Sonya Thomas lcsw

Discernment/Clarity Therapy for mixed agenda couples

According to esteemed therapist Dr. Bill Doherty, an estimated 30% of couples coming to therapy are mixed-agenda couples, in which one is leaning out of the relationship and is reluctant to work on it, and the other wants to save the relationship.  When this is the case, couples therapy is not initially indicted.  Instead, Doherty recommends a short course of Discernment Therapy, aka Clarity Therapy.  The goal is to help couples get greater clarity and confidence in their decision making about the future of their marriage, based on a deeper understanding of what’s happened to their marriage and each person’s contributions to the problems.  This is clearly distinct from couples therapy, in that couples therapy is oriented towards helping couples resolve problems and restore their relationship.  A suggested protocol for Discernment/Clarity therapy is as follows:

  • Short term: 1-5 sessions
  • Potentially longer session length (1.5 to 2 hour sessions)
  • Sessions consist of different parts: the first part with the couple, then separate conversations with each partner
  • Focus on decision making regarding three paths forward:
    • Path One:  the marriage continues on as it has been, with little change in status quo;
    • Path Two – separation/divorce;
    • Path Three – a six month, all-out effort in couples therapy, sometimes with additional resources such as individual therapy, involvement in a recovery program, etc.  Divorce is off of the table for the 6 month investment in couples therapy; only then making a decision about the long term future of the relationship.
  • Different approaches with “leaning in” and “leaning out” partners:
    • Leaning out: Help them make a decision based on more a complex understanding of the marriage and their own role in its problems and potential future.  Also, assist with realistic assessment/imagining of life post divorce, if that is what they continue to lean towards.
    • Leaning in: Help them to bring best self to the crisis, not make things worse, try to “get” what the other spouse is saying, avoid manipulation/passive aggression, and work on self.
  • Outcomes:
    • Path one: stay on hold for now.
    • Path two: move towards divorce.
    • Path three: launch couples therapy (usually, but not always with the discernment counselor).

In a study of 100 consecutive discernment counseling cases, 48% chose path three, 42% path two, 10% path one.

Is Discernment/Clarity therapy right for you?  If so, contact a couples therapist skilled in helping couples figure out the best path forward, whatever that might be.

Until next time, peace.