Help clients break the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle

Effective Clinical Work with Clients who
Deny Significant Relationship Problems

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 continues a series for professionals outlining characteristics of six types of client families served by this clinical model. It focuses on the third type: committed stepfamily couples who present common surface problems (symptoms), and denying or minimizing significant primary-relationship problems. The prior two types outlined are divorcing biofamilies, and courting stepfamilies. This article covers...

  • Suggested background readings

  • Perspective on typical client-couples in denial and their stepfamilies

  • Summaries of typical systemic problems and key intervention goals with these clients

Background Readings

        To get the most from this summary, first read:

  • The introduction to this clinical series, and scan the series index;

  • If you have trouble viewing the slides, see this.

  • The key premises underlying these articles for professionals.

  • This overview of the clinical model on which this article and series is based, and this glossary of terms used to describe working with it;

  • This refresher on human systems, and this overview of the three levels of typical systemic "problems."

  • Clinical requisites for working effectively with these complex multi-problem client families;

  • Common needs that typical mates seek to fill via their relationship.

  • These introductions to effective assessment and interventions using this model.

        Option - think of a committed couple who are denying, minimizing, or ignoring serious relationship problems, and keep them and their family in mind as you read this. One way of learning from this article is to reflect as you read on (a) how each premise here compares with what you now believe, and (b) what it would mean to you and your co-workers if you shifted your beliefs?.

  To benefit from the ideas here, your true Self (capital "S") should be steadily guiding your personality.   Is it?

Perspective on These Couples and Their Families

        Premise: normal (vs. "pathological") adults and kids automatically protect themselves from significant situational and chronic inner pain with strategies like avoiding, blocking, repressing, intellectualizing, idealizing, numbing, projecting, self-distracting, and denying. Typical survivors of childhood neglect and trauma (Grown Wounded Children - GWCs) use these strategies to excess, and deny or justify doing so to themselves and others.

        A high majority of the hundreds of divorcing and stepfamily couples and ex mates I have worked with clinically are GWCs in major denial of their unconscious pain-avoidance strategies. I suspect this is typical of your clients too.

        .One or both mates have usually divorced at least once before, and have at least one co-parenting ex mate. They may not have adjusted fully to a prior divorce or mate death, and/or other major losses (broken bonds) - and deny or minimize this. Their family's systemic structure is usually significantly dysfunctional (low nurturance), and the partners don't know this, what it means, and how to improve it.

          Based on 36 years' professional study and experience, this clinical model proposes that average couples denying or ignoring significant relationship (and other) problems (unmet needs) are often unusually wounded and needy, and have made up to three unwise courtship- commitment choices - specially couples founding or expanding a multi-home stepfamily.

Knowledge Deficits

        Typical stepfamily co-parents in denial (and their supporters) know little or nothing about...

  • personality subselves and psychological wounds, and the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle;

  • stepfamily basics and realities, including the five hazards they face;

  • effective thinking and problem-solving basics and skills;

  • effective grieving, pro-grief families, and family grieving permissions and policies;

  • the normal developmental and family-adjustment needs of minor and grown stepkids,

  • what their co-parents, kids, and relatives must merge and stabilize, over several years;

  • the current nurturance level of their home and stepfamily, and...

  • what their unawareness and ignorance (lack of information) of all these topics together mean to them and their family members  - e.g. unrealistic stepfamily expectations, significant frustration and conflict, difficulty bonding, and potentially wounding minor kids and grandkids.

        Typical co-parents and couples in denial who seek clinical help will not include any of the above as presenting problems. They rarely are aware of the vital difference between surface problems and the unfilled primary needs that cause them. Therefore, after empathically acknowledging the clients' presenting (surface) problems, clinicians must proactively assess client-adults' knowledge and key attitudes about these topics, and weave appropriate education into the work. .

Typical Presenting Problems

        These committed couples usually seek clinical help for a range of surface problems (symptoms). They often seek to (a) minimize or rationalize their own contributions to their stressors, and (b) reduce family-role and (non-primary) relationship stresses with...

  • one or more minor or grown kids (e.g. "My son is acting out at school, despite our attempts to help him"),

  • a child's "other bioparent" and/or the ex-mate's new partner (e.g. "My ex persists in badmouthing me and my new partner to our kids"); and/or...

  • someone's genetic relatives or in-laws ("My ex mother-in-law keeps trying to discourage our dating and reunite her daughter and me.").

There are many variations within these main categories. Usually none of them are the real problems.

Key Assessment Options

        This clinical model proposes that the first priority in working with typical stepfamily couples in denial is to listen empathically to their presenting problems, using that to start assessing them for significant (a) false-self wounds and (b) related denials or discounting significant partnership and other family problems. Recall that here, needs means emotional, physical, and spiritual discomforts; and problems and stress mean unfilled primary needs.

        Wound-assessment is a process over several clinical contacts watching for (a) individual co-parent behaviors like these, and (b) couple-behaviors like these.  

        The next step is to assess the couple's self and mutual awareness, and their knowledge of the key topics above and what they mean in their family's context.

        The usual findings from this assessment are significant wounding and unawareness, manifesting as denials, minimizing, ambivalence, unrealistic stepfamily expectations, avoidances, and unwarranted optimism ("Our love and maturity will conquer all these problems,") Minimally-wounded couples are more apt to be genuinely interested in learning more, accepting their partnership stressors and deficits, and working to reduce them as committed, mutually-repsectful partners. 

Key Interventions with these Clients

        The main intervention targets with co-parent couples in denial is to (a) empathically facilitate their hitting true bottom and (b) honestly admitting their respective wounds, inner pains, and ineffective or toxic false-self pain-management strategies. Secondary (concurrent) targets are to raise co-parents' motivation to learn and apply the key topics above to their stepfamily's structure and dynamics - specially to learn how to do effective problem-solving.

        Achieving this over time shifts into using a type-four clinical assessment / intervention framework. A bonus is facilitating one or more client adults to admit (break protective distortions) that they're wounded GWCs often controlled by a false self. This makes true personal wound-recovery possible if any active addictions are admitted and stabilized for at least a year (preliminary recovery). 


        This article is one of a series outlining effective work with six types of clients served by this unique clinical model. The article focuses on the third type - committed, unaware stepfamily couples ruled by false selves which protectively deny (a) current inner pain and primary relationship problems and their (b) causes and (c) relation to clients' typical presenting (surface) problems over parenting, finances, ex mates and/or new partners, and blood and legal relatives.

        The article (a) identifies requisite background reading, (b) offers experience-based perspective on these clients compared to the other five types, and (c) outlines key client-unique assessment and intervention goals for these clients.

        The next article in this series focuses on  effective clinical work with type-4 clients - stepfamily couples who admit significant primary-relationship problems (as well as other stepfamily stressors).

        Pause, breathe, and reflect - did you get what you needed from reading this? If so, what do you need to do next? If not - what do you need?

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Created September 30, 2015