Discernment Counseling

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Meet Sarah and Bill. They’ve been together for the last eight years, married for five years and they have a 3-year-old son. Life was great for them until Bill was in a work-related accident about two years ago. It almost claimed his life, but he survived. He has never been the same fun-loving Bill again.


The accident took his legs. Yes, he was paralyzed from the waist down, and since then, Bill was on disability. They had problems financially. Sarah was forced to work full time while Bill had to stay at home. The change in their roles and everything in their life because of the accident took a toll on Bill’s mental health. He became distant, non-responsive, withdrawn, and not the husband Sarah was expecting on him. It’s not about the money or the way their life is going now because of a shortage of funds. What Sarah can’t take anymore is Bill’s attitude and his stubbornness not to get professional help of any sort just to get better.


One day, Sarah talked with Bill and told him that she’s had enough. She gave him an ultimatum – fix himself and their marriage, or divorce. Bill was depressed and was torn of the idea that Sarah presented to him. He knew that they had to make a choice and that Sarah was about to leave him if he didn’t assess himself of what he wanted in his life. “In many cases divorce isn’t a unanimous decision. One partner wants to end the marriage. The other partner wants to stay. This isn’t a good scenario for couples therapy,” says Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.


And so, the couple decided to undergo Discernment Counseling.


What is Discernment Counseling?

Discernment counseling is a short-term therapy “designed to help couples on the brink of divorce gain clarity and confidence about deciding on a direction for their marriage,” according to Susan Lager, LICSW.

Discernment Counseling is a therapy program designed by Bill Doherty, Ph.D. for the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Program. It is not similar to the traditional marriage counseling or couples therapy programs out there. The point of marriage counseling is to look for a way on how to save the marriage and keep the couple going strong amidst their issues and problems.


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Discernment counseling is not like that at all. It will not talk about patching up with your spouse to fix the marriage. From the discernment, which means judging, this type of counseling is done so that the couples will have the opportunity to “judge” their marital decisions with clarity. The therapists of the couple will not make an effort to put them back together unless they want to do it. Discernment counseling will provide a safe avenue for couples who want to talk about what is to happen to their marriage – to divorce or to start anew.


This counseling program is short-term, most likely to last up to six session maximum. Once the couple decides on what path they are going to take, the discernment counseling has done its purpose. But what are these paths that couples can choose after DC? The three paths available will still direct couples to a therapy program which is fit for their desires and needs.


Path 1 – Retain The Present Situation


This path involves retaining the life that they are leading now. Most couples don’t take this path because they are done with the “now” life, and they want something better. Example for Sarah and Bill – Sarah wants out while Bill is thinking of fixing himself. They both want action done to change the present situation.


Path 2 – Divorce


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Since Discernment Counseling is not about repairing the couples, it is likely that one or both spouses may say that they want to have a divorce. If this is the case, then, the discernment therapist will direct them to a divorce counselor for assistance and healing. The therapist will also make sure that both spouses come out of their decision with a clear mind and heart. Both of them have to be confident of their divorce decision.

“Counseling can help bring about resolution and get you through a time that is completely devastating. Divorce counseling can help you get back in control of your life and make sound decisions about your future,” says Kurt Smith, Psy.D., LMFT, LPCC, AFC.

Path 3 – One More Chance


If the couples decide to take path 3, then, they have to commit to a 6-month couples therapy program and work on their marriage without reservations. Separating from one another or divorce is off the table during the progress of this program. They cannot opt out within the next six months of therapy, and they need to finish it together, all efforts must be made. After the six-month program, they will go to a discernment counseling again to ask if they really want to stay together or divorce one another.


Discernment counseling is there to help so that you can make a significant decision regarding your marriage. It is not a magic wand that can take away all the problems you have with your spouse, but it can aid most couples who don’t know what to do with their married life – to stay or to go. This type of counseling will help couples with clarity so that the husband and wife can move on with confidence in whatever decision they take.