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Should we call it quits? A new kind of couples counseling

May 3, 2012 at 8:57 AM ET

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Many unhappily married couples turn to marriage counselors to help them improve their relationship. Now a new type of couples therapy helps them figure out whether the best solution is to call it quits.

"We basically only see people where divorce is on the table," says Bill Doherty, a professor in the family social science department at the University of Minnesota, who was recently featured in a Wall Street Journal story about a new therapy called discernment counseling.

Unlike traditional marriage counseling, in which couples try to work through their marital problems, discernment counseling aims to help struggling couples decide whether to "improve the marriage or let it go," Doherty says.

According to Doherty, who developed the innovative therapy for the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project, many marriage counselors discover during the first session that divorce is already being discussed.

"Around 30 percent of the couples coming into marriage counseling are mixed agenda couples," he says. "Divorce is on the table for one of the parties. Traditional marriage counseling has no way to deal with those people. It's been area of frustration for a lot of marriage counselors."

Joe Guppy, a couples counselor from Seattle, says this has definitely been his experience.

"Couples counselors have been aware for decades of the need to discern whether the couple has come in to stay together or to break up," he says. "Oftentimes, one of the couple knows he or she wants to leave, hasn't told the partner and is essentially bringing the counselor on board to help soften the blow."

Doherty refers to these spouses as "leaning out," while those who want to stay in the marriage are "leaning in."

"The name discernment counseling is important because sometimes the person who is leaning out will run the clock out on marriage counseling," he says. "They'll show up, but won't really try, then will pronounce that marriage counseling didn't work. What I say is, 'We don't know if marriage counseling will work. We haven't tried it yet. We're deciding whether or not to do it.'"

What makes discernment counseling different?

Aside from slapping out the D-word for all to discuss, the practice incorporates both individual and couples counseling.

"They both come in and there's a check-in [with a counselor], then you meet for part of the session with one [spouse] and part of the session with the other," says Doherty. "Then there's a check-out, where you meet with both and summarize what each is taking out with them. Marriage counseling is primarily both people in the room at the same time, working on their problems together."

Couples meet with a discernment counselor up to five times, but can stop whenever they want. During the first session, the counselor will talk to both about what's been good (and bad) about the marriage and will ask what they've done to iron out their difficulties. The counselor will also lay out three paths -- staying in the marriage as is, moving toward a divorce, or trying a six-month-long reconciliation path in which they work on the marriage via traditional couples therapy.

So far, Doherty and his colleagues have worked with 50 couples and are currently training additional counselors in the practice. While no data is available yet on whether discernment counseling is more effective than traditional counseling with regard to keeping a couple together (traditional marriage counseling has a success rate of 70 to 80 percent), Doherty says the response from marriage counselors has been overwhelming.

"They have not had any specific tools or protocols to deal with the mixed agenda couple," he says. "Over time, we have to evaluate and study it and it may be that better tools will come along. But there's been a big gap in the field."

Annie Lareau, a 43-year-old arts administrator from Seattle who divorced after several years of couples therapy, says she thinks discernment counseling sounds like a promising idea.

"I think it's a more realistic approach," she says. "It would be horrible if you went to a counselor, trying to save [your marriage] and then when it ended, you had no support. There's so much to work out as a couple in terms of your future, especially if you have children. Counseling allows you to move on faster."

Working with both parties individually helps ease what can be a traumatic process, says Doherty, especially in cases where one partner is left shell-shocked, bitter and angry by their spouse's desire to leave.

"We work with the leaning out person separately, helping them not do further damage to the marriage," he says. "And we help the leaning in person, too. A lot of times when the decision's been sprung on somebody, they complain and scold and call the relatives and tell the kids, 'Mommy's trying to throw me out of the house.' We help the leaning in spouse bring their best game to this crisis, as opposed to that desperate game you bring when you get that message."

Mainly, discernment counseling helps the couple truly think through what can be a life-altering decision.

"It's almost always a good idea to slow it down and look at the marriage from five different angles, including what your own role in it was," says Doherty. "You can't divorce yourself. If people end a marriage without looking at their own contributions to the problems, they are leaving with a big blind spot. And the divorce rate in second marriages is even higher than first marriages."

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