Discernment or Couples Counseling–Which is Right?

When couples first approach me about therapy for their relationship, there can be some confusion over the type of therapy they should consider. Individual counseling, couples counseling, or discernment counseling are all options. One of the first things I do is to determine the best type of therapy for them and their situation.

Sometimes the best place to start is individual counseling. Individual counseling is a therapeutic process that provides an individual with a safe haven to be vulnerable and free of judgment. This process enables the individual to build a higher level of self-awareness while learning to experience his or her emotions fully.

Building Individual Awareness to Help Relationships

An important element of individual therapy is to build the awareness in a relation manner. Too many times individual therapy builds individual power, giving a person false empowerment and the feeling of being one up on others, which is not healthy. Ideally, the new awareness and vulnerability leads to both personal power through self-confidence AND improved relationship connections. Starting with the self is the best place to start with improving any relationship.

While individual counseling is one option, there are many times that I’m contacted by someone who is in a “mixed agenda” relationship. That simply means that there is one partner who wants to preserve and repair the relationship while the other person is leaning toward ending it. This is where there tends to be the most confusion because they think that couples counseling is what they need. In the case of mixed agenda couples, discernment counseling is a better choice to come first.

Making a Decision–The First Step

Discernment Counseling is designed to help couples look at their options of: keeping things the same, ending their relationship, or committing to six months of couples counseling with divorce off the table. Since there is one person that wants to end the relationship and one that wants to repair it, the goal in discernment is not to solve the problems in the relationship but to determine whether the problems can be solved.

The process involves many individual conversations with each partner due to the differing needs and agendas of each. It is always short-term (1-5 sessions) but can evolve into other forms of relationship counseling. The goals of discernment are both clarity and confidence about the next steps for the relationship, and a deeper understanding of what has happened to the relationship, which includes each person’s contribution to that status.

Committing to the Relationship

On the other hand, relationship counseling is for couples looking to strengthen their connections with their partner. Sometimes the resolution of discernment counseling is that both partners do want to work on repairing their relationship. And in that case they would transition to relationship counseling. The goal of this is to build an increased awareness of one’s own contribution to maladaptive relational patterns, so that the skills to change those patterns into healthy ones can be learned. When that happens, the result is a more connected relationship.

Strengthening of a relationship looks like:

  • building an enhanced awareness of your own contribution to the relationship challenges and how each partner’s behavior influences the outcome (no more deflecting! Stop the blame game!),
  • building a strong sense of self, enabling the relationship to be balanced between two people,
  • developing the “art” of truly listening to your partner,
  • recovering from infidelity,
  • building awareness of each partner’s needs and wants and how to deliver,
  • learning how to have healthy conflict and disagreements (not everyone gets along all the time!),
  • and learning how to rekindle, or maybe even find for the first time, romance and intimacy, and a stronger connection than you ever thought possible.

Counseling, regardless if it is individual, relational or discernment, can be a difficult process. One of the most important messages I try to make sure my clients hear is that asking for help takes more strength and courage then hiding from the issues and I honor that courage.

Getting into the right counseling situation is essential to success.

Individual counseling helps center a person and build awareness of his or her own behavior and contributions to all his or her relationships. Relationship counseling helps each partner build awareness to their own unhealthy patterns they bring to the relationship and how to change those patterns. Discernment helps each individual come to a decision about the relationship with clarity and confidence. You can not move forward with relationship counseling and shared goals until you determine whether or not each person is truly committed to doing so. That is why discernment counseling is often the first step.

Mark Glover

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