How do you know when a relationship is over or if you should keep trying? Couples counseling and discernment counseling are two therapeutic approaches designed to address relationship issues, but they serve different purposes and cater to distinct needs. We’re clarifying the differences between couples counseling and discernment counseling so you can decide what fits your current relationship needs. 

What are the goals of couples counseling vs. discernment counseling? 

Having goals in counseling is a fundamental aspect of effective therapy. It helps provide a clear focus for therapy sessions and promotes collaboration. Goals can empower you and your partner in the therapeutic process and help measure success to know when to modify or end treatment. Your therapist will encourage you to actively set SMART goals: specific, measurable, realistic, and achievable.

For example, you and your partner aim to improve communication and conflict resolution. A measurable goal could be, “We will learn and practice active listening techniques to reduce misunderstandings.”

The goals of couples counseling

Couples counseling, or couples therapy, is aimed at helping couples work through their issues and improve their relationship. The primary focus is addressing specific problems, improving communication, and enhancing overall relationship satisfaction. The goal is to build a stronger bond and connection by fostering better understanding, emotional intimacy, and improved conflict resolution skills.

The goals of discernment counseling

Discernment counseling is an intervention designed to help couples who are uncertain about the future of their relationship and may be considering divorce or separation. The primary goal of discernment counseling is to assist couples in gaining clarity and making informed decisions in one of three paths: 

  1. Status quo (stay married)
  2. Separation/Divorce
  3. Six-month commitment to couples therapy with divorce off the table. 
    • This type of counseling benefits couples on the brink of divorce but want to thoroughly explore their options before making a final decision.

What are sessions like in couples counseling vs. discernment counseling? 

Whether you engage in couples counseling or discernment counseling, preparation is key for a successful and productive therapy experience. Consider what issues or concerns you’d like to address during your session, and discuss those issues with your partner ahead of time. Regardless of your therapy journey, prepare to actively listen to your partner’s perspective and be willing to engage in constructive dialogue. Focus on honest and open communication with your therapist. You’ll want to ensure you and your partner are ready to share your thoughts and feelings. 

What to expect in couples counseling sessions

Couples counseling typically involves a longer term of therapy sessions, ranging from several weeks to several months. Therapists work collaboratively with couples to identify underlying issues, interaction patterns, and improvement areas. The sessions often involve in-depth discussions, vulnerability, and a willingness to improve and reach for each other in times of distress outside of therapy.

What to expect in discernment counseling sessions

Discernment counseling is a more concise process, usually one to five sessions. These highly structured sessions focus on helping the couple gain clarity about their relationship’s future. The therapist assists the couple in understanding their individual needs, desires, and concerns and exploring the possibilities of reconciliation or separation. In addition, discernment counseling works with each partner to identify individual contributions to how their relationship got to the state that it is in. Each individual gains more clarity on their unique role and they can make a decision whether or not they would like to work on their part. 

How to choose between couples counseling and discernment counseling 

Choosing to seek therapy can be a humbling yet necessary experience for couples in distress. Remember that therapy is a process, and progress may not happen overnight. Your therapist’s role is to facilitate communication and provide guidance.

When to choose couples counseling

Couples counseling is best suited for couples willing to invest time and effort in working on their relationship struggles. It is effective when both partners are motivated to improve communication, resolve conflicts, promote intimacy, and rebuild connection.

When to choose discernment counseling

Discernment counseling is suitable for couples experiencing significant doubts about the viability of their relationship – when at least one partner is feeling ambivalent about the relationship. It is particularly beneficial when one partner is leaning towards ending the relationship while the other is open to reconciliation. This type of counseling provides a structured space that accepts ambivalence and explores individual needs and preferences without committing to ongoing couples therapy.

For example, you have tried getting your partner to go to therapy for years. Your partner may not have taken you seriously, postponed going, and you eventually stopped asking. Your partner interpreted you not asking as things have gotten better. However, that is not the case. But things have not improved, and you just stopped trying.

One day, you tell your partner, “I can’t do this anymore.” Your partner looks surprised, “Where is this coming from? We’re good!” You tell your partner that for years you have tried to work on your relationship and have felt ignored, and you’re not so sure you can be in a relationship that feels disconnected. Your partner can tell you are seriously thinking of leaving, and they say that they will do whatever it takes to improve and get things back on track, claiming they didn’t realize the seriousness of the situation. Years ago, you would have loved hearing the enthusiasm and motivation to work on your relationship, but hearing it now you aren’t sure if you want to or believe things will change. It feels like one foot is already out the door. You and your partner are ideal candidates for discernment counseling.

If you decide to do discernment counseling, not every therapist has this specific training. To find a credible and trained discernment counselor, use the Discernment Counseling Find a Counselor Directory.

A therapist can help you and your partner navigate your relationship difficulties.

When a relationship is in distress, it can be hard to know what next step to take. Couples counseling and discernment counseling are both valuable in providing couples with the guidance and support they need during challenging times. Understanding the differences between these approaches can help couples choose the most appropriate option based on their current situation and goals. 

Whether your goal is to resolve conflict, improve communication, or gain clarity about the future, seeking the assistance of a qualified therapist can be instrumental in navigating the complexities of relationships.

Our therapists can help you whether you need couples counseling or discernment counseling. Our practice offers in-person appointments in Charlotte, NC, and Carefree, AZ. We also have virtual sessions available for those who live in Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Texas. Contact us to get started.