Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Discernment Counseling for "Mixed-Agenda" Couples

Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Discernment Counseling for "Mixed-Agenda" Couples

Article excerpt

An everyday experience for couples therapists is the couple where one partner is interested in staying married and presents as eager to do the therapy, while the other partner is leaning toward divorce and is ambivalent about trying couples therapy. Whether formally married or in a committed long-term relationship, these couples are a neglected group in the field of couples therapy. Most models assume that both partners present for treatment with at least a basic motivation to preserve and improve the relationship. This article describes a model for "discernment counseling" for couples who are divided on the future of their relationship. Discernment counseling aims to help couples develop clarity and confidence in deciding on the next steps in their relationship, including whether to embark on couples therapy or move toward divorce. We present a description of 100 consecutive couple cases seen in the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project.


Although therapists regularly deal with mixed-agenda couples (one "leaning out" of the relationship and reluctant to work on the relationship in therapy, and the other "leaning in," wanting to preserve the relationship and begin therapy), there has been strikingly little clinical literature on how to work with these couples. Crosby's (1989) edited book, aptly titled When One Wants Out and the Other Doesn't, is the chief exception. L'Abate and Hewitt's (1989) chapter described a polarized bind that many of these couples face: either "extricate through the magic of divorce" or "keep the status quo" (p. 152). Echoing the clinical advice of many of the other chapter authors, Russell and Drees (1989) recommended slowing down the decision making process and negotiating for a number of sessions. Jurich (1989) proposed six sessions of assessment rather than moving directly into couples therapy. Despite the thoughtfulness of these chapter authors, the clinical advice they provided was fairly general. None offered a detailed protocol for working with mixedagenda couples.

Other clinically oriented studies describe the phenomenon of "mixed-agenda" couples without using the term specifically. For example, Kanewischer and Harris (2015) interviewed 15 women who had contemplated divorce but received marital therapy and eventually decided to remain married. The study goal was to determine the impact of couples therapy on their decision making process. In each case, only one partner was interested in pursuing divorce to solve marital problems. Similarly, Gurman and Burton (2014), in addressing the potential pitfalls and problems with providing individual therapy for couple problems, maintained that many who present individually for relationship-oriented therapy are there alone because of "partner-generated" refusals to engage in conjoint therapy. Some of this partner-generated refusal may be related to mixed agendas within the couple relationship.

As with the clinically oriented literature, there is limited empirical research on this topic. We identified only five peer-reviewed clinical studies. In a groundbreaking study, Doss, Simpson, and Christensen (2004) found that divorce concerns were the third largest reasons for entering therapy, and, strikingly, that there was little overlap within couples on this and other reasons to seek couples therapy. In Doss et al.'s sample of 147 married couples, more than a third fit our criteria for being a mixed-agenda couple. The authors called for much more attention to different goals spouses have for couples therapy.

In a subsequent study, Tremblay, Wright, Mamodhouseen, McDuff, and Sabourin (2008) identified three directions couples therapy can take: interventions to improve the relationship, ambivalence interventions to address commitment issues in at least one spouse, and separation interventions. Although these researchers did not assess for ambivalence at intake (they offered improvement interventions to all couples), they did find that 20% of cases turned into ambivalence interventions. …

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