Should I go or should I stay counselling

From Oprah’s guest, Dr Bill Doherty, PhD
The creator of Discernment Counselling

Do you know what a mixed agenda couple is? Well, it’s when one person is considering ending the relationship, they’re leaning out, and the other person doesn’t want the relationship to end, they’re leaning in. And according to Dr Bill Doherty, PhD, possibly 30% of couples who attend couple counselling are mixed agenda couples.

Dr Doherty, PhD, is an author, a marriage and family therapist, a Professor of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota and co-founder of the Doherty Relationships Institute. But according to Dr Doherty what most impresses his audience is when they learn he was a guest on the Oprah Winfrey show!

What makes counselling mixed agenda couples even more difficult is that often the person leaning out isn’t even sure they want to go to counselling. In other words, there are 2 problems - they're ambivalent about the relationship and they're ambivalent about the counselling.

Over decades, Dr Doherty began to realise that by and large there wasn’t a therapy model aimed at these ambivalent couples. He felt couples needed a model of therapy that would increase the prospects of success. So, he created a new modality of counselling called “discernment counselling”.

Discernment counselling is a holding environment, a type of pre-therapy counselling. It’s designed to avoid half-hearted relationship counselling by making sure both people are leaning in before starting the couples counselling. Because, according to Dr Doherty, if the leaning out spouse isn’t on board for the counselling, any interventions are likely to fail. And Dr Doherty doesn’t want counselling to fail because it could well be the last chance to save the relationship.

The method
The first step is for the counsellor to assess whether the couple has a mixed agenda and to assess whether there’s motivation to work on the relationship. He says this may be apparent in the first joint session or the counsellor could ask this leading question “How committed would you say you are to preserving the relationship and to solving the problems?”

Once the counsellor decides that discernment counselling suits the couple’s needs, there are between 1 to 5 separate sessions. The separate sessions allow each person to gain
gain clarity and confidence about how to proceed by having a deeper understanding of what’s happened to the relationship and each person’s contribution to it.

Separate sessions – for person leaning out
During the separate sessions, the counsellor helps the person leaning out to:
Examine the decision to try to repair the relationship or end the relationship without the pressure of their partner being in the room;
Gain a better understanding of what happened in the relationship;
Gain a better understanding of their contribution; and
Create an individual agenda - no matter the decision.

Separate session – for person leaning out
During the separate sessions, the counsellor helps the person leaning in to:
Gain a better understanding of what happened in the relationship;
Gain a deeper understanding of their contribution. So, they might be able to say to their partner “I understand better what’s happened in our marriage/our relationship, I understand your hurt and pain, I understand my contributions. I hope you work with me and we try this therapy.”
In response to the threat of the other person leaving, they may be doing things that drive the other person away (e.g. pleading, scolding, pursuing, threatening) and the separate sessions can help them out of this panic, stopping these mistakes and instead bring their best self to the crisis; and
Create individual agenda for personal change.

Three pathways
The separate sessions are aimed at gaining clarity about how to proceed, either:-
Staying together and continuing as things have been, without further counselling. Most couples rule this option out;
Separate or divorce; or
6 months of counselling with the aim of restoring the relationship to health. Separation or divorce is off the table for that time and then they can look at the decision again after 6 months. Dr Doherty says that they’ve learnt that when someone is, say, 80% out the door it’s too big a decision to say “I’m staying for life” so breaking it down this way, also increases the prospect that the person leaning out will commit to this 6 month option.

Successful counselling
For Dr Doherty, success is not measured by a decision to stay together. It’s about the couple learning about themselves, their contributions to the relationship, the patterns of the relationship and even if the relationship ends, they have learned something important they can bring to their next relationship.

Counselling and separation
I wholeheartedly agree with Dr Doherty’s view that the success of this pre-therapy is not measured by a decision to stay together. In the context of separation and divorce, the insights gained from counselling can have such a positive impact on separation and divorce turning it from a destructive divorce to a constructive divorce – saving you emotional pain, financial pain and parenting pain.

Learn more
Why don’t you ask your therapist about discernment counselling or if they incorporate something similar into their modality of counselling? Alternatively, if you don’t have a therapist yet, you could find out more from the following resources: