Immediate Help for Couples in Crisis

Posted by on Jun 8, 2020 in Ask The Therapist, Blog From The Experts | 0 comments

An Alternative to Long Term Couples Therapy


Within minutes of meeting a new couple in therapy, I can sense if they are in crisis. The emotional flooding is apparent in each of their faces. Their body language tells me they are protecting themselves from each other. Oftentimes one “leaning in” partner, (usually the one who scheduled the appointment), wants to desperately save the marriage. While the other “leaning out” partner would rather be anywhere other than my office. Both are confused, desperate and exhausted. And both are hopeful that a therapist can provide guidance and relief.


Couples therapy effectively helps create deeper understanding and contentment within a long-term relationship. There are proven methods for recovering from betrayal, creating healing relationships from past trauma, and developing emotional and physical intimacy. Although effective for these purposes, couples therapy requires both partners to invest in a process that can last minimally 6 months and up to several years. For couples that are uncertain about the future of a relationship, investing in that kind of emotional, financial and time commitment can be daunting. Without a commitment from both partners, it is unlikely therapy will result in positive change in the relationship.


There is another option.

Discernment Therapy. Based on research and theory by William Doherty, PhD and Steven Harris, PhD, LMFT, Discernment Therapy is a structured, short term therapy for ambivalent couples trying to make a decision about the future of the relationship. It does not focus on repairing the relationship; but instead focuses on helping each partner discern between three options: staying in the relationship as it is, divorcing / separating, or committing to at least 6 months of couples therapy. A therapist trained in the

discernment approach will focus on the unique needs of the leaning in partner vs. the needs of the leaning out partner. The goal is to help each find personal clarity about the next step in the relationship.


Couples Therapy vs Discernment Therapies. In couples therapy, a therapist will meet with both partners together for the majority of the sessions and encourage open communication within the partnership. Conversely in Discernment Therapy, the couple will attend the sessions together, but the sessions are structured so that each partner will spend individual time with the therapist to work through the very personal decision about staying or leaving the relationship. Couples are brought together during short periods of time throughout every session, but only to communicate to their partner where they are in the discernment process. During discernment work, each partner is empowered to make the decision for themselves if they would like to participate in the next session, and attempts to influence each other are discouraged. This allows individuals to make a personal commitment to whatever path they choose. And unlike couples therapy, Discernment Therapy is time limited to 1-5 sessions (after the initial assessment session). Discernment Therapy also has a structured and clear approach about client confidentiality that is different than couples therapy. These guidelines are clearly outlined and agreed upon during the initial appointment.


Benefits of Discernment Therapy: Discernment work helps each person assess what happened in the partnership that got them to this point, helps each see their role in the marriage story, and helps define their responsibility for the next steps. Whether a couple stays married or not, this “responsibility for self” sets the stage for an amicable divorce, healthier future relationships, or frame of mind to enter couples work. Furthermore, my experience with couples who have been through this process report greater clarity, decreased distress, and increased empowerment about their futures by the end of the

discernment sessions.


Deciding to divorce or stay in a marriage is one of the most important and impactful decisions a person can make. Discernment Therapy meets couples where they are and provides a much needed framework to work through this tough and emotional decision. If you are interested in learning more about Discernment Therapy for couples, please contact Karen Wolf at Avenues of Counseling in Fairlawn, Ohio at (330) 723-7977.



Doherty, W, Harris, S, (2017) Helping Couples on the Brink of Divorce. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological



Written by Karen Wolf, M.A.Ed., LPCC

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