Toward effective service to
families, and stepfamilies
Divorcing-family and Stepfamily Clients
Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
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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
+ + +
The purpose of this article
is to hilight special risks of significant clinical transference when
working with typical divorcing families and stepfamilies. Transference
occurs when perceived behaviors or traits of an individual
client - or of several client family-members - provoke reactions in the
clinician that reduce or prevent appropriate professional objectivity,
boundaries, and empathy. That is, significant transference dynamics between
client and clinician hinder or prevent effective clinical work, and may
stress or harm the client. All human-service professionals have an ethical
responsibility to every client (and themselves) to guard against this
Clinical transference dynamics can occur between (a) a clinician and their
client/s; (b) a clinician and their supervisor or program director, and/or
(c) a clinician and one or more colleagues. The details may vary among
these, but the transference causes, symptoms, and effects are similar or the
same for all three.
This article explores...
five interactive roots of transference dynamics
of significant transference
triggers with divorcing-family and stepfamily clients,
clinical options for
preventing or reducing significant transference.
Why Does Transference Occur?
Most professionally trained clinicians have been taught what
transference is, typical symptoms of it, and that it is harmful and
unethical. Why does transference occur in spite of this, risking shame,
guilt, professional disapproval and censure, and legal liability?
My clinical training and 26 years'
reflection and private-practice experience suggests five interactive root
the clinician's psychological (false-self)
some unmet primary needs, and...
their unawareness and ignorance (lack of
knowledge) of key topics, and...
little or no effective clinical supervision,
the client's (or clinician's) cooperation with the other person..
Let's look at each of these briefly...
Typical professional clinicians and clients
childhood environment. Without effective personal recovery, this usually
means they each bear mixes of two to six "false-self" (psychological)
with others (i.e. inabilities to empathize, tolerate
intimacy, and to feel, express, and receive genuine
Clinicians and clients may not know they have these wounds, what they
or what to do about them. This unawareness can promote ineffective or
harmful strategies for filling
until the person admits their wounds and works proactively to reduce them.
in this nonprofit Web site is devoted to wound prevention,
assessment, and reduction.
- the more a clinician or supervisor is controlled by a protective false
self, the more s/he risks significant transference reactions with selected
or many clients. The common wound of reality
distortion promotes clinicians denying, rationalizing, minimizing,
projecting, exaggerating, and/or idealizing transference dynamics - and
denying, discounting, and/or justifying this
The solution to this primal root of clinical transference is dedication
to personal wound-recovery.
in this nonprofit, ad-free site
- and the related
provide perspective, practical suggestions, and resources for effective
recovery for any
Typical Unfilled Primary
Significant psychological wounds and unawareness usually hinder filling
primary needs effectively. Transference dynamics suggest that the
clinician's ruling subselves lack better strategies, and seek to fill unmet
needs with the relationship with a needy, wounded client. Typical needs may
include a mix of these:
needing to feel worthy, needed,
an appealing victim
needing to reenact and/or
"re-do" (correct) significant childhood traumas
needing to feel powerful and
impactful by defying social "rules" about transference
needing to distract from
needing sensual / sexual
excitement and pleasure
needing to take an exciting risk
to offset chronic boredom and numbness
needing to please, help, and be
appreciated by a needy, dependent client
filling one or more
- specially needs for "love" and "intimacy."
Typical clinicians will have one or
about doing this, which will usually promote (or increase existing)
anxiety, guilt, shame, and perhaps confusion. For example, one or more
subselves urge continuing the transference behavior to fill immediate needs
like those above. Other subselves like the true Self,
all insist "Don't do this!" for various reasons. If the resident Self
is not able to moderate this conflict and negotiate a healthier way to fill
the clinician's unmet needs, the transference behaviors will probably
continue or increase, despite disapproving moral injunctions and
Clinician Unawareness and
Unawareness (skewed or no conscious perception) is different than
ignorance (lack of accurate, relevant information). Both can promote
transference - specially with clinicians guided by a false self. Once
detected and admitted, each of these may be intentionally reduced. The worst
case (from a client's perspective) occurs when a clinician and their
supervisor or consultant/s are both unaware and ignorant - and are unaware
of (vs. denying) this and it's implications.
Premise - In most
professional situations, clinicians and their supervisors need to be aware
their own inner dynamics - now, and patterns over time: thoughts,
feelings, senses, key values (attitudes),
needs, expectations, and which
subselves control them in general, and in clinical meetings;
client family-members' current and long-term, stated and unstated
- in general, and in the clinical process;
(a) roles and (b) relationship
dynamics between client, clinician, and supervisor - particularly
awareness of whether appropriate
are being effectively asserted and respected by everyone involved; and
everyone involved responds to problems anyone has in any of these
domains - effectively or not. And paradoxically, in every client
case, the professionals involved...
need to be aware of these awarenesses, or
lack of them.
and reflect - would you edit this awareness summary in any way? Do
you agree that lack of awareness of these domains could promote transference
dynamics among the client, clinician, and supervisor or colleagues? Who
would you say is responsible for monitoring the level of professional
awareness in any particular
Even if all professionals involved in a client case are aware
enough, one or more of them may lack relevant
information on key topics
and how to use it strategically to assess and improve the functioning of
subself, family, and client-clinician systems;
traits, and dynamics; psychological wounds, symptoms, and
and wound-recovery options;
problem-solving basics and
the three levels of healthy grief, the
phases in each level, how to
for blocked grief, and what to
about it; and typical clinicians need accurate knowledge of...
typical human and family
stages, and common primary needs of adults and kids at
different developmental stages; and...
"good practice" professional ethics and
responsibilities - in general, and in each specific case.
how psychological and legal divorce affects
kids and adults in a typical
family system, and (b) how to assess a family's degree of
adjustment to divorce
changes and losses; and...
stepfamily basics -
e.g. norms, family structures, uniquenesses, developmental stages,
stressors; and how to empower
clients to resolve case-specific stressors.
Premise - clinician's and supervisors' lack of knowledge on mixes of
these topics can promote (a) skewed systemic assessments, (b) toxic
attitudes (biases), (c) fuzzy, conflictual, and/or inappropriate role
definitions in the client - clinician - supervisor (or agency) metasystem,
and (d) unrealistic clinical-process goals and expectations.
Combinations of these and psychological wounds and unawarenesses can promote significant transference dynamics.
general protection against lack of knowledge is for private practitioners
and agency clinical-directors to have a comprehensive plan for (a) assessing
clinician's knowledge and (b) filling key knowledge gaps with individual and
Try saying out loud your definition of "effective clinical supervision,"
and meditate on whether you have experienced that. Then compare that
your definition with this proposal: Common goals of clinical supervision include protecting...
clients from ineffective or harmful clinical
clinicians from making "mistakes,"
and promoting their professional competence and skill-building;
the sponsoring agency and funders from legal
liability; and protecting...
the clinical profession from public distrust
accomplishes all four goals, in the opinion of all people
involved. When any professionals are often
ruled by a false self, this is less
risk for harmful transference behaviors is highest for wounded, ignorant
clinicians without qualified supervision. The
next highest risk is if the clinician seeks to deny or hide such behaviors
from a wounded supervisor, program or case manager, and/or clinical
The fifth and last element that promotes transference is...
The Client's or Clinician's
Transference dynamics between a clinician and their client or supervisor
requires that the "other person" must also have some unfilled needs, and
must lack steady true-Self guidance on filling them more appropriately
than via the relationship with the clinician.
aware clinician can assess and incorporate the client's unfilled needs
in an appropriate treatment plan. ("Let's talk about what prevents you
from finding someone other than me to confide in?") The clinician can
also respectfully confront a supervisor who seems out of balance,
unaware, and/or uninformed ["I sense you've lost your objectivity with
me (or "...you're Self is often disabled...) as we discuss my work with
the Martinez family. Can we talk about that?"]
Recap - we just surveyed five interactive factors that can contribute to
harmful clinical transference dynamics in working with typical client
families. Pause, stretch, breathe, and reflect - how do you feel about the
premises above, so far? If you don't agree with some of them, what do you
you getting what you need yet?
Symptoms of Significant Transference Dynamics
Have you experienced transference dynamics in yourself or a co-worker?
Though every case is unique, see if your experience (or intuition) compares
with these common symptoms...
the clinician loses professional
objectivity and becomes critical of, emotionally dependent on,
over-responsible for, and/or attracted to, a client adult or child or a
co-worker or supervisor. Restated: the clinician develops some version
with the other person;
the clinician denies this, and/or
tries to hide it from other people. Variation:- the clinician avoids or
discounts appropriate supervision;
the supervisor (and/or coworkers)
deny or trivialize this, and/or avoid confronting the clinician on it;
the clinician has significant
inner conflicts and
about their fantasies about, and/or conduct with, the other person;
the client feels "significantly
uncomfortable" with the clinician, and may or may not assert for some
change in their roles, boundaries, and relationship;
the other person agrees to form a
social and/or sexual relationship with the clinician, during or soon
after the clinical process;
one or more other client-family
members become uncomfortable with the clinician's (perceived) conduct,
and may c/overtly complain or criticize it. They may file an ethics
complaint with the state organization that regulates professional
conduct and licensure, and/or with the relevant national professional
organization (e.g. NASW, AMA, APA, NAMFT, etc).
coworkers grow suspicious of and/or
concerned about the clinician's conduct and relationship with the other
person, and may or may not confront the clinician on this.
Regardless of specific symptoms like these, the client's,
clinician's, and/or supervisor's
subselves know when inappropriate professional thoughts or behaviors
are occurring. What they do with that knowledge depends
on many interactive factors.
Common Transference "Triggers"
wounded, unaware, ignorant clinician or supervisor may initiate or join in
transference dynamics when certain situational "triggers" occur.
A "trigger" is some combination of
client-personality, client-family, and case factors that cause the
clinician's pro-transference subselves to overcome anti-transference
subselves (including the Self (capital "S"), to seek to fill unmet
The mix of possible triggers is limitless. These are common possibilities:
The client's false-self
behaviors activate clinician's
needy subselves, which disable his or her
learning about the client's family system
activates unfinished issues with the clinician's own childhood and/or
current family (resentment, hurt, sadness, grief, guilt, horror, etc);
the client or supervisor acts seductively,
activating clinician's subselves which need sensual and/or sexual
fantasies, excitement, and fulfillment;
client c/overtly invites the clinician to rescue (take responsibility
for) him or her, implying a
relationship stance and admiration (or illusion) of the
clinician's efficacy, compassion, and wisdom. The clinician's subselves
may have a complementary need to protect, nurture, and/or rescue the
client (i.e. their needy inner kids) - i.e. need to feel competent,
worthy, and powerful.
similar trigger occurs when (a) a clinician over-depends on their
supervisor or other co-worker to be the "good parent" they never had as
a child; and (b) the other person's controlling personality-parts need
to nurture the clinician's needy subselves and feel competent, wise,
useful, and worthy.
the clinician identifies with a particular
client-family child, and is moved to 'rescue" and/or nurture her or him
to act out adult acceptance, protection and nurturance that the
clinician never got. This is specially likely in divorcing and
stepfamilies where one or more minor kids or grandkids is floundering,
needy, rejected, and/or neglected.
if the clinician is psychologically or
legally divorcing - specially if s/he has one or more kids - a divorcing
client adult or child may activate unfinished issues for the clinician
and cause him or her to become critical and/or over-empathic, and lose
appropriate professional boundaries and objectivity. Themes that can
trigger transference include divorce-related losses; parenting
topics like child custody, visitations, financial support,
health, holidays, relations with relatives, boundaries,
religion, education, and discipline, the custodial parent dating
too soon, and/or having a new partner stay overnight.
If the clinician or supervisor has biased
attitudes and/or unrealistic opinions about stepfamily
and dynamics - specially if s/he was or is in a troubled stepfamily
and/or lacks realistic stepfamily information - dominant subselves may
promote transference dynamics. Typical stepfamily structures, complexities, and stressors offer a
mosaic of transference-triggers not found in intact biofamilies.
The possible triggers above apply, as well as an array of new ones
stepparent and stepchild
roles and responsibilities
first and last names,
and role titles
loyalty and values conflicts
ethnic, cultural, and gender
(inclusion / exclusion)
ex-mate responsibilities and
re/marriage plans and timing
household privacy and
The odds of these triggering transference rise with clinician and
supervisory ignorance and biases about these aspects of stepfamily
These examples are meant to be illustrative, not
comprehensive. The point is that
clinicians, supervisors, and clinical and program directors need to be
empathically alert with each client case for possible unique or repeated
transference triggers in themselves and each other.
Premise - Individual
clinicians are implicitly responsibility of
for significant psychological wounds, and proactively working to reduce any
they find. Paradoxically, clinicians dominated by a false self
may deny, avoid, postpone, or trivialize this self-assessment, and/or
or ignore the results.
Option - guard against this by asking a
knowledgeable, objective, Self-led other person (like a supervisor or
colleague) "Do you see any evidence of significant psychological wounds in
In an agency setting, perhaps the most impactful way of reducing the
odds for transference is to carefully
screen clinician applicants for
significant psychological wounds and effective self and process awareness.
To do this, interviewers must be (a) clearly aware of and (b) fully
accept the personality-subself concept, and (c) be able to recognize
common behavioral symptoms of
false-self dominance. They also need to be steadily
by their true Selves. Similarly, clinical and/or program directors need
to weigh any evidence of psychological wounds in deciding who to trust with
clinical supervision, co-therapist, and/or consulting responsibilities.
Option - program and clinical directors need to ensure their
professional staff is clearly aware of transference, what causes it, how
to spot it, and what to do about it. This can merit periodic in-service
programs to refresh everyone on these topics, and inform new workers.
Option - supervisors and case managers can encourage clinicians
to feel safe in discussing transference by intentionally avoiding
critical and shaming connotations, and framing transference as normal
and an opportunity for self-growth and increased professional
competence. This does not imply endorsement of or indifference to these
Option - in clinical case-review meetings, participants can help
each other (a) frame transference as an opportunity, not a "fault;" (b)
stay alert for transference symptoms, and (c) proactively discuss
options for preventing and reducing transference dynamics.
Option - if transference dynamics are too persistent and/or
harmful to a given client case (a subjective judgment), the clinician
and/or supervisor are ethically responsible for making an appropriate
clinical referral and explaining why they're doing that to the client.
Reflect - can you think of other practical options for preventing and
managing significant transference dynamics in your professional setting?
hazard to effective clinical work with any individual, marital, or family
client is the risk of significant transference dynamics among
client-members, clinician's, and their supervisors, co-workers, and or
superiors. Based on this clinical
this article proposes
five common interactive roots of these dynamics:
psychological wounds, and...
unfilled primary needs, and...
unawareness and ignorance (lack of
accurate knowledge), and...
ineffective or no professional supervision,
the client's accepting and
cooperating with the transference behaviors.
The article also outlines (a) typical symptoms of transference dynamics among
clients, clinicians, and their supervisors, and (b) common triggers for the
dynamics. Triggers are specially likely with typical divorcing-family and
stepfamily clients, if the clinician is divorcing and/or in a stepfamily.
The article closes with some options for avoiding and
reducing this clinical dynamic.
Pause and reflect - did you get what you needed from reading this? If so,
what do you need to do with these ideas? If not - what do you
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