Suggestions for Working with Hostile Angry Couples

We are now halfway through my blog series on Hostile Angry Couples. In the first blog I wrote about some challenges you face working with these couples. The second blog suggested goals for both you and the couple.

At the end of the second blog post, I promised to summarize some solutions to these challenges.

So, here goes….

Even though hurt and angry partners want change, the steps to create that change are scary. Being open and vulnerable and coming out from behind self-protective walls is not easy and definitely does not feel safe. When it makes sense in your sessions, you might try some of these solutions:

  1. Agree on one small change that will symbolize progress and effort. You want the change to be clearly recognizable. Here are two examples. A wife agreed to be very explicit when her husband came home at night. “I need your help the next 20 minutes.” Or, “ I don’t need your help the next twenty minutes. It is okay for you to go chill.”  Her husband decided to focus on not giving her a plastic smile and saying yes when he really meant no.
  2. Use these small changes as an initial way to measure progress. I told them that each time either of them did these things it was a clear symbol of effort and engagement. It was the same as saying, “I want a better relationship with you. I care.”
  3. Next, get consent from the partners to coach them actively in your sessions. “Is it okay if I guide you, lead you, and interrupt you when I see you going off track? I would like to push you in here to experiment with new ways of being together. I would like to do that a lot in the beginning as long as I have your consent.”
  4. Be sure to flag big issues that are on the agenda. Keep these visible so they know you have not forgotten.  Typical examples would be infidelity, lies, jealousy, or addictions. Tell the partners, “We will get to these as soon as you learn how to process issues more constructively. These big ones are charged and painful. We need to be sure you have some new skills to bring to the effort in order to tackle the big issues successfully and without hurting each other more.”
  5. Be honest and straightforward about what you see. Being well-defined yourself enables you to take a strong stand in expecting them to be capable of much more honest, authentic communication.  Be clear that this is not easy but you believe in their capacity to achieve it. Emphasize that they each have a role to play in being able to handle honesty and vulnerability.
  6. Describe the process and at least one substantial change required by each of them. “Maria, when you ask for more honesty, it means sometimes you’re going to hear things you don’t want to hear. And part of your creating the context for more honesty means handling yourself better when you hear Henry’s truth.  Maria, that means you will need to be able to internally calm yourself down so you can listen. And Henry, it means you will be more upfront, and not evade or hide the way that you do some of the time.”

The Developmental Model encourages differentiation, and urges each partner to be more self-defined and more emotionally regulated. Ultimately partners will be able to stay engaged even when they have significant differences.

Your hostile angry couples will recognize that you understand their hostile system and are taking steps to help them change it.

Next I’ll send the final installment in this series, a transcript from a session with one of my hostile angry couples. In the meantime, please experiment with some of these suggestions and share about your experience in the comment section below.

This article is part of a four part series. Read the others at the links below:
Challenges of Hostile Angry Couples
Goals of Early Therapy with Hostile Angry Couples
A Clinical Case Example

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Thank you!! The way you provide a blueprint for working with these couples makes it so much less scary (some of them have A LOT of hostility!) I appreciate the practical suggestions and explanations that you provide. I am following this blog and look forward to what is next.


This is great! I appreciate the solutions you went through and how clearly you lay out the information. I feel like I can read this and take it straight into many of my sessions. So many couples I see are so entrenched in behavior that they think is protecting them and yet it is so clearly keeping them from what they really want (or what they express they want); a better relationship. There is a great balance in the solution you describe; the right amount of understanding and push to move. Thank you! I look forwarded to the next blog.


Thank you, Ellyn, for providing more tools for working with these angry couples. I find them the most difficult to work with and often feel challenged with keeping myself centered in the midst of their chaotic interactions.

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader 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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