top of page

Should I Stay or Should I Go? Discernment Counseling

There are three types of people who come to an initial consultation for divorce in our office.  The first type is someone who has already, firmly, made the emotional commitment to divorce.  They are ready to sign, ready to get that divorce on file. 

The second type is there much more reluctantly.  They have been served with a summons, or their spouse has told them that they have seen an attorney.  They know the divorce is inevitable, but they are leagues behind the other spouse in being emotionally prepared for what is ahead.

The third type of potential divorce client we see is one who is wavering.  They have been ruminating about divorce, and want a consultation to learn their options.  They know that the marriage has long veered off down a bad path, but on most days, they tell themselves it is still tolerable.  Or they have no vision as to what life would be like after divorce, so the decision is delayed – again.  This kind of potential client may see us once, then have a follow-up months or even a year later, and sometimes again after that.  They are not ready to pull the rip-cord, uncertain if divorce, or marriage, is what they want.

Discernment Counseling

For spouses with “divorce ambivalence,” there is a new approach to counseling which can help select and direct the marital path.  Called discernment counseling, it is a short-term, goal-oriented series of sessions when one spouse is leaning in, and the other leaning out of the marriage.   It is not to solve relationship problems, but instead, identifies if the problems in the relationship actually can be worked on, and solved. 

Discernment counseling was developed by marital therapist Dr. Bill Doherty from the University of Minnesota, and is practiced by therapists and clergy who have gone through the specialized training.  With the goal of a maximum of five sessions, discernment counseling has an agenda, with one of the three questions to be answered at the end:  Should we divorce?  Should we stay together for another six months while we continue marriage counseling?  Or should we postpone making any decision at this time?

Discernment Counselor Linda Sheehan

Linda Sheehan, LCSW, with her own practice in the northern Chicago suburbs, is a trained discernment counselor.  She works with each spouse individually, and then in a couples session, to focus on key areas in the marriage.  One of the questions she asks of each spouse is:  what attracted you to your partner in the first place?  It makes the spouse reflect back to the time when the relationship was good; to see if that “best self” of each spouse is still there, somewhere, in the marriage.

Linda also describes that she will have each spouse honestly examine what went wrong with the relationship.  If a spouse takes no responsibility for any shortcomings at all, that marriage may be heading for divorce.  In the discernment counseling, Linda explains that a partner needs to recognize, and own, what may be causing the breakdown, as those problems that are prevalent and could be the end of this marriage, will most likely be carried on to that person’s next relationship.

Even marriages with trust issues from addiction or affairs can still make use of discernment counseling.  At the end of each session, Linda takes the emotional pulse of the couple, to see if they want to follow with another meeting.  When the couple has a “mixed agenda” of staying married or heading toward divorce, discernment counseling offers an end by having the spouses make a definitive decision.

It is interesting to note that in discernment counseling, choosing divorce is not considered a failure.  The only failure is not learning more about yourself, and the marriage.

Why a Referral to Counseling?

Why would a divorce attorney want to talk about, or refer a potential client to participate in discernment counseling?  One reason we at Ciesla Beeler see is that once divorce proceedings start, especially if the other spouse files a counter-petition for dissolution of marriage, the divorce will happen.   We want our clients, especially the ones with that divorce ambivalence, to have therapeutic support in place, and understand as best they can what life could be like after divorce. 

Thanks to Linda Sheehan, LCSW, for her information on discernment counseling.  Linda has offices in Libertyville and in Lake Bluff, Illinois, and can be reached at (224) 430-9804, or at

For more information on family law and divorce click here.


bottom of page