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

Checklist: Key Interventions with Typical
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?

+ + +

        Here, an intervention is some planned or instinctive behavior by a counselor or therapist which causes a meaningful change in a client's system of subselves or relationships. Effective interventions reduce or resolve client's primary "problems" - i.e. empower clients to safely fill their primary needs.

       This is a checklist of effective clinical interventions with six types of divorcing-family and stepfamily clients. It is based on 26 years' study and live clinical experience with many hundreds of typical marital and family clients. The checklist assumes you are familiar with all five elements of this clinical model. Also see these related checklists of key (a) therapeutic-process interventions and (b) intrapsychic interventions for clients needing to reduce psychological wounds.

        This is meant to be a reference tool for clinicians, supervisors, and consultants to help (a) plan treatment strategies and (b) measure progress in the work with a given client family. Links connect to background on the primary problems and/or to outlines and examples of each intervention. Depending on the type of client, interventions (a) apply to a family, a committed couple, or an individual. They range between therapeutic-process interventions to didactic and experiential educational interventions. Key therapeutic-process intrapsychic interventions ("parts work") are summarized in this checklist.

        The checklist is in three sections:

        A basic premise here is that most (all?) clients are unaware that the needs they seek clinical help to fill are symptoms of these 11 common interactive primary problems. The assessment portion of this clinical model proposes effective ways to (a) diagnose which of these core problems are disturbing the client family system, and (b) how to prioritize the problems. The other intervention articles in this series suggest effective ways of empowering clients adults to reduce or resolve each of the common primary problems.

       Prerequisites to any of these interventions are (a) validating any "crisis" the client adults are experiencing, and (b) working to stabilize it ("crisis intervention"). I assume you are evolving your own strategy for doing this effectively.

Educational (Teaching) Interventions

1) General Educational Interventions

        Options: "X" each intervention that isn't relevant to this client family, asterisk each one you feel has been attempted well enough, and check each one that has been "successful." Hilights below indicate high-priority interventions with most client families.

__   1)  Why and __ how to differentiate current surface (secondary) needs from primary needs; and __ explore how this relates to the client's presenting (surface) "problems."

__   2)  _ Why and _ how to assess the client-family's nurturance level

__   3)  How low childhood nurturance promotes fragmented, disorganized personalities and "false-self" wounds

__  4)  Outline _ the [wounds + ignorance] cycle, and _ discuss its recent effects on the client's family.

__  5)  _ Why and _ how and to assess for client-adult psychological wounds; and _ overview wound-recovery goals and common benefits. Note the related Lesson-1 resources and guidebook "Who's really Running Your Life?" ((2nd ed.,, 2003).

__  6)  Teach _ effective-communication and _ problem-solving basics, and common communication _ blocks and __ tips. Note the Lesson-2 resources and guidebook "Satisfactions" (, 2nd ed., 2010).

__  7)  Typical marital needs, __  healthy-marriage requisites, and __ how to identify and reduce typical primary-relationship problems (unfilled needs)

__  8)  Typical minor kids' _ developmental and _ family-adjustment needs, and _ how to assess individual kids' status with these

__  9)  Effective child-nurturance (co-parenting) _ requisites and _ goals

__  10) Identify each client-adult's recent demonstrated (vs. desired) life priorities. Then _ educate the adults on how this relates to their presenting and primary problems - e.g. show that couple's marital "problems" may stem partly from one or both partners not really making their primary relationship their second-highest priority behind wholistic health. Option: _ illustrate how adults' demonstrated priorities reflect which subselves usually control their personality.

__   11) As appropriate: educate client-adults on _ attachments (bonding), _ losses (broken bonds), _ healthy three-level grieving, and _ family grieving polices; _ why and _ how to assess for blocked grief, and _ options for freeing it up; and teach _ how these relate to the client's presenting and primary problems (if they do).

__  12) As appropriate, help client-couples assess the strengths and stressors of their primary relationship.

2) Educate Divorcing-family Adults and Supporters

        Add these educational interventions  to those above depending on where a client family is on this three-phase divorce-adjustment continuum:

__  13) Teach (a) the many meanings of divorce, (b) the three multi-year phases of a typical divorce, and (c) probable impacts of divorce on all client-family adults and kids.

__ 14) Teach how psychological wounds and ignorance (#4 above) can promote making up to three unwise commitment choices which can (a) inhibit filling one or both partner's needs (# 7 above) and (b) promote eventual psychological or legal divorce. Restated - empathically educate divorcing adults on how to assess whether they were never really suited to be long-term committed partners, so odds of reconciling successfully are low to zero.

__  15) Teach (a) the difference between changes and losses (broken emotional bonds), and (b) how to help each their family members manage each of these effectively as they adjust to divorce-reorganization. See # 11 above. Options:

  • teach client adults how to inventory their losses, to help them grieve successfully; and/or...

  • teach and illustrate the concept of a family system; and...

  • encourage client adults and supporters to see the divorcing nuclear-family system as living in two inter-related homes, rather than in two independent "new" families.

__  16)  Teach (a) the value of ex-mates maintaining a long-term view as the family's multi-year divorce-adjustment proceeds (e.g. 20 to 30 years), and (b) propose the concept of a "successful" divorce or re/divorce. Then (c) Invite client adults to evolve their own definition/s of this to fit their circumstances.

__  17) Teach divorcing adults to map their usual communication attempts to resolve disputes - as partners - to illuminate blocks that have prevented effective problem-solving. Prerequisites: # 5 and # 6 above.

__  18)  If appropriate, teach client adults their kids' typical (a) developmental and (b) divorce-adjustment needs, and (c) how to assess each child's status on filling these needs. Option - review effective-caregiving basics - # 9 above and other Lesson 7 articles and worksheets.

__  19)  Review the typical barriers that can inhibit effective co-parenting relationships, and educate client couples on any relevant barriers as a first step toward reducing them. Follow the links to solution-options.

__  20)  As appropriate, facilitate client-adults assessing what tasks remain before their family's divorce-adjustment is "finished." Use this worksheet or equivalent.

3) Educate Typical Stepfamily Adults and Supporters

       This model defines four types of stepfamily clients:

  • co-parents are courting but have not committed to a permanent relationship;

  • committed co-parent partners who deny primary-relationship problems;

  • committed partners who admit primary relationship problems; and...

  • re/divorcing couples. The "/" notes that it may be a stepparent's first union.

Some interventions apply to all four types, and others are type-specific. Clinicians should evolve a systemic treatment plan based on assessing any stepfamily client for their (a) strengths and (b) status with these five interactive hazards. Recall that all educational interventions can be verbal and/or via discussing informational handouts and worksheets.

Universal Stepfamily-client Interventions

__  21 Teach client-adults an overview of _ the five hazards and the [wounds + ignorance] cycle, and _ outliner these common core problems .

__  22) Teach client-adults and supporters about...

  • stepfamily basics, including how stepfamilies are like intact ("traditional") biofamilies and concurrently very dissimilar from them); and about...

  • common stepfamily myths and realities. Then _ Identify and respectfully challenge client-adults' misconceptions and unrealistic expectations about stepfamily norms and dynamics. Significant "resistance" to adopting realistic expectations usually indicates psychological wounds (# 5 above).

__  23) If relevant, teach co-parents and supporters _ the importance of accepting their stepfamily identity, and _ what that identity means to all their adults and kids. Option: encourage client-adults to use this identity worksheet, and discuss the results. Reducing "resistance" to fully accepting stepfamily identity usually requires _ assessing for and reducing blocked grief, and/or _ intrapsychic interventions.

__  24) _ Teach why and how to construct a multi-generational genogram, and _ facilitate adults' doing so. Then _ facilitate client adults (a) agreeing on who comprises their nuclear and extended stepfamily systems and (b) teaching that to other family members and supporters. If there is significant conflict about who belongs to the stepfamily, use this and this to educate client adults on options for reducing or resolving "membership conflicts."

__ 25)  If appropriate, teach client adults _ what a "healthy" (high-nurturance) family structure looks like, and _ why and how to map their multi-home nuclear stepfamily's structure to identify any problems. Structural problems in any family system are usually caused by combinations of adult psychological wounds (# 5 above) + blocked grief (# 11 above) + ineffective communication (# 6 above) + unresolved values and loyalty conflicts and associated relationship triangles.

        Once identified and admitted, each of these stressors can be reduced if client-adults are willing to (a) put their true Selves in charge of their respective personalities (work at Lesson 1), and (b) learn to tailor and apply relevant interventions here.

__  26)  Refresh client adults as needed on...

  • the difference between surface and primary needs (# 1 above), and...

  • and how to dig down as teammates to discern the unfilled needs promoting any "stepfamily problem" ((part of # 6 above); and...

  • the 11 common primary problems causing most stepfamily stress.

Educational Interventions for Specific Stepfamily Types

        In addition to relevant "universal" interventions above, each type of stepfamily client may benefit from these educational interventions...

Interventions for Pre-commitment (Courting) Couples

__  27)  Teach courting couples _ why and _ how to choose...

  • the right people (adults and kids) to commit to, at...

  • the right time, for...

  • the right reasons.

Use Lesson-7 resources as needed - including the guidebook for Projects 1 thru 7, Stepfamily Courtship (, 2003). Client-adult ambivalence, disinterest, and/or "resistance" to these core concepts usually indicates significant psychological wounds (# 5 above).

        Option: use this intervention for other types of stepfamily clients as appropriate - specially when primary-relationship problems are central. Premise: if one or both troubled stepfamily mates made up to three unwise commitment choices, effective remedial ("marital") interventions have low odds of lasting success.

__  28)  Encourage courting couples and their ex mates and key supporters (including clergy) to (a) adopt and keep a long-range view (i.e. the next 20 - 30 years), and get qualified "pre-re/marital counseling" - i.e. potential-problem assessment and factual stepfamily education.

Interventions for Committed Couples Denying Relationship Problems

__  29)  Educate / refresh couples as needed on...

  • the five common marital hazards

  • primary vs. secondary needs (# 1 above);

  • common primary-relationship needs;

  • psychological wounds and the [wounds + ignorance] cycle (# 4 above);

  • the psychological wound of reality distortion (e.g. denial, minimizing, or ignoring);

  • typical primary-relationship problems (unmet relationship needs) in a stepfamily context

__  30)  If appropriate, teach / refresh couples on...

  • their recent actual life priorities (# 10 above), and/or _ the three wise commitment choices (# 27 above). Then...

  • empathically discuss whether they made all three or not. If not...

  • facilitate realistic discussion on what the couple's _ primary problem/s (unmet needs) are (# x above), and _ what their realistic options are now.



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Updated 09-29-2015