Should I Stay or Should I Go? A New Possibility for Saving Troubled Marriages

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Deciding whether to divorce can be almost as gut-wrenching as the divorce process itself.

Divorce rates among Jews hover in the 30 to 35 percent range among first marriages, and the rate rises with each subsequent marriage. Couples in interfaith marriages are even more likely to divorce. With an interfaith marriage rate of approximately 56 percent in the Jewish community, a significant number of Jewish and mixed-faith couples seek marriage counseling.

Does marriage counseling work?

Marriage counseling proves most effective when both partners are motivated to save the relationship, and each is committed to changing their role in unhealthy patterns. Studies show that almost one-third of couples entering therapy are mixed-agenda couples, in which one is leaning in and desires to save the marriage, while the other is leaning out and contemplating divorce.

When one person is ambivalent about the relationship or is engaged in an outside affair, addiction or other therapy-interfering behavior they are not sure they wish to give up, therapy likely will fail.

Discernment counseling: a new protocol for couples on the brink of divorce

Until recently, there has been a dearth of services available for couples in which one person wants to save the marriage, but the other is unsure.

Dr. Bill Doherty, a leader in the field of marriage and family therapy, has developed a protocol called discernment counseling (DC) specifically designed for these couples. According to Doherty, the focus of DC is not on solving marital problems, but on seeing if they potentially can be solved.

Unlike traditional marriage counseling, a discernment counselor does not intervene to improve the marriage. Instead, he or she helps the couple explore three possible paths: Stay the course and do nothing at this time; move toward separation and divorce; or commit to intensive couple therapy, during which time divorce is off the table.

How is DC different from marriage counseling?

During couple therapy, both spouses are usually seen together. DC is mainly done individually, and the couple is seen together for only a few minutes. The counselor supports the leaning-in spouse in coping with the unknown outcome and avoiding behaviors that will push their spouse further away during discernment, while helping the leaning-out partner reach a decision.

In order to be effective, traditional marital therapy requires honesty, and the therapist cannot hold secrets that one partner may disclose. During the discernment process, information is kept confidential. This affords the opportunity to be open with the therapist concerning all factors that may be affecting the decision-making process. If the couple decides to pursue marriage counseling, they will need a skilled therapist to help with disclosure of secrets and the repair process.

Marriage counseling can take a long time — sometimes years. Discernment counseling is finished when one of the three paths have been chosen, usually within one to five sessions.

What happens once a decision has been made?

For some couples, the path of staying the course and doing nothing at present makes sense. Some prefer to wait until the school year ends, or until the kids are older before splitting up. Others stay together due to financial constraints. When couples decide through DC to stay the course, they are invited to return at a later time if they want to revisit the question.

When one or both partners realize through the discernment process that they want a divorce, they can end counseling altogether or continue to work with a therapist to separate in the healthiest way possible for everyone involved.

Most marriage counselors will help divorcing couples with talking to the children about the divorce, set guidelines for achieving the divorce with minimal hostility and damage, provide family counseling, and refer to professionals who can handle the legal and financial aspects in the most cost-effective and least litigious ways possible.

Couples who choose the third path, to enter marriage counseling, may continue working with the discernment counselor or be referred to another therapist for long-term work.

Jews often marry and start families with the desire to sustain the culture and religion, as well as for the legacy and continuity of the family. While divorce has never carried the same stigma in the Jewish community as it does in some religions, the impact is just as great. To riff on Tevye, the Fiddler, there’s no great shame in being divorced, but it’s no great honor, either.

If you are the leaning-out spouse, consider whether it’s worth investing a few hours of time to explore your decision in a safe, non-judgmental place. When your spouse is leaning out, he or she may be more inclined to attend counseling that is time-limited and doesn’t require making behavior changes.

Discernment counseling is the therapy for those who can’t decide whether to stay or go.

Linda Hershman is a licensed marriage and family therapist who practices in Berwyn. 

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