article overviews five sequential phases of clinical work with typical
-family and stepfamily clients, and suggests key implications for
human-service professionals. To get the most from this article, scan this review
of three possible developmental paths that
any stepfamily may follow over time.
All persons and families move through predictable developmental cycles over
time. To provide a
environment for their members, the leaders of typical divorcing biofamilies and
stepfamilies must know and guide their members through many
extra steps in this cycle. Some personal and
relation-ship needs vary, as persons and families mature. Other
know-ledge, maturity, and resources will vary along their
(a) personal and (b) family developmental paths. Families can
encounter significant stressors - and adults can seek professional help - anywhere on
their developmental path.
Premise - All family-relationship stress, all
psychological or legal divorce, and all stepfamily problems
are caused by a mix of four or five interactive primary
If clinicians are aware of how these stressors are manifesting in
a client family,
are more likely.
Effective outcomes require clinicians to assess (a)
where the client family is on their developmental path, and (b) where
each family member is on their personal developmental path. This allows
strategically tailoring interventions to suit
the clients' developmental status and needs. Conceptual knowledge of (a)
personal and (b) family
developmental phases, and (b) how to assess a client's developmental status
is part of the knowledge required
to be an effective clinician.
every client family is unique in ancestry,
history, structure and developmental status,
my clinical experience is that typical divorcing-family and stepfamily clients
fall into one of five categories. Each corresponds to a different
family-development phase, and merits unique assessments and interventions.
The categories or types are...
"troubled" intact (one-home), or separated
(two-home), biological families;
courtship families after mate-death or legal
divorce and before re/commitment;
committed stepfamily couples denying
committed stepfamily couples (a) admitting
significant relationship problems, (b) who may or may not be
re/divorcing psychologically or legally;
of these families where one or more adults admit
and seek to reduce significant false-self (psychological)
and related unawareness.
links above lead to more detail on effective clinical assessment and
interventions with each type of client family. Here are some key characteristics
of each type...
Key Typology Characteristics
trait common to four of these client types is that most or all of their adults
and kids are unaware they are victims of the inherited [wounds + ignorance]
One or more type-5 adults is realizing the cycle and its effects in their lives,
and is motivated to reduce them and break the cycle, to protect their living and
Type 1) an intact (one home) or separated (two-home) nuclear biological family.
follow the normal ("traditional") developmental path. Low-nurturance nuclear
biofamilies are prone to eventual legal or psychological divorce. The divorce process has
affect all extended-family members, and can last well over ten years before
all members have adjusted to family reorganization "well
Other intact biofamilies experience the
premature death of a mate, and their
developmental path includes many months or years of
(accepting) the resulting web of
(broken bonds). The length and quality of this developmental phase
(stable-peaceful or unstable-stressful) depends on the family adults'
2) Courting co-parents - A widowed or divorcing mate may start to
seek a new partner ("date") at any point on the family's
reorganization-adjustment path. Some type-2 adults seek clinical help to
assist family members adjust to their losses and changes. Others may hire
clinicians to help them prepare to evolve satisfying stepfamily relationships
and roles (guard against probable re/divorce). The "/" notes that their new
partner may have never married before.
By definition (here), type-2 client adults are not co-habiting. A divorced,
custodial or non-custodial co-parent who is seriously dating a new partner
usually lives in a two-home nuclear family which includes their ex mate and
any new partner and stepkids of theirs. One or both Type-2 adults may have
biological or adopted kids with prior mates, but the new couple has not
adopted or conceived children together.
Typical type-2 partners...
(a) idealize their relationship ("We
never fight!") and (b) deny, minimize, or rationalize
significant psychological wounds and/or incomplete grief; and
are unaware of (a) what involved kids and ex
mates need, and (b) stepfamily norms, hazards, family-merger tasks, and
how to make three wise commitment choices.
3) - committed stepfamily co-parents
in denial - the third
type of client is characterized by a widowed or divorcing mate committing
psychologically or legally to a new partner, and eventually cohabiting with
any custodial minor kids. One or
both partners deny, minimize, or ignore any serious primary-relationship
problems, and may seek clinical
learn how to manage a successful stepfamily
(if prior kids and ex mates are involved), and/or to...
resolve problems with one
or more troubled or "acting-out"
children, ex-mates, and/or other
Type-3 adults' nuclear family usually includes one or more ex mates, one or
more step-children and possibly half-siblings, living in
co-parenting homes. Often, type-3 adults (including ex mates and relatives)
minimize or deny their stepfamily
and what it
to all members. They also deny that
one or both
wounded partners may have made up to three unwise
Over time and perhaps with skilled clinical help, aging type-3 adult clients
may evolve into...
4) - stepfamily mates
significant primary-relationship (and other family)
problems. One or
both mates may seek clinical help to...
repair their relationship,
clarify (vs. reduce) their stressors and/or
justify their behaviors (blame their partners); and/or type-4 mates may
(a) validate that relationship-repair isn't
feasible, and/or to (b) justify and manage
Both mates are probably wounded psychologically, and are not motivated to
admit that or work at personal wound-recovery yet. Typically, such mates are
in their late thirties or early-to-mid forties. A minority are in their late
50s or early-to-mid 60s, and may have adult kids and grandkids. Some type-4
partners have re/divorced before, and may have incomplete-grief and guilt
issues compounding their current personal-wound + re/marital + other
A minority of type-4 adult clients may hit
break protective denials, and evolve into ...
5) - by admitting psychological
(or symptoms of them). One or more adult family members seeks clinical
help to reduce their wounds / addiction / codependence /
depression / anger / anxiety / frigidity / etc. This can occur at any point
in the other four phases, and often occurs after the adult has hit true
in their 30s or later. Psychological or legal re/divorce + accumulated
weariness, anxiety, guilts, and despair + fully admitting declining health
and mortality may trigger hitting true (vs. pseudo or trial) bottom.
Often, one committed mate commits to true (vs. pseudo) personal
wound-recovery before their partner does. Where such a person has progressed
well in recovery before re/committing, they're less apt to make
unwise commitment decisions (i.e. to choose a significantly-wounded partner
and low-nurturance stepfamily).
When they progress after stepfamily commitment, true
personal recovery often generates significant relationship stress as the
recoverer becomes more aware of how their partner's and other
family-members' wounds and denials limit the odds of family wholistic health
and satisfaction and threaten the healthy development dependent children.
Restated - true recovery in one mate may promote psychological or
legal re/divorce, unless their partner is truly ready to hit bottom, break
their protective denials, and join them in personal healing. When both
mates are committed to true, full wound-recovery, they may generate an
exceptionally strong primary relationship and steadily raise their family's
Recap - In these clinical articles,
any type-5 client family includes
one or more adult members in true (vs. pseudo) recovery from psychological wounds. Note that stabilizing any
for at least a year (preliminary recovery) is an essential requisite for
For more perspective on wound
recovery, review this
Bottom line premise - assessing which client-type you're working with and
knowing each type's systemic traits raises your odds of accurate assessments and
effective interventions. Does this make sense to you? Do you use some form of
this typology already? Is there anything in the way of your integrating the
typology into your current clinical model now?
Option - to make this typology more real, mediate and classify (a) your
own family and (b) each of your present clients families into one of these
types. What do you notice?
clinical model proposes that all persons who seek help from - or are
referred to - therapists and counselors are stressed by some mix of (a)
from a low-nurturance childhood, and (b) unawareness of
and ignorance several vital
This implies that professional clinicians' main goals should be to (a) assess
clients' status with these related stressors, and (b) implement a strategic plan
to help clients admit and reduce their wounds, and learn and apply the key
topics in their lives and families. This is true with all five client types
summarized above. So...
Why Use This Typology?
A main reason is that typical clients' needs to learn of their wounds and
ignorance and commit to making primary personal changes vary across their
individual and family life-cycle. Restated:
typical adult clients' motivation to
make basic changes in their attitudes, priorities, and behaviors increases with
age and accumulated inner pain and despair. Their motivation to change
their attitudes and behaviors also increases as they bear children, and the
children start to manifest symptoms of their family's low nurturance level.
clinical experience is that client-adults' receptivity to learning about the
personal impacts of the [wounds + unawareness] cycle grows as they accumulate
pain, losses, and frustration in their main relationships and roles. Adults in
their 20s who are first married often assume the cycle is irrelevant to them and
any partner and young kids. Adults in midlife who are beginning to experience a
second (or third) "failed marriage" are far more apt to really question
"What's wrong with me?", admit their wounds and ignorance, and make
(permanent) changes in their attitudes, values, and behaviors.
suggests that with each client family, aware clinicians will set their goals on
a continuum between (a) plant seeds that can help client adults change in the
future, and (b) facilitate intrapsychic and systemic changes now. In
other words, effective clinicians will choose between educating type 1-3
client adults and couples, and providing appropriate education and intrapsychic
help for weary, hurting type 4 and 5 adults who are receptive to it.
false selves that dominate typical
are narrowly focused on reducing current vs. future discomforts. Like
normal physical kids, GWCs' powerful
want instant vs. delayed gratification. A primal discomfort is admitting
personal woundedness and responsibility for related choices and behaviors. In
other words, typical wounded client
adults in type 1, 2, and 3 families need to blame someone else - rather
than their false self - for their problems (unmet needs). Other
GWC clients will blame themselves for their relationship discomforts and
"failures," but will vary in their willingness to empower their true Self and
harmonize their personality subselves (do
Typical Clients Don't Know What
Typical client-family adults are unaware
that their presenting problems are usually symptoms
of deeper unmet
in themselves and other family members. If they
are aware, they rarely know how
and/or fill these
Client-family adults will usually
present a mix of surface stressors (needs), but their
receptivity to clinical interventions will depend on which type of client they
Clients admitting that they don't know what they need to know varies with the
client-type and topic. Most adults (of any type) will readily agree on the value
and will be receptive to well-structured clinical education on communication
Typical client adults are less interested in (a) learning and applying
healthy-grieving basics and (b) assessing
they or important others have experienced major (recent)
(broken bonds). An exception may occur when a client's presenting problem is
Implication - early in the work, assess every client adult's knowledge of
the key topics, and provide strategic education where needed - and accept that
typical clients will not expect or ask for this.
Client "Resistance" and this
Typical clients react in one of three ways to relevant, respectful clinical
agree with the clinician's suggestions, and genuinely experiment with
changing; or they...
agree, and find excuses to not risk experimenting; or they...
c/overtly disagree with the clinician's suggestions in some way, like...
"Yes but... (here's why I can't do that
"I / we have already tried that, and it
didn't (fill our needs)", or...
"That won't work (fill our my / needs)
Traditionally, clinicians label the last two of these as "client resistance."
example, most client adults agree to try
new communication skills and tools, and then over time "forget" to use them, so
their "old problems" return. They say "I don't know why we haven't helped
each other to
our primary needs and use
same dynamic often occurs when clients "never get around to" defining and
upgrading their personal and family policies on
If and when they migrate to type-5 status, client adults become open to
accepting that distrustful dominant
(false selves) are blocking these useful changes, tho their
true Selves see significant value in changing.
Commonly, one client adult is more ready (less "resistant") to migrate
into the next clinical phase than other family adults. For example, one mate is
willing to say - "Our marital problems are contributing to our child/ren acting
out" than their partner is.
invites thoughtful differentiation in interventions - (a) helping the client who
"sees" learn healthy options, and (b) respectfully inviting the other partner to
understand why they need to avoid recognizing their marital problems. My
experience consistently reveals that type 1-3 adult clients' protective false
selves can't tolerate (a) the reality of significant primary-relationship
problems and (b) the "resistant" adult's responsibility for co-causing them.
Implications for Clinical Work
Clinicians, supervisors, and/or consultants who (a) discount what
developmental phase (type) their client
family is in or who (b) try to force the participating co-parents to refocus on the
next phase before they're ready, are likely to get ineffective results and
frustrate everyone. Progress from one phase to the next is influenced by
co-parents' ages, wholistic health, degree of maturity, and knowledge - and cannot be rushed.
Does this match your experience?
Typical family-law attorneys and judges who
refer client families for
clinical evaluation intervention, and/or mediation aren't aware of these phases
and types. They
and their clients often expect clinicians to focus on resolving
surface conflicts now, rather than
patiently helping the family adults choose a long-term outlook and learn how to
and fill their
Clinicians who comply with unaware
referrers (a) risk amplifying the client family's long-term problems, and (b) are often powerless to help clients achieve and maintain their
current therapeutic goals. Clinicians can...
help their clients become
underlying primary stressors,
expectations of what
grieve old (unrealistic) expectations,
skills like effective
of themselves and their process, over time.
each phase of the work, clinicians are challenged to assess (a) what does the
most "resistant" co-parent in the family system need in order to
migrate to the next
phase (type), and (b) what options exist toward empathically promoting this co-parent
to want to migrate.
Clinicians also need to assess whether their supervisors, case
or program managers,
consultants, and other human-service professionals working with a given client
family (a) are aware of these factors, (b) accept them, and if not, (c) whether
they're willing to learn about and consider the factors. If they're not, that
stress which will probably hinder effective outcomes with a
given client family.
See where you stand on the premises in this article now: A = "I
agree;" D = "I disagree," and ? = "I'm unsure" or "It depends
All persons and
families move along predictable developmental paths
at their own pace. Their progress is shaped by a unique mix of genes,
personalities, and environmental factors (A
human behaviors are caused by trying to fill primary (vs.
- i.e. by seeking to reduce significant psychological + physical + spiritual
(A D ?)
clients (a) face extra developmental
phases, compared to intact, high-nurturance ("traditional") biofamilies.
(b) These complex clients fall into one of the five types (sequential
developmental phases) described above
(A D ?)
Typical "troubled" or "dysfunctional"
created and managed by adults who are unaware of the effects of up to
These stressors are symptoms of the lethal [wounds + ignorance]
inherited from their ancestors and an unaware (low nurturance)
society. (A D ?)
For effective outcomes, clinicians need to assess (among other
things) (a) the type of client they're working with, and (b) what the family members'
are at this phase of their development (A D ?)
For high-nurturance organizations
and optimal clinical outcomes, clinical supervisors, case and program managers,
and other involved human-service professionals who work with divorcing
and/or stepfamily clients need to know and agree with these
premises (A D ?)
(capital "S") just
to this status check (A D ?)
not, your responses may be skewed.
+ + +
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