All couples engage in some conflict when they’re in therapy. But some can’t seem to manage themselves for even a few minutes without exploding into rage, resentment, blame – or dissolving in tears.
If you’re treating a volatile couple whose repetitive, heated responses to your questions are leading nowhere, let’s talk about how you can bring more calm, clarity, and structure to the process.
One couple’s struggle reflects a frustrating, but well-known pattern
The challenge of working with reactive couples came up in a recent session of my advanced training group. One member shared a challenge she’d found in working with young partners who desperately wanted to gain control over the conflicts that were tearing at the fabric of their marriage.
She admitted that she felt overwhelmed by these two. “They can go from shouting to tearful to sullen, all within a few minutes,” she said. “It feels like we’re all over the place. The level of emotion is so high that I’m constantly getting pulled off track.”
In our conversation, we explored 5 fundamental steps to gain better control over your sessions so partners can hear one another, practice new skills, and begin to build a foundation for change.
1. Address your own thoughts and emotions first
When couples fill the room with rage, hurt, or scorn, their words and gestures may be so exaggerated that you feel flooded by their over-the-top energy.
This is the time to observe your own reactions carefully. Self-defeating thoughts like these often creep in:
I should know exactly what to do, but I don’t.
I feel self-conscious and anxious.
I need to figure this out right now.
If I don’t do something now, they’ll think I am a lousy therapist
If you feel yourself sinking into self-doubt, realize that you don’t need to have the perfect response ready. Yes, you’ll need to take control of the conversation – but that doesn’t mean coming into the room with a foolproof script. Relax, observe what’s happening, and center yourself in the situation so that you can begin to calmly redirect the flow. You can even say, “Please be quiet for a minute, I need time to think.”
Recognize, too, that these partners are struggling. They have not attained healthy adult differentiation. Their progress will depend on your willingness and ability to lead them in a way that moves them towards greater capacity to accept their differences.
2.Bring structure to each session
You will need to build a strong scaffold that can keep these partners on track. Begin by realizing that you’ll need to interrupt them decisively and often, using a respectful but confident approach.
When they veer into emotional territory, move right in. “We’re going in a direction that won’t help. I really want you to get the greatest possible benefit from today’s session. Would you be open to trying something different?” Seek agreement from both partners and thank them for their willingness to experiment and see what works.
Choose a structure where you talk to each partner rather than having them interact. For example, “Today, I’d like to hear from you each individually. I’m going to ask each of you to give an example of something you do well in your relationship. Then I’ll ask you to name something you think you could do better.”
Jump right in to redirect if the partner speaking begins to bash the other. “Whoops! Remember, we’re talking about YOU right now.”
3. Reframe what you hear to build clarity and understanding
As you hold boundaries and require partners to follow the structure you’ve set, each one will have the opportunity to feel seen and heard. Affirming and restating what’s been said can help you turn negatives into positives.
It might go like this. Partners take turns describing something that the other did very well – and something they desire.
Partner: “My husband comes from a family where they joke about everything. I think a sense of humor is good, so maybe that’s a positive thing. But when we’re fighting and he jokes around, it makes me furious!”
Therapist: “So you often appreciate his playful, more lighthearted side. That’s a positive for you. That’s so good to know. But when you’re feeling upset or hurt, you want a straight answer.”
Partner: “Yes! I want to feel he’s not making fun of me and glossing over what I’m asking.”
Therapist: “Of course. And one thing you are learning here is to ask straightforward and honest questions and to handle honest answers. It is much easier to react than to breathe and listen. I believe you both want more openness and honesty but have not known how to get there. Slowing down in here and letting me coach you will enable you to learn new skills.”
Reframing what you hear can transform what starts out as criticism into clear statements and starts shifting the dialogue towards setting more effective goals. It changes the energy in the room, easing tensions as partners practice hearing and understanding. You also give partners a developmental assist by helping them clarify what they each desire as individuals – a crucial step in differentiation.
4. Offer consistent praise
As fighting partners practice witnessing the good and the not-so-good, seek out every possible chance to provide positive reinforcement.
“What you said is very insightful. It takes real self-awareness to communicate this way, and I’m impressed.”
“You’ve outlined what you don’t like, but you’ve also started to identify what you do like. I really respect the efforts you are making.”
“The work you did today was challenging, but I feel so encouraged. I can feel your dedication to each other and to learning new ways to handle the rough spots.”
“Just having the courage to explore, have an open mind, and learn from each other – this is such a positive step.”
5. Lay a foundation of hope
Couples who are deeply entangled in each other’s emotions may doubt their ability to rise above the recriminations and resentments they’ve been carrying around – possibly for years. They need to hear that you believe in their ability to build substantial new skills that can heal their relationship. You are there to guide, educate, and lead them, but they will do the work.
Your confidence in their abilities – as well as your own – will infuse each session with a sense of hope that inspires the couple to keep learning, keep growing, keep moving forward.
In our next post, we’ll dive deeper into ways to guide and support emotionally volatile couples. I hope you’ll share your questions, your successes, or your challenges below. We’d love to address them as part of this series.