To Divorce or Not to Divorce: How Discernment Counseling Can Help You Decide

Discernment Counseling

by Zonder Family Law Group

Divorce law as it is represented in TV and movies can give quite a skewed version of the reality of most divorces. Films like Intolerable Cruelty or The War of the Roses might make you think that divorce generally involves once-loving couples who somewhere along the line decided to become mortal enemies, intent on mobilizing legal professionals to humiliate and bleed the other spouse dry. On the other hand, you might see marketing from divorce professionals, life coaches, “self-help” professionals, and others who seem to suggest divorce is very likely the pathway to a joyous, independent, and free “living your best life” next chapter.

Certainly there are knock-down-drag-out-divorces, and there are people who quite happily get divorced from a bad situation and never look back. But in many, many cases there is far more nuance and mixed feelings between the spouses about whether divorce makes sense and how they should proceed. In nearly all cases, divorce is a momentous step that can continue to affect your life for years and even decades (including with respect to your finances, your relationships with your family, your ability to coparent, your emotional needs, etc.), and the decision to move forward with it is one that should be taken very seriously, and with professional help where necessary.

An experienced, compassionate family law attorney can provide you with many valuable services to guide you through the divorce process, including working through the options and potential outcomes of a divorce to help you decide whether a divorce will serve your needs. And while experienced family law attorneys may be able to provide you with shared wisdom from years of seeing couples go through the divorce process and its aftermath, a family law attorney is not a mental health professional.

Fortunately, in recent years many mental health professionals have begun to provide just such a service for couples where at least one spouse is considering leaving the marriage: discernment counseling.

Discernment Counseling is Not Marriage Therapy (And for Good Reason)

Your first thought might be, “we’ve tried marriage therapy and it didn’t work,” or, “my spouse won’t go to therapy.” A key aspect to understand about discernment counseling s that it is not marriage therapy. It is not about making the marriage better or guiding either spouse to change in the relationship.

Instead, discernment counseling is – as the name suggests – providing counsel to both spouses to help them discern the next direction for the two of them, namely proceeding with a divorce and/or separation or to commit to working on improving the marriage through therapy and/or other means.

As you may well know, marriage therapy (like any therapy) is only going to work if both individuals in the marriage are committed to making it work. But with couples on the brink of divorce, typically one or both partners are feeling pessimistic about the marriage working at all, and thus may not be interested at all in doing the work necessary in marriage therapy. The purpose of discernment counseling is not to save the marriage but rather to help both individuals get to the place where they are either committed to doing the work necessary to make the marriage work (i.e. marriage therapy) or to proceed with a divorce and/or separation.

How Discernment Counseling Can Help You and Your Spouse Move Forward

Different mental health professionals will certainly have their own approach, but there are some common aspects of discernment counseling.

Oftentimes, but not always, there is a “leaning-out spouse” who is feeling motivated to end the marriage and a “leaning-in spouse” who is wanting to keep the marriage together. Without professional guidance, this dynamic can be difficult and even combustible, as a leaning-in spouse can act in increasingly desperate (for lack of a better term) ways to save the marriage which can serve to only drive the leaning-out spouse further away.

A discernment counselor understands these different dynamics and works with the spouses to both better understand their own experiences and feelings and those of their partner to provide clarity and confidence about their next steps – whether to commit to working on the marriage, to commit to a termination of the marriage, or to maintain the status quo. This often involves joint time with both partners and individual time with each spouse and the counselor to help each spouse better understand both spouses’ contributions to the marriage and their concerns.

Again, discernment counseling is not marriage therapy in that it’s not about changing either spouse or improving the marriage. It’s also not about both spouses laying out all their grievances and dissatisfaction in the marriage. It’s about deciding whether it makes sense for both spouses to even try to go down that road of improving the marriage.

In that sense, discernment counseling is a short-term commitment, typically between one and five sessions. Thus, there is minimal commitment for the “leaning-out spouse” and both spouses maintain a sense of autonomy and transparency about the process. It is of course voluntary, and either spouse can opt out of continuing with the process at any time.

One study following 200 couples for two years has found that around 50% of couples who try discernment counseling commit to working on the marriage at the end of the process, while about 30% of couples commit to pursuing a divorce and/or separation. In thinking about such numbers, however, recall that the purpose of the counseling is not necessarily to “save” marriages but to help couples determine their next steps together with clarity and understanding, which is important for any marriage regardless of the end result.

If you would like to speak with a divorce professional regarding discernment counseling, contact our office today.

Guidance on Your California Family Law Questions From a Westlake Village Family Law Attorney

If you would like to learn more about how our office can provide guidance on any California family law issues you are facing in Ventura County or Los Angeles County, contact the Zonder Family Law Group office today at (805) 777-7740 or (818) 877-0001, or schedule your strategy session using easy-to-use online form here.