What Is Discernment Counseling?

A young married couple with a psychotherapist

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Discernment counseling is a form of therapy for couples who believe they are on the brink of a divorce and need guidance on whether or not to end the marriage.

Most instances involve couples with “mixed agendas,” in which one partner is leaning towards divorce and the other wants to remain married.

Counselors act as mediators offering unbiased discretion for individuals with opposing viewpoints on the relationship. The counselor aids the couple in deciphering whether divorce is the best option for their marriage. 

Discernment counseling is usually conducted by marriage and family therapists (MFT) who specialize in marriage and divorce. It involves a process of extensively evaluating the marriage and in-depth discussions as to why divorce is now being considered.

In just a few sessions, one to five, the therapist aids the couple in deciphering whether divorce is the best option for their marriage. At the conclusion of therapy, a decision is usually made whether to get a divorce or participate in 6 months of marriage counseling.

Techniques of Discernment Counseling

The following techniques can be expected when participating in discernment counseling. 

Individual Conversations

Individual conversations are designed to help each person understand the role they played in why the marriage is suffering, and to not only expect change from the other partner.

For both of those in the marriage, these conversations can help them to be more accountable and self-aware. They are able to identify unhealthy patterns of how they interact with the other person.

Individual conversations are often tailored to the partner. Couples are advised to create goals regarding the marriage. For those who are “leaning out,”  counselors focus more on the decision process of whether or not to get a divorce. The therapist may ask the client to name some reasons why they feel the relationship is failing, what part did they play in it, and why previous methods of reconciliation did not work.

For those “leaning in,'' these conversations are meant to help individuals truly listen to the partner and understand their perspective. The purpose is for them to develop constructive tactics when interacting with their spouse during the conflict. They’re encouraged to not be overbearing to the other person by begging or blaming them for their desire to get a divorce.

The purpose is for them to develop constructive tactics when interacting with their spouse during the conflict. 

Relationship Assignment

When couples have intentions to reconcile the marriage, they are asked to make a written list of habits they would like to change in themselves that could benefit the marriage.

If couples are hoping to reconcile they may also have assessments like an alcohol assessment, interventions such as a couples retreat, or individual therapy.

If couples are deciding to divorce, the therapist helps them to create a plan of how they both would like to cooperate throughout the divorce process and aspects that are the most important to consider. Couples may express the importance of considering the children, or the need to remain respectable.

What Discernment Counseling Can Help With

Benefits of Discernment Counseling

Beneficial for discussing difficult topics, such as infidelity, feeling as if you’ve grown apart, and processing resentment that developed due to situations of the past.

Most couples seek discernment counseling because it can help reach a neutral agreement for those on opposing ends of divorce.

Discernment counseling offers the benefits of marriage counseling, in which couples are able to strengthen relationship skills such as communication, consideration, and helping individuals heal, forgive and express compassion.

Along with offering the same benefits as traditional marriage counseling, it also helps with understanding each other's perspective of the condition of the marriage and views on divorce.

Those who divorced after discernment counseling found themselves appreciative of the sessions. Discernment counseling benefits helped enable cooperation during the process of divorce and post-divorce.

Having a good post-divorce relationship is beneficial for co-parenting. It is also beneficial for entering into a new relationship due to having a greater understanding of the self.


Discernment counseling was founded by Dr. William Doherty, PhD, a professor of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota. In 2008, he partnered with a group of divorce lawyers, as well as a family court judge, on a project he began to understand the dynamic of couples in the process of a divorce.

He found that even though couples have already filed for a divorce, many were still uncertain, which he referred to as “mixed agenda” couples.

A lot of these couples have already done marriage counseling and at least one person didn't feel a need to return. This is when Doherty explained he works with “mixed agenda” couples to help partners reach a common space when one is “leaning in” while the other is “leaning out.” The attorneys felt that a great number of their clients needed something like this and would be willing to give it a try, they eventually referred to this intervention as discernment counseling. 

A study found that most individuals seek marriage counseling because of difficulties in communication and compassion towards one another.

Although there isn’t much research on discernment therapy and why most people decide to seek this form of therapy, there is evidence that shows effectiveness to those who have decided to get a divorce after completing the sessions. Individuals reported that it helped them be cordial with one another post-divorce and instill trust as well as enabled cooperation during the divorce process.

In regards to couples battling the decision of divorce, traditional marriage counselors may not be as effective as discernment counseling.

Couples may seek out discernment counseling, or be referred to a counselor, but there are times in which therapists determine a need for discernment counseling during marriage counseling.

If divorce appears to be on the table for a couple, discernment counseling is the most beneficial therapy in determining the next steps for the future of the marriage

Things to Consider

A discernment counselor does not make the decision for the individuals of whether to remain married or not but guides the couple in developing clarity and a sound perspective so that they can make the determination.

This could be a decision to get the divorce, do marriage counseling, or keep the marriage as it is. It is important to not enter into counseling with intentions for the therapist to come to a conclusion for the marriage. Whether to terminate the marriage or move forward will take a willingness to be open and honest about feelings, concerns, and conflicts that exist between you two. 

The purpose of discernment counseling is not to work on intimacy or relationship issues, since most of the couples have already gone through marriage counseling, but to focus on whether or not divorce is the right option. Couples are encouraged to not enter counseling with high expectations for changes in their relationships or for the “leaning out” partner to have different feelings towards divorce.

Counseling is to help develop clarity and perspective towards divorce before actually going through with it.

How to Get Started

If you're ready to get started with discernment therapy, here's what you can do:

  • Consider the idea of discernment therapy. After gaining an understanding of what discernment counseling is and its benefits, you may feel a need for it in your life. If your partner and yourself seem to have conflicting desires in regards to divorce, give discernment therapy a thought. It may offer the clarity you both have been looking for.
  • Discuss discernment counseling with your spouse. You two can decide together whether discernment therapy is something you both are interested in. It may be beneficial to consider the possibility of traditional marriage counseling first before doing discernment counseling. It is possible that after marriage counseling you both are able to effectively communicate your concerns and begin to be on one accord. In that case, discernment counseling might not be needed.
  • Search for a marriage and family therapist (MFT) who does discernment counseling as well. During the search, you may find that some MFTs also do discernment counseling sessions. If you are already seeing an MFT, you can suggest discernment counseling. You can search online together and decide on a therapist that appears to be a good fit for both of you. 
  • Approach therapy with an open mind. Try to put your best foot forward and make the most of this experience. There are many benefits from discernment counseling and you will only reap these benefits if you are open and honest with your feelings and make an effort to consider the feelings of your partner. 
  • Be prepared to have difficult conversations about sensitive topics pertaining to the state of your marriage, past situations, present resentment, and possible trust issues. These discussions may not always include your partner but can also be individual conversations had with the therapist alone.
5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Doherty WJ, Harris SM, Wilde JL. Discernment counseling for “mixed-agenda” couples. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. 2015;42(2): 246-255. doi:10.1111/jmft.12132©2015 

  3. Doss BD, Simpson LE, Christen A. Why do couples seek marital therapy?. Research and Practice. 2004; 35(6): 608-614.

  4. Emerson AJ. Harris SM, Ahmed FA. The impact of discernment counseling on individuals who decide to divorce: Experiences of post-divorce communication and coparenting.  Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. 2021;47(1): 36-51. doi:10.1111/jmft.12463

  5. Edwards C. The Integration of Discernment Counseling and Emotionally Focused Therapy: Attachment-Based Therapy with Mixed Agenda Couples. Contemp Fam Ther. 2021. doi:10.1007/s10591-021-09610-9

By Tiara Blain, MA
Tiara Blain, MA, is a freelance writer for Verywell Mind. She is a health writer and researcher passionate about the mind-body connection, and holds a Master's degree in psychology.