space, after this process is done probably 50% of couples who come in and they, in a desperate—like one leaning out one leaning in kind of space, do transition into couples counseling. Probably, you know, another percentage of those maybe 30 or 40%, the other partner is, is actually done. Like, done, done!

And that’s, you know, hard to hear, but in some ways good because having that clarity is worth a lot, you know, like, we can begin to grieve and take this apart and move on as opposed to remaining in purgatory with each other for another year, or three, which isn’t good for anybody. And then, a small subset of couples don’t do anything with it. Choose to stay in the purgatory, which is fine.

But the goal of discernment counseling is clarity. It is that clarity, and it is commitment. Right? And so, here are some things that are important to know about each other. If you and your partner are in this mixed-agenda-kind-of-situation where either you’re unsure if you want to work on this, or they aren’t. So people who are leaning out of a relationship will oftentimes be fantasizing a little bit about what their life is going to be like, you know, if only they were out of the relationship. 

There’s kind of this “divorce as liberation” narrative, you know. That’s like freedom, you know, narrative like this marriage has held me back, tell me down. They may or may not have had an affair, they may be have a crush on someone else, or an emotional affair going on that they’re kind of idealizing this new person can be part of something that happens, or they’re kind of imagining this amazing future for themselves, like we know once they’re not married anymore.

And having these fantasies or these other attachments can really obscure their level of desire, or commitment, or motivation to work on the relationship. And so part of something that can happen in good discernment counseling is conversation without leaning out a partner to do some reality testing around. Okay, well, “What would your life actually be like if you got divorced and kind of walked all the way through some of those scenarios?” Or, you know, maybe talk a little bit more if there is an emotional attachment to someone else and see how that may be confounding this—the situation and try to raise awareness around. You know, the fact that they might perceive the situation differently if they didn’t have that emotional attachment to another person.

So that can be something that happens in discernment counseling with a leaning out partner. Another thing though, that can happen like there are some—I would honestly say many people that have gotten to this place where they’re like, “I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.” It’s not because they’re fantasizing about how great their life would be if they weren’t married anymore. If they were divorced, they don’t want to get divorced. But it’s like, they feel so emotionally beaten down and that their experiences with their partner have been so negative, and just such a yucky feeling, and it feels intolerable for them. You know, they’re like, “I can’t handle being spoken to this way anymore. I will not continue existing in a relationship without emotional intimacy. I don’t want to be in a sexless marriage.” You know, they’re feeling bad about what has been happening. And understandably, they’re like, I don’t want to do this anymore.

But they can also be so desperate for resolution. And they can have these unrealistic ideas that a change in a relationship needs to happen fast, and it can happen fast. And so if people in this space go into couples counseling, and you know, their relationship has been spiraling down for like seven years. And I have actually had people say to me, like, “We’ve met with you three times, and it’s not different yet.”

Well, let me just adjust your expectations because in a highly distressed relationship that has a lot of history, by session three, I’m still trying to figure out what’s going on in terms of the dynamic and what happened and the attachment injuries and all this stuff. And so people who have been really suffering in a relationship can be very impatient with couples counseling, even really good evidence-based couples counseling.

They’re like, “Well, you know, we’ve been having four or five sessions, and it’s just not different yet. So I think this isn’t going to work. And so I’m not going to try.” And, you know, they’re angry, and they’re resentful. And they don’t have a lot of patience for the growth process, sometimes understandably so. But discernment counseling, and those individual sessions can help people understand there’s a lot of history there and growth is a process. It took you guys seven years to get to this place. I need at least seven months to get you back out again, you know what I mean? And so there’s that kind of psycho education piece that can happen. 

But you know, through that process, they can become open to it. Because of learning, I think, what would actually be required if this relationship is going to change. And so through that awareness process, they can become more committed to trying. And really, I think, in those individual sessions, learning more about what they will need to do in order to see if this relationship can be better, or not through couples counseling.

And, you know, there’s also people who really don’t want to get divorced. But they don’t know what else to do to resolve this, they have done everything they know how to do to improve this relationship. They have read the books, they have tried to talk to their partner. They have done all the things they have done, the relationship advice, tips, and they’re like, “I’m out, I don’t know what else to do.” And, and I think that there’s also this process that can happen in those individual sessions of discernment counseling, where again, there’s like this insight that can be generated around—here is how relationships are actually healed. Here’s what damages relationships, this is what happened to you. 

This is what I see in this dynamic. This is why it feels so bad. And here’s what we will need to do in order to get out of this. Are you willing to try to give this one last chance with the information that I’ve provided with you around what this is really going to take? We’re going to have to talk about hard things. We’re going to have to make real changes. You are going to have to learn about yourself in a different way, and grow in a way that might feel uncomfortable and challenging. Are you interested in doing that with me? Those are some of the conversations that we have, you know, with partners who are really leaning out in discernment counseling.

And it’s also okay for that answer to be “no” for them to say, “You know what if you’d asked me this question three years ago, I would have said, “Yes.” I would have said, “Let’s do it, I will do the work. I will feel the feelings I will be challenged with.” And that was three years ago. And let me tell you about what has happened since then. And, “I’m done. I don’t believe it anymore. And I don’t want to. I don’t want to.” And that’s okay, again—and I hope I’m not scaring anybody by talking about this—so honestly, but I think it’s always better to go into these things with honesty and open eyes instead of spending weeks and months in marriage counseling that is destined for failure, because these conversations are not being had.

And it’s important. And that’s why discernment counseling matters so much. If your relationship is on the brink, in my experience. Inexperienced couples counselors—or even experienced couples counselors—who haven’t been exposed to the ideas that I’m sharing with you today, we’ll often make the mistake of kind of like, almost falling into that relational dynamic. So the partner of the person who is leaning out is often very anxious about the relationship and really wants it to get better and is sort of pursuing the partner emotionally. And believe it or not, couples counselors can fall into that too, where they are also sort of emotionally pursuing the disengaged partner, like trying to get them to connect and engage with a work. And it tends to make this dynamic more pronounced and kind of pushes the already ambivalent partner all the way out the door when maybe they were kind of teetering on the edge previously.

Now, it’s also important to know that the other side of this equation really matters. I mean, for practical purposes, the partner who is leaning out and deciding if they want to be in the relationship or not. You know, they’re kind of holding all the cards in terms of whether or not this is going to work. But there are things that the person who is the leaning-in spouse also needs to understand if they want to have a fighting chance of this relationship being improved. You know, first of all, there’s a reality around threatened attachment. 

Like you’ve heard me talk about attachment bonds on previous podcasts. We’ve talked about attachment styles, we’ve talked about anxiety in relationships. And we humans, when we are attached to someone who is pulling away from us, always experience this surge of anxious attachment anxiety, does not mean that you have an anxious attachment style. It means that you are a human being having a normal response to a threatened attachment.

And so there’s a lot of anxiety about the relationship, a lot of thinking about the relationship, lots of big emotions. Sometimes it’s fear, sometimes it’s sadness, sometimes it’s anger. Interestingly, because all of these things are coming out of the—our limbic brain, which is like our emotional center, and it’s kind of our monkey mind. And so when we are in pain, when we are afraid, it can have all kinds of impacts on us. And it can make us behave, let’s say not like our usual selves. So, you know, it’s important for someone in this space to take care not to be really pursuing. Not to be insisting that your partner have super serious conversations that they don’t want to have about the status of things.

It’s important to be able to regulate your own emotions, to the degree that you are not engaging with your ambivalent partner in a manner that makes this worse. So pursuing them for sex, pursuing them to talk to you, needing reassurance from them, getting angry with them, berating them, calling family members, and telling them to talk to that your partner to talk some sense into them. Your work if you’re in this position— and what you would do in discernment counseling is talking about what you need to do individually in order to manage these feelings. And keep yourself in a good enough place so that you are bringing your best self forward and helping your partner who is already ambivalent—experience you as someone with whom there is a future.

They need to see you as being capable of changing and being a good partner for them. Because whether or not you agree with a statement, they don’t trust you anymore. Because of the experiences that they’ve had over the years. And they’re feeling done for a reason—may not be a reason that you agree with, it may not be congruent with your perspective. But it needs to be understood from their perspective, it needs to be validated. And it requires a certain level of calmness and introspection and insight to say, “You know what, I could understand why you’re ambivalent, I shut you out for years. I remember four years ago, you were begging me to go to marriage counseling with you and I blew you off. And there was that time that I hurt your feelings. And it was right after our baby was born, and you were feeling so anxious and I went golfing instead. And I can understand looking back how even though it seemed like a small thing to me at the time, it was kind of a nail in the coffin wasn’t it like, and I’m not saying that you should be chasing your partner around the house.” Like telling them these things while they’re trying to avoid you because they not might not be in a space to hear it but just know that this is the work ahead of you.

These are the kinds of bonding, rebuilding experiences that will begin to repair trust. And it is through an experiential process that involves a lot of empathy, and patience, and understanding and authenticity, and making space for other people to have their real feelings and being able to validate and accept those feelings as they are. It takes a lot of emotional strength to do that. And so, your work in discernment counseling will be figuring out what you need to do in order to be an emotionally safe partner under the circumstances because that’s the only possible path forward. And at the end of that it may be that your partner is so done that you don’t actually ever get the opportunity to show them that you can do that, that you can understand them and have empathy for them maybe in a way that you didn’t before.

But either way, you will have begun a very important growth process where you have the opportunity to reflect on what went wrong. And, you know, yes, there’s part of it, how did we do this wrong together. But it’s really, really powerful to be reflecting on knowing what I know now, what I would have done differently if I had a time machine. And that’s not to generate regret, it’s not to beat yourself up, it is to say, “Because now that I know better, I can do better in the future.” And I’m not saying that you should jump into another relationship, but it’s an opportunity to understand how you relate to others. And it sets you up to have more successful relationships in the future .

It could be with a partner, certainly, but even with your children, co-workers, friends, you know, if you identify patterns, like, “You know, what, I was really critical to him for years and years. And I would get mad at him and I would be withholding and punishing, and you know what, now, he’s done with me. And let’s take a look at why I do that? Where did I learn to do that? Do I do that to other people in my life? You know what, I kind of do that to my sister sometimes.” And so, you know, it can turn into a growth opportunity for you to have healthier and more satisfying relationships in the future, whether or not this marriage can be repaired.

Many times it can, many times it can. The process of discernment counseling has very specific goals. And the goals are to have clarity—clarity that we both want to try to do this with sincere intentions, and give it our very best for a period of time. You know, it could even be three months. But during that period of three months, we are going to do everything we possibly can and dig deep and have the talks and do the things and see what happens when we both really apply ourselves. That is the first clarity decision point that can come from discernment counseling. And again, the majority of couples—so through discernment counseling, do come into that space where they’re like, “You know what let’s try—really try for three months.”

And there is also a goal of clarity, which is clarity around: There’s nothing here to fix, even though I feel kind of guilty about saying this, even though I wish I did want to even though I you know, feel sad about what might happen to our family, it is actually me being honest and authentic to say, “No, I do not have it in me to try wholeheartedly to make this relationship better. And it’s not fair for you, for me to keep stringing you along, hoping that I can, you know, decide that I love you again because, you know, after going through the process of discernment counseling, I feel very resolved in the—my truth, which is that it’s over for me.” 

So, you know it, clearly, we’ll say it out loud. And now let’s talk about what we as a couple want to do with that, you know, in order to start taking things apart in a way that feels healthy for both of us. So you know, hopefully on the other side of this, we can salvage some kind of relationship or friendship, particularly if we’re going to be co-parenting because that’s important. So that honesty is worth a lot. 

And you know, it is also positive for both people, positive for the person who is actually done to be done, and positive for the person who may really want the relationship to continue. But to have that unambiguous knowledge that it is actually over—as much as it hurts to hear that, it really jumpstarts the healing process. Because and I say this for my work as a breakup recovery therapist, a breakup recovery coach, divorce therapist, the people that wind up hurting and just being in agony for such a long time after a divorce, or have such a hard time moving on after a breakup, are the ones who are in this purgatory space of “maybe”. 

Maybe it could still work out, maybe they still care about me if we could just talk, there’s still kind of really like the emotional attachment to their ex persists long after the relationship ends, which, again, sounds kind of crazy from a rational perspective. But from a human attachment perspective, it is not crazy at all, it makes perfect sense. But even though it’s hard for your partner to say, “I am not in this relationship with you anymore. And I’m not going to be. And here are the reasons why.” And kind of like, almost having those closure experiences in the room with a mediator can really—like make the loss—yes, more acute for the person whose relationship is ending when they don’t want it to be. But again, jumpstarts, that healing process, because there is no bargaining, you know, you just move straight into grief. And there can be a gift in that compared to the alternative.

And then again, a very small subset of the couples, you know, because discernment counseling has to be limited, right? We can’t stay in this meeting with a discernment counselor for individual sessions in perpetuity. It’s going to meet with each of you three times, and we’re going to get clarity, or you guys are going to stop doing discernment counseling and we’re going to decide that neither of you are ready yet to fully process this or make decisions one way or the other. And so, you know, go back to your lives as it is. And just know that, in order for anything to change, we do need that clarity. And I am available to have that conversation with you again, when the time is right. But you know, we’re not going to take forever to do that. Sometimes, you know, if a discernment counselor meets with each of you for two, three sessions, and there’s still really a high degree of ambivalence in one partner, we have to stop discernment counseling.

And the recommendation could be, you need time and space to really get clear about what you want to do leaning out partner. And so I would recommend that you get involved in some individual, you know, sometimes therapy. But honestly, therapy in the most typical, real sense, it assumes that there’s something wrong with someone you know. Therapy, psychotherapy is for the treatment of mental illness, of psychiatric conditions, right? And so for somebody to be in this life space, where they’re ambivalent about a relationship, you know, to go to a therapist who wants to talk about how you’re depressed, and how you’re, whatever were traumatized by your father, when you were three.

Okay, fine, like go do that. But a more direct route to getting clear about how you feel, what your values are, what you want, why that makes sense, can actually be through evidence-based life coaching with someone who’s really more about helping you just get that clarity, right? Like, here’s what you want, here are your obstacles, what do you need to do to make that happen? Is that possible in this relationship? And you know, certainly to a degree talking about feelings and sorting through historical experiences in the relationship, but it tends to be much more positive. And just based on this assumption, that you are a strong, confident, capable person who is not making decisions out of a space of like deficit or psychopathology. But rather, that you are trying to figure out what is the best path for you, and your future, and that is congruent with yourself. 

And so in these cases, many times, life coaching can be a more positive approach, let’s say. One last thought to put in your hopper before I leave you for today. If you do work with a life coach to get clarity around this. So say, for example, you are the partner leaning out and after doing discernment counseling, you’re still in a space of “I don’t know what I want to do about my relationship.” It can be really, really helpful to seek out the services of a life coach who does have a background in couples and family therapy, or at least relationship coaching, because in individual work, it can be very, very easy to fall into a dynamic with a therapist or a coach, where you are talking about how terrible your partner is and how they hurt your feelings.

These are all the mean things they’ve done to me and you know, your very sympathetic therapist or coach will be like, “Oh my gosh, that’s terrible.” And if you have an ethical action oriented therapist or coach, particularly one that has a background in couples and family therapy, you will say, “Let me tell you about the meeting my husband did to me.” And of course, they will be compassionate and kind to you. 

But sooner or later, they might also ask, “Why do you think your partner is reacting to you that way?” To help you get insight into your blind spots and your growth moments so that you don’t unintentionally kind of fall into this victim place where your narrative about your partner becomes increasingly monster as because you don’t have a therapist or coach who is either knowledgeable enough or ethical enough or active enough to challenge some of that.

And you know what, your partner could actually be a monster, and you need to get out of this relationship—like stat! I have worked with people in toxic relationships, this is a thing.

And I would also say that out loud to a client describing that situation. But I believe that you deserve to have someone who cares about you enough and respects you enough to at least ask the questions to help you determine, you know, “Yeah, why is that happening? And do I play any role at all?” In the outcomes that I’m getting the answer again might be no. But you deserve to know if there are any blind spots or growth opportunities that you need to know about, if you’re going to have a positive relationship with anyone in the future. Either this person who you may or may not decide to end the relationship with, or another one because these things don’t go away.

Now, if you’re on the other side of this, and the recommendation at the end of discernment counseling is for you to seek individual work, if you’re the person who’s feeling really upset about the relationship ending, it can kind of depend on what’s going on. In my experience, it’s very, very normal for people to have feelings of anxiety and depression and sadness, and sometimes grief and loss. That, again, coaching strategies can be helpful in figuring out how to develop emotional regulation skills and self-care and kind of rebuilding positive things in your life, and shifting your thoughts into ones that feel happier and healthier for you and sort of looking towards your future.

All of that is in the realm of coaching. And, again, in my experience, if you’re on that upset side—that you’re the person who doesn’t want the relationship to end, I would advise to work with somebody who does actually have a background and who is able to practice therapy with you. If it turns out that that’s what you really do need because people can feel so bad and particularly in the early days of a relationship ending, particularly if it’s an unwanted ending or traumatic ending, can really be experiencing a lot of big emotions, lots of anxiety, lots of despair. 

And it’s, I think, important to work with someone who’s able to help you on that level, if it turns out that that is what would be beneficial for you. So, again, not that you want to work with somebody who’s going to make it all about like, “Well, the only reason that you feel as badly as you do is because you have terribly low self-esteem from the way that your mother treated you.” Like that is probably not going to be helpful, but it will be helpful to say, “Okay, this is turning into depression.” And let’s talk about what you need to do in order to be well, because there’s a path forward. So let’s talk about that. That is what I would want for you.

Anyway, so I hope that this conversation about discernment counseling was helpful for you. And if you are in a relationship, or it’s like feeling on the brink, please look for someone who is knowledgeable in discernment counseling. Look for something with an MFT after their name, which means that they are credentialed as a marriage and family therapist, so they have a background in marriage and family therapy. Ask questions, make sure it is evidence-based marriage and family therapy. And when you are interviewing prospective couples, counselors, make sure they are familiar with discernment counseling.

People who are trained in individual therapy or even couples counselors who are not trained in discernment counseling won’t have insight into the dynamics that I have described to you so be an educated consumer. Of course, if you would like to do that work with Growing Self, you know where to find us. But otherwise, I hope that this conversation has prepared you to make informed choices, either for yourself or if this again is making you think of someone else in your life who is struggling in this situation. I sincerely hope that you forward this podcast on to them because it might make a big difference. Okay everybody, thank you for joining me today and I will be back in touch with you next week on another episode of the Love Happiness and Success podcast.

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  1. 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.

  2. 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

  3. Hi Dr. Lisa,

    Thank you so much for all of the great insight you share. There are a lot of things on this topic that resonate with me, and it has me wondering what type of questions I should be asking myself if I am the “leaning out” partner to understand if continuing the relationship would be the right decision. I have been with my boyfriend for 4 years and feel as though I was only able to get through to him about the changes I need in our relationship for the last year or so. We had a few good months after I got through to him, but things have been going downhill again. I know he wants to change, but I’m trying to understand if I can let go of resentment and try again or if it’s really over. Our relationship problems are fairly ordinary things like feeling invalidated, arguing over priorities, etc.

    1. I’m so sorry that you’re in this difficult position, Kate. It sounds like you’d been trying to make positive change in your relationship for years, and although your boyfriend may have taken some action recently, you’re questioning whether it’s too little too late. I would definitely recommend connecting with a really good discernment counselor who can help you get to the bottom of what you want and what’s possible for your relationship. Until you’ve done that work, it’s hard to know for sure. (Make sure you find a marriage and family therapist who has specific training in discernment counseling — an individual counselor who also sees couples will not be helpful here). I would also recommend listening to this podcast episode: signs your relationship is failing. It can help you understand what’s happening in your relationship and what the next best step is for you.
      Wishing you all the best. xoxo Dr. Lisa

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