Marriage is hard work. For the record, I’m including all relationships that are acting as married when I say this. Couples wait, on average, about 6 years into being troubled before they seek any help. That is, IF they seek help from a marriage counselor at all. As a result, sometimes it gets hard enough that one of the partners is thinking about leaving, even when the other one might want the relationship to last.
Dr. Bill Doherty of Doherty Relationship Institute calls these couples mixed agenda couples: One person is leaning out of the marriage and not sure there’s even the will to try marriage counseling and one person is leaning in, wanting to give the marriage at least one more chance. Having consulted with a MN family court judge, he learned that a reasonable percentage of divorcing couples had at least one partner who felt that maybe the marriage could have been saved even as they went through the divorce process. To find a way to help, he developed Discernment Counseling and started a program called MN Couples on the Brink.
What is discernment counseling?
Essentially, discernment counseling is decision making counseling to help the couple come to a clear decision one way or the other. There are three possible paths: path one is status quo, path two is separation or divorce and path three is putting divorce off the table for a full on commitment to marriage counseling. For most, status quo really isn’t a realistic option so most couples are choosing between paths two and three. Discernment counseling is supposed to be a very short term process of 5 sessions or less. Virtually all of my discernment clients take 2-3 sessions before making a decision.
For couples who have tried marriage counseling, the process can seem a bit strange because it doesn’t really look like anything they’ve done before. The first session is kind of intense, it’s 2 hours long and a mixture of working with everyone in the room and taking individual time with the provider. The first half hour, the therapist will be asking a set of specific questions of both partners. Unlike in couples therapy, we don’t actually want the partners to talk to each other during this time. After that portion, each partner gets 30 minutes individually, and then everyone comes back together for the last half hour. It’s only at the end of each session that a decision is made about whether to have another session. Why? Because a decision for one of the paths can happen at any time. NOT couples therapy for sure.
The decision making process is important for a couple reasons. First, when someone is thinking about making such a life altering decision as divorce, it’s important to make sure that it’s a well thought out decision where that person looks at what it would really look like to leave and to look at what it would really be like to try to work on the relationship full out. Sometimes the couple hasn’t actually tried marriage counseling and it’s helpful to talk about how they will feel if they end the marriage without ever trying to work things out with a professional. Sometimes the leaning out person is so tired that there just isn’t any emotional juice left to even try but leaving creates a lot of fear and guilt.
For the leaning in person, it’s often important to take a look at what he or she has added to the problem areas in the relationship and whether there’s truly been a strong effort to fix them. Much of the time the leaning out person is what we call a “burned out pursuer”, meaning that partner has been trying for a very long time to get the other one (the leaning in) to really engage in the relationship and work on things. After a certain time, the pursuer partner gets tired and burned out and decides it’s time to call the whole thing quits.
Sometimes the turning point for these couples is when the leaning in person has what I like to call a near marital death experience and has an epiphany about the need to do things very differently than in the past. Just like a near death experience can create transformation in how a person views and lives life, so too a near marital death experience can be the necessary ingredient to push through all the denial, all the avoidance and truly motivate someone to do the hard work of saving a marriage. At times it’s enough to bring the couple back from the brink into marriage counseling and sometimes it’s the old story of “too little too late”.
Discernment counseling helps the partners have a much clearer idea of where things are really at in their marriage. For those who end up deciding to divorce, it can be helpful to feel clarity and a sense of having explored the possibility fully before following through. For those who end up determining that it’s worthwhile to give the marriage just one more chance, the success rate is much improved over couples that come straight into marriage counseling but are really on the fence.
Although I’d rather save marriages than help them end gracefully any day of the week, I caution these mixed agenda couples against jumping into marriage counseling when what they really need is to make a clear decision and commitment to the process. Why? Because as I noted in the beginning, marriage is hard. Marriage counseling can be even harder at times. Without the clear commitment, the leaning out person will usually approach counseling half-hearted and that’s almost always going to go badly. The biggest problem there is that then the response is “See, even marriage counseling didn’t work.” when maybe it could have if approached from a different commitment level.
So the first advice is don’t wait 6 years into having marriage trouble before seeking some professional help. It’s SO much easier to manage earlier on when it starts to get tough. If you have waited so long that someone is thinking maybe it’s time to leave, do your whole family a favor and seek someone trained (at the advanced level…this is tricky stuff) in discernment counseling and make the decision a thought out one either way. The great news is there are more and more of us trained providers out there all the time.
– See more at: http://www.resilientrelationshiprevolution.com/what-to-do-when-one-of-you-might-want-out/#sthash.0ktZik83.dpuf
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