Discerning as an individual is something that’s covered at length in the world of Ignatian spirituality. But what about discerning as a couple? The framework my husband Chris and I use for discernment is not that different from the framework I recommend people use for discerning as an individual. The major difference is there are two people’s voices and experiences of prayer, and there is the larger context of marriage and family life in which to place the decision. So the choice is not just about what God is inviting one person to do, but also what God is inviting us as a couple and as a family to do.
Here’s the four-part framework we use, and I hope it’s helpful to others also.
1. Pray to clarify what the decision is before us.
Discernment always begins with getting clarity on the choice put before us and asking for God to be part of it. I sometimes call this passive discernment, because this is when we are in a state of pondering. Perhaps we feel the stirring towards a choice that needs to be made, but we are not 100% sure of what the concrete choice is yet. In this stage, we both take time to get quiet and talk to God. We also ponder and begin discussing with each other what decision is being put before us.
We ask ourselves:
- What is the choice being put before us?
- What are we noticing?
- Why are we feeling called to discern?
- What are the possible options to consider?
My husband and I continue praying and discussing until we have clarity on the choice before us. Once we have clarity on what we are actually discerning, we move on to the next step.
2. Gather data.
During this phase of discernment, we begin collecting data. This includes the information about how we feel as we pray with certain decisions and what are the movements of the Spirit within us (consolation and desolation). It also includes the nuts and bolts of a decision. As a couple, we weigh out the pros and cons, the financial costs, the impact on our marriage, and the impact on our children.
As we gather data, we continue to pray together and bring that to our conversation with each other, and also into our individual prayer with God. As we hold the data before us, we discuss it and weigh out our options.
Ignatius gives us many suggestions as individuals to pray through a decision, which also apply to a couple discerning together:
- We can make a pro/con list.
- We can ask ourselves what advice we would give to another couple in the same situation.
- We can, within prayer or discussion, act as if we made the decision and notice what happens as we think and pray with this.
- We can ask ourselves what choice we would be glad we made upon our death.
3. Come to a decision.
When the decision becomes clear to us, we prayerfully commit and continue to bring it before God to seek affirmation of our choice. We also continue to discuss it with each other. If appropriate to do so, we might share our decision with trusted friends or family to see if they feel our discernment is in alignment with our values and priorities.
As we lean into committing to our choice, we notice if things keep opening up for us to act on our choice or if things are closing. We also notice if we continue to feel an increase of faith, hope, and love as we pray with our decision.
Sometimes, we might not feel in agreement on a decision, and that means there is more time for prayer, for discernment, and for discussion. The goal in discerning together as a couple is that both of us feel at peace with the decision. A decision may mean that one of us is making more of a sacrifice than the other in regards to time, to commitment, or having to give up something, but if we wait until we both have peace and affirmation about the choice, then the sacrifices can be made out of a spirit of freedom and trust and more easily lived into.
Finally, when both my husband and I feel affirmed in prayer by our decision, we act on it. As we lean into our decision, we check the fruits. Are we still feeling consolation? Are we noticing an increase of faith, hope, and love? Is there anything about our decision that needs to be tweaked in any way? How is the decision impacting our marriage and our family?
As we live into the decision, we continue to seek God’s clarity and guidance through prayer.
Chris and I continue to learn that our call to discern together is ongoing and includes discerning both big and little decisions. Just like when we discern individually, the process helps us grow in our relationship with God and also in our relationship with each other.
Thank you. This article also underscores the importance of open communication between a couple. So often, having trouble discerning develops as a result of much that has been unsaid along the way. Prayer, thoughtful reflection and communication as part of daily living will assist in their process of discerning what decisions God may be asking them to make.
This is excellent guidance for couples. Being married for over fifty years I see the wisdom in this discernment process. In retrospect, immaturity and a lack of a common pursuit of spirituality ,decisions are frequently based on individuality ,as opposed to unity as a couple.
It is difficult for one; very difficult for two. May He guide us to the throne room. Amen.