Ellyn Bader

control-imagePlease think about a time when you lost control of a session. Were you too caught up in your own discomfort, anxiety, or discouragement to contemplate specifically how it happened?

Couples sessions spin out of control when clients are angry. They escalate rapidly. Their emotional brain starts running the show. Rational thinking is gone.

When upset, everyone has the capacity to be primitive, prickly or pessimistic. However, these reactions will trigger reactions in the limbic brain of the spouse. Then, anger, blame, and criticism can hijack your session. And the more threatened a client feels, the more aggressive the attacks become and the harder it is to calm their limbic brain.

Sessions also devolve when clients get angry with you. They think you don’t understand their distress, you are not reacting quickly enough to their demands, or they fear you are not competent. They are not certain that you see their spouses’ contribution to the problem.

They are frustrated and depleted. They attack you. They are impatient and want you to create big changes before they risk much themselves.

Common things angry partners say:

  • Why are you picking on me?
  •  I’m not getting my needs met!
  •  I just want to be happy. Is that too much to ask?
  • Why should I have to change when I’ve already done so much?

It’s not easy to respond skillfully when anger is coming directly at you.

To prevent angry escalations and manage these challenges artfully requires  assertion, interruption, and containment. Skillful therapists come to expect these challenging moments and have many ways to parry the thrusts of their clients’ attacks or defenses.

Unfortunately, therapists unwittingly handicap themselves and inadvertently create problems for themselves. We are taught to:

  • Be kind, compassionate and understanding;
  • Take care of others;
  • Not rock the boat;
  • Avoid being controlling.

These traits cripple our flexibility, creativity and assertiveness. Not wanting to create tension, we yield control of sessions too easily and fail to help the partners calm themselves and reach a higher level of prefrontal cortex processing.

The more confident you are that you can prevent sessions from erupting into angry fights, the more you will enjoy your work.

And the more uncertainty you feel, the more you will fear that you are responsible for your clients not getting the help they seek.

I have two more blogs coming in the next two days. In them I’ll share with you why losing control happens sooner than you think and how to take charge when couples fight.

When you take charge sooner, you will become more fluid in moving a couple along the path of satisfying collaboration, communication, and connection.


Act Now

  1. Let’s be honest. Have you had this happen to you? Have you felt helpless in the midst of triggered reactions from your clients? Please comment below on how you have felt and what you tried that was either effective or very ineffective in this situation.
  2. If you would like to learn more about the limbic brain and how to effectively manage couples spinning out of control, please click here to read more about our online training program.

This blog post is from a 9-part series called “Avoid Losing Control, Momentum or Direction in Couples Therapy.” Click here to see the other articles in the series.


Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy.

Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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  1. Of course we have all had this happen! I love having these questions to help focus the session right from the beginning. I used one similar to Ellyn’s suggestion last night with a couple who had been on vacation and so hadn’t been in for over a month. The wife had a great moment of insight, realizing that neither one of them had really been using the tools they already had since the last time they were in. And then she said, “Well, no wonder we aren’t really making a lot of progress!” It was a great start of a great session. Thanks Ellyn!

  2. Thanks Ellyn for this series! I am learning key takeaways. I have heard “Why should I have to change when I’ve already done so much?” probably the most of those you have listed. I get the most stuck with that one. I hadn’t really seen it as an attack before but no I am seeing it differently. Thank you.

  3. Thanks Ellyn. I find angry clients difficult to deal with. Often I use the “Is this how you fight at home?” comment and try to find a pattern in their fighting (negative interaction cycle). I suggest that they are wasting time and money fighting in session when they can do it for free at home. Then usually ask would they like to do something different here so that they do not waste their time. And sometimes it spirals out of control and I have missed the start of it. So much harder to pull it back then.

  4. One more point: I have found that fighting between all male couples often presents an element of particularly harsh emotional violence. I guess it’s the combination of double the testosterone plus double the patterning after tough father figures. This can overwhelm me and make it hard for me to stay present. I realize I need to further address my own relationship to paternal emotional violence. And maybe I need to find some better tools.

  5. Wow, great, informative conversation here. When couples fight I generally listen a little, observe my own body responses, and when it feels like the right time, I use the time out sign and/or say “whoah, whoah, whoah,let’s stop for a minute here.” They usually back off and then I tell them I understand they are both in a lot of pain. That gets them feeling heard and seen. Then I often address each partner separately, asking if s/he hears the other’s message. This tends to be a tiny beginning to them listening to each other and this also shows each of them that I’m both on their side AND willing to challenge their pattern. For me, it’s key to be both matter of fact and compassionate in acknowledging their issues because this helps take the drama out of it, which can also be reassuring.

  6. Thank you Ellyn for offering this free course! I am grateful that you have taken much of your time to prepare and offer this to colleagues for free even if we are also later offered courses that would need to be paid for, we have a choice to or not. I am a practicing clinical psychologist in South Africa and had one very difficult couple therapy process and was totally put off from doing it again. There was much blaming and very little ownership taken by the male partner. Although the female partner found the sessions helpful in discovering that her partner was not ready to commit to marriage, it was very difficult for her (and also for me) that they were not able to work though their issues in therapy with the goal of long-term commitment. Since then I have avoided working with couples and refer them to colleagues when asked to do this kind of work. I am hoping that doing your course will be the start of overcoming this anxiety toward couple therapy.

  7. Thank you so much for taking the time to put this FREE series together. I’ll take anything I can get whether it’s the full course or not! (Student, part time counsellor!!!). I have actually avoided couples since having some terrible experiences where I wanted to yell at the couples to stop behaving like children! Thought it best to wait til I had learned more and thus doing degree in Counselling now. So thanks I am looking forward to the series . Can you tell me what time this would be on in Australia and if I miss it is there something to watch or listen to afterwards?

  8. deeply grateful Ellyn for this information and the exchange it started. I am from Argentina, and i really enjoy it.
    Now, I am a psychoterapist, and I dont work with couples but individually. Each person brings to the session its own personal problems. How and when do we come to know that a couples therapy is what they really need once they had checked their own troubles? I am interested in your point of viewThank You, again, B

  9. yes it has happened to me too.. I see that this free nine part series is pretty much defining the problem but not really giving away anything as far as solutions, tactics, practical and applicable suggestions… it is a series for the promotion of courses that we have to pay for. I don’t mind the idea of paying for the courses but I do feel a bit insulted that this FREE series is not really free at all — just an enticement,.

  10. Like others comment herein, when my couples begin to spiral out of co trip or yell at each other I take control of the session by, if necessary, raising my voice and redirecting them to the issue originally presented at session onset. My sessions generally begin with a question that elicits a concern or issue that needs to be addressed and that is what I take them back to.

  11. Thanks Ellyn. This is a very important topic. I see couples and families and find that I can usually handle when one of the members of the family or one of the partners becomes angry. With couples, I will do something similar to Kristan or Denise- help them be aware of the pattern and understand more about how to prevent the spiraling down. I do find though that when the anger is directed to me- it is harder to stay calm and not react defensively. Also looking forward to learning more.

  12. I listen to the fight for a little while and then thank them for showing me the patterns they fall into and we spend time doing the metacognitive work of analyzing the patterns and the triggered emotional responses. I actually find fights quite helpful in the session.

  13. I know that sinking feeling well. Sometimes taking a more confrontational stand helps, sometimes it does not. I usually have a variety of interventions I try, but I never know beforehand what will work with the couple in front of me.

  14. Sounds great! When is the coaching call scheduled? That would be a deciding factor for me, but I didn’t see when it’s scheduled. Many thanks!

  15. This is great advice and I am looking forward to receiving more helpful hints – so thank you. I will definitely consider doing the on line course.
    What I find most frustrating is the partner who is clearly not into reconnecting with their partner, finds fault, resists all help and then says they tried therapy but it did not work – so they have what they wanted in the first place – to leave their partner but also heap all the blame onto them.

    • I agree with Caroline’s approach, I remind my client’s that it is their time and money that is being wasted in pointless arguing. I remind them of my role as a therapist and their voluntary contract to work on issues through the medium of therapy and ask has anything changed. In other words are we going to stay of track or do they want to quit counseling. They usually understand that they need to be more invested in the process, because I am only their to facilitate and teach them new skills, not witness and babysit bad behavior on their part.

      • Caroline and Allison’s comments speak to me as well. In fact, I signed up for the year long training because of couples like this. Recently I had a husband “turn” on me, questioning my skills and attributing their delay at improvement to “miscommunication” on my part. It angered me so much that I said “well, if you feel that way, then perhaps I should refer you to someone else. Maybe I am not the provider for you and someone else would be a better fit.” This stopped him dead in his tracks. I don’t think clients always realize that we can “fire” them from treatment. Of course, I don’t mean abandonment at all, but simply that I will not allow clients to treat me just any way they would like. Part of my job is displaying healthy limits for myself as well. I have spent a lot of time with this couple and neither husband nor wife would want to start over again with a new therapist. In almost twenty years of being in this profession, I have never “fired” a client but their realization that I do have the right to terminate services and send them elsewhere if the need arises seemed to help me reclaim the direction of the session and has continued to do so in subsequent sessions. I’ve never mentioned it again but they seem to respond quicker when I redirect them.
        I’m really looking forward to the next few blogs on this topic because I realize now that I should have established clearer control to begin with and that is my fault!

  16. Great information and I’m looking forward to more. Most people have not been taught how to deal with anger or what to do when things are spiraling out of control. Thank you for a great article!

  17. I have a long-term client who is an attorney. If I allowed the sessions to unfold the way she would like I would call what we do “litigation,”
    and fact finding, not therapy. If i forget a fact, I am attacked and told I don’t listen closely enough. If I connect the dots in a way the client doesn’t like, I am told iI have poor analytic skills. It has taken me many years to feel in control of the sessions Indeed, I have been known to lose my temper with her. Maybe I need to go to law school…..

    • Very interesting and challenging client, Deb! Congratulations on being able to work with her for so long!
      I suppose it seems to her that she is using reason and logic, “facts”, but she is actually using them in the service of her emotional needs, within the fight response. Let me try to respond to someone like her:
      “Your argumentative skills are highly valued at work, and so useful to combat your opponents! You seem to see my relationship with you that way, that you and I are locked in battle. Are you willing to see that it can be cooperative instead, that we are working toward the same larger goal of improving your relationship? Would you be willing to work towards establishing a cooperative rather than competitive relationship gradually with your spouse as well? Would you like my help to do so? What signal can we have where I can politely bring you back to a cooperative frame of mind?”

      • Thanks, Andre. In the past, when I have made connections to her behavior towards me and the interpersonal problems she has with others, she tossed that off to “psychobabbble.” It took a long time for her to let down her intellectual persona and be able to work with me cooperatively. She is a biracial woman who has endured enormous prejudice in her life, not to mention an abusive upbringing, and the concept of “justice” and her ability to “be right” have defined and protected her. I had to tread very lightly with her for a long time. When she was finally able to admit that she is a black woman (denied it to the world), I became the white racist. At that point I referred her to a black therapist. Eventually, she came back and as I said has been with me for many years. Interpersonally, she has had a difficult time of it.

    • I’m delighted to see many of you engaging with this material-and there is alot more coming. There seems to be some confusion. I have prepared 9 total blogs. You will get one each day that you can read at your own convenience. Tomorrow’s focuses on good questions to ask at the beginning of a session to increase partner’s awareness of the impact they have on the other.

  18. Hi Ellyn, This is a great piece. I find that when a session is spiralling ut of control it can be very useful to simply say (usually making the “time out” sign with my hands), “Excuse me, it seems that we are spiralling here and its important to the productivity of our session that I re-direct our focus to X,Y, Z.” Of course that can lead to more escalation, but I find with the help of the “time out” sign and insisting on MY re-directing, usually people will settle enought to stay on track. Looking forward to the follow up pieces!

    • Sound great! When is the coaching call scheduled? That would be a deciding factor for me but I didn’t see the time that’s held. Please respond via email.
      Many thanks!

      • whoops left me comment in the wrong spot. I wasn’t replying to the comment above. I was trying to make my own comment. Feel free to delete the “reply” I made in error to Kristin, but answer the stand alone comment below. Thanks!