The Importance of Discernment Counseling,
An Interview with Tracy Ross
Tracy Ross is a therapist and parenting expert in New York. Tracy works to Redesign Relationships through Discernment Counseling and her work as a specialist in Collaborative Divorce. Tracy supports her clients in transitioning from being a romantic couple to that of being individuals leading separate lives in the best way possible. Tracy is passionate about the impact of divorce on children and she is committed to helping parents minimize the burden and prevent unnecessary damage. In this article, Tracy shares advice on the importance of Discernment Counseling.
Tracy Ross was interviewed by Divorceify Co-founder, Sonia Queralt.
Sonia Queralt: Please tell me about what your role as a divorce professional and what you do?
Tracy Ross: I work with couples to help them divorce in a collaborative way. I also do couples therapy with those who decide they want to try and give it one more effort to heal their relationship. However, discernment counseling is unique, it’s neither of those things. It’s for couples who think they may want to get divorced but aren’t certain. Typically one person feels they’re not ready to give up and the other is feeling like it’s hopeless, and sometimes both feel unsure and are really unclear if they should stay or go.
Tracy Ross: Discernment counseling is a process that helps clarify a direction. That’s the goal. Usually, whatwe see is one person is leaning out, thinking the marriage is over and heading for divorce, and the other person is leaning in, they are still invested in trying to save the marriage. The couple is at a standstill, they’re stuck, and the conversation isn’t going anywhere. Discernment counseling is a short-term process that helps these couples pick a direction and begin to move forward.
Sonia Queralt: What do you mean when you say that Discernment Counseling is a short -term process?
Tracy Ross: Discernment Counseling is four or five sessions that are structured in a very specific way, each session includes some time with the couple together and some time with each individual separately. Each meeting includes either a decision about the direction of the marriage or an option to continue the Discernment Counseling process. This is not couples’ therapy. This is not collaborative divorce work. This is something in the middle for when you’re in that in-between place.
Sonia Queralt: Discernment counseling is a fairly new niche, why do you think that is?
Tracy Ross: Discernment counseling in this form is pretty new because if you’re primarily a divorce professional who works to help people divorce, then that’s what you’re trying to do, and if you’re primarily a couples’ therapist who tries to repair relationships, that’s your orientation. What’s not spoken about is that often one person is feeling one way, and one person is leaning the other way, and it’s unsaid, so the divorce professional is working and then no agreement is being made because the leaning in person doesn’t really want to separate. Or in couples’ therapy, the therapist is working to repair the relationship, but the leaning out person is really out, and they’re done, and they haven’t been able to really say that.
Sonia Queralt: In discernment counseling do you initially meet with an individual or a couple?
Tracy Ross: I meet with the couple but also spend some time with each individual alone. This all happens in an hour and a half. Some people are aware of discernment counseling, and they come in specifically for that process. Other people come in saying “we need to split up, this isn’t working, we’re not doing well,” and then when we start to talk about what separation would look like it’s not so clear that they’re splitting up. Often there’s some doubt and hesitation and in fact they are talking about divorce because they feel so frustrated and stuck. They don’t know how to get to a better place, but it’s not necessarily that they want to split up. So sometimes people come in for one thing and switch to discernment counseling, and then there are other people who just know about it and start there.
Sonia Queralt: In your experience with couples in discernment counseling are there certain common factors that these couples feel or are experiencing when they have reached this middle point?
Tracy Ross: Yes, there’s often one person who is very withdrawn and hopeless, that’s the leaning out person. And then the other person is trying to reach them, trying to see if there’s any way to save the marriage and doing it in all the wrong ways that just further pushes the leaning out partner away. Oftentimes there is high emotionality and volatility with these couples. They can be pretty charged up. They’re nervous about sitting in a room together. They’re tentative about opening up the conversation and being vulnerable. It’s my job to create a very safe, structured, hand-holding environment for them. You know – what happens a lot with these couples is that the leaning out person has done everything but say, “I’m out.” They’ve said everything leading up to that, but they don’t close the deal and say, “You know what, we have to move towards divorce. I’m done with this marriage.” So the leaning in person is holding on to that little bit of hope, that little bit of space where they just haven’t quite said it. Sometimes, in the discernment counseling process, it gives them space to say it and be clear, and the other person can start to hear it so that they can move forward. Sometimes that’s the purpose.
Sonia Queralt: What are some of the options that clients have in discernment counseling?
Tracy Ross: In discernment counseling, there are three possible outcomes. One is that they can just keep doing what they’re doing, being in that indecisive place, not moving towards divorce, not working on the relationship. That’s always an option. Path two is moving towards divorce, and path three is a six-month effort to repair their relationship, taking divorce off the table for those six months. What usually ends up happening is they decide they want to give it one last shot and choose path three, so I end up trying to help them with that. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes they end up moving towards divorce, but with a new perspective. They actually feel better about it because they went through a process, they made that last effort. And some couples do end up working on the marriage and staying together.
Sonia Queralt: Do you give couples in discernment counseling homework?
Tracy Ross: Not with each other, that would be couples’ therapy. The work in discernment counseling is to really self-reflect, to look at your own contribution to the marriage being in this place and to examine what you would have to do to move it in either direction. So it’s not about blaming the other person, telling the other person what they could do differently or better. It’s about looking at yourself and taking a really hard inventory of yourself. That’s the kind of homework, not couple homework because they’re not sure they are a couple anymore.
Tracy Ross: As professionals, we have all worked with couples who are uncertain about their future together. It can be extremely challenging when 2 people are saying they can’t stand the thought of continuing this way but they can’t seem to budge. Sometimes just having the space to talk about what’s holding them back is enough to help them move forward. If they do move towards divorce they can do it in a better way because they feel like the other person was able to hear where they are and how they got there.