In couples counseling, discernment is used to describe work centered around determining if partners want to stay in a relationship or breakup. It can also refer to a specific protocol for discernment work created by Bill Doherty “designed for mixed agenda couples where one is leaning out of the marriage and the other wants to save it.”
My suspicion is that if partners start out with individual therapists and just stick to that, they’re more likely to separate than if they work with a couples counselor. My favorite way to navigate this territory is to begin couples counseling, then add in individual therapists once we’ve identified each person’s enduring emotional vulnerabilities and/or unresolved trauma/s, and ensure that the couples counselor and individual therapist collaborate.
Whatever the case may be, discernment work is emotional heavy lifting—it’s difficult terrain. Certainly not for the faint of heart, whether you’re in the relationship, or the helping professional working with it.
Discernment is not a sustainable place to hangout for the longterm, but I observe that a lot of people enter that mode way before they verbally indicate to their partner/s that they’ve gotten there.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t take time to think deeply about it before letting your partner know what’s on your mind. We just want to be highly intentional and thoughtful if we’re going to go there. As renowned relationship therapist and researcher, Stan Tatkin, shares in his 10 Commandments for healthy relationships, “Thou shalt not threaten the existence of the relationship.” Bringing up an idea like “maybe we shouldn’t be together,” will introduce an element of insecurity to any bond—be sure you’re sure if you’re going to is all I’m saying.
Here are 10 tips if you’ve been navigating this terrain and are hoping for some new ways of thinking about everything:
1) “Have we turned over every stone? Are we satisfied we didn’t just ‘give up?’”
Many couples want to give a whack at counseling “just to make sure we can say we tried everything,” and then they actually heal the wounds in the relationship, and end up better than ever. So if partners are of the turn-every-stone variety, I’m always willing to do some heavy lifting and turn a relationship around. Sometimes, we do turn all the stones and we realize that a relationship wasn’t quite compatible from the get-go, and that’s okay too.
Parents have reported that they like knowing that when their kids are grown, if they ever ask about the relationship, parents can honestly say they tried and it just didn’t work out.
Forgive me if this sounds a bit like Pascalian Wagering, but regardless of whether or not the relationship is going to stay in existence, I often think it’s better to act like there’s a chance and see. A lot of times we may have been working hard but not smart to feel more connected.
I want to note that if there is emotional/physical danger, if someone can’t stop perpetrating violence—they don’t get to turn over all the stones with you. There’s hope and there’s help. National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233. If a violent partner does get the support they need to manage their aggression and cease being violent and demonstrates that over time, a case could be made for regrouping and taking a look at the relationship as long as violence/coercion stays gone.
2) Practice grounded decision-making.
Refuse to make life-changing decisions from a place of fear or imbalance. This means mindfulness-based practices are your friend because tolerating not-knowing is kind of the name of the game if you’re going to commit to avoiding impulsive choices. If there has been a breach of trust, reestablish a solid footing before trying to make big decisions. I’ve seen a number of divorce-remarry shuffles because partners made decisions in the wake of a relational norm violation (e.g., ‘affair,’ ‘infidelity’), but hearts softened over time.
If you’re a hurt partner, I recommend getting into a counselor as soon as possible and maybe even adding in am emotional support group if it feels appropriate. As long as you are safe from harm, I recommend avoiding quick, impulsive decisions about the fate of your relationship.
Commit to stabilizing and gaining emotional balance *before* making any lasting decisions that impact everyone. Even if there hasn’t been a relational norm violation, rule out other suspects like major mental health issues (e.g., major depression, unprocessed Trauma) that could be playing more of a role than you realize in how you’re perceiving your partner/s and the relationship.
3) Co-agree on the status of your relationship out loud.
Are you going to keep things as they are, breakup, or commit to ~6 months of couples counseling and see if there’s improvement? If you try to have conversations to make decisions about this but keep getting stuck, I recommend finding a solid couples counselor. For this area, someone trained to take a more active, solution-focused role can be ideal—try therapists trained in Gottman Method Couples Therapy, Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, or PACT (Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy). You can learn some practical strategies to make attuning with each other easier.
I add this to the list of tips because I’ve worked with so many people who were thinking about wanting to change the status of the relationship waaay before they mentioned anything to their partner. The longer things fester, the harder we have to work to get things back to feeling close and secure. Sometimes just finding an individual therapist and having the space to feel free to consider your options about a relationship—even hypothetically—can provide relief.
This is a place where you definitely want to be on the same page with each other, even if it’s a sad page to read.
4) “Should we try a trial separation?”
A friend of mine’s therapist said this best recently : separating means that “you miss the bad stuff, but you also miss the good stuff.” I only know a few couples who have tried separating and actually stayed together happily. This is not to say that you shouldn’t take time away from each other! Taking a long weekend to yourself is a healthy thing to do. I hear people say all the time, “I want to see if we miss each other,” when talking about separation—a long weekend can do it!
You just have to be honest with yourself about the risk for damage to the relationship being HIGH when you venture into trial separation territory. It seems to create cracks that stick around and crop up during times of stress, even if the couple gets back together.
There are times when it’s necessary to separate for a period of time, which I also just want to name. Sometimes if you’re trying to get sober, physically getting to another place might be necessary. So don’t walk away from this thinking there are no good reasons! I mostly mean to say, if you want to give a whack at preserving a relationship—try other things first and use separation as a last resort.
5) Stop looking outside of you for answers.
You have the answer. It’s already inside you. You probably already know it and don’t realize. Or you do realize but you aren’t ready to fully admit it yet. That’s all human and perfectly okay.
Sure, a counselor might be able to think up some helpful questions to guide you, and friends can provide moral support. But so often when people are trying to make decisions about their relationship, they ask everyone but their own guts and heart.
Imagine that no one else would be impacted in any negative way by the decision you’re going to make—what does your intuition tell you is for you?
6) “Am I trying to meet too many of my needs with my relationship?”
Sometimes we’re just expecting too much from a relationship. Especially in the context of modern monogamy, where partners are expected to fulfill the roles of lover, intellectual match, parenting partner, leisure time buddy, caretaker, confidant, and more.
If you’re unsure about your relationship, ask yourself what in life you feel really sure about. If the answer is, “nothing,” maybe don’t ditch the relationship yet. When we feel existential dread or anticipation about change or aging, it’s normal to look to relationships as suspects—it’s just not, you know, so great for the health of the relationship.
If you honestly can’t say that you have activities that give you pleasure and connections with friends that bring joyfulness to your heart, I recommend starting there and seeing if adding meaning and fulfillment outside of your primary relationship doesn’t change the way you feel with partner/s.
7) “The grass is greener where you water it.”
We have to be very careful not to get tricked by our brains in this area. We have this nifty little brain part called the amygdala, and it’s wonderful because it’s always looking out for new things, sparkly things, and danger. What we have to remember is that 1) new relationship energy is like being on drugs—it’s a hormone cocktail that prevents us from thinking completely clearly, and 2) novelty jazzes out amygdala and we can enjoy things purely because they are new to us on a visceral level.
“The grass is greener where you water it” is attributed to Neil Barringham, by the way. Only I’m pretty sure Shirley Glass is who put the words on my radar. If you’re thinking of starting a secret relationship to meet needs you feel aren’t being met in your primary relationship, or you’re considering leaving your partner for an affair partner, I highly recommend reading the research Shirley Glass shares in Not Just Friends.
As Stan Tatkin says, lust is at a distance, love is up close. Love isn’t something that just happens to you—that’s lust; love is an action verb. Be honest with yourself about how much work your putting into cultivating an attuned relationship—can you bring a fuller, more engaged self in some areas?
8) Ask yourself, “What am I bringing to the relationship? What do I give?”
If you notice that you’ve been referencing some checklist hoping that your partner ticks off all the boxes—scratch that approach. I hear a lot of individuals wondering, “Will my partner meet all of my needs?” Also probably not the way to go about forging a healthy bond.
How do you show up to the relationship? Are you depleted and low-resourced, or have you done your self-care and showing up engaged and responsive?
I’d invite you to experiment with a few weeks of just bringing your relationship A Game—really pump some positivity in and don’t expect anything in return. See what happens!
9) Are we staying together “for the kids?”
I get it—so well intentioned and loving. But no. Research shows that kids don’t want you to do that. What kids need is to see healthy relationships modeled—if that’s you together, or you with other people, it doesn’t matter as much as consistently showing children what love that goes both ways looks like.
10) Am I trying to solve an unsolvable problem?
Take an honest look at the issues in the relationship that you chronically feel are a problem, or could become one. The Gottman Institute found that almost 2/3 of the problems in relationships are “perpetual,” more or less there to stay. That’s right problem-solvers, make sure to exhale—you can’t fix everything in a relationship.
This means that our focus should always be on making consistent, effective repairs when we inevitably misstep. We need to ask our partners what helps soothe and reassure them when we hit one of those sticky trouble spots.
If you take a look at the set of issues that just comes with the territory of your relationship and after an honest audit you aren’t sure that it’s tolerable, I recommend checking in with a couples counselor! You want to make sure that your relationship isn’t in Negative Sentiment Override before making any big decisions because it will bias how you’re experiencing your partner.
Take care of each other!