Couple therapy is not meant to be painful or difficult, but it does take some dedication and effort to face what may be some unpleasant feelings, learn some uncomfortable truths, and take some responsibility for your relationship. And to do that, it takes some hope that things can be better.
When one or the other partner is running low on that hope for whatever reason, they can lose the willpower to try to work it out. This may show as reluctance to work on the relationship, hesitation about entering counselling, or both. Yet, even though they are “leaning out”, feeling more like ending the relationship than preserving it, they may not be prepared to “pull the plug”.
Meanwhile, their partner may be “leaning-in”, showing a strong desire to continue and improve the relationship. However, even if highly motivated, they usually cannot fix things on their own, and showing their frustration about this may actually make things worse. Or, their own effort or hope may be contingent on some sign of continuing commitment from the leaning-out one.
These can be normal and justifiable positions, but they leave both partners stuck in a miserable and prolonged deadlock. Even if a couple has taken steps towards breakup as a solution, it may be largely because they lack any sense of other options.
Indeed, in cases of this ambivalence, conventional couple therapy tends to be much less effective. It would be unhelpful to tag an uncertain partner as uncooperative, to pressure them to participate in whatever is needed to improve the relationship. But it will ultimately take work from both partners to make a difference.
What I call Couple Decisioning is actually a form of an established protocol called Discernment Counselling, expanded from “couples on the brink” to also include couples who are ambivalent about doing the work needed to change things. Decisioning can involve joint meetings, while Discernment Counselling proper has a first joint meeting, and then each of you meet solo with me, in a single tandem appointment.)
To better help in such “mixed agenda” cases, Discernment Counselling was recently developed by Dr. William Doherty of the Couples on the Brink Project at the University of Minnesota. It is different from typical marriage counseling in that the goal is not to directly or immediately improve the relationship. Instead, leaning-out partners are supported as they decide whether to try to make that effort or choose a different path. Leaning-in partners receive support to understand the dynamics and hold on in the ways that will encourage their partner to give the relationship its best chance.
After an initial conversation with both partners, the typical format of each Decisioning session is that each of you has a one-on-one period with the counselor while the other leaves the room. After each of these periods, the counsellor will help you share with your partner a brief summary of what you gained from that.
Note that, unlike individual counseling where only one person’s interests are explored, the counsellor seeks to help both partners to arrive at greater clarity and confidence in making a decision about their future, based on a deeper understanding of the problems in the relationship, how these may have developed, and what would be required to change things for the better.
We spend time considering and discussing the options or paths that lay before the two of you, towards making a decision that has integrity for yourself and others.
Notice that Path 3 is not about staying together or avoiding divorce forever. If you choose path 3, you will each be working on yourself, with the therapist’s help, to make the relationship healthier. The therapist may be the same person who does the Couple Decisioning, or someone else of your choice. After those six months, you can re-evaluate where you are, based on what you have learned and what progress has been made.
Couple Decisioning is typically brief, lasting between one and five sessions. You would only commit to attending one session at a time. There is no pressure or rush to make a decision about which of these paths to take. In some cases, couples decide to take a time out (Path 1) and return to the discernment process later.
Discernment counseling is not suitable when one spouse has made a final decision to divorce and wants to encourage the other spouse accept that decision, or in cases of ongoing abuse, addiction, or affairs.
If you think Couple Decisioning may be suitable for you, please ask about it.