I’ve been doing Discernment Counseling for several months at this point. (For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it’s a form of treatment specially designed for “mixed agenda” couples, where one person wants to continue the relationship and has hope for improving it, and the other person feels done and is “leaning out,” but hasn’t yet pulled the plug. It’s a one to five session form of treatment geared to help the couple move toward one of three choices: stay in the status quo, or break up, or do the work of reconciliation. It’s a decisional therapy, not regular couples therapy which presumes mutual energy and commitment toward improving the relationship. It is designed to help “couples on the brink” avoid the time, expense and frustration of half-hearted couples therapy). I can tell you right now that it works! I don’t yet have any hard statistics, but in my experience so far I’ve found that this way of working really resonates for couples in this dilemma for the following reasons, among many:
- Both partners tend to feel understood and honored, as nobody is being “sold” the continuation of the relationship. Instead, the three paths are intricately explored, with each partner exploring their own part in the negative history, as well as in possibilities for change of any kind.
- The “leaning out” partner doesn’t feel pursued or pressured to stay in the relationship by the therapist (who often in regular couples therapy would mirror the pursuit of the “leaning in” partner by encouraging strategies for improving things). Instead, they are given space to explore any ambivalence they may have about moving on, as well as space to look at their own contributions to the situation.
- The “leaning in” partner is helped to look at how to bring their best self to the work, and not humiliate themself in the process, as well as exploring their understanding and willingness to address their partner’s concerns.
- Clients report really appreciating the format, where we begin the session by meeting all together, then each is seen individually while the other leaves the room, ending with us all reconvening so partners can share their thoughts and feelings about what they have each gained or taken from their individual sessions. I get regular feedback about how each person feels safer having their own time with me to look at the issues, and what they want to convey to their partner about what they’ve learned.
- I observe a tremendous lessening of defensiveness and commotion without both partners in the room at all times, given free reign to talk at each other. There is very strict protocol for each segment of the sessions. This is not a free-for-all, duplicating the toxic dance the couple has already been doing. It’s a carefully guided exploration.
- So far, this form of treatment has moved most seemingly intractable couples toward a more solid, trusted decision about their future relationship.
I am in the process of pursuing advanced training in this work, so I can envision ironing out some of the kinks which come up, like the time management piece – (there’s lots to cover in a particular sequence each session, something a bit foreign to my more organic way of working). There are also unique dilemmas presented by each couple which require attention and sensitivity. We’re nowhere near perfect, but Discernment Counseling is experienced as a whole different thing by couples on the brink of a split.
For any “mixed agenda” couple interested in getting out of a stalemate around the direction of your relationship, feel free to contact me in my Portsmouth office to further discuss the possibility of doing Discernment Counseling with me. I have some openings at this point, but expect that as we move into the Fall my availability will be much more limited, as it usually is when Summer ends.