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Marriages on the Brink

Portrait of unhappy young couple having problemsMany marriages and committed relationships that are struggling have at least one partner considering divorce or a break-up. Sometimes both partners have mixed feelings. Sometimes only one partner really wants to do couples therapy.

In today’s post, Drs. Adam Fisher and Nathan Hardy present discernment counseling as an option for these “couples on the brink,” a brief approach to helping couples decide whether to divorce or work on their marriages.

One wants to stay married, one isn’t sure

About 30% of couples who come in for couples therapy have “mixed-agendas” — one partner wants to work on the relationship and the other isn’t sure. Perhaps a lawyer has been contacted and divorce has been an option on the table. Couples therapy generally assumes that both partners want to work on the relationship. So what happens when only one spouse is sure of that goal? Discernment counseling — created in the last decade by renowned marriage expert William Doherty along with a family court judge and collaborative divorce lawyers — began in Minnesota for “couples on the brink,” with the goal of helping couples come to a decision regarding the direction of their marriage.

How can discernment counseling help?

Discernment counseling is designed for couples facing the possibility of separation or divorce where the partner who is “leaning out” of the relationship hasn’t made a final decision. In some cases, both partners may feel ambivalent. Either way, discernment counseling can help couples find more clarity about their relationship, and feel more confident of their ultimate decision.

What is the end goal of discernment counseling?

The goal of discernment counseling is to confidently choose one of three paths:

  1. Status quo — no changes, no therapy
  2. Separation or divorce
  3. Commitment to six months of couples therapy with divorce off the table

What does discernment counseling look like?

Discernment counseling is short-term (e.g. 4-7 sessions), with sessions both alone and together. The counselor will not begin to “administer the medicine” of couples therapy unless path three is chosen by both partners. The discernment counselor will also keep each partner’s disclosures in confidence. For example, an affair disclosed by a partner would not be shared by the therapist during this process, but would be shared if the couple committed to therapy.

  • For the “leaning out” partner: The counseling will focus on the decision-making process, why the relationship hasn’t succeeded to this point and what may be contributing to the problems in the relationship.
  • For the “leaning in” partner: The counseling will focus on hearing the partner’s experiences of the relationship, making useful efforts to save the relationship and focusing on developing and changing the self.

If, after the sessions both partners decide to work on the marriage, the discernment counselor may become the couples therapist; referrals are also an option.

Does it work?

Initial results are promising. Of 100 highly distressed couples (many had contacted divorce lawyers), 12 chose the “status quo,” 41 chose divorce and 47 chose to make the six-month commitment to work on their marriages. It is important to state that divorce is not a “failure.”

Drs. Fisher and Hardy have undergone specialized training in discernment counseling through the Doherty Relationship Institute.  They provide it to couples on the brink who are seeking help in the decision-making process regarding whether to get divorced or stay married. They also each specialize in couples therapy, but note that some couples need discernment counseling first.


Adam Fisher, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Clinical Fellow at The Family Institute. His primary area of expertise is in working with couples. His approach to treating relationships is Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT), one of only two empirically supported approaches to repairing romantic relationships. Dr. Fisher works with couples across the relationship lifespan, from dating and premarital couples to those who have been married for decades.

Nathan R. Hardy, PhD, is the Dr. John J.B. Morgan Postdoctoral Clinical Research Fellow at The Family Institute. His clinical expertise lies in helping couples work through sexual desire differences, extramarital affairs, communication problems, conflict and divorce. He is a differentiation-based therapist and educator who helps partners stand steady as balanced individuals while deepening their connection as a couple. This approach, when combined with healthy emotional regulation, can encourage increased self-awareness, self-development, relationship healing and growth.

To learn more about Drs. Fisher and Hardy, or to make an appointment, please visit our website.

The Family Institute offers affordable, effective mental health counseling for families, couples and individuals in Evanston, Chicago, Northbrook and Westchester. Learn more about our services on our website.

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