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Should You Stay or Should You Go? Discernment Counseling Can Help You Decide

Deciding whether or not to stay married or get divorced is one of the most difficult and complex decisions most people ever have to make. It's agonizing. That's why so many people stay stuck in indecision purgatory for months, and sometimes even years. Making a decision is just too tough.
09/21/2015 04:15pm ET | Updated September 21, 2016
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When you are standing in the doorway of your marriage, with one foot in and the other out, what do you do? How do you decide whether you should stay or go? Even more importantly, once you have made your decision, how do you know if you're making the right one? And what about your kids?

Deciding whether or not to stay married or get divorced is one of the most difficult and complex decisions most people ever have to make. It's agonizing. That's why so many people stay stuck in indecision purgatory for months, and sometimes even years. Making a decision is just too tough.

Marriage counseling can help, but only if both partners are open and willing to do the work of change. If you are the only one willing to attend, then what? Of course you can go to therapy alone, but that's not going to make your partner change. You could also just decide to chuck it all and leave ... if you were sure that's what you wanted. The problem is, you are not sure. You are stuck.

Fortunately, a new tool is now available to help couples get unstuck: discernment counseling. Specifically designed to help couples decide whether to try to work on their marriage or get divorced, discernment counseling focuses on helping couples gain the clarity they need to make that decision, and the confidence to know that they are making it well.

What is Discernment Counseling?

Discernment counseling was developed by Bill Doherty, PhD, as part of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Program. Unlike traditional marriage counseling, which usually focuses on saving the marriage, discernment counseling focuses solely on helping couples decide what they want to do with their relationship.

While marriage counseling is open-ended and can drag on for months or years, discernment counseling is a brief, time-limited, process. Typically, it is completed in five sessions or less. The goal is to get the couple unstuck and moving forward, in whichever direction they choose.

Kristin Sliwicki, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Discernment Counselor, explains,

"Discernment counseling is a structured assessment process, not treatment. It is designed to provide a couple with the information they need to evaluate their relationship and take action - either to pursue a divorce or to commit to a 6-month course of intensive marital therapy."

The question the discernment process is designed to help people answer is: "Are you willing to work on changing your contributions to the marriage?" If both partners answer yes, then they move forward and start working on their marriage intensely. After six months, they revisit the question about whether to divorce, but by then they have more knowledge and clarity about the true viability of their marriage.

Who Can Use Discernment Counseling

At first glance, it might seem that discernment counseling could only be useful if both spouses were ambivalent about what they wanted in their marriage. "Not true," says Ms. Sliwicki.

"Even when one spouse has already decided that the marriage is over, the couple can still benefit from discernment counseling. It gives the couple a place where they can review the history of their marriage and also explore each of their needs and concerns for the future as they move down the path of divorce."

As every divorce professional knows, divorce is a process, not an event. Usually, one spouse is farther along in the process than the other, particularly at the start. By creating a holding environment and allowing the slower spouse to "catch up," discernment counseling can help the couple set a positive tone for their future relationship - which is especially important if the couple has children.

Another benefit of discernment counseling for "mixed agenda" couples (that is couples where one wants a divorce and the other wants to work on the marriage) is that it can reduce the emotional conflict, the tug of war between deciding whether to "stay" or to "go." For those couples who decide to divorce, discernment counseling can make the divorce process smoother, with less fighting and legal fees.

Couples who commit to marriage therapy after going through discernment counseling will have identified the core areas that each spouse needs to work on, thereby focusing the therapy on what each person needs to change. Even if they ultimately decide to divorce after going through marriage therapy, they move forward with a new toolbox of relational skills to help keep them from making the same mistakes in their next relationship

Discernment counseling is not a "magic pill." It can't force a spouse who is determined to divorce to change his/her mind. It won't create a perfectly harmonious relationship between spouses who have let their relationship deteriorate past the point of no return. But, for those couples who are unhappy and are stuck going in circles trying to decide what to do with their marriage, it can help provide clarity about where they are at, and allow them to confidently move forward with whatever decision they make.

To learn more about discernment counseling and to find a certified discernment counselor in your area, go to www.discernmentcounseling.com.

Kristin Hall Sliwicki, LCPC, LMFT, is in private practice in Libertyville, Illinois where she works primarily with couples and is busy spreading the word about the benefits of Discernment Counseling. www.prairielakescounseling.com.

To find out whether discernment counseling can help you, check out:Your Head Says Stay and Your Heart Says Go: Is Discernment Counseling the Answer?