Break the [wounds + unawareness] cycle and guard your descendents

Key Definitions and Terms

Let's Talk the Same Language!

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?

+ + +

        Premise: the effectiveness of your professional work will be affected by the clarity and coherence of your concepts, thinking (information processing), vocabulary, and speech. Do you agree? Do you ever examine these in meditation, supervision, and/or personal therapy?

        This article adds key clinical definitions to these lay, grieving, communication, and inner-family glossaries. If you haven't reviewed them recently, scan them now and return. These definitions are offered toward reducing fuzzy thinking and misunderstandings, not to decree absolute truth.

        Some of these lay and professional definitions will probably differ from yours because our training, experience, and personalities are unique, so we have unique core beliefs . For example, by training and preference, I am a communication and grief-oriented "inner-family systems" therapist who educates and intervenes with clients intrapsychically, maritally, and socially. I'd be pleasantly startled if this describes you!

        Premise: the more of the terms above and below you're clear on and fluent with, the more effective your professional work will be, and the higher your satisfaction. Try speaking your current definition of any term out loud before you compare it to this definition.

 Selected Definitions

        Use the following to form, clarify, or refine your definitions... 



Adjustment tasks, co-parent

Adjustment needs, stepchild

Assessment, false-self wounds

Assessment, blocked grief grief

Assessment, stepfamily

Behavior, human

Blending (true-Self disabling); see Dissociation

Bonding (attachment)


Change (systemic)

Client (stepfamily)

Clinical intervention (Tx)

Clinical modality




Communication block

Conflict, inner-family

Conflict (interpersonal)

Counseling (vs. therapy)

Depression (vs. grief)

Digging down (to primary needs)

Dissociation ("splitting") see Blending

(Re)divorce , three phases of a

Education vs. counseling

Effective communication

Effective human service


Family "dys/function"

Family structure


Grief, grieving, mourning


Hazards , five stepfamily

High-nurturance relationship, family, and stepfamily

Inner family system - see personality

Inner-family therapy

Inner pain

Intervention, therapeutic

Loss (broken attachment)

Loyalty conflict

Mapping family structure

Mapping communication sequences

Metasystem , client-provider

Metatalk (communication skill)

Modality, clinical

Myths, common stepfamily

Needs hierarchy

Neglect (personal, parental)

Nurturance level

Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)


Personality (psyche, character)

Primary (vs. surface) needs

Problem solving

Pseudo recovery

Psychiatric disorders

Recovery / healing

Relationship triangle

Resistance (client)


Role strain and confusion

"Self talk" ( inner dialog)

Shame (low self esteem)

Stepfamily client

Stepfamily development cycle

Stepfamily identity

System see also metasystem

Toxic relationship

Therapy (vs. counseling)

Transference (therapeutic)

Values conflict

Wholistic health

Wounds , false-self (inner)

Therapy - Here therapy means a temporary, intentional, multi-level, goal-directed communication process between a "therapist" and one or more clients. The process aims to respectfully clarify and fill one or more important primary (vs. surface) needs in the client/s, which they're currently unable to fill well enough on their own.

        "Therapy" intentionally adds the dimension of the unconscious, emotions, and spirituality to the alternative processes of education and counseling. Legal or informal relationship mediation is (usually) education and skill-building, not therapy. The process of therapy can include marital mediation. 

        Some therapy aims to respectfully empower each client to become self-sufficient in filling their own needs adequately and to grow toward their full potential as unique, "actualized" persons. Other (problem centered or brief) therapy aims to "fix" a local problem of the client's without deeper empowering. Both can be useful to all parties.

        In this dialectic mental-emotional-spiritual (and sometime physical) interpersonal process, therapists work un/consciously to also fill their own true current needs for purpose, respect, worth, dignity, effectiveness, integrity, growth, safety, and creativity. 

        In typical stepfamily therapy, ancillary people's needs must be included in the process too, like lawyers and judges, concerned relatives, custodial and absent minor and adult kids, and clinical supervisors and consultants, program directors, administrators, and funders. Occasionally, media people's needs will be included also. 

terms - top

- premise: to be fully effective, (vs. good), the multi-level impacts of client - therapist interactions must be clearly judged as "useful" or "successful" by all people affected, vs. those directly involved. Sometimes many months must elapse after termination before affected people can form stable judgments. Symptom relief can appear more quickly than real problem-resolution.

        Typical clinical stepfamilies are usually multi-problem metasystems of daunting complexity. Presenting problems can be broken down into concurrent, interrelated (a) intrapsychic ("inner family") conflicts, (b) dyadic conflicts, (c) household conflicts, and (d) inter-home nuclear-stepfamily conflicts. This suggests that to judge therapeutic goals and effectiveness, clients and therapists benefit at the beginning from intentionally defining, ranking, and focusing on a few problems at a time, while trying to stabilize other problems. Doing so allows evaluating whether the therapy process is effective with each component problem - e.g. "Our loyalty conflicts seems to be really shrinking, but our legal fights with Jack's ex over child custody are getting worse."

        To merit a judgment of "fully effective," I propose that each person affected by the therapeutic process must spontaneously agree that some unfilled primary needs of theirs are consistently being better filled because of the process. That implies that each such person must be at least aware of how they feel, if they're not clear on what they (really) need. Some wounded adults and kids can't do that reliably, at time "x." 

        The therapy-process outcome will fall on a subjective continuum of totally ineffective to fully effective. Ineffective includes those times when the client/s' presenting and underlying problems "got worse." Because stepfamily therapy is highly complex, multi-phase, and often lengthy, participants and supporters will often disagree on the "effectiveness" of the process because they don't (or can't) truly discern or empathize with all the true current needs of each affected person - and/or they rank them differently.

        Stepfamily service-providers benefit from being intentionally aware of (a) the current primary needs of all people involved in the therapy process, (b) when and how these needs conflict, (c) according to whom, (d) how the professional ranks these needs, and (e) his/her conflict resolution options, (f) strategies, and (g) outcomes; as the process unfolds, and (h) well after it terminates. 

        Distinguishing between people's surface needs vs. underlying primary needs is specially relevant here. Because subjectivity, misperceptions and distortions, and other psychological wounds will always cause conflict in this balancing, providers will make conscious or unconscious decisions about whose needs rank highest with them.

        A superficial way of measuring the effectiveness of service to stepfamily clients is for all actively-involved clients, therapist/s, and others to agree "This nuclear-stepfamily is clearly 'functioning' better now." That implies that (a) all people have a clear idea of what "family functioning" means, and (b) (ideally) agree together on this. Another way is for all clients and professionals to judge whether clinical service has clearly raised the client-family's nurturance level. See these high-nurturance family factors, and this (long) checklist of stepfamily strengths for perspective on how to assess stepfamily "functionality." These will make more sense if you've studied these five common stepfamily stressors.  

terms - top

Counseling vs. Education - If you feel that counseling differs from therapy, can you describe how? Do you see any value in doing so at times? In this site, family counseling means ...

  • educating client co-parents and supporters, and then perhaps ...

  • offering personal advice on how to act on the information - e.g. "As a comitted couple, you'll probab-ly encounter five major relationship stressors." (education) "I recommend that you each read this Web page and these books to build your understanding and motivation to do these srelf-study Lessons together, over time" (advice). 

        A stepfamily teacher primarily offers helpful information. A counselor educates and advises, but doesn't assume responsibility for helping a troubled client assess and make desired second- order personality or stepfamily systemic changes. A therapist does all three interchangeably.

        If a client confuses counseling or education with therapy, they may not get the service they need or expect for themselves or a child. I've often experienced co-parents attending my educational classes semi-consciously hoping for therapy - and being disgruntled that the information and advice they got from me and other students didn't "solve their problems." 

        The same unconscious confusion and disappointment can also be true for needy co-parents who form or join co-parent support groups and online chat groups. The complexity of typical stepfamily sys-tems and situations can make this semantic distinction more important than with other client populations.

terms - top

Stepfamily Client - I've encountered lots of professional confusion about this term since I began my private practice in 1981. It stems from (a) lack of conceptual awareness, (b) the reality that a nuclear-stepfamily system is composed of all the residents in two or more co-parenting homes, and from (c) service-providers focusing on persons attending therapy sessions vs. the larger human system those people belong to.

Premise: your odds for lasting second-order therapeutic change are far higher if you define your client as all people in (at least) the therapy-participants' nuclear stepfamily, whether they attend therapy or not. So if a co-parent requests therapy for a troubled stepchild, I propose the true client is the multi-home nuclear stepfamily the child is a member of. How do you feel about this?

        Many co-parent clients (and clinicians) resist this, because they don't want to define stepchildren's other bioparent as "part of the family." (Their kids do!) Minor stepkids are greatly affected by the web of relationships in and between their two co-parenting homes. In blended stepfamilies (where both remarried mates have prior kids and their ex mates are alive), the nuclear stepfamily system includes all psychological (vs. physical) members of three or more co-parenting homes.

        A powerful implication: psychological members of nuclear-stepfamily clients can include ...

  • dead adults and kids, who aren't fully grieved by everyone in all co-parenting homes; and ...

  • physically absent people - e.g. a detached or disabled bioparent, an active grandparent or other relative, or a minor or grown child living elsewhere, and...

  • temporary family members like a nanny or baby sitter, home nurse, or tutor; and ...

  • people who haven't "arrived," like biokids shifting physical custody and a fetus.

            Who you include in defining your stepfamily client has powerful implications for effective service outcomes. Stepfamily clients with several professionals supporting them (e.g. an attorney, therapist, clinical supervisor and/or case manager, case worker, school counselor, and insurance consultant), need all professionals to clearly agree on "Who is our client?" Disagreement inside you and among the provider metasystem may (a) distract you all from intervening effectively and (b) raise the attending clients' anxieties and confusions.

        A key implication: stepfamily clients depend on professional supporters' resolving major paradigm and values conflicts over defining "the client." Motivation to learn stepfamily basics and the seven communication skills can promote this.

        Another implication: it's useful to distinguish between attending clients (those who make direct contact with the service provider/s) and proxy clients - stepfamily members who never make direct verbal or written contact.

Note: this assessment - intervention model distinguishes five types of stepfamily client, depending on their stage of the stepfamily life cycle.

terms index

Divorce - In my experience, people commonly associate this word with the attorney-client drama leading to legal courtroom dissolution of a marriage. Catholic couples and relatives also associate divorce with a lengthy, painful church-annulment process. Media and clinical articles focus on "the impact of divorce" - i.e. this [legal + emotional + financial] process - on adults and kids. This is often significantly misleading, for the legal process is only one third of the full multi-year divorce process. 

        The process starts months or years before a lawyer's phone rings, when one or both mates' bond and commitment start to wither because their marital marital needs aren't being filled well enough (psychological divorce). The cumulative effects of this silent withering inexorably degrades the household's nurturance level for all residents and regular visitors, not just the couple's relationship. 

        The "end" of a family's physical + spiritual + emotional + structural divorce-process occurs when in family members' and objective outsiders' opinions, all members have (a) grieved and mastered a set of adjustment tasks, (b) stabilized their inner and outer lives, and (c) have clearly resumed their normal developmental growth and life goals and activities. General wisdom and research suggests that this "ending" can take typical kids and adults years after a divorce decree is signed. The full three-phase divorce process often spans a decade or more for average kids and co-parents:

[ (psychological-divorce period) right arrow(legal-process period) right arrow(post-legal period) ]

[< - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 10 or more years  - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - >]

        Realistically, the "impacts of divorce" must include how the months or years of psychological-divorce stress affected the wholistic health of each extended-family member. This effect can be generalized as: (a) it promotes or amplifies false-self wounding in some or all family members, which (b) lowers the nurturance level of the divorcing family a little to a lot.   

        For optimal professional service to typical divorced-family and stepfamily clients, I suggest professionals need to (a) clarify their own association with the term and concept of divorce and "divorce adjustment," (b) learn each client adult's definitions, and (c) where helpful, coach clients and colleagues to consciously accept some version of this three-phase, multi-year concept. Do you agree?

Human Behavior - here, behavior means any change in a person's mental. emotional, physical, or spiritual state that (a) the person or (b) an observer judges to be "significant" (c) at some point in time, in (d) a certain context. See how these premises about human behavior compare to what you believe:

All human behavior is caused by an unknowable mix of (a) autonomous nervous reflexes (e.g. to breathe, swallow, digest, eliminate, sleep, reduce pain, avoid injury, and survive) and (b) current needs - dynamic sensory discomforts occurring from ceaseless organic, social, and environmental changes. Sensory decoding ranges from "accurate and sensitive" to distorted and vague." This can cause needs to range from "appropriate and valid" to "inappropriate and unwarranted" depending on who is judging.

Behaviors can be observed and assessed (a) in the past or the present, (b) individually or in patterns across time. Behaviors are not intrinsically good (positive) or bad (negative). People affected by a person's behaviors can judge them as good or bad depending on the awareness, morality, and beliefs of the subselves ruling their personality.

"Toxic" behavior is anything that "significantly" inhibits or reduces one or more persons' normal functioning, growth, and/or wholistic health - in someone's opinion.

The needs and drives underlying human behavior are reflexively (unconsciously) ranked in five instinctual levels (per Abraham Maslow)

Human needs can be judged as surface or secondary (symptoms), and primary. Most adults and kids focus on vague or clear conscious perceptions of surface needs. Undistracted, aware adults can learn to discern their primary needs, and seek to fill them via learned communication skills.

Typical people (i.e. their ruling subselves) frequently (a) want to change some behaviors, and other subselves concurrently (b) resist such changes. This produces mixes of ambivalence, double messages, confusion, frustration, denials, and personal and social stress. Such inner conflicts often cause temporary changes and "relapses." People often seek clinical help to reduce or eliminate inner conflicts and impasses. Inner-family therapy ("parts work") can teach people to recognize and resolve conflicts among their subselves, which can promote permanent (non-biogenic) behavioral changes.

terms index

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Updated August 17, 2015