Help clients brfeak the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle!

Help client couples strengthen
their relationship
- p. 1 of 3

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:

  • The premises underlying this nonprofit, ad-free site

  • These 8 self-improvement Lessons

  • The [wounds + unawareness] cycle - text

  • Three steps you can take to break this cycle

  • These clinical and lay terms

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

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       This article is one of a series on effective clinical interventions with low-nurturance family clients. A "low nurturance family" is one in which members seldom get their primary needs met in wholistically-healthy ways. An effective intervention is an instinctive or intentional behavior of the clinician which significantly raises the family's nurturance level in the opinion of all involved.

        To get the most from this article, first read:

  • this introduction to professional family clinicians and educators,

  • this slide presentation on the [wounds + unawareness] cycle that is a root stressor with typical low-nurturance families. If you have trouble viewing the slides, see this.

  • this overview of the clinical model on which these articles are based;

  • this summary of requisites for effective professional service with these clients;

  • scan these terms which are liberally used throughout these clinical articles; and read...

  • this overview of effective clinical assessment of these six types of client families; and...

  • this introduction to effective interventions with low-nurturance families and individuals recovering from psychological wounds. Then study...

  • This overview of and scan these Project-8 article and other resources.

        Now - pause and reflect: why are you reading this? What do you need?

Why Does Project 8 Exist?

        The media frequently quotes various sources as concluding that "almost half of recent American marriages end in (legal) divorce." The media also suggests that second or third unions - specially those in stepfamilies - fail (legally) more often than first unions. Commentators rarely add that there are millions of couples and families who choose to endure loveless or toxic unions rather than the stressful legal process.

        The need to have a committed primary relationship seems universal, yet many American couples seem unable to sustain a mutually-satisfying relationship - i.e. they can't meet both partner's main needs well enough, often enough.

        When dissatisfied couples are responsible for nurturing minor kids, a conflictual or loveless union can promote serious psychological damage to them over time. For perspective, note that  sociologists like Andrew Cherlin propose that marriages based on mutual love rather than economics and/or social politics are a Western invention in the last century or two.

        From research since 1979 and working clinically with over 500 troubled Midwestern couples, I propose that our unremarked, tragic divorce epidemic has several root causes:

  • one or both mates are (a) wounded survivors of childhood neglect, major losses and blocked grief, and abuse - and (b) they don't (want to) know that and/or what it means:

    • significant psychological wounds and their effects; and...

    • mutual unawareness of effective relationship + communication + grieving + co-parenting basics - and of their unawareness (i.e. typical mates don't know what they don't know); and often...

    • couples focusing on other superficial problems (like a combative ex mate, "troubled child," money, and/or intrusive relative) to avoid recognizing relationship "problems" and their primary causes - specially if one or both mates were previously divorced.

    • until one or both mates hit true bottom - often in middle age, they are at significant risk of passing on the unseen [wounds + unawareness] cycle to their dependents and descendents. This causes secondary (surface) problems along the way, and incrementally weakens our society. Finally, I propose that...

    • major societal causes of the divorce epidemic and individual couple's problems are (a) current public and human-service professional ignorance and/or denial of the factors above, and therefore (b) lack of meaningful legislation to help couples make wiser commitment and child-conception choices - e.g. test for psychological wounds and unawareness as part of licensing a couple to marry (and probably have kids).

  • wounded adults instinctively seek each other for partners, despite painful prior results - i.e. they often unknowingly pick (a) significantly wounded, unaware partners (b) for the wrong reasons, (c) at the wrong time. Where so, this may be adapted to but probably not reversed. Note that these Lessons aim to protect couples from making these unwise choices during courtship.

  • I have never met a single client couple who knew that their presenting problems were symptoms of primary problems "underneath them." Restated - typical troubled couples will reflexively focus on surface needs ("We fight about who should manage the checkbook", and not the underlying prob-lems ("We are often ruled by false selves, and don't know how to problem-solve effectively as teammates." 

  • effective clinical assessment will suggest whether these factors are minor to major for any client couple. Therefore, strategic interventions like those below may reduce a local stressor but not strengthen the union, or may help the couple accept their relationship limitations, and perhaps make wise decisions about if, when, and how to divorce.

        These premises help to shape this clinical model, and shape the interventions below. The interventions are grouped as (a) preliminary and/or common, (b) for couples denying significant relationship problems, (c) for couples admitting significant relationship problems, and (d) couples considering or committed to (re)divorcing - with or without children.

Useful Project-8 Interventions

         These are specially useful for courting and newly re/married or committed stepfamily clients. You may have already made some of these interventions for other Projects. These Project-8 interventions are grouped by client-type. Courtship relationship problems are handled in Project 7 interventions. For useful process assessments and related interventions, follow the link.

General / Initial Project-8 Interventions

1)  Review the [wounds + unawareness] cycle (Lesson 1), and ask if the partners think it's significantly affecting their relationship

2)  Option - review and discuss the concept of surface and underlying primary needs (discomforts)

3)  Ask "What main needs (discomforts) do you each want to fill (satisfy) from your relationship?"

4Review typical primary-relationship needs 

5Option - review and discuss the concept of choosing the right person/s to commit to, at the right time, for the right reason.

6 Ask each partner to describe their mate's top 3-5 life priorities in recent months, and discuss this;

7)  Discuss the implications if their relationship isn't among their top priorities, and present the rationale for usually ranking their relationship second. 

8)  Option - ask mates what they think their minor kids are learning about primary relationships from them

9)  Option - ask each partner to review her / his marriage or commitment vows, and whether they're meaningful now or not

10)  Ask each partner to summarize their opinion of their relationship strengths and main problems (stressors)

11) Ask partners to describe (a) their usual way of resolving relationship problems and (b) the usual outcomes (needs met well enough or not)

1)  Review the [wounds + unawareness] cycle


2)  Review and discuss surface vs. primary needs


3)  Learn what needs each partner wants to fill by their relationship


4)  Review and discuss typical primary-relationship needs


5)  Option - review making three wise courtship choices


6)  Ask each mate to describe their partner's top recent priorities


7)  Option - facilitate discussion if their relationship isn't their second priority


8)  Present and discuss the ideal priority scheme for long-range protection against divorce


9)  Option - ask each partner to review and discuss his / her marriage / commitment vows


10)  Ask each partner to summarize their main relationship strengths and stressors ("problems")


11)  Ask partners to describe how they usually try to resolve relationship problems, and typical results


B) Key Interventions for Couples Who Minimize Relationship Problems

        Premise: denial of current uncomfortable realities - like significant partnership dissatisfactions - suggests a dominant false-self and related wounds in one or both mates. Where true, adults protective false selves will usually resist admitting and giving up their control of the host person. These interventions build on those above.













C) Project-8 Interventions for Couples Admitting Relationship Problems


D) Project-8 Interventions for (Re)divorcing Couples




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Updated April 30, 2013