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


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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Please Comment ↴

  1. 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.

  2. 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!

  3. 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!!

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.