Help clients understand and break th lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle

Overview: five phases of clinical work with divorcing-family and stepfamily clients

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


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        This article is one of a series on effective professional counseling, coaching, and therapy with (a) low-nurturance (dysfunctional) families and with (b) typical survivors of childhood neglect and trauma. These articles for professionals are under construction.

        This series assumes you're familiar with:

        Before continuing, pause and reflect - why are you reading this article? What do you need?

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        This article overviews five sequential phases of clinical work with typical divorcing-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 high-nurturance 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 primal needs are constant. Co-parents' 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 stressors. If clinicians are aware of how these stressors are manifesting in a client family, effective therapeutic outcomes 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.

        Though 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 primary-relationship problems;

  • committed stepfamily couples (a) admitting significant relationship problems, (b) who may or may not be re/divorcing psychologically or legally; and...

  • any of these families where one or more adults admit and seek to reduce significant false-self (psychological) wounds and related unawareness.

        The 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

        A 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] cycle. 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 unborn descendents.

        Type 1) an intact (one home) or separated (two-home) nuclear biological family. High-nurturance  biofamilies follow the normal ("traditional") developmental path. Low-nurturance nuclear biofamilies are prone to eventual legal or psychological divorce. The divorce process has three phases. They affect all extended-family members, and can last well over ten years before all members have adjusted to family reorganization "well enough."

        Other intact biofamilies experience the premature death of a mate, and their developmental path includes many months or years of grieving (accepting) the resulting web of losses (broken bonds). The length and quality of this developmental phase (stable-peaceful or unstable-stressful) depends on the family adults' wholistic health and grief policy.

        Type 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 partners...

  • 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.

        Type 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 help to...

  • 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 relatives.

        Type-3 adults' nuclear family usually includes one or more ex mates, one or more step-children and possibly half-siblings, living in two or more co-parenting homes. Often, type-3 adults (including ex mates and relatives) minimize or deny their stepfamily identity and what it means to all members. They also deny that one or both needy, wounded partners may have made up to three unwise commitment choices.

        Over time and perhaps with skilled clinical help, aging type-3 adult clients may evolve into...

        Type 4) - stepfamily mates admitting 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 seek to...

  • (a) validate that relationship-repair isn't feasible, and/or to (b) justify and manage re/divorce.

        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 stepfamily problems.

        A minority of type-4 adult clients may hit true borrom, break protective denials, and evolve into ...

        Type 5) - by admitting psychological wounds (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 bottom 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 nurturance level.

        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 addictions for at least a year (preliminary recovery) is an essential requisite for full (inner-wound) recovery. For more perspective on wound recovery, review this article.

        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?


        This clinical model proposes that all persons who seek help from - or are referred to - therapists and counselors are stressed by some mix of (a) psychological wounds from a low-nurturance childhood, and (b) unawareness of themselves and ignorance several vital topics. 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.

        My 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 second-order (permanent) changes in their attitudes, values, and behaviors.

        This 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.

        The false selves that dominate typical Grown Wounded Children (GWCs) are narrowly focused on reducing current vs. future discomforts. Like normal physical kids, GWCs' powerful inner children 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 shame-based 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 inner-family therapy)..

Typical Clients Don't Know What They Need

        Typical client-family adults are unaware that their presenting problems are usually symptoms of deeper unmet needs in themselves and other family members. If they are aware, they rarely know how to discern and/or fill these primary needs. 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 are.

        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 of effective communication, and will be receptive to well-structured clinical education on communication basics, blocks, and skills. Typical client adults are less interested in (a) learning and applying healthy-grieving basics and (b) assessing for blocked grief  unless they or important others have experienced major (recent) losses (broken bonds). An exception may occur when a client's presenting problem is someone's "clinical depression."

        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 Typology

        Typical clients react in one of three ways to relevant, respectful clinical interventions. They...

  • 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 now), or...

    • "I / we have already tried that, and it didn't (fill our needs)", or...

    • "That won't work (fill our my / needs) because..."

        Traditionally, clinicians label the last two of these as "client resistance."

        For 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 identify our primary needs and use hearing checks, R-messages, and awareness bubbles  like you suggested."

        The same dynamic often occurs when clients "never get around to" defining and upgrading their personal and family policies on anger and healthy grieving. If and when they migrate to type-5 status, client adults become open to accepting that distrustful dominant subselves (false selves) are blocking these useful changes, tho their disabled 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 often more willing to say - "Our marital problems are contributing to our child/ren acting out" than their partner is.

        This 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 identify and fill their primary needs. 

        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 aware of their underlying primary stressors,

  • form realistic expectations of what is and is not currently possible,

  • grieve old (unrealistic) expectations,

  • learn new skills like effective communicating, co-parenting, and grieving, and...

  • become more aware of themselves and their process, over time.

        At 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 will add metasystem stress which will probably hinder effective outcomes with a given client family.

Status Check

        See where you stand on the premises in this article now: A = "I agree;" D = "I disagree," and ? = "I'm unsure" or "It depends (on what?)"

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  D  ?)

All human behaviors are caused by trying to fill primary (vs. surface) needs - i.e. by seeking to reduce significant psychological + physical + spiritual discomforts. (A  D  ?)

Typical divorcing -family and stepfamily 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" (low-nurturance) families are created and managed by adults who are unaware of the effects of up to five core stressors. These stressors are symptoms of the lethal [wounds + ignorance] cycle 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' related primary needs are at this phase of their development  (A  D  ?)

For high-nurturance organizations and optimal clinical outcomes, clinical supervisors, case and program managers, clinical consultants, and other involved human-service professionals who work with divorcing and/or stepfamily clients need to know and agree with these premises  (A  D  ?)

My true Self (capital "S") just responded to this status check  (A  D  ?) If not, your responses may be skewed.

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Updated  September 30, 2015