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Help for Those Contemplating Divorce

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The decision to divorce is rarely easy.  The sense of ambivalence and uncertainty can linger for a long time, even when a divorce decision has been made.  There is a perception that divorce either happens after a long period of frequent high-intensity conflicts and misery, or when couples disengage from one another emotionally and have a loveless, disconnected marriage.

The reality is far from this. Sociologist Paul Amato of Pennsylvania State University and his colleagues found that “most couples who divorce actually look quite similar to most couples who do not divorce… most divorced couples report average happiness and low levels of conflict in their marriage in the years prior to the divorce”.  John Gottman, a renowned American psychologist, stated that marital satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) is not always a strong predictor of separation and divorce.

Two decades of couple counselling has made me realise that the reasons couples give for their marital dissatisfaction are generally similar to those seeking marital reconciliation and couples seeking marital dissolution. The primary difference would be how they respond to marital dissatisfaction.

Understandably, “each heart knows its own bitterness and pain”. As such, it is unfair for others to judge whether divorce is necessary or justified. A half-hearted marriage reconciliation work might be more harmful than good. Many couples see a marriage counsellor for only a few sessions. Unfortunately, there may not be enough time to experience real results before terminating counselling and, often, their marriage. A “half-hearted” or “incomplete” couple counselling may prohibit couples from working through their lack of hope for positive outcomes. It can potentially constrain their opportunity to fully consider the possibility of reconciliation. I can’t help but wonder if there have been unnecessary divorces due to the lack of appropriate intervention, especially for couples with at least one spouse who is ambivalent about the decision.

Professor William J. Doherty from Family Social Science and Director of the Citizen Professional Centre at the University of Minnesota developed a type of short-term (usually 2-5 sessions) couple therapy known as Discernment Counselling (DC), designed for couples who are uncertain if they want to continue their relationship.

While DC is not considered a treatment, it brings about clarity and understanding to facilitate decision-making for couples ambivalent about divorce. The goal of achieving greater clarity and whether to attempt to restore the marriage or to continue toward divorce can be invaluable. In DC, couples consider three possible options:

(1) ending the relationship (divorce),

(2) establishing a 6-month period in which both partners commit to making the maximum effort to save the relationship (often while participating in couples therapy), or

(3) postponing the decision (status quo).

Because the treatment is designed to actively help couples decide on a course of pursuit, Discernment Counselling becomes a holding place for couples to consider their options before they prematurely follow one of those paths.  DC can be of great value for couples in the ambivalent state.

According to conventional wisdom, a marriage is essentially over when a couple files for divorce. However, recent research in America shows that about 40% of U.S. couples are interested in the possibility of reconciliation even when they are well into the divorce process. Don’t rush into divorce and don’t let the divorce process accelerate what should be a carefully considered decision.

Are you feeling hopeless about your marriage?  Let that be the catalyst for you to seek help or clarity through Discernment Counselling.

If you would like to seek discernment counselling or marital counselling, reach out to us via [email protected] or call us at 62355229.

Written by: Yap Ching Keong, Marriage Counsellor, Fei Yue Community Services


Amato, P. R., & Hohmann‐Marriott, B. (2007). A comparison of high‐and low‐distress marriages that end in divorce. Journal of Marriage and Family69(3), 621-638.

Doherty, W. J. (2011). In or out: Treating the mixed-agenda couple. Psychotherapy Networker, Nov/Dec, 45–60.

Doherty, W. J., & Sears, L. W. (2011). Second chances: A proposal to reduce unnecessary divorce.

Doherty, W. J., Harris, S. M., & Wilde, J. L. (2015). Discernment counseling.

Doherty, W. J., Willoughby, B. J., & Peterson, B. (2011). Interest in marital reconciliation among divorcing parents. Family Court Review49(2), 313-321.

Gottman, J. M., & Gottman, J. S. (2015). Gottman couple therapy.

Harris, S. M., Crabtree, S. A., Bell, N. K., Allen, S. M., & Roberts, K. M. (2017). Seeking clarity and confidence in the divorce decision-making process. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage58(2), 83-9