Not every member of a couple enters couple's therapy with the intention of or motivation for working on the relationship. Some feel that the relationship is already over but are staying in for a variety of reasons. Some don't see how couples or marital therapy will be effective. Some come in hoping that the therapist will see how bad their relationship is and make the decision for them that it would be best to separate or divorce. Some don't want to hurt their spouse or partner, want them to be happy, agree to come in to achieve this, but are really either consciously or unconsciously "out." And many just feel defeated and can't articulate why, how, or what they want to do about it. These are valid and often quite understandable feelings that partners should feel permission to have. But, they won't lead to any success in couple's therapy if not expressed. People can't be forced to do something they don't want to, even, or especially, if they are forcing themselves to do it without a conscious and earnest desire. For this, there is discernment counseling for couples.
I hesitate to apply the word "revolutionary" as I feel it has been somewhat overused. For instance, the last time I had a Hot Pocket a few years ago, I noticed on the box that it said it used a "revolutionary cooking sleeve." Really? That has been a revolution? However, I do believe that discernment counseling has become a revolution in our field. Research has shown that at least one third of couples who come in for marital or couples therapy are "mixed agenda" couples, meaning that one spouse is really on the fence about continuing the marriage or committed relationship while the other is really wanting reconciliation. This has been my experience as a marriage therapist since 1998, but we have had no other format for these couples than the various forms of reconciliation counseling that we have provided, and have been greatly improved, for decades. Discernment counseling addresses and to some extent solves this perpetual issue for so many couples, and I have been blessed to be one of the first generation of marriage counselors who have been trained, certified, and having been offering this format of counseling in the first couple of years of it's inception.
Generally, the format for couple's therapy begins with an initial 90 minute session. The format is about 20-30 minutes with the couple together, 20-30 with each partner individually, and then 20-30 minutes together again for a recap (any or all these may be longer - I won't have a timer), but I give each couple as much or as little time as they need while I guide this process. The need for more sessions and the format for those sessions will be decided in the final recap. Discernment counseling generally should only include five sessions at the most, and then the couple should be able to decide if pursuing more traditional couples therapy will be effective.
From the discernment counseling website (www.discernmentcounseling.com):
The counseling focuses on three paths: ending the relationship via separation or divorce, carving out a six-month period of time to for an all-out effort in couples counseling (and sometimes other services) to preserve the marriage/relationship, or staying the course and deciding later. The sessions involve mostly individual conversations with the discernment counselor, along with sharing about what each partner is learning in these conversations. The counselor respects the reasons for ending the relationship while opening up the possibility of restoring the relationship to health.
The counselor helps both partners see their individual contributions to the problems and the possible solutions. Understanding one’s own contributions to the problems can be important to the success of future relationships even if this one ends.
*** Where I (Dr. Wilkens) veer substantially from the Discernment Counseling model is that I don't put separation and divorce into the same category. So I essentially offer FOUR options. I have seen MANY marriages saved by separation - BUT, not a typical separation (e.g., one has moved, or been kicked, out, but there are no parameters, goals, or guidelines). There may be a physical/geographic separation, but not necessarily an emotional separation that is needed to gain, among many other things, a far more confident perspective of the marriage, individual needs, and so on. I use what is called a Healing Separation, based on work by Bruce Fisher in Colorado. Basically, when I have spoken to couples who are "on the brink" of divorce, I have asked them if they have felt like they were their "best selves" at that moment. Not a single spouse has responded to that with a "yes." The Healing Separation offers spouses the opportunity to work on becoming their best selves individually and bringing that person back to the marriage to have a FAR better perspective on whether or not the marriage is worth working to save.
Discernment counseling is considered successful when people have clarity and confidence in their decision, and when they more fully understand what’s happened to their relationship.
Dr. Wilkens sees his private practice clients at the Institute for Couple and Family Enhancement - www.icfetx.com.