Up until a few months ago, I had never heard the phrase Discernment Counseling. Have you heard of this? Once I was introduced to it, I decided to start the training. It’s a significant financial and time commitment, so hopefully it’s helpful to hear my impressions. It’s a lot to cover so I’ll be doing this in several parts.
What is Discernment Counseling
Discernment Counseling is a process of 1-5 sessions where you split the session and see each partner individually, with some minimal sharing in-between. The goal is NOT to work on the relationship. The goal is to get clarity about which of three paths they want to go down: 1) things stay as they are, they neither separate nor work on the marriage, 2) they separate, or 3) they try 6 months of couples counseling with divorce off the table.
Why this sounded appealing to me in the first place
Most distressed couples I see present with one partner leaning more out of the relationship. Or in the distressed part of the cycle, one will threaten ending the relationship. These couples are not why I was interested in Discernment.
It’s far more rare, but every so often I see a couple where one or both people truly appear to be burnt out to the point they can not put any effort into rebuilding.
I’ve also felt like in highly reactive couples, where they both are just swimming in negative sentiment override, that it’s really difficult for them to build any alliance with me. Their brains are so flared and flooded that they can barely register me being in the room once their cycle whips up. With these couples I feel like I will lose them in 1-2 sessions.
In these cases, the burnt out/leaning out partner is coming in very wary of the idea of re-bonding. It used to be something they long for, now they don’t even know if they want it. The leaning in partner might be able to share some really lovely attachment pieces pretty quickly. But the idea of hearing their partner’s loving emotions they used to long for, now feels totally smothering.
This is different than someone who feels disbelieving or skeptical about their partner’s attachment emotions. This is when a client gets flooded hearing that their partner has loved them all along, or when the formerly withdrawn partner starts showing up and wanting to spend time with them, and they feel totally suffocated and panic.
I feel weirdly defensive as I write this. I’m imaging you all saying, “Wesley, but don’t you know that with EFT you do this with the couple together in the room, and you help validate and unpack the partner’s resistance?”
I do, guys, I really do. 95% of the time I think this is the best way. But with 5%, I just feel like that work is going nowhere because the leaning out partner is feeling so much pressure and doesn’t really want to be there at all.
So my markers for when someone is leaning so far out that I’m questioning if couples therapy is right for them are: smothered, guilty, suffocated, panicked at re-bonding.
If one partner is leaning in, and the other is leaning out, this is so much easier. I don’t know if they will re-bond, but at least one is willing to be, as Bill Doherty says, the “champion for the relationship” while the other is highly ambivalent. The hardest is when both partners are ambivalent, talk about separating all the time, and make half-hearted gestures towards each other but then go back into their flared corners.
I’ve had a few couples where the leaning out partner is so flared that when we start to get to Step 3 with the leaning in partner, they get incredibly overwhelmed at hearing they have been loved the whole time, and want to shut down the process immediately. I’ve also had some couples where no matter what amazing things the Withdrawer is doing and how they are showing up, the burnt-out Pursuer feels suffocated by this love they used to long for. This is different than when a Pursuer is highly defended and shooting lots of bullets to see what their partner will take. When I see that, I think, “score! This Pursuer is still attached.” I’m talking about when the Pursuer does not want to spend time with the Withdrawer, does not want to hear that their partner cares for them, and is annoyed by the Withdrawer.
Overall, I also wanted to try and see what Discernment Counseling was about because I really believe in honoring where each person is. If someone comes in and tells me they are truly thinking of leaving the marriage, I don’t want to brush over that, or act like that will change once I can show them what EFT can do. I want to spend time with where they are, and respect what they are telling me. My hope is that by giving them a process and some space, if they do decide to do the couples counseling they feel like I have respected and not rushed them, and they are entering into it ready to work on the marriage.
I’m half-way through the training, and I like some parts and don’t like other parts. I’ll keep you posted on what I think!
If you're interested, learn more about it here: www.discernmentcounseling.com