Help clients understand and break the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle!

Effective Clinical Work with
 Re/divorcing Couples

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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The Web address of this article is

        This article focuses on clinical considerations for effective work with the stepfamily of a couple who is somewhere between psychological re/divorce and post-decree grieving and restabilizing. Clinical goals vary, depending on where the client family is on this continuum. This article covers...

  • key definitions and premises;

  • special client assessment options; and...

  • typical intervention goals  with these complex clients.

        To get the most from this article, first study...

  • the introduction to these clinical articles, and this overview of the clinical model they're based on;

  • this definition of effective clinical service,

  • this slide presentation on the [wounds + unawareness] cycle which promotes psychological and legal separation and divorce. If you have trouble viewing the slides, see this.

  • these summaries of requisites for satisfying relationships, and typical needs mates seek to fill by their primary relationship;

  • these summaries of five common re/marital stressors, and three common stepfamily stressors;

  • this proposal about surface ("presenting") problems and the underlying problems that cause them; 

  • this perspective on effective clinical assessment of divorcing-family and stepfamily client.

  • this summary of typical assessment targets with these complex multi-problem families.


        Here divorce means (a) the multi-year sequence of psychological + spiritual + social + financial + legal disintegration of the relationship between two committed partners, and (b) the interrelated effects of this disintegration on their (step)family system. Each person has a unique definition of this term, which can mean many different things. Re/divorce occurs when one or both mates have divorced psychologically or legally before. Implication - effective clinical work is more likely if the clients and clinician evolve a common definition of what divorce means in their clinical metasystem's context.

        The multi-year divorce process can be framed by human-service providers and each family member as negative (a stressor), positive (a stress reliever), or both, depending on how it affects various family members. It can also be framed as "very difficult" to "successful," reflecting the overall degree of conflict, loss, hostility, blame, and disrespect generated.  

        Divorce-adjustment includes (a) each family-member's personal stabilizing to divorce-related changes and losses, and (b) the client family system's stabilizing to these. Each member of a re/divorcing family system will be at their own unique point on the continuum between not-adjusted to fully-adjusted and stable. A vital variable in true divorce adjustment is the multi-loss, multi-level grieving process in each person and the whole system.

        Generally, effective clinical service means "adequately filling the short and long-term primary needs of (a) affected client-family members and (b) the human-service providers involved in the case. For re/divorcing client families, the definition of effective clinical service depends on (a) the mix client-adults respective primary needs and (b) the clinician's values about "divorce." For instance, clinicians who feel responsible to "save this marriage" will have a different definition than one who feels "I want to help this family understand and accept their reality, grieve their losses, and stabilize their reorganized family effectively."

        Re/marriage - can mean different things to each person in the clinical metasystem. Effective service is most likely if the clinician works to see that everyone is clear on what this term means.

        Primary relationship implies that each mate puts their relationship above all other human (vs. spiritual) relationships, including those with any dependents. Psychologically- wounded adults may have some subselves who choose this priority, and other subselves who don't. Where true, this promotes in behavioral double messages, confusion and distrust, and ineffective communication and problem-solving.

What's Unique About Re/divorcing Client Families?

Key Assessment and Intervention Considerations

        The first thing to assess is your own and any supervisor, co-therapist's, and/or consultant's attitudes about divorce and working with divorcing couples and families.  Then assess is whether each mate is ambivalent about separation and divorce, committed to it, or resistant to it. These will shape your clinical goals and strategy.

Variable Assessment Options


Setting Clinical Objectives



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Created March 18, 2014