I work with many couples in my practice. The more common issues that couples experience usually involve communication difficulties. Many sub-issues exist within this one area, but they tend to fall under the umbrella of communication.
Sometimes, couples will present to therapy with one partner convinced they wish to end the marriage and the other desiring to stay married. We call these “mixed-agenda couples.” The partner that wishes to remain in the marriage is called the “leaning in partner,” and the one desiring to end the relationship is called the “leaning out partner.” Traditional couples therapy will probably not be effective in this situation as the leaning-out partner may not be committed enough to want to do the work. This can present many difficulties and result in sessions that fail to really help the couple.
Discernment Counseling is a treatment protocol that can help mixed-agenda couples. It focuses on helping both partners “discern” their agendas before going further down the marriage counseling rabbit hole. The therapist meets with each partner individually with the goal of helping them identify their role in why the marriage is struggling. This is meant as a short-term intervention to discern agendas and respective roles. The goal is to see if the problems within the relationship can be solved. As mentioned above, this brief process should last from one to five sessions. Another aspect that differentiates this from traditional couple’s counseling is that the therapist meets with each person individually for the most part. It is called Discernment Counseling, as opposed to Discernment Therapy, to accentuate the point that this is not therapy.
From the start, the goal is to determine if the relationship problems can be resolved. During the first session, the therapist will typically ask the couple:
- What are the issues that got them to this point?
- What steps have they taken in the past to try and fix the relationship?
- What were the “good times” in the relationship?
During the initial session, the couple is made aware that the goals of Discernment Counseling are to gain clarity and confidence about the direction of the relationship. The goal is not to facilitate change or make the relationship better. The couple is told that the counseling can last from one to five sessions, with the couple deciding on whether to proceed to the next session. They initially agree to one session only. This gives the leaning-out partner a sense of autonomy as they are not committing to more than one session at the outset.
The sessions start with each person in the room doing a “check-in” about where they are in their decision-making process. It typically lasts about two hours due to the background information that the counselor needs to gather. After the check-in, one partner will leave the room so the counselor can speak with the remaining partner alone. At the end of the session, the person that went returns to the room, and the one that stayed talks about what they have learned or will take away from their session.
The discernment counselor’s job is not to determine whether the couple should stay married. The job is to help the couple develop clarity and insight that will help them decide on how to proceed in the relationship.
Mr. Steven Rego is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who works with individuals and couples. Mr. Rego uses an eclectic mix of therapeutic modalities like EMDR and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to help get at the root of psychological issues. Mr. Rego specializes in trauma, PTSD, depression, anxiety, and OCD. He also works extensively with couples.