Help clients understand and break the [wounds + unawareness] cycle and guard their descendents

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

Key assessment, intervention, and clinician variables

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


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        This continues perspective on using the model with typical divorcing-biofamily clients.

Key Clinician Attitudes

        To optimize objectivity and empathy, clinicians, supervisors, and case managers need to review key attitudes that may affect working with these multi-problem client families - e.g. attitudes about...

        "Abuse": Members of typical divorcing families are apt to in/directly include mental, verbal, sexual, and/or physical abuse as a reason to separate. In my clinical experience, many lay people and some clinicians misunderstand and harmfully mis-use this provocative  term. The clinician's knowledge of and attitude about family "abuse" will affect the work.

        If clinicians and/or supervisors don't (a) differentiate abuse and aggression and teach the client to do the same, and (b) see abuse, neglect , and aggression as symptoms of psychological wounds + unawareness + ineffective communication, then clinical effectiveness will drop.       

        Addictions: many U.S. divorcing families are stressed by past or current addictions (compulsive self-medication to mute inner pain) in one or more members. Until they hit true personal bottom - often in middle age - typical divorcing adults' deny these symptoms of false-self wounds and what they mean.

        Effective outcomes are most likely if clinicians proactively assess for past and present addictions and family impacts, and use their results to shape their intervention goals, plans, and priorities. This model proposes that...

  • addictions are a symptom of a low-nurturance family (wounded, unaware adults), and that...

  • lasting reduction of individual psychological wounds requires that any toxic compulsions (addictions) be stabilized for at least a year.

        Clinicians may see addictions as a (a) primary or secondary (b) individual or family stressor. This model proposes that past or present addiction, including codependence (relationship  addiction, or "co-addiction"), is an unconscious attempt to self-medicate inner pain, and a sure sign of psychological wounds and early-childhood wholistic neglect.

        The model also proposes that managing (vs. "curing") active addictions via some version of 12-step philosophy and support must occur before true (vs. pseudo) personal recovery from false-self dominance (co-parent Lesson 1) is possible.

        Affairs: if either divorcing partner is psychologically and/or sexually interested in another person and children are involved, then this is a type-2 (pre-stepfamily) client, not type 1. This makes assessment more complex, and will usually justify some unique intervention goals, plans, and priorities. If clinicians are c/overtly critical (disapproving) of spouses who have affairs, (a) a false self probably guides them, and (b) their objectivity is compromised.

        Child neglect: typical divorcing (wounded, unaware) parents can't adequately fill their dependent kids' developmental needs well enough, despite their best efforts. Child-related presenting problems will complicate assessment and intervention strategies, and merit clinician's staying focused. Clinicians and/or supervisors who were raised in a low-nurturance family - e.g. if their parents divorced - need to be alert for related transference issues with these clients. 

        Clinician's role: does the clinician see her or his role as a "marriage saver" regardless of the client's values and needs, or is s/he objectively focused on empowering client adults to make the wisest short and long-range family decisions?

        The former is a toxic 1-up attitude: "I know better than you do what you need." No matter how justified or well disguised, this attitude will degrade clinical outcomes, specially with shame-based (wounded) client adults.       

         Divorce: does the clinician have any c/overt biases about the moral, social, or religious acceptability about divorce, and/or about spouses who "break their vows"? Does s/he feel divorcing families are inferior in some ways to ideal intact first-marriage biofamilies? This model proposes that compared to typical healthy, intact biofamilies, divorcing families...

  • are more apt to be (a) low-nurturance and (b) significantly stressed (have multiple concurrent "problems");

  • can nurture as well as intact biofamilies if the adults genuinely commit to (a) admitting and reducing their false-self  wounds, (b) grieving well, and (c) gaining requisite knowledge and attitudes; and...

  • divorcing families are normal, and merit as much respect and empathy as any other type of family.

        Who is the client? Does the clinician define the client as...

  • a divorcing couple (marital system), whether both participate in therapy or not;

  • the couple's present nuclear or extended family systems, and/or...

  • their present and future nuclear families, including possible new mates, stepchildren, and unborn children?

This model proposes that the last choice promotes the best long-term clinical outcomes.

        More key attitudes for effective assessment and intervention of divorcing-family (type 1) clients:

        Does the clinician believe in successful divorce, or that divorce is always toxic, negative, and "bad" for those involved? This model promotes the first attitude, once the clinician judges that the couple has tried all practical options to fill their primary relationship needs without divorcing. Option: edit these ideas to define a successful first divorce for each divorcing client family.

        Family strengths: participating clients and clinicians may focus only on client problems (unmet needs). Also assessing client-family strengths and human assets relative to their separation-adjustment process can have many benefits.

        What's your family's attitude about your strengths - appreciation and celebration? Taking them for granted? Minimizing (Yes, but ...")? Nourishing (celebrating and expanding your strengths)? Now think of a nuclear or extended family you feel is "strong" in adapting to adversity. What things make them "strong"? Think of another family you feel is "weak" (vulnerable, directionless, fragile, ...). What human characteristics, attitudes, and abilities do they seem to lack?

        Option - use some version of this worksheet and/or this inventory to help client families appreciate and affirm their strengths, as they work to fill their needs.

        Family structure: when kids are involved, do the client adults and clinician/s believe that co-parent separation and divorce (a) reorganizes their nuclear biofamily, or (b) creates two families? The latter view promotes inclusion-exclusion, values, and loyalty conflicts, and divisive relationship triangles which combine to hinder healthy divorce adjustment.

        Premise: physical separation and legal divorce create a two-home nuclear family system with some differing rituals, rules (e.g. about child discipline, meals, chores, and finances), and family roles. The genetic, historic, and psychological family of procreation remains intact, despite significant losses, co-ex-mate barriers, and complex systemic adjustment tasks.

        How do the professionals involved define "divorce adjustment" for (a) individual adults and kids and for (b) their nuclear-family system? This model proposes that each affected child and adult...

  • has a set of concurrent adjustment needs to fill over time, based on three-level grieving of many tangible and abstract losses; in order to...

  • resume their personal growth (development) and their systemic balance - i.e. to restabilize their family roles, rules, relationships, rituals, resources, and family goals.

        "Good grief": how high does the clinician rank client grieving as an assessment and intervention focus - specially if the clients aren't concerned about it (which is common)? This model proposes that the pace and degree of each family member's divorce adjustment depends on...

  • who usually leads the person's inner family of personality subselves,

  • each person's individual and collective losses, and...

  • the adults' knowledge, attitudes, and values about grieving - i.e. their family grief policy.

        More clinical factors shaping the work with divorcing-family clients...

        Does the clinician feel that denials, guilt, shame, and forgiveness are important assessment and intervention targets for each divorcing adult and child - specially if the adults don't focus on them? Restated: what is the clinician's attitude about intrapsychic + systemic therapy?

        Premise: the biofamily's nurturance level and later success as a stepfamily are affected by (a) how aware divorcing adults are of each of these personal stressors, and (b) whether they proactively seek to help each other reduce the stressors and forgive themselves and each other for divorce-related hurts, disappointments, and betrayals.

        Blame: is the clinician neutral to client-adults blaming each other or themselves for their divorce, or does s/he proactively seek to help adults and affected kids (a) objectively understand why the divorce is happening and (b) release their (subselves') need to defend themselves and/or blame to someone? Premise: doing the latter promotes healthy grieving, lower stress, and higher nurturance levels, long term.

        Religious issues: does the clinician feel qualified and motivated to assess how (a) the adult's religious (vs. spiritual) beliefs and (b) the family's church community (if any) are affecting the family's divorce decision and adjustment progress? Does the clinician feel it appropriate to provide or suggest pastoral counseling?

         This model proposes that personal spirituality (non-denominational faith in a benign, responsive Higher Power, vs. church dogma) is (a) innate within every person, and is (b) essential for wholistic health and reducing false-self wounds which promote divorce and passing on the silent [wounds + unawareness] cycle.

       Pause and reflect on what you just read. Can you think of other clinical attitudes that will affect clinical outcomes with typical divorcing-family clients? Recall that key personal attitudes are one of the requisites for effective clinical work with this model and low-nurturance clients.

        Now let's shift gears and survey some unique...

  First-meeting Considerations with Typical Divorcing-family Clients

        Scan these general intake options and first-meeting considerations. After...

  • initial introductions,

  • clarifying clinical logistics and procedural matters, and...

  • learning initial client history and presenting problems (needs),

consider weaving these themes into the first contact with typical divorcing-family clients:

        Identify each attending adult's and child's current process needs : e.g. to...

vent about something clarify and/or learn something problem-solve
validate something lower anxieties and/or guilts gain a clinical ally or advocate
satisfy some third party demonstrate something to someone reduce other discomfort/s

Option: explain and demonstrate the Lesson-2 skill of digging down to help discern these primary needs in the first and following meetings.

        Encourage client adults to maintain a long-term outlook as they adjust to divorce. Alert clients that...

  • divorce is a multi-year process usually extending well beyond legal settlements, and that...

  • their family members are likely to become a complex psychological or legal stepfamily in three or more years, and...

  • current adult decisions and attitudes about divorce adjustment will significantly affect their odds of long-term stepfamily happiness and success.

Repeat this encouragement throughout the work, to promote co-parents' making wise (informed) stepfamily-courtship decisions (Project 7).

        Another key first-meeting theme is to...

        Encourage each adult to adopt a two-home nuclear family system viewpoint, and assess any barriers to their adopting that view. Significant "resistance" or ambivalence usually indicates (a) significant psychological wounds + incomplete grief + ineffective adult communication and problem-solving.

        Option: ask each attending client to name the people that comprise their current family. This may disclose significant alliances and coalitions, and/or disputes over family membership, including legal and genetic relatives.

        Ask whether anyone in the client family has used, or is using, a single-parenting or divorce-support group. If so, learn who initiated that, who goes, and why. If not, seed the idea that adults can help them-selves and any kids manage their family reorganization and related grief by participating in a well-run support group. Effective clinicians will be able to refer clients to local groups for adults and kids (e.g. Rainbows), and may include this in a first-meeting resource handout.

        Note that there are many Internet chat rooms and chat now for divorcing adults and perhaps kids (?). Typical wounded (shame-based, distrustful) adults - specially men - will not attend physical groups, despite acknowledging significant benefits. Options: use this article on family support, and/or this family-support worksheet as client resources.

        Begin to break the [wounds + unawareness] cycle by providing clients with selected handouts like these...

  • inner families (personality subselves) and psychological wounds

  • family nurturance levels (worksheet)

  • effective-communication basics

  • effective three-level grieving (reference: self-improvement Lesson 3)

  • perspective on divorce, and typical divorce-adjustment needs for kids and adults, and...

  • local and Internet resources for divorce adjustment, including...

    • divorce-adjustment and single-parenting support groups,

    • book and periodical lists, and...

    • qualified egal and spiritual or religious help. 

        Begin to assess which other family members will participate in or hinder the clinical process. A useful first-contact question is "Which family members do each of you feel are most affected by your family's separating / divorcing?"

        If clients are court-referred, assess the degree to which each adult is motivated to cooperate in the clinical process. See these general considerations for more perspective.

        The number of general first-meeting options plus those above suggests the value of clinicians having a clear agenda before the first client session. This agenda will depend on what information was gained during client intake.


        This two-page article overviews effective work with typical divorcing-biofamily clients using this unique experience-based systemic clinical model. Similar articles overview clinical work with five other types of low-nurturance, multi-problem families.

        This article defines "effective clinical work," how these clients differ from other families, suggests key assessment and intervention topics and options and hilights key clinician attitudes and first-meeting topics. These aticles build on suggestions about (a) requisites for effective clinical work, and (b) effective intake and first-meeting with typical clients.

        This model proposes that client assessment and interventions begin during intake, and continue over subsequent sessions.

Continue by choosing an appropriate article from this clinical index, the site directory or map, or searching the site for a particular topic. Option; see this sample intake form for typical divorcing-family clients.

        Pause, breathe, and reflect: did you get what you needed from this article? What do you need now?

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Updated October 05, 2015