discernment counseling

“Why can’t he just admit that it is over!? “She wants me to stay, but I want to go.” “He just doesn’t want to be married anymore.”

Do any of these thoughts sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. Whether you call it a roadblock, stalemate or just bad romantic luck, countless couples face this same dilemma: one wants in while the other wants out.

Each party has made their point of view known. Yet, the direction in which the relationship will go is anything but clear. And often, despite one partner still clinging to hope, neither are satisfied with the status quo.

The Mixed Agenda Couple

As Bill Doherty from the Doherty Relationship Institute points out, when one person is “leaning in” and the other is “leaning out,” there is no mutual agreement to commit to the process. Because there is no spoken “contract for long-term work,” treating a mixed agenda couple cannot be defined as couples therapy at all.

Doherty reached this epiphany after decades of encountering couples at this point of crisis. After traditional techniques failed, he made a crucial discovery: when one partner wants out and the other wants in, the goal of therapy is different.

When the goal is different, the process has to be different. So does the way in which the therapist defines the relationship.

Doherty aptly coined the phrase “mixed agenda couple” to describe partners who find themselves in the “Should I stay or should I go?” quandary. He also categorized the ambivalent member of a mixed agenda couple into three clearly defined categories.

Three Types of Mixed Agenda Partners

1. The Freedom Seeker

The freedom seeker is primarily motivated by a feeling of liberation. They are ambivalent about couples therapy because they see a separation from their partner as a source of freedom. Often, they are absorbed in fantasies about a better relationship, better future and better life for themselves. While they may still have affection for their partner, they often lack any feelings of romance towards them and often hold unrealistic notions of what life would be like if they left.

2. The Stifled Spouse (or Partner)

The stifled spouse, or partner, is driven by a desire for release. They might feel burdened, picked on, put down or even emotionally abused. Whether or not abuse is present, this partner sees the situation as intolerable and is searching frantically for the “Exit” sign. Unlike the freedom seeker, the stifled spouse feels that leaving relationship will give them a sense of emotional stability.

3. The Reluctant Rejecter

The reluctant rejecter is not under pressure to leave and has no illusions about what life would be like outside of the relationship or marriage. Nonetheless, they do not see a reason to carry on. They might be fatigued, worn out or disillusioned with their life and do not see a happy marriage or relationship with their partner as a future possibility. So, they are reluctantly letting go.

Now, while Doherty outlines these three very different motivations of the “leaning out” partner, he assigns the “leaning in” partner with a single common characteristic: desperation. The partner who is still holding on is often so scared of losing their significant other that they cling more tightly to them and, ironically, push them farther away.

The dynamic this creates is cyclical at best and self-destructive at worst. So, what’s the solution?


discernment counseling

Discernment Counseling

Initially created by Doherty as part of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink program, discernment counseling focuses solely on helping the couple decide what they want to do with their relationship.

As Karen Covy, writing in the  Huffington Post, points out in her article “Should You Stay or Should You Go?” it is not about saving the relationship. Rather, the goal is to provide each partner with the clarity and confidence they need to move forward.


Or, as our founder Kerry Lusignan points out:

“Ending a relationship is no small matter. Discernment counseling provides couples with a thoughtful process that honors the history they share, the family between them and the crossroads at which they stand.”

In discernment counseling, there is no agenda and no “contract” for reconciliation. Instead, it is a brief, time-limited process designed to get the couple unstuck and moving forward, in whatever direction they choose. The therapist remains completely neutral in the process and, often, avoids using a lot of proven counseling methods (such as Gottman Method Couples Therapy or Emotionally Focused Therapy) he or she would use otherwise.

Here are some other common characteristics of discernment counseling:

  • It is typically conducted in 5 sessions or less.
  • It is comprised of equal amounts of one-on-one time with each partner as well as shared time with the couple.
  • It DOES NOT involve encouraging the couple to stay together or separate.
  • It DOES encourage each partner to consider how their actions have contributed to the situation at hand.
  • It can be more therapeutic than traditional marriage counseling or couples therapy.

Is Discernment Counseling Right for You?

While discernment counseling addresses ambivalence in a relationship, it is not an appropriate tool if you or your partner are 100% committed to leaving the relationship. Discernment counseling is recommended in situations when when a “leaning out” partner experiences ambivalence, or, is open to a process of examining the relationship with professional help before leaving it.

Are You the “Leaning Out” Partner?

If so, discernment counseling offers you the freedom to leave after just 1 or 2 sessions. You are not committing to traditional therapy and your decision to attend these sessions in no way binds you to working towards a reconciliation.

Are You the “Leaning In” Partner?

Chances are you will do whatever it takes to save your relationship. By choosing a therapeutic process that your partner is comfortable attending, you are giving yourself the best chance for success. On the other hand, if the end decision is for you to end your relationship, you will gain closure much sooner and avoid suffering through long, drawn-out sessions that end with the same result.

Are Both of You “Leaning Out?”

Discernment counseling can also work if both you and your partner are ambivalent about your future.

Do you want more clarity in the future of your relationship? Do you want the confidence to know you are making the right decision? At NCCT, our couples therapists are well-versed in the dynamics of a “mixed agenda” couple. We have treated countless couples on the brink of separation, and we know how to approach each couple with compassion and clarity.

We also embrace the tools and techniques that make discernment counseling a success. Rather than advocating for your relationship, we are your advocate and will work with you to determine which course of action is in your best interest. Give us a call at (413) 586-2300 to learn more about this process and decide if discernment counseling is right for you.

Or, if you are past the point of a marriage crisis and interested in a marriage or relationship retreat, call us at (413) 586-2300 to inquire about upcoming retreat dates.

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