Goal Setting is always helpful to drive progress in couples therapy, and with hostile angry couples the use of goal setting in early therapy is particularly important. Goals will help you focus the session even when partners arrive for their appointment reverberating from their last fight – or launch into a new one!
You’ll be better able to lead them if you know how to focus, and you’ll recognize immediately how much better that is than wandering and reacting to the problem of the day.
This short blog post addresses goals from two perspectives. First I’ll address your goals for early sessions with hostile angry couples. Then I’ll say a few words about goal setting with the couple. So we’re actually talking about both your goals and your couple’s goals.
- Set the stage by defining what couples therapy is about and what you expect of yourself and of your couple. Explain what it means to be an effective couples team. (Review our free article How to Get the Most Out of Couples Therapy or get Pete’s 60-minute audio recording, Rethinking First Sessions, for a detailed description of how to conduct early sessions).
- Hold each partner accountable for doing something positive for the other once each week.
- Have them create a time in the week to get together for at least 15-20 minutes with no discussion of problems. Coffee dates or walks are often best because their hostility is usually contained when they are out of the house.
- Delineate their favorite current coping strategies, for example blame or withdrawal. Then demonstrate how the coping strategy is both a problem and a solution. It is a problem because it triggers the other partner and makes their cycle worse. It is a solution because it is self-protective. Using blame or withdrawal leads to distancing, which creates space where they back off from hurting each other more. They then don’t take risks and are protected from being more open, exposed and vulnerable.
- As you move on, part of your task will be to clarify what issues belong to each partner. Disrupting their symbiotic patterns and facilitating effective differentiation will enable each partner to manage them selves much better under stress.
These goals will help you stay focused in spite of the distractions of the hostile angry couple. Of course you will also want to help them identify goals for their work. Help them select goals that are self-focused or goals that lead to each partner knowing them selves better. Too frequently each partner wants to focus on the other, for example, “I want more empathy from Bill.” Or, “I want Sally to stop nagging me.” Definitely don’t accept goals that are vague complaints about the other’s character. “He’s too selfish.” “She’s too needy.”
Because goal setting is so prevalent in many areas in our culture, such as exercise, weight loss, and work, it sounds like it is something easy to do. And yet to do good goal setting with couples is an incredibly sophisticated and complex skill. When you succeed in having partners select self-focused goals, you will have made a significant stride forward in changing their negative patterns. It takes time and is an evolving process usually integrated into several sessions.
Please leave a comment and let me know if you are finding these short summaries useful.
This article is part of a four part series. Read the others at the links below:
Challenges of Hostile Angry Couples
Suggestions for Working with Hostile Angry Couples
Part Four Coming Soon