Couples on the Brink

Healthy marriages hold a unique value for individuals, families, and communities. Marital commitment brings the obligation to work on a troubled marriage before giving up. However, not all marriages can be saved, and some divorces are necessary in order to prevent further harm.

If you believe that your marriage is on the brink of divorce, it means that as a couple you are still deciding which of these four paths to take:

PATH 1: Stay married and not make any changes
PATH 2: Stay married but begin a trial separation
PATH 3: Stay married, put divorce on hold, and commit to couples counseling for X months (e.g., 3 or 6 months)
PATH 4: Divorce

In addition to what is described in my Relationship/Marriage Rescue section, here are some other elements characteristic of a couple on the brink of divorce:

  1. At least one of you has seriously considered divorce or separation
  2. At least one of you is ambivalent about staying married or divorcing
  3. At least one of you is ambivalent about trying marriage counseling
  4. One of you may have started the divorce process, such as spoken to a lawyer, but the final decision to go through with the dissolution of marriage is still pending
  5. One of you may have moved out
  6. One of you may be “leaning out” of the marriage (lower degree of happiness/satisfaction in the marriage and leaning more toward ending it), whereas the other may be “leaning in” (neutral or happier in the marriage and leaning more toward preserving it)
  7. There is a recent discovery of one or more affairs


  1. Offer a limited number of sessions (typically 2 to 5) focused on helping you decide with confidence which of the four paths you wish to take
  2. Offer a supportive environment for each of you to look at the marriage with empathy, self-compassion, kindness, honesty, and self-reflection
  3. Treat each of you with compassion and respect regardless of whether your stance is “leaning in” or “leaning out.” Being on the brink of divorce is difficult for both of you, especially if you have children
  4. Offer information about emotions and behaviors typical of each stance
  5. Help you bring your best self to the crisis so that you can constructively cope during this exploratory process without making things even worse
  6. Spend individual time with each of you to help you gain greater clarity as to what has happened in the marriage, how you may have contributed, why the attempts to fix the problems failed, what the prospects are for reconciliation, and what each of the four paths means for everyone involved (especially children)

A few more points to consider…

  • If you think you want to stay married and not make any changes
    • What exactly does that mean to each of you?
    • How may this affect the two of you, your children, and any other aspects of your lives?
  • If you think you want to stay married but begin a “trial separation”
    • Yes, a trial separation relieves the pressure of having to decide immediately
    • Yes, it gives you the space to cool off if you have been engaging in hot conflict
    • Yes, it puts distance between you while at the same time allowing you to do both individual work and couple work
    • Yes, it gives you the opportunity to see how you feel about each other once you are not in regular contact in a shared residence
    • But, a trial separation without any parameters is not a good idea, for a number of reasons
    • An open-ended, “anything goes” separation may cause heightened stress, uncertainty, misunderstandings, antagonism, drama, insecurities, imbalance of power, etc.
    • The most helpful trial separation is a structured agreement with well-defined guidelines for about a dozen items that are agreed upon by both spouses
    • The agreement should include a “personal growth” item and an item that addresses the timing of couples counseling while you are separated (e.g., immediately or after a determined time period)
  • If you think you want to try couples counseling in order to restore the

    • We will develop a brief written agreement with specific points, such as duration and the issue of discussing reconciliation with other people in your lives (e.g., family, friends)
    • Then, we will begin with the process as described under Relationship/Marriage Rescue
  • If you think there is nothing left to do but file divorce papers
    • First, if you have children, there is a lot of work to do in order to protect their wellbeing, including a detailed parenting plan you should collaborate on (if at all possible) before you get together with attorneys
    • Even if you do not have children, a thoughtful look at the marriage will benefit each of you in a number of ways, including the following:
      • Mitigate the pain of loss
      • Help you clearly identify why the marriage cannot be saved, which contributes to a healthier emotional divorce
      • Provide an opportunity for personal growth (research shows that a dissolution of a relationship presents a learning opportunity)
      • Prepare you for the next relationship by showing you who you were in the marriage and whether you need to make some changes (e.g., how you pick your partners, your own behavior, your intimate relationship attachment style)


It is not an uncommon scenario for one spouse to be willing to do “whatever it takes” to save the marriage, while the other is not willing to work on it in any way, including counseling.

If you are the leaning-in spouse, you may be able to work individually on a more positive outcome. Hopefully, you may be able to restore the marriage. If not, coming in for individual sessions may help you have a healthier divorce that will be amicable rather than adversarial.

The focus of the sessions is similar to what is described in items 1-6 listed above under “How I Can Help.”