Ellyn Bader

Young Couple Having Argument At HomeGoal 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.

  1. 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).
  2. Hold each partner accountable for doing something positive for the other once each week.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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

About 

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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Phil Striegel
Phil Striegel
6 years ago

Ellyn, I regret that I didn’t take the step to introduce myself at the Couple’s Conference. I am dedicating this next year to developing my treatment protocol for volatile couples. This series is very helpful to me as it establishes means as ends-in-process. Ghandi would be pleased.

vee alexander
vee alexander
6 years ago

Thanks, Ellyn. This blog is a huge help to me. I really like your description of setting self-focused goals for (and with) the couple, and agree how essential that can be to keep from getting dragged into rehashing the same triggering material. Recently, I’ve started planning in advance how to help move each partner forward, and your ideas on this are extremely helpful! Thank you.

Tony Fiore,Ph.D.
6 years ago

Ellyn: This is shocked full of good, useful and practical information. In fact, I have found an app clients can download to their smartphones to keep track of these goals and their execution on a daily basis, so I can continually track their participation and their progress. Results are then reviewed in our next live session.

Amanda Howe
Amanda Howe
6 years ago

I particularly like Ellyn what you said about each partner being accountable for doing something positive for the other once each week.
And also having them create a time during the week to get together for at least 15-20 minutes with no discussion of their problems.
These may appear to be simple or a rather basic on the surface but I feel would be fundamental in allowing their nervous systems to sooth or begin to regulate.

Christine Molohon
Christine Molohon
6 years ago

Thanks Ellyn, it is so good to have strong, clear directions on how to navigate sessions early on with hostile/angry couples. It is very helpful to have the step by step goal setting outline to follow.

Sarah Flores
Sarah Flores
6 years ago

Hi Ellyn,

I loved your goals for couples sessions especially your reframe of their coping strategies, very nice way to bring down their defenses and help them see their part more easily. I really appreciate your blog as a resource for bolstering my practice. Thank you.

Sue Diamond Potts
Sue Diamond Potts
6 years ago

Hi Ellyn,

This article is exceptionally well written and full of clear direction that is so valuable for me in my work with couples. It seems I can’t hear the message enough times and each new reminder focuses my attention on a particular area I can strengthen. In this article what stood out of me was your acknowledging how “sophisticated and complex” goal setting with couples is and how it takes several sessions. I have a new couple and we have just outlined their personal and relationship goals. You have reminded me that it will be important to revisit exactly what each one is committing to changing and being sure that each has completely bought in to their own change process. Thanks for the clear direction. Your writing is an inspiration to me.

Pam Eaken
6 years ago

Hi Ellyn,

I do so appreciate your short summaries of things. It really helps me to stay organized in my head, and especially around topics like goal setting. The steps you outline are very useful and clear. Thank you!!
Pam

Gloria Peacock
Gloria Peacock
6 years ago

Ellyn Thank you again for your clear strategies and suggestions: I looked back at this blog, as I had another new hostile couple again today. What struck me a-new on this occasion, was the positive AND negative aspects of each individual’s defense mechanism – it helps them understand why they use it yet again, and why it continues NOT to be effective in achieving the goal! Thank you again for bringing new insights!

Ann Walter
Ann Walter
6 years ago

Hi Ellyn,
As I am reviewing your blogs on working with hostile angry couples in preparation for two couples I will see tomorrow, I am appreciating how much I continue to learn from you. I especially benefit from your recommendation to ask for their consent to coach them , including confronting and interrupting. That really frees me up to do it! Thank you for sending these concise summaries to reference easily.

Black Couples Counseling

Thanks for sharing such a helpful blog. I’m working as a couple Counselor and I know that for saving a relationship there is a need for counseling. the counselor does their best to overcome their client’s issues so that they can again live happily with their soulmate without any kind of issues.

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.