Help clients  break the [wounds + unawareness] cycle

Introduction: Using the Model with Typical Divorcing-biofamily Clients - p. 1 of 2

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this two-page article is

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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 series of Web articles for human-service professionals describes a unique systemic model for effective clinical service to six types of multi-problem families, corresponding to phases of the typical stepfamily developmental cycle. This article outlines perspective on using this clinical model effectively with the first type: divorcing biofamilies. Similar articles highlight each other type, including re/divorcing stepfamilies. Links in this article lead to more detail on key assessment and intervention topics.

        This overview for interns and veteran clinicians covers...

  • How to get the most from reading this;

  • Definitions of 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 this article:

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] cycle 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; and...

  • psychological wounds from childhood neglect and trauma in one or both mates may block mutual relationship-fulfillment until the wounds are admitted and intentionally reduced.

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;

Common needs 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.

        A core requisite for benefiting from the ideas here is that your true Self (capital "S") be steadily guiding your personality as you read and reflect. Is it?

        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 shifted your beliefs?.


       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 relationship-needs aren't satisfied well enough, often enough, and (b) they don't know how to reverse this effectively.

Successful Divorce

        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' integrities, identities, and self-respect intact and stable;

  • results in all key family roles, rules, relationships, and boundaries 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 primary 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 mean.

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.

Divorcing Biofamily

        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 primary-relationship needs well enough; and (b) are

  • 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 how; and...

the mates' relationship problems are (a) increasingly stressing all family members, and (b) have been lowering the family's nurturance level,

        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 needs 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 primary needs 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

        In some ways, divorcing-biofamily clients are the same as any other family system. In other ways, this model proposes that they are unique, compared to a high-nurturance ("functional") 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 survivors of neglectful (low-nurturance) childhoods who unintentionally passed on the toxic effects of the [wounds + unawareness] cycle;

  • One or both adult partners are...

    • probably unaware of being ruled by a well-meaning false self, which...

    • may have made up to three unwise commitment decisions, and...

    • the mates have been  unable to communicate and problem-solve effectively;

  • Typical first-divorcing partners are in their 20s or 30s, and have not hit their respective true (vs. pseudo, or "trial") bottoms. Therefore...

    • they and key relatives are probably not in self-motivated wound-recovery yet), and

    • 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; and...

    • 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; and... 

    • 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.

        Each unique case may have other significant systemic differences from other types of family.

        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 include...

  • (a) The degree to which each mate bears psychological wounds from childhood neglect and trauma, and (b) whether each wounded mate (i) has hit true bottom, and (ii) is in genuine (vs. pseudo) recovery or not;

  • The (a) degree of recent and current stability of the client's family system, and (b) where the family  falls on the normal biofamily-development cycle;

  • 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 separation?

  • What relationship needs (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 legal conflicts involving attorneys, and/or in a religious marital-annulment process?;

  • Each mate's knowledge of, and policies about, (a) effective communication and (b) healthy three-level grieving;

  • Is the client family self-referred or court-referred?;

  • Have affairs, abuse, 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?

  • Which of these typical relationship stressors 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.

Effective clinical 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 primary needs, and propose that mates probably have been focused fruitlessly on filling surface needs - e.g. trying to resolve conflicts over money, addiction, an affair, "no time for each other," dwelling or extended-family disagreements, sexual dissatisfactions, etc.

  • Review and tailor these requisites for a mutually-satisfying relationship, and see if/how that affects the mates' presenting problems.

  • (a) 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; 

  • If 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;

  • (a) Teach the mates about the wounds + unawareness] cycle, (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 purpose of the client's family, and (b) this framework of factors affecting their family's nurturance level. See if this shifts any presenting problems.

  • Teach the mates about personality subselves and psychological wounds, and invite them to assess for and help each other reduce any significant false-self dominance. Use appropriate Lesson 1 interventions and resources. Accept that if either mate has not hit true bottom, s/he may not be ready to commit to this vital individual work. If so, settle for informing them, and suggesting future recovery;

  • (a) Teach mates effective communication and problem-solving basics - including a Personal Bill of rights - and (b) motivate them to change their style of ineffective problem solving together to fill their primary needs. Use appropriate Lesson 2 interventions and resources;

  • Teach the mates healthy-grieving basics and the origin, signs, and effects of incomplete or blocked grief. Then (a) facilitate the mates implementing a healthy family grieving policy, (b) doing an honest loss inventory together, and (c) freeing up any blocked grief in themselves and/or any kids. Use appropriate Lesson-3 interventions and resources;

        In addition to these common goals and interventions, choose from these additional  interventions  depending on the client type and situation:

If Neither 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 clinical goal.

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 improve 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 basic attitudes, priorities, and behaviors to get more of their respective primary needs met in acceptable ways.

  • 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 and/or Divorce...

  • Propose that (a) ambivalence and indecision on major life decisions are reliable signs of false-self dominance, 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 immediate stressors.

  • 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.

Special Situations

        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 divorcing-family clients can range between...

  • respecting each partner's decision to divorce or not, and working to promote healthy, stable adjustment to family-system reorganization;

  • assuming responsibility for evaluating (a) whether mutual marital satisfaction can be restored or not, and (b) if so, how?;

  • 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.

Continue with perspective on key clinician attitudes, and first-meeting considerations.

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Updated September 30, 2015