The Problem with Traditional Marriage Counseling

The Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project provides resources and opportunities for those struggling with the decision to divorce. The goal of our marriage counseling, or what we call discernment counseling, is specifically to help couples achieve clarity and confidence in making decisions about the relationship.

Right now we’re in the process of evaluating our first 100 discernment counseling cases. We’ve collected data over three years and are currently reconnecting with these couples to find out where they stand as well as successes and lessons learned from the program. While there are many forms of relationship and marriage counseling, we’re pioneering a new way of engaging couples where one person is seriously considering ending the relationship.

Leaning In and Leaning Out: The Problem with Traditional Marriage Counseling

The ideal situation in traditional marriage counseling takes place when two people are in agreement about being in the relationship. The goal is for both individuals to take an honest and humble look at their role in the relationship, identify each other’s concerns and show a willingness to improve upon undesirable/dysfunctional issues in their own behavior. The problem with this approach is that not all couples come to therapy with the same goal, or interest in making the relationship better. In many cases, one person is leaning in to the relationship while the other is leaning out. When that type of couple shows up to traditional marriage counseling, the person leaning out can be far less interested in making changes. In fact, he or she is struggling to decide if the relationship is worth saving at all. In this case, the traditional approach may not be effective.

The Discernment Counseling Difference

Discernment counseling, on the other hand, meets both individuals where they are at by helping them achieve confidence and clarity in their decision-making about the relationship. Through both couple and individual conversations, our protocol and format allows us to help those people leaning in, help them be their best selves and help them understand which behaviors are going to give their relationship the best opportunity to succeed without making any promises.

For those individuals leaning out, we do a great deal of empathizing with their pain and resentment. Some people say they no longer have love for their partner while others are unsure if they ever had it to begin with. While we help these individuals make decisions separate from their emotions, we also focus on their feelings to understand what they have been through. Getting at those unresolved resentments is a big part of our program. Unfortunately, many people tend to hang on to hard feelings instead of talking about them.

Clinicians are interested in discernment counseling because they have sat with couples who can’t gain any traction with traditional marriage counseling. There’s nothing more frustrating than when one person wants to do the homework and follow up while the other drags their feet. Discernment counseling allows clinicians to enter the relationship where both people are comfortable instead of getting involved with mixed agendas.

Reminders for Couples on the Brink

Divorce is not the only option. I’m still amazed at the number of couples who have never tried anything to improve their distressed relationship. One couple with a 26-year marriage told me the only intervention method they tried was apologizing to each other. But they were disaffected enough with one another that their apologies felt insincere. Many couples feel isolated in their struggles, causing distress and hopelessness to grow. Discernment counseling provides couples with a venue to be more open and honest about their resentments and concerns while also finding the right course of action.

Honesty is still the best policy. Sometimes a young married person fails to assert his or her preferences and opinions to avoid rocking the boat. But a few years into the marriage, this same person will decide to be more assertive. This can be a big shock to the other person, who was most likely satisfied with the relationship. More couples need to be honest from the start no matter how much they think feelings will get hurt. It’s important to have healthy conversations where you can express disagreements and differences in opinion while still showing great respect, love and admiration.

If you’re struggling with the decision to divorce and would like to learn more about our approach, visit our website at We also offer trainings with local family therapists and other professionals in the Twin Cities with St. Cloud, Fargo, Duluth and Rochester soon to follow. We will also be presenting at the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy 2014 Annual Conference in Milwaukee this October.

Steve Harris

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Steve Harris

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