What do you do when you can't decide whether to work on your relationship or create a plan for separation? Charlaine Avery tells us about a specialized form of counseling called discernment counseling designed to help make this exact decision.
Charlaine has worked with individuals, couples, and families for more than twenty years; helping them with relationship issues such as communication problems, conflict, grief, affairs, transitions, parenting and step-parenting. She believes relationships are the foundation of a healthy life and feels honored to share people’s struggles and appreciates their courage as they learn to connect in healthy and loving ways. Charlaine is the first counselor in BC to be certified in Discernment counseling – a process that assists couples to decide if they want to stay the same, change with identified goals, or end their relationship.
Your host, Christina Vinters, is a nationally designated Chartered Mediator on a mission to inspire and facilitate healthy family transitions. She is an “ex” Divorce Lawyer (Non-Practicing Member of the Bar), Author of Pathways to Amicable Divorce, and the DIY Divorce Manual, and Peacemaking Business Consultant.
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Christina: Today I'm talking to Charlaine Avery. Charlaine is a counselor with over 20 years of experience in couples' counseling. And she has also obtained training in discernment counseling. She's the first counselor in British Columbia to have this counseling, and this is a process that helps couples decide if they want to keep the relationship the same, work on changing their relationship with specific goals in mind, or whether they would like to end their relationship. Charlaine says that this process can be particularly helpful when couples are not on the same page about what they would like to see for the future of the relationship. She also tells us that research on this process has shown that couples who have gone through this process and decided to eventually separate had a smoother separation as a result of having respectfully gone through the discernment process and decided to end their relationship together. Alright, let's jump into the interview.
Christina: Welcome, Charlaine!
Charlaine: Thank you, Christina!
Christina: I'd love to have you tell us a bit about yourself – introduce the listeners to you and your background and what drew you to working with couples?
Charlaine: OK. Well, I'm 62 years old which means I've been around the block a bit. I've been a counselor for over 23 years. I love working with couples because you can see the changes that are happening. And what I really love about working with couples is when you can see them finally turn toward each other and starting to being really able to hear each other and to talk about those things that have been difficult and to decide if they can really work on this, or whether they really need to call it. It is a very poignant moment when people are able to do that. And then they can make decisions about how are they going to move forward.
Christina: Part of what you do is you help couples decide whether or not they want to put the work into the relationship, or make that big decision of ending it, right?
Charlaine: Yeah. Working with couples can be challenging sometimes because you don't always know if everyone's on the same page and is equally committed to the relationship. And so, I've done couples counseling now for 20 years, and so sometimes you just don't know why it isn't working. I decided to study discernment counseling a few years ago because it really helps the couple to get to this place of saying, “Are we gonna stay the same as we are or are we actually gonna identify what are our issues and what are we gonna work more deeply on? Or are we really done – done that we need to move on?”
Christina: So you studied discernment counseling. What exactly does it involve and how does that training set you apart from a general couple's therapist?
Charlaine: So there was a project down at Minnesota called Marriages on the Brink. And what they found is that it was really important that each party and the couple have an opportunity to be seen individually, to talk about what they were going on. And it was also very important to have three options on the table. We can stay the same as we are, or we can identify our issues and figure out what are we gonna work on in longer term, more intensive counseling, or we can decide if we're going to just call it quits and not be together anymore. How the stuff differs from what many couples' counselor's offer is often you bring two people in your room, you meet with them together so there's this sense of secrecy or you know, 'you know something about me that I don't know that you know about me.' And... But you also don't ever get the chance, unless you meet with them individually to explore those issues. What I like about the discernment counseling is it's very neutral; it is really there to help people decide if there's a piece of the counseling where you meet the couple together, you find out about the history, you find about their hopes and dreams. And you find out about what's not been going on. Another piece of I think is really important is they do ask what about 'what about the children of the marriage, and what is the plan for them,' so that the children's needs don't get forgotten is part of the conversation. It's a fairly intensive process because you commit from session to session – it's a maximum of five sessions. So you really have to get in there and really find out what's going on. You meet with them together and then you meet with them individually and the other partner waits. These individual sections of these sessions are about 20 to 30 minutes. It's really an opportunity to get to know the person, find out their understanding and perceptions, what haven't they been able to say. One of the questions that always has to be explored is 'Is there someone else in your life that's complicating the situation that the two of you are in?' And then from that conversation with them, figuring out whether what of those three options -- do they want to stay the same; is it so painful they need to change it; if it can't be changed, are they really considering not being together anymore.
Christina: So I am curious, have you ever had a couple at the end of five sessions who are still confused about what to do?
Charlaine: That's s often because, I mean if they're confused, it means they're choosing to stay the way they are. Which is OK, right, because it's a neutral approach. Sometimes the couples' counselor would say, 'Well, you know, the counseling isn't working so you shouldn't be together.' And I actually don't believe that. Counselling doesn't work for as many reasons sometimes, and it's really important to allow people the option to say, you know, 'I don't wanna deal with this now.' or 'I don't wanna change now so let's just stay the way we are for now.' And that's OK too, so it makes room for those options. And then there's the same kind of pressure. And also at the end of each session, I ask each member of the couple, 'Are you willing to come back?' If they say no, then we're done. If they say yes, and then we just make another appointment. So I meet with them individually and then I actually get the person with my support to give a report back, kind of a summary about where they at with the other person, whether they're still unclear or if they need a clear choice. And then that the other person just listens, and then they see the other person. Discernment counseling is not couple counseling. So it's really important to understand the difference. We're not actually trying to change the relationship yet – we're actually trying to explore where are you right now. And based on where you are right now, what are your options. So that's quite different in couple's counseling and that can be difficult for couples because they think they're coming in to get fixed. Discernment really can't zip out how do we figure out what needs fixing. And then once we identify what needs fixing, then what are you willing to do to fix it.
Christina: in what sorts of circumstances do you recommend that you found it to be helpful? For people listening and you know, couple of points where they can look at their relationship and say this exists or that exists and maybe discernment counseling would be a good idea for me.
Charlaine: Yeah, so discernment counseling is done when you don't know what to do. It's obviously become too painful for things to stay the same, but there's all kinds of reasons why people don't wanna end their relationships. But there maybe a general unhappiness and they don't know what's possible and they're not sure if their partner will buy into longer-term work. If one of the two is not sure about how committed they are to the relationship, then that's a really good time to come into discernment counseling. I do this... I have this mantra-kind of relationship tune-up maintenance or repair. And so it might just be that you're needing a tune up and that would be... we'd be able to identify that pretty quickly. So for instance, a couple comes in, we talk about things. They decide that they want to go to couples counseling and we can say these are the issues we're gonna work on, we're gonna commit to it long term, then we're done. And then they can move see me as the couple's counselor or I can refer them out to another counselor. So, because they're clear on what they want. It's when people are uncertain, or when the stakes are high. Or when they don't know what the options are. Or when, you know, they just need help talking to their partners about the thing that isn't working for them. So it's kind of an intro, and it really helps to figure out what's people's motivation and trying to get a good sense of what would it take specifically to work on their relationship rather than taking this global kind of view of things. I really like it because it is very respectful of people's beliefs and values. It's really open-ended in terms of the conversation. They do get my support if there's something they do need to say to their partner, then I support them to say that. And so I think it's just really helpful to get on point.
Christina: Now, is this process... I imagine it's open for any couple and intimate relationship, they don't have to be married, do they?
Charlaine: Definitely it would be helpful for anyone who's trying to determine the status of the relationship. If you're not married, of course, there are different legal implications and things like that. But from my perspective, it doesn't make any difference. It's, you know, 'Do I wanna continue with this relationship or don't I?' 'Do I wanna continue, then what needs to be different?' 'Then if I don't wanna continue, then how do I let my partner know and just how do we move forward from that?'
Christina: I don't know if you would have this information, but have you seen any benefits to couples who do eventually decide to separate? I'm wondering if they might have an easier time of going through the separation process after having gone through the discernment process?
Charlaine: That was an interesting piece of the research, was that lawyers actually started referring couples because what they found is, because of these kinds of conversations that are respectful and clearly communicating; that there was less conflict if they did decide they had to separate and move on. There was less conflict because the emotional part of letting go of the relationship was actually being taken care of prior to going to the lawyers, where sometimes it can become quite conflictual. There's no guarantees obviously, but if you two have resolved and you're on the same page about why you're separating, then you don't need to argue about 'are we separating or not?' It's clear that that decision's already been clearly made. The difficulty, of course, is for the person who's being left, it might not be their choice, it might not be their decision. But at least it gives them a place where they can express this to their partner, and their partner can get my support explaining to them why it's not an option to continue. So the lawyers actually find it quite helpful.
Christina: That's what I was imagining. You would say because I do see sometimes when people haven't had the opportunity if they're coming into a mediation and they haven't had really an opportunity for closure or to accept the relationship has ended. Then that can really drag on discussion of the substantive issues that we're trying to talk about. Because there's all these emotional issues that haven't been resolved yet.
Charlaine: And the thing about relationships is that they don't usually go downhill all at once. So it's a small accumulation of many things. And so when the relationship is put in question, you know sometimes people can't be honest about what's going on. But by meeting with them individually, I'm able to help them to say what they need to say to their partner. So I had a couple in here recently and they're good people. And they care about each other, but it's not just giving them what they need in their life. And it was interesting. They couldn't say it to each other but they could say it to me, that they were done. So I supported the first one to go to say that to the partner. And the partner... then I met with the partner then the partner said that “it's such a relief 'cause I'm on the same page.”
Christina: Oh, good.
Charlaine: Right. It's funny how face to face with couples, it's sometimes hard to do that. And you really need, you know, a caring supportive person to help you to say that. And now I'll be helping them to decide what are the next steps on how do we go forward now that we're both on the same page.
Christina: And so how can people work with you? Do you work with clients online?
Charlaine: I have done some discernment counseling by Skype, as long as the couple's comfortable with that. Because you know, you want confidentiality while you're having the conversation with me. And so that it takes a certain amount of trust about whether you know, the other person's actually not listening at the door.
Christina: Oh, I see. Yes.
Charlaine: So the interviewing people individually direct like as a couple I can do that on Skype. You know, because you can just pass the computer back and forth typically. So it's possible. It's always better in person but since I'm the only one in BC who has a certification at this time, it's gonna be hard for them to find someone locally. And so I'm making it available by Skype.
Christina: OK, great! And I think I saw on the discernment counseling website that there is a list of practitioners in Canada and the United States who do this type of work – is it just the two countries or there are discernment counselors in other countries as well?
Charlaine: I'm not sure. They just reopened the training for people who are interested, so maybe people from other parts of the world... they pretty much began in the US in the last five years or so. So it's definitely a growing aspect of the counseling field.
Christina: OK, fantastic! And what are the best ways for listeners to get in touch with you?
Charlaine: I'm available by phone. People can book appointments directly from my website, I have an online booking system. So they can go to my website averycounselling.ca, counseling has two Ls. And you could look at my blogs, 'cause I have blogs on discernment counseling and I also have connection to the discernment website, the developer of this. There's a little video of him talking about what this is about as well. By phone, through the internet, whatever works for the client.
Christina: Perfect! OK, well thank you so much Charlaine for sharing that information about this new branch of counseling. I think this is gonna be really helpful for a lot of people.
Charlaine: Good, well I hope so. And I much certainly found it helpful for the couples that I've worked with.