Gordon and Estelle told me that they had come to consult me because their nineteen year marriage was “hanging by a thread.” I had met the couple several years ago, when their daughter Nicole was having difficulty concentrating at school. Now the parents realized they needed help for themselves. As with many couples, Gordon and Estelle had primarily focused on their three children, and did not air out the resentments that were building up between them. Now, they were at a crisis point.

Gordon confessed that he was emotionally involved with his secretary, and was thinking of leaving the marriage. He felt more “happy and alive” when he had lunch with his secretary than he did when he was with his wife. But Gordon felt like he had made a commitment to Estelle, and he didn’t want his children to go through a divorce. He wanted to try to repair their marriage before his relationship with his secretary became more than just a friendship. In fact, Gordon was the one to call and make the appointment for counseling.

While listening to Gordon and Estelle, I wondered if they were really ready for marriage counseling. Some time ago, I read an article by therapist William Doherty, Ph.D. about a form of couples therapy that he calls “discernment counseling.” This form of counseling is helpful when spouse A sincerely wants to make the changes that are necessary to make their marriage happier, but spouse B has one foot out the door and is already (whether consciously or unconsciously) planning post-divorce life.

In my experience, if I don’t recognize the difference between the scenario when both spouses are firmly “in” the marriage and will do what it takes to make it work and the alternate scenario when one spouse has a foot out the door, marriage counseling will fail. The difficulty for the therapist is that the spouse who is leaning away from the marriage may be doing so unconsciously—denying even to her(him)self that he(she) wants out. Many spouses--due to religious beliefs about divorce, fear of blame by their extended families, financial issues, or love for their children--cannot admit to themselves that they are done with the marriage and want a divorce. Based on research and his own experience, Doherty believes that about thirty per cent of couples that come to couples counseling fit this picture.

A Freud reminds us, the therapist’s job is to bring what is unconscious into consciousness. Therefore, my goal in an initial meeting with a couple is to clarify whether both spouses actually have the same agenda and sincerely want to work on their relationship. If they don’t, the therapy is doomed to go nowhere and will eventually peter out. I have found that most couples welcome this preliminary “discernment” stage to couples counseling. It gets them to honestly reflect on their motives—even if their motive is “I can tell the kids and my family that I did everything I could to save my marriage.” Discernment counseling can save the couple and the therapist time, money, and grief.

An important step in the discernment counseling process is to meet with each member of the couple alone for at least one session. This individual meeting reveals whether one spouse has already had an affair, has consulted an attorney or is thinking seriously about calling an atorney, or frequently fantasizes about post-divorce life.

When I met with Gordon separately, he confided that he couldn’t live with Estelle’s constantly trying to control him. He felt like she was more like his mother than his wife—a pattern that frequently emerges in long term marriages.

Estelle, in her individual session, told me that she felt like her husband had become a “teenager.” He had joined a cycling group and did everything he could to be “popular” in the group. He spent much of his free time on Face Book, and didn’t turn off his cell phone at meal times—even though this was a rule for their kids. When Estelle reminded him to turn off his phone when they were having dinner or suggested that they spend time together in the evening instead of him spending his time on Face Book, Gordon accused her of being “controlling.”

I suggested that we have a few sessions of discernment counseling. Things became very sticky for me when I realized that Gordon really did not want to be in the marriage; but he didn’t want to make that decision himself because he felt too guilty. He wanted his wife to make the decision and move out of the house.

Over the course of two months, Estelle made many of the changes that Gordon said he wanted, but Gordon was unwilling to change anything that she asked. Soon it became clear that this couple was not really ready for marriage counseling since Gordon was not fully on board with the agenda of improving the marriage. I recommended that Gordon go to individual counseling to clarify his own feelings and thoughts, and that they return to me for couples counseling if he decides that he truly wants to stay in the marriage. This was two months ago, so it will be some time before I know what Gordon decided to do.

Discernment counseling is a tool that I have found to be invaluable with my work with couples--even if the counseling ends with one of the partners deciding for divorce. When counseling ends with one spouse achieving clarity about whether he wants to stay in the marriage, discernment counseling has been successful.

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