Should You Stay or Should You Go? How a New Therapy Helps Couples Decide

A new therapy called discernment counseling helps couples figure out if they even want to be together in the first place

Forget going to couples therapy to hash out all of your problems or learn how to fight nicely. After all, none of that really matters if you hate your partner’s guts or are in the midst of a jet-setting fling with your cabana boy.

That’s why a new form of therapy called discernment counseling is aiming to help couples figure out if they even want to be together in the first place.

Started by William Doherty, Ph.D., as a part of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project at the University of Minnesota, the therapy is described on their web site as “a new way for couples to pause, take a breath, and look at their options. We don't assume that you both want to preserve the marriage, only that you are both willing to…decide whether to break up or to try to repair it.”

According to an article in the WSJ, couples spend an average of six years in an unhappy marriage before they ever seek help. By that time, it’s often too late for a reconciliation, because one person is “leaning out” of the relationship, meaning they want to leave, while the other one is “leaning in,” or wanting to stay. Still, people who have been together for years, even decades, feel they owe it to themselves, their partner and their kids to see if they can make things work. And so they drag themselves to therapy for months or years until they finally call it quits.

Discernment counseling, which Doherty says can work for any seriously committed couple, married or not, puts the possibility of breaking up on the table instead of keeping it hidden. That way, the couple can assess openly, and in a safe environment, whether their relationship is worth saving. If not, then why waste time talking about who forgot to put away the dishes or who is less affectionate? In his practice, Doherty has found that about 40 percent decide to work on things.

I went to couples counseling before getting married (best thing I’ve ever done) and I can attest to how long it takes to work through all of the issues that impact your relationship. After all, it takes your entire life to accumulate all that baggage. It’s expensive, and it’s exhausting, and sometimes you leave a session wondering why you opened your big mouth in the first place. It’s so much easier to let things stew, and pretend everything is A-OK, until the day when it’s not. Proof: I have a relative who floored us all when he left his wife of nearly 20 years by way of a note. He didn’t want to bother with marriage counseling because in his head he knew it was over. If he’d had the option of discernment therapy, I'd like to think it would have allowed both he and his wife to come to terms with the fact that their marriage was over, and given them both a little bit of closure.


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