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4 min read

Should I Stay With My Partner? How Discernment Therapy Can Help You Decide

Couple on couch with woman facing towards camera away form man behind her on couch. Man reaching out to her shoulder.
Written by
Kathy Anderson, MS, LAMFT
Published on
July 2023

Do you find yourself wondering if you and your spouse are compatible? Maybe you or your partner are considering separation or divorce and aren’t sure that you want to stay in the marriage. Many couples – most couples – face these thoughts and questions at one point or another in their relationship. This can result in relationship ambivalence – mixed feelings about your spouse that ultimately lead to frustration, confusion, passivity, and doubt. If most couples face ambivalence in their relationship at one point or another, it would make sense for professionals working with relationships to have an approach that addresses these sorts of dynamics. This is where Discernment Therapy comes in. 

What is Discernment Therapy?

Discernment Therapy is a specialized form of couple therapy designed for couples on the brink of separation or divorce, where one or both partners are ambivalent about continuing the relationship. The goal is to understand what happened in the marriage or relationship that led to ambivalence, to get clear about both partners’ desires for the relationship, and to empower both partners to make informed decisions about the direction of their commitment. 

Developed by psychologist Dr. William J. Doherty, this therapy approach recognizes that both partners often have different perspectives, needs, and motivations. Its primary goal is to support couples towards gaining clarity about the future of their relationship, whether that involves reconciliation or separation. Discernment Therapy addresses relational doubts and provides a way out of ambivalence into confidence.

What to Expect from Discernment Therapy:

Discernment Therapy is a brief therapy, which means that it’s a shorter process than traditional couple therapy and is very solution-oriented. The couple and their therapist explore whether the issues in their relationship can be improved or if the damage experienced is beyond repair. This involves three possible outcomes: staying in the relationship as it is, moving toward a separation or divorce, or both partners committing to the process of couple therapy with a genuine effort to improve the relationship. The therapist acts as a guide throughout the process, applying various techniques to facilitate honest and open communication between partners.

At the beginning of this process, each partner attends individual sessions with their therapist. This allows each person to express their concerns, desires, and reservations about the relationship in a secure and confidential space. After both partners have had their individual sessions, the couple reunites for joint sessions to share their insights and further explore their observations together. These provide a structured and supportive environment for open dialogue and exploration of each partner's perspective, hopes, fears, needs, and deal-breakers.

The therapist helps the couple explore the potential outcomes of different options for the relationship. The couple is encouraged to be introspective and reflective so that they can gain a deeper understanding of personal needs and relationship dynamics. A decision about the relationship is typically made as a result of any insights gained from these reflections, so it’s important to be open and honest throughout.

How can Discernment Therapy Help My Relationship?

Discernment Therapy offers several benefits that can be valuable to couples navigating relationship uncertainty.

  1. Enhanced clarity: Through the therapeutic process, partners gain a clearer understanding of their own desires, needs, and concerns. This increased clarity contributes to making more informed decisions about the future of the relationship.
  2. Improved communication: Discernment Therapy emphasizes effective communication and active listening skills. Couples learn how to express their thoughts and emotions constructively, leading to better understanding and connection.
  3. Preservation of options: Discernment Therapy aims to create a safe space where partners can explore all possibilities without prematurely committing to a specific path. This allows either partner to avoid hasty decisions and feel confident in the choice they eventually make together.
  4. Personal growth: The therapy process encourages self-reflection and introspection, enabling individual partners to gain insights into their own patterns and behaviors. This self-awareness can lead to personal growth, regardless of the ultimate decision made regarding the relationship.
  5. Peace of mind: given that the process of Discernment Therapy involves a thorough exploration of the relationship, each partner is given the opportunity to explore “what if” questions that may have otherwise been left unanswered. Having the space to explore possibilities and investigate potential outcomes can provide a sense of closure and contentment about the decision at the end of this process, whether that is the reconciliation or conclusion of the relationship. 

Common Questions Asked in Discernment Therapy: 

During discernment therapy sessions, therapists often pose thought-provoking questions to help couples gain insight and perspective. Here are a few common questions asked in Discernment Therapy:

  • What are the main concerns or issues you are currently facing in your relationship?
  • What do you believe is standing in the way of a satisfying relationship?
  • Can you envision any positive changes that could make your relationship work?
  • What did you picture your relationship would look like in the early stages?
  • What would be the potential benefits and drawbacks of ending the relationship?
  • What would be the potential benefits and drawbacks of staying in the relationship?
  • How have your past experiences and family background influenced your current relationship challenges?
  • What are your individual hopes and aspirations for the future, both within and outside the relationship?
  • How has your relationship impacted your personal growth?

By exploring these questions, partners are encouraged to reflect deeply on their feelings, needs, and expectations, fostering a more profound understanding of their own desires and the dynamics of the relationship.

Key Takeaways: 

Discernment Therapy provides a unique opportunity for couples to navigate the complexities of relationship uncertainty or ambivalence. By engaging in this therapeutic process, both partners can gain clarity, enhance communication, and make well-informed decisions regarding their future. While Discernment Therapy is not a guarantee of reconciliation or separation, it offers valuable insights and support during a crucial time of evaluation. It’s important to remember that each relationship looks different, and that longevity of a relationship doesn’t necessarily make it a successful one. Sometimes a successful relationship is one that ended at the right time. If you find yourself at a crossroads in your relationship, Discernment Therapist may be a helpful process to shift the dynamic and make a decision about the relationship.


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