5 Strategies for Treating Highly Volatile Couples

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. 

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader 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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Sue Weller
Sue Weller
2 months ago

Thank you Ellen, I had this very same situation with a couple this week – although they’ve been together 20 years…!. The overwhelming depth of constant ingrained resentment sucks the air out of the room . I was feeling somewhat helpless ( def inadvertently absorbing their own feelings!!) and this blog reminds me to get back to basics, towards structure and leadership…. and reintroducing developmental assist to bank small wins and reignite hope! Thank you! X

Linda
Linda
2 months ago

Lone this post. I find it very helpful even for individual work.

Renee Moody
Renee Moody
2 months ago

Thank you Ellyn. I find these 5 strategies so helpful. In particular points 4 & 5. Last week I was working with a volatile couple. Offering praise to one partner when they showed a degree of self awareness seemed to infuse them with courage to stay present and open themselves to listening more. I really want to prioritise laying a foundation of hope for the couples I see. Thank you and your team for so generously providing that foundation of hope for us in the way you teach and inspire us.

Kaylan
Kaylan
2 months ago

Thank you for this post! I’m seeing a couple right now that this describes perfectly. Some sessions feel really productive and the couple agrees, but some sessions end in so much hostility and emotions take control. It has been difficult not knowing what I’ll get each week!

ellyn bader
2 months ago

I do love reading your comments!

Joanne
Joanne
2 months ago

Thank you for this. You describe well the feelings I sometimes have as a therapist when working with this kind of couple. Remembering to slow or pause feels a crucial first step. Also to offer praise and encouragement in what is often very distressing for them.

Martha Pardo
Martha Pardo
2 months ago

Excellent article. Many thanks

Andrea Tang
2 months ago

Ellyn, thanks so much for this post. I’m grateful that you bring up real issues that plague therapists and you do so in a variety of ways. I may not remember what you’ve taught the first time or even the 3rd time, but eventually I’m ready for it.. and it clicks into place. I am reminded that learning occurs in the same way for our clients and in their time.

Yolerma Rojas de Zubiandi
Yolerma Rojas de Zubiandi
2 months ago

Outstanding material. Thank you Ellyn. I truly want to learn more. Many couples fall in negative patterns of rage, and recrimination. Thank you for these resources which are good for our own relationships and help others.

Della
2 months ago

Very very good strategies.thank you !

Ana Ruiz
2 months ago

Thank you Ellyn! I work with high-conflict couples and #1 is something that never occurred to me and is super valuable.

Jaci Hull
2 months ago

So helpful! Thanks!

Sue
Sue
2 months ago

I found this break down /logic/sequential pattern for the therapist to be very helpful.

I may write this case up for Clinical
Presentation.

I recently had a very angry, resentful woman and a ver passive aggressive partner. They were a nightmare.

The Woman originally came to see me to help resolve issues she had behalf of another family member.

Other complicating issues
Recent grief situation /FOO disruption
Covid issues

I suggested we work alone on these issues before progressing further.

She desisted, Angrily everyone else for everything. Complete with tears and voice raising/yelling/tears.

I held tight my boundaries, in the face of projections and (verbal abuse of perceptions of my inadequacy. I told her she could express her anger but not by demeaning me, l was a listner. I had no skin in their game.

I thought it was very important to keep myself centered and help in the first instance by untwining the roles grief in inflaming the many issues.

They did not pay their bills.

It was a sad situation for them .
I feel weary when despite always setting people up with the process rather than fix things right now nature of our work, they simply were not ready to differentiate and listen.

Debi Jones
Debi Jones
2 months ago

Thank you Ellyn for giving those of us who get a knot in our stomachs when confronted by loud, angry, negative fighting couples, such solid, soothing directional advice. Each of your five points was HUGELY helpful for me, starting off with being OK to just slow down any critical internal narrative to have to produce some magnificent perfect response. Having stabilised ourselves, to then create a strength focused framework by re-directing any adversarial negativity in completely the opposite direction by asking each of them separately (!) to think of what they feel they do well, need to work on and appreciate about their spouse. Love …love…love that approach! Then to be sure to give loads of strokes whilst reframing their complaints into teachable moments to model how to verbalise what they’d like vs bombing their partner out for doing it wrong! We are honestly so lavished having you invest in each of our lives like you do with such relentless heartfelt enthusiastic intentionality Ellyn…. such a big hug THANK YOU!!!

Jen Graves
Jen Graves
2 months ago

Ah! This post is music to my ears. I am going to print it out and keep it close because I get really flooded when I am faced in particular with one couple I have been seeing for a few years who often devolve into rage and tears. I saw them today and was able to use these ideas and steer them completely away from this territory, and I was so happy about it that I felt like I could cry happy tears afterward. Thank you SO SO SO much, Ellyn!!!!

Deb
Deb
1 month ago

Spot on! I feel these things when the couples behavior is predictable. We’ve dealt with the same issue over and over again without resolution. I struggle with deciphering between relationship anxiety and gaslighting. I’d love to hear some comments on how to move forward!

Yinlayefa
Yinlayefa
20 days ago

Thank you Ellyn for this post. Feels like sunshine after some messy rain.

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