Few couples considering divorce seek professional counselling: U of A study

Few couples considering divorce seek professional counselling: U of A study

“Discernment counselling,” practiced by only two counsellors in Alberta, one of whom is in St. Albert, is an emerging form of therapy where the idea isn’t to improve the relationship, but to understand how it got to its current point. 

A new study from the University of Alberta suggests those considering divorce often avoid seeking professional help. 

Adam Galovan, a family scientist in the U of A’s faculty of agricultural, life, and environmental sciences, and a co-author of the study, said he and other researchers analyzed a recent survey of 745 married individuals. The analysis found that 80 per cent of these couples seeking divorce were turning to friends, websites, and self-help books for advice, but steered clear of professional help. 

“Overall, divorce ideation is common but dynamic, and it is not necessarily an indication of imminent marital dissolution,” Galovan said, noting the survey also indicated that a significant amount of those thinking about divorce don’t have thoughts about it a year later, or are less seriously considering it. 

When divorce considerations do become serious, however, Galovan said friendly advice and Internet surfing have their limits in ensuring couples are able to reach the best decision for their lives, while also achieving clarity. 

“When you cut yourself or stub your toe severely enough, the pain is telling you some information that you may need to get that checked out,” Galovan said, noting that thoughts of divorce also merit the help of an expert to get to the root of the issue. 

“Professionals do have the training and the understanding of what … can be beneficial.”

Galovan noted that some married partners might believe that couples therapy is their only option — and accordingly believe they must only choose professional help if they want to stay together. 

But for “mixed agenda couples,” couples where one person wants to stay and the other doesn’t, Galovan said more suitable options exist and are becoming more prevalent.  

Galovan described an emerging form of therapy called “discernment counselling,” where the idea isn’t to improve the relationship, but to understand how it got to its current point. 

“In the vast majority of cases, both partners have contributed something that has made it so you’re at that point where you’re thinking about divorce,” Galovan said. 

Discernment counselling can help couples feel certain they made the right choice, rather than looking back on an eventual decision with regret, he said. 

According to the website discernmentcounselors.com, there are only two registered discernment counsellors in Alberta, one of whom practices in St. Albert.  

Wendy Hart, a registered psychologist, currently offers discernment counselling services at Living Well by Design Incorporated on St. Anne Street. 

Originally working strictly as a couples counsellor, Hart said couples were showing up at her practice when it was clear there wasn’t a commitment in both directions. 

In discernment counselling, Hart said couples don’t talk to each other in the session, but instead work directly through Hart. 

“We have some really contentious relationships show up in the offices, and it’s very safe to talk about ‘I think I maybe want out,’” Hart said. 

The counselling is also short term, for a maximum of five sessions. At the end, couples can decide if they want to stay in the marriage as things are, separate, or commit to six months of couples counselling in an effort to stay together.  

“It’s a way to turn every stone over,” Hart said. “I’ve had it where one person is out and the other’s leaning in, and by the end of counselling it switches, which is interesting.”

Hart said discernment counselling is never about convincing either member of the couple about any outcome. 

“It really is about getting a lot more understanding about what happened, and what role you played,” Hart said.   

Galovan said his research suggests more awareness around therapy options such as discernment counselling can help improve outcomes for those considering divorce. 

Ultimately, he said couples should know it’s normal to think about divorce, and while turning to helpful books and support systems can make a difference, professional guidance can play a key role in helping navigate one’s emotions and action outcomes.    

“Options are available for help, and things can improve.”