Ellyn Bader

angry outburst_225Sooner or later you will encounter a situation where one partner is aggressively triggered in your office.

They explode after hearing an unexpected comment. At that point they are flooded with emotion and become explosively furious. They often just want to “express their rage” and they definitely don’t want to be interrupted.

The spouse can’t retract, apologize or explain what they said. The limbic system is in charge! At this moment, nothing has any positive effect.

Your attempts to soothe, listen empathically, or offer insight seem to do no good at all. You understand that trauma is being triggered. But maybe another part of you believes being triggered does not justify such an aggressive response.

The bad news: it’s not easy for therapists to live through sessions like these.

The good news: events like these can become defining moments in your work with them.

Positive outcomes don’t often occur in the session when a partner is this enraged. However, how you use these explosive moments  in the next few sessions will help you lay a foundation for effective confrontation and differentiation.

In a recent session George asked Cindy, “Are you likely to have another affair?” She exploded saying, “You are sadisitic. You’ll never let this die. You’ll rub my face in it forever and never let me forget what I did!” She brutally continued saying he was no saint either. It was near the end of the session and nothing constructive was going to happen in that hour.

When they returned, they were getting along fine and neither of them mentioned the previous session. My dilemma: Do I risk bringing it up again and going into another swamp or stay with the positive feelings they were now having? I chose to bring it up again knowing that I had witnessed a defining moment. They had demonstrated for me the limits of their own differentiation.

I began by alerting Cindy: “I’d like to go back to what happened last week because I think there is a lot of learning there. Are you in a good enough spot to be open to learning more?”

After Cindy consented I said, “It seems that George’s pain about the affair is still something you have difficulty processing together. Would you each like to be strong enough to further resolve George’s feelings about the affair?”

There was a long tense silence and finally Cindy and George agreed. I proceeded, “Cindy, I believe George’s question to you last week was his way of saying, “I’m scared to believe you and I am testing out whether I can ask you sensitive questions. Your response seems defensive and does not make it easy for George to turn to you when he’s having a tough time. Is that the message you want to communicate to him? Your guilt seems to get in the way of you accepting that George has his own process to go through.”

In this situation I am using Cindy’s outburst as a vehicle to open her to stretch and get outside of herself and see George’s vulnerability. Until now she has not understood that her inability to accept his vulnerability has made her an unsafe partner.

When he talks about who he is as a separate person from her, and how his own development has been affected by the lies and betrayal, she doesn’t hear him and his struggles in a separate way yet. She has been unable to support George processing his experience in a way that would enable them to understand one another and together create an understanding of what went wrong and why.

Cindy’s response will show me how much I can use the previous week’s session to push her awareness of her husband as another “real self.” Cindy’s answers will reveal whether she will still revert to the angry, defensive self or whether she will be open to seeing how her barriers interfere with them connecting.

George’s differentiation will be strengthened when he can go to Cindy and say, “ I felt so hurt when you turned away from me for another man. I want to be able to tell you when I am scared and have you respond openly to me when I’m vulnerable with you.”

The previous session becomes a defining moment for him when he recognizes that he must not let her anger derail him. He will have to repetitively step up to difficult conversations no matter how much he would like to retreat.

For both Cindy and George stepping up to the intensity of tough conversations is what will “affair-proof” their marriage in the future.  Stepping up, embracing the process of knowing each other more deeply and surviving intensity is what will prevent them from having a dead and disconnected marriage.

Can you share any defining moments you’ve experienced recently? How did you make use of them? If you didn’t recognize them at the time, how can you use them in future sessions?


We help couples struggling with marital affairs in Menlo Park, San Francisco, San Mateo, Redwood City, San Jose, Campbell and the surrounding areas.


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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Anne O'Connor
6 years ago

This is a very helpful description of”the limits of their own differentiation.” It helps me to see a couple of situations that reoccur in each meeting. The helpful statement was “when he talks about who he is as a separate person, she doesn’t hear him and his struggles.” I see that that moment when he is struggling in an unskillful way to talk, she breaks down in her differentiation and his is halted by her reaction. I have not seen this as a defining moment as you describe it! My reaction has been disappointment but now I see that these are the measuring sticks.

Vee Alexander
6 years ago

Thanks, Ellyn, for your clarity in defining what’s really going on in such a loaded –very familiar– moment. When couples erupt like that, I can have a hard time seeing those underlying emotions like vulnerability and guilt until after the session is over…and I appreciate your guidance in how to bring it to their attention in such a constructive way.

Christine Hart
6 years ago

Thank you, that was very helpful, not just in recognising it as a defining moment, but also your description of how it made you feel and quandry as to whether bring it up at another session. I had a similar situation recently when the partner, went on a rant about how hurt and angry he felt because she had cheated on him. I felt helpless, had no opportunity to interupt and when they left actually felt as if I had failed somehow. However, the woman has been coming for sessions since and beginning to understand her need to demonstrate the remorse she feels, and they are coming together again this week, when now that they are both realising that if they want a future together they need to move forward from the past, the session will be calmer. From reading your blog, I have some idea of how to approach the situation if it happens again.

Mark Edwards
6 years ago

Thank you Ellen for that well explained vignette again. You analysis reminds me once more that the fundamental tool for the therapist is an accurate re-interpretation of the clients’ behavior. The art is in seeing the accurate psychodynamic in the first place, then presenting it in such a way that its crystal clarity washes away the clients own misinterpretation.

Ephraim Frankel, MFT, Milwaukee, WI, USA
Ephraim Frankel, MFT, Milwaukee, WI, USA
6 years ago

Barry was referred to me for individual therapy by my colleague who had seen him and his wife Cindy for couples therapy ( not real names ). The couple sounded conflict-habituated, symbiotic, in which Barry was constantly critical, mean, in tirades, to Cindy and to his children.

Barry is an atty, also trained in linguistics, philosophy, from NYC, manic-like, v quick-witted and clearly v intelligent. In one early session, he went on and on: When I’m in court, EVERYBODY knows who the smartest guy in court is; When I’m in chambers with the judge, other attys, THEY know who the smartest guy in the the room is.

While getting somewhat annoyed, yet sensing the terrible desperation he was living at needing to be seen, heard, and loved, I managed to interrupt him and say: It’s pretty clear to me how important it is to you to know that others know how smart you are. I can’t help but wonder if you’re thinking, do I know who the smartest guy is in the room here.

There was that neuromuscular lock/shock in his body and on his face. He was speechless.
I said: Well, I can tell you who the smartest guy in the room is. He paused again. Really? he asked. Sure, it’s really no mystery. It’s obviously you ( I beginning to slightly smile ) because you’ve chosen to come and see me.
We both burst out laughing and laughing. It’s still funny, and periodically he references that.

We used this defining moment to reframe his two selves: the one, driven, desperate for real acceptance, recognition, and embrace; and the real, authentic, self-chosen self free from the vicious admonitions of his mother’s: You’re brilliant and beautiful; but you’re lazy, no good, and pathologically sick. He’s birthing a self, and it’s a lot of labor.

He’s making slow progress ( lithium has helped, along with meditation, yoga ), replete with regressions, but he now believes he can begin to fashion a self of his own creation, and not be the driven self, not the shame-based self, forever viewed as defective, as he was in his family and trying to please people who are fundamentally not pleasable. He’s kinder to his wife and children, but not always.

I’m seeing now more and more, and especially in the vignette Ellyn’s cited, that these difficult, defining moments, can be carefully seen and utilized for mapping the pathway to something more enriching and satisfying.
Thanks, Ellyn

Mark Edwards
6 years ago

I’m sorry for the misspelling Ellyn. Ephraim, very nice story. I was held in suspense wondering what you were going to say! Did you discuss with Barry his “two selves” and how they came to be?

Ephraim Frankel, MFT, Milwaukee, WI, USA
Ephraim Frankel, MFT, Milwaukee, WI, USA
6 years ago

Hi Mark — Yes. Once words were put to his driven style, it made sense to him, and he could see it. The secondary gains from the driven self , however ( attention; women coming on to him; his intellect; his manic fun persona; a pseudo sense of power ) has made it hard to leave it.
It’s fascinating, we’ve been discussing it, and its variations in his personal, marital, and career life for months, which informs me how deep and difficult the struggle is, and how wounding from family of origin patterns can be.
Thanks for getting back to me.

6 years ago

Thank you all for engaging with what I wrote. You do make it worthwhile to keep writing! It is hard when I don’t get feedback to know what is resonating and making sense. So many thanks-Ellyn

Mark Edwards
6 years ago

Hi Ephraim, Yes, your last sentience “its variations in his personal, marital, and career life …… informs me how deep and difficult the struggle is, and how wounding from family of origin patterns can be” is interesting because I am thinking about what is it that we do as therapists that helps engender change in intrenched behaviors. Pointing out the fruitlessness of the behavior we would all agree is ineffectual. Supplying alternate behaviors also generally results in a lack of success because it doesn’t have the emotional power to replace entrenched behavior. Those entrenched behaviors are maintained by emotional power developed in the crucible of the family of origin. I think it was Spinoza who said you can’t fight emotion with reason, you have to turn reason into emotion to give it enough strength. Illuminating to him that what he feels is his seemingly unique self-chosen mode of engaging with the world is really an early learned emotional response to the wounding patterns in his family of origin can empower change motivation with the power of emotion for some clients. Hopefully he is one of them. Thank you for your response.

Katie Cashin Therapy
6 years ago

Ellyn, Thank you for the reminder to understand conflict as a growth opportunity rather than something we should shy away from. I also appreciate framing this growth as a choice on the part of the clients in asking if they are wanting to strengthen their selves and their relationship by looking at what lies underneath the first reaction.

Ephraim Frankel, MFT, Milwaukee, WI, USA
Ephraim Frankel, MFT, Milwaukee, WI, USA
6 years ago

HI Mark — I’m intrigued with your comment “you have to turn reason into emotion” to effect the change for real growth. Thanks for sharing that: I guess we could also channel Spinoza and thank him too ( a v rich thinker from the past ). I’m wondering what thoughts you have about the processes for doing just that? what has been useful, successful for you in supporting clients’ growth thru and beyond these unconsciously-derived, but driven dysfunctional patterns from family of origin?
I appreciate you’re getting back to me on this with your reflections.
Thanks Ellyn for making this all possible — it’s illuminating, satisfying, and hopeful.

6 years ago

I do strongly believe that there is tremendous value in our couples showing us the painful interactions. Those that repeat are such a window into their development and into what they are missing that will turn it around. Of course I don’t mean we should sit back and watch them fight for very long!

6 years ago

There is always some good in every bad situation. For sure, a therapist can use explosive utterances of a furious spouse to identify the problem they are facing. While some therapists could be a little impatient with such couples, patiently observing their reactions during such cases could help solve their issues – leading them to have a healthy relationship.

Fran Davies
6 years ago

Situations like these are actually incredibly helpful (although can be very uncomfortable too), as they give a true reflection of what can be very protected emotions and motivations. It’s imperative that the spouse who is more confrontational is alerted to the fact that their willingness to flair up could actually be alienating and pro-actively encourage distancing in the relationship. This is a great example of how to sensitively highlight that.

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.