Ellyn Bader

Young Couple Having Argument At HomeI consult on so many cases where therapists are struggling to be effective leaders with hostile angry couples, I know it is a widespread problem.

The more disorganized a couple is and the more hostility there is, the more difficult it’s going to be for you to structure sessions and arrive at effective goals for each session.

Here’s what makes the hostile-angry dynamic so challenging:

  1. These couples often arrive for sessions still reeling from the fight of the week. They are hurt and angry and want the opportunity to unload their pain with a sympathetic listener (you) managing their partner. You end up being reactive rather than being an effective leader.
  2. Favorite interventions of most therapists, such as empathy, non-judgmental reflection and pointing out vulnerability, just don’t get anywhere or lead to sustained change when both partners are activated and responding reflexively to each other.
  3. These partners move rapidly from one painful event to the next without any significant repair. So much hurt and damage has been done to their bond that each views the other as primarily an enemy.
  4. These couples are often looking for quick fixes: they search for  loopholes that will make it all better without them having to stretch and grow themselves.
  5. Often they rapidly escalate hostility and complaints so that whoever defines the problem controls more of the session and the other may shift to a helpless innocent victim position, leaving you stuck about how to make a difference.
  6. And last, they may hold onto a rigid belief that they are entitled to a perfect symbiotic union!

All in all, this means we need to be on our toes and very clear-headed when working with these couples.

This article is part of a four part series. Read the others at the links below:
Goals of Early Therapy with Hostile Angry Couples
Suggestions for Working with Hostile Angry Couples
Part Four Coming Soon


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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Helene Beddingfield
Helene Beddingfield
6 years ago

Thanks for posting more information on this topic, Ellyn. This type of couple does warrent more stretch from the therapist and I notice for myself that I get triggered in so many ways. I have tried to subdue the reactivity and calm things down which is not effective once they get going. The best intervention I have learned with your program so far regarding this situation is the preventative stance of asking each partner what they think the other is going to say about the situation. I was and am still amazed how guiding them to take this alternate view of what is going on can so effectively calm the reactivity.

Alexa Elkington
6 years ago

I am very glad to see you are going to expand on how to help the hostile, angry couple. I have reread and listened to prior cases dealing with this issue. It has helped a lot since I followed your advice and took “control” of the session. I think my couples are relieved to know that I am there keeping tight reign on the session. I look forward to more instruction and guidance to be able to help these very passionate, emotional couples.

Maria Luisa Johnston
6 years ago

Thank you for sharing your expertise on angry hostile couples. I am looking forward learning from you.

Leanne Clarkson
Leanne Clarkson
6 years ago

Thanks so much Ellyn. I have a very hostile couple coming in this afternoon and I just saw your email so it was very timely. There is physical abuse, narcissism, control, and extreme hostility here so any support will be helpful. My first goal is to stop the abuse so I’ll use the Limits Questionnaire. I thought I might also use Peter’s revised first session template for hostile couples.
I’m really loving this course Ellyn. It’s been so helpful in working effectively with couples.

6 years ago

Thank you Ellyn…and thank you for being so generous with your knowledge.

Dairlyn Chelette
Dairlyn Chelette
6 years ago

Is it possible to get a copy of the Limits Questionnaire and the first session template mentioned above?

6 years ago

I agree with the above comments I too look forward to learning more and would like to get a copy of the Limits Questionnaire and the first session template.
Thanks for this valuable resource.

6 years ago

I really like the way you have highlighted the features of working with hostile couples. The most important thing I think you said is point 6 about symbiotic union. This is the craving in this type of relationship and when one partner “fails” they often receive the vitriol of their partner. What is important to remember is that this is a deeply painful experience and the angry partner is in existential crisis in response to a sense of loss/abandonment. This process is difficult to navigate with this type of couple as there is so much entanglement at this moment where “bad” feelings, which seem intolerable, are experienced by both partners. Hostile abandonment often ensues from both sides.
I focus on finding the pain behind their anger, attuning to it and helping them put a voice to it. Help them locate the origin of their anger and pain. Then it is often about supporting the partner who hears this and can feel guilt and blame. Help them voice what it is like for them. This can create a dialogue of depth between them and help them find a more authentic connection, however faint it may be.
I find this easier to do when I can sense they have something core between them which is loving but this is not always easy to trust in a hostile angry couple.
I look forward to reading more of your posts on this subject.

6 years ago

Thank you all for you comments! Getting feedback inspires me to keep writing. Writing has never come easily to me-so you boost my morale and enthusiasm.

Sylvia Kaneko
Sylvia Kaneko
6 years ago

Excellent re Angry Couples! Thanks

A Glossary of Terms that are sometimes Confusing

Couples Therapy is a counseling procedure that seeks to improve the adjustment of two people who have created an interdependent relationship. There are no standard procedures to help two people improve their adjustments to each other. Generally, a more experienced therapist will offer more perspectives and tools to a couple. Length of treatment will depend on severity of problems, motivation and skills of the therapist. A couple can be dating, living together, married or separating and may be gay, lesbian or heterosexual.

Marriage Therapy is a term often used interchangeably with marriage counseling. The term marriage implies two people have created a union sanctioned by a government or religious institution. The methods used in marriage counseling, marriage therapy and couples therapy are interchangeable and depend more on the specific challenges of each unique couple.

Psychotherapy is one or more processes to help improve psychological and emotional functioning. Examples are psychoanalysis, cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, Gestalt therapy, Transactional Analysis, Rational-Emotive therapy, or group therapy. Many forms of psychotherapy are blends of different approaches. For example, newer forms of psychotherapy called energy psychology draw upon recent advances in brain and neuroscience. These approaches often build on cognitive behavioral methods.

Clinical Psychologist. After graduating from college, it usually takes about five years of graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Psycholgy. It then requires an additional two years of supervision and passing a written (and often) an oral exam. There are a few states that allow psychologists to prescribe medications (with additional training) but that is uncommon.

Psychiatrist. After graduation from medical school, there is a generally a 4-year psychiatric residency. After the completion of this training, psychiatrists must pass an exam issued by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to obtain certification and legally practice in the field. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications.

Clinical Social Worker. This profession usually requires two years of study after obtaining an undergraduate degree. While specific licensure requirements vary by state, most require clinical social workers to obtain 3,000 hours or 2 years of supervised clinical experience, after obtaining a Masters degree. Social workers can also specialize in diverse fields such as human services management, social welfare analysis, community organizing, social and community development, and social and political research.

Marriage and Family Therapist. Obtaining this license requires a Masters degree which takes approximately two years of post graduate study. The license also requires 3000 hours of supervised work and passing written exams.

The Couples Institute. We have assembled a group of top notch therapists at The Couples Institute. Whatever marriage help or marriage advice you are looking for, we are here to serve you. While most other therapists see only a few couples a week, we specialize in marriage and couples relationships, working to develop and bring you the most current and effective approaches to couples therapy. For more information about couples therapy or marriage counseling, see our couples therapy section.