Help clients break the [wounds + unawareness]
Introduction: Using the Model with
- p. 1 of 2
Peter K. Gerlach,
Member NSRC Experts Council
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This article is one of a series on
professional counseling, coaching, and therapy with (a) low-nurturance
(dysfunctional) families and with (b) typical
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
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This series of Web articles for human-service
model for effective clinical service
of multi-problem families, corresponding to phases of the
stepfamily developmental cycle. This
article outlines perspective on using this clinical model effectively with the first type:
biofamilies. Similar articles highlight each other
type, including re/divorcing stepfamilies.
Links in this article lead to more detail on key
This overview for
interns and veteran clinicians covers...
How to get the
most from reading this;
divorce, successful divorce, divorcing biofamily, and effective clinical service with them;
How divorcing biofamilies families differ from other types of family system;
Perspective on using this model with typical
divorcing biofamily clients, including key
clinician attitudes that
will affect the clinical process and outcomes.
If you haven't recently, read these first to get the most from reading
The introduction to this
clinical series, and scan the series index;
The key premises
underlying these articles for professionals. Several key premises are:
Healthy marital priorities: "My integrity
and wholistic health come first, my primary relationship comes second, and
all else comes third, except in emergencies;"
Motivating co-parents to (a) protect their
descendents from the [wounds + unawareness]
and (b) optimize the current and long-term nurturance-level of their family,
are the primary
clinical goals. Sometimes this requires psychological or legal divorce.
The clinician is not morally responsible to
try to save a troubled relationship unless both mates seek that;
from childhood neglect and trauma in one or both mates may block mutual
relationship-fulfillment until the wounds are admitted and intentionally
These overviews of (a) family-systems
basics, (b) the clinical model on which this article and series is based, and
(c) this glossary of terms used to describe
aspects of the model;
This proposal of the three
levels of typical systemic "problems;"
Clinical requisites for working
effectively with these complex multi-problem client families;
that typical mates seek to fill via their relationship. Premise - legal or psychological divorce occurs when one or both partners have lost hope of filling
these needs well enough.
Perspective on the multi-year, three-phase process of
psychological and legal divorce;
This perspective on effective
assessment of complex, multi-problem family systems.
requisite for benefiting from the ideas here is that your true Self (capital
"S") be steadily guiding your personality as you read and reflect.
Option - think of a divorcing family you know fairly well, and keep them
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
The concepts of divorce, successful divorce, and divorcing family are
emotionally provocative, and subject to wide interpretation, vagueness, and
misunderstanding. This section offers clear definitions of these based on
this clinical model, as context for this article, series, and educational Web
site. If you don't agree with these definitions, what are yours?
This model proposes that "divorce"
is an ancient multi-year process that follows a mutual spontaneous
bonding and relationship commitment between two adult partners. The process is a
complex multi-level reorganization of
the structure, roles, and dynamics of (a) each family member's inner family
system of subselves, and of (b) the whole nuclear-family system.
The divorce process is gradual, psychological, social, and sometimes legal
and/or religious. It starts with one or both primary mates feeling significant
discomfort because (a) their key personal
aren't satisfied well enough, often enough, and (b) they don't know how to
reverse this effectively.
Premises: the divorce process affects the whole family system, not just a
couple. It ranges between successful to dysfunctional, depending on (a) the
current phase of the divorce (early, mid, or late), and (b) the judge's role,
perceptions, needs, and values. A
successful divorce is one which...
leaves all affected family members'
and self-respect intact and stable;
results in all key family
changing, restabilizing, and at least as functional as before the changes -
or more so. And a successful divorce...
eliminates or significantly reduces significant
blocks to each biofamily adult and child getting their main
and family-adjustment needs met
well enough; including the need for genuine hope for a more
satisfying, secure future; and...
each affected adult and child has fully accepted
(grieved) all major losses (broken bonds) caused by their family's
reorganization on mental, emotional, and perhaps spiritual levels, and...
neither divorcing partner seeks another primary
relationship (a) before they and their family members are stable enough
after the family changes, and - if kids are involved - (b) before the new
partners both clearly understand stepfamily basics and norms and what they
How do these
related conditions compare to your definition of a successful divorce?
How would a given client define it? Together, these factors suggest that a
dysfunctional divorce clearly lacks one or more of these conditions according to
an informed, neutral observer. For more perspective, see the
slides and this
article on divorce, and this
worksheet on divorce adjustment.
In the context of this model, a typical
divorcing biofamily is a normal human system which...
includes at least one
dead or living, minor or grown biological, adopted, or foster child
(premise: dead children affect typical family systems for years); and...
includes one or two cohabiting or separated mates
who are (a) increasingly dissatisfied with, and hopeless about, filling their
well enough; and
committed to divorce, and need help negotiating
it and restabilizing, or...
ambivalent about divorce, and need to replace
indecision with clarity; or the mates...
are motivated to recommit to their union, but don't know
the mates' relationship problems are (a) increasingly
all family members, and
(b) have been lowering the family's
Any divorcing-family client will be
somewhere on a multi-year timeline between "first significant relationship problems" to
"all members are well-adjusted to a stable two-home
biofamily system." As typical family members move
along this continuum, their mosaic of individual
and some values change. This justifies making an
accurate differential assessment to determine a client-family's current key
needs, and how adept the family adults are at filling them adequately.
These client couples will also be somewhere on a continuum between cooperative
and respectful to hostile and combative. They may have a common-law
relationship, but usually are legally married.
Here "effective clinical service" means (a) "helping client family
members learn how to identify and fill their current and long-term
well enough (as judged by them); and (b) adequately filling the primary needs of
all professionals significantly involved in the case, in acceptable ways."
Key Systemic Differences
ways, divorcing-biofamily clients are the
as any other family system. In other ways, this model proposes that they are unique, compared to a high-nurturance
intact-biofamily baseline. Key
differences that will affect clinical assessment and interventions include:
several or all of the partner's
parents and ancestors are probably
unaware of being
(low-nurturance) childhoods who unintentionally passed on the toxic
of the [wounds + unawareness]
One or both adult partners are...
unaware of being ruled by a well-meaning
may have made up to three unwise
the mates have been unable to
Typical first-divorcing partners are in their 20s or 30s, and
have not hit their respective true (vs. pseudo, or "trial")
they and key relatives are probably not in self-motivated
their kids are probably preteens or early teens,
who are trying to fill (a) normal developmental needs, and (b) a unique mix of concurrent
family-adjustment needs that
intact-biofamily peers don't face; and (c) their caregivers are unaware of
or ignoring some or all these needs; and...
neither mate has been through a legal divorce
before, tho they may have "broken up" with prior non-co-parenting partners;
the mates' families and local and larger
religious and social societies may take sides, and judge one or both mates
as flawed, immoral, and inferior, compared to accepted norms about marriage
and parenting; and...
the mates' relationship problems may be
compounded by antagonistic lawyers, unaware, overworked family-court judges
and antiquated laws, and uninformed media advice and other supporters;
compared to troubled stepfamilies, there is more
effective marital and family support available in the media and the family's
local community and state. couple's community and region.
unique case may have other significant systemic differences from other types of
What do these combined systemic
differences mean to typical family-support professionals? One
meaning affects what clinicians should assess. For example...
Perspective on Using the Model with Divorcing Biofamilies
This model proposes that key factors that shape clinical goals and strategies with any divorcing family
(a) The degree to which each mate bears
and (b) whether each wounded mate (i) has hit true
and (ii) is in genuine (vs. pseudo)
The (a) degree of recent and current stability of
the client's family system, and (b) where the family falls on the normal
Why the client adults are seeking clinical help
- what are their key presenting (surface) problems?;
(a) Who comprises the client's nuclear and extended
family systems, and (b) which members or other people are key stressors and supporters?
If mates are living separately, who initiated
that, why, and what effects has it had on their relationship so far
(beneficial > stressful)?
If they're cohabiting, what are the pros and cons of trying strategic
(a) was each mate trying to fill by
committing to their partner, and (b) is each mate trying to fill now?
Are both mates genuinely motivated to repair
their relationship, or has one or both of them lost all hope of doing so? If
both want to repair, are there viable options for restoring realistic hope?
If the parents are legally married, are they
considering legal divorce, or has someone initiated the process? If so,
where is this family in the legal process?
Was or is the couple involved in
involving attorneys, and/or in a
religious marital-annulment process?;
mate's knowledge of, and policies about, (a) effective
and (b) healthy three-level
Is the client family self-referred or
and/or financial stress added to the
marital stress? If so, how have the mates tried to cope with them?;
What are the key attitudes of each
mate and involved relative and
professional (clinician, supervisor, attorney, clergy, mediator,
psychological evaluator, and judge) about marriage, divorce, divorcing families, and
clinical responsibilities with divorcing families?
are contributing to the discord, and how are the partners trying to resolve
each of them, so far?
What is the status of each dependent child in
filling their developmental and family-adjustment
needs, as judged by the clinician.
intake and assessment will explore
each of these key variables over several sessions. The results will shape...
Typical ntervention Goals
Some clinical goals pertain to all divorcing families, and others vary with the
mix of variables above. This model proposes these key goals:
All Divorcing Families
Stabilize any current systemic crisis, sort and
prioritize major family stressors and clinical goals, and agree on a clinical plan
to attain the goals;
Explain and illustrate surface and
and propose that mates probably have been focused fruitlessly on filling
surface needs - e.g. trying to resolve conflicts over
addiction, an affair, "no
time for each other," dwelling or extended-family disagreements, sexual
Review and tailor these
requisites for a mutually-satisfying
relationship, and see if/how that affects the mates' presenting problems.
Propose that all relationship and family-role
problems are unfilled needs,
and then (b) help mates identify and rank their respective unfilled needs in
each presenting problem;
Differentiate between child-related (parental)
problems and adult-relationship problems, and ask the clients to choose
which they want to work on, in what order;
appropriate, reframe marital "problems" from his or hers (blaming) to ours
- i.e. propose that both mates are contributing to their dissatisfaction,
not one or the other;
Teach the mates about the wounds + unawareness]
(b) explore whether it was passed on to either of them, and (c)
illustrate the major life-long benefits to their descendents of
intentionally breaking the cycle;
Review (a) the
of the client's family, and (b) this framework
of factors affecting their family's
See if this shifts any presenting problems.
the mates about personality subselves and psychological wounds, and
invite them to assess for and help each other
any significant false-self dominance. Use appropriate
Lesson 1 interventions and
that if either mate has not hit
s/he may not be ready to commit to this vital individual work. If so, settle
for informing them, and suggesting future recovery;
Teach mates effective communication and problem-solving basics - including a
Personal Bill of rights - and (b)
motivate them to change their style of
together to fill their primary needs. Use appropriate
Lesson 2 interventions and
the mates healthy-grieving basics and the origin,
and effects of
incomplete or blocked grief. Then (a) facilitate the mates implementing
a healthy family
(b) doing an honest loss inventory
and (c) freeing up any blocked grief in
themselves and/or any kids. Use appropriate
Lesson-3 interventions and resources;
addition to these common goals and interventions, choose from these additional interventions
depending on the client type and situation:
Mate Wants to Divorce...
Empathically identify why each mate wants
to avoid divorce. If basic reasons are guilt, shame, and/or fears rather
than reasons like these, suggest that (a)
the mate's false-self is resisting divorce, and (b) freeing the mate's true
Self to make relationship and family decisions is the most effective
Option: if mates' rationale is to protect
dependent kids from divorce trauma, suggest that raising kids in a
maritally-unsatisfying low-nurturance environment is significantly
traumatic, long term.
Confront the couple with the reality that
each of them well have to want to change something they value to
their relationship. Then work to identify specifically what each mate
must change, and what specific things block committing to each change.
Tailor the goals and strategies above to fit,
and facilitate the couple changing
and behaviors to get more of their respective primary needs met in
If the couple tries to change but "can't,"
propose that suggests that one or both needs to commit to psychological wound
reduction. If they won't or can't do that, respectfully suggest
termination and perhaps refer them to another
competent clinician who uses a different clinical model.
If One or Both Mates are
Ambivalent About Separation
Propose that (a)
ambivalence and indecision on major
life decisions are reliable signs of
so (b) one or both needs to commit to psychological wound reduction. If they
won't or can't do that, respectfully suggest termination, and perhaps refer
them to another competent clinician who uses a different model.
If One or Both Mates are
Committed to Divorcing...
Encourage partners to stay aware of
the rest of their and their kids' lives, vs. just focusing on relieving
Review objectively (a) what the couple has tried
so far, and (b) why one or both have decided to divorce.
Review the options above, and see if any of
those elements revives any willingness to try new options;
Introduce the idea of "a successful divorce,"
and invite the mates to tailor that to fit their situation.
Consider inviting the committed partner/s to
experience a dialog with their
Future Self to discuss the long-term effects of their decision on
themselves and each dependent child or grandchild.
Based on the unique mix of these variables
and which type of divorcing family the client is, of the three types, key clinical goals with
clients can range between...
respecting each partner's decision to
divorce or not, and working to promote healthy, stable adjustment to
assuming responsibility for evaluating (a)
whether mutual marital satisfaction can be restored or not, and (b) if so,
helping parents to nurture themselves and their
dependent kids effectively (within their limits) as they adjust to becoming
a two-home nuclear system. This goal includes assisting parents to (a)
evolve a healthy family grieving policy and helping (b) all family members
to identify and grieve their respective key losses (broken bonds); and...
motivate parents to (a) heal any psychological
wounds and (b) improve their co-parenting communication and grieving effectiveness
regardless of their stance on psychological or legal divorce.
with perspective on key clinician attitudes, and first-meeting considerations.
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September 30, 2015