Hostile Angry Couple

Getting Started: Disrupting the Cycle of Externalization and Blame

Many of the couples who come to see us are stuck organizing their complaints around an external symptom or problem. It’s easier for them and preserves individual self-esteem when partners deflect the focus away from themselves and place blame on the other partner for problems in their relationship. Surely you’ve heard examples such as “He drinks too much. She always puts her work before me. His clutter drives me crazy.” And when externalizing has become entrenched, it can be a challenge for you to shed light on each partner’s role and move them toward increased differentiation. So how do you disrupt this gridlock and help each partner create more of an internal locus of control?… Read more...

10 Skills for Early Sessions

Each year I mentor a small group of therapists to help them set goals for their business and clinical skills. I often ask them to assess themselves by being brutally honest about their ability on a variety of criteria that I believe make for strength and effectiveness as a couples therapist. I am including some of these here so you too can assess yourself. Couples Therapist Self­-Assessment First, read the following statements and respond with a simple yes or no. Later, come back and use a 1­-7 on a continuum from very strong to very weak. Early Sessions with Couples: __ I have a plan when I talk to potential clients on the telephone.… Read more...

Going Deeper: Moving from Hostile Symbiosis into Differentiation

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been discussing angry fighting couples who are arrested at the first stage of development. If you’ve been following along, you’ve been laying a strong foundation for change; assessing motivation and doing some trust-building. Now it is time to push for individual development. A big stumbling block is partners’ focus on changing each other rather than changing themselves. But self-accountability is crucial to making lasting change. Here are some questions I like to use to shift partners into focusing more on internal change. 1. What kind of relationship do you want to create?… Read more...

What Can Bruce Lee Teach You About Angry Couples?

Your therapy is underway. You thought you had good positive momentum and then one of your fighting couples starts dumping new issues on you every week. It can be an arduous journey to get them from emotional reactivity to predictable and reliable behavior. Here’s how you can regain control and keep making progress. But read carefully, because the solution is counterintuitive.1.Tell the couple you would like to do an experiment. And, at first, it will seem counterintuitive, but it will be effective if they persist.Tell them they are allowed to make only one change. That’s it. They are allowed to choose to change only one thing.… Read more...

How Do You Build Trust?

Dillon and Megan came to me because their fights had persisted for so long that spending time together was painful. Megan wanted to feel free to be with her friends, go to dance classes, see plays on weeknights, and go on camping trips on the weekend. Avoiding Dillon meant escaping their fights. Dillon felt threatened by how much distance she wanted, so he started alternating between clinging and attacking. Megan would come home from a friend’s house at 10pm instead of 9pm and he’d grill her about why she was late.“I thought you were just watching a show? That’s only an hour. Why were you gone 2 hours?”His questioning made her want to spend more time away, which made him grasp even tighter.… Read more...

4 Diagnostic Questions

Fighting couples unload massive problems on you.He’s controlling. She’s bossy. He lied about our finances. She overspends on clothes and won’t stick to a budget. He’s too strict and yells too much at our kids. She’s too soft. He hates her parents; she hates his siblings. Holidays are a nightmare.And on and on. Working with these problems takes strong leadership. It means identifying the couple’s developmental arrest. One thing I give trainees in my Developmental Model program is a 21-point diagnostic questionnaire. Today I’ll share 4 questions with you that are particularly good for assessing what went wrong for fighting couples.… Read more...

What do diets and fighting couples have in common?

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The Sequence of Change is neither simple nor smooth, especially for fighting couples. In fact, it’s usually messy and rarely linear. For most, the process of change encompasses 5 stages, starting with denial and ending with commitment. A therapist in my Developmental Model program named Neil said,“This is a wonderful video to see what change looks like in the context of a relationship.”Now that you know what it looks like, my hope is that you have an easier time keeping the couple engaged, encouraging them to actively define themselves, and challenging each partner to stick with the journey when they regress.… Read more...

Why Trust Is So Fragile

I remember one couple I saw a few years ago. Trevor and his wife Rebecca ran a small marketing agency together. Over the years, Trevor had lost many contracts because he was late delivering products he promised. He missed countless other deadlines. He borrowed money without Rebecca knowing. He would attack Rebecca for being let down by his irresponsible behavior. He called her expectations unreasonable, and wished she was more nurturing and forgiving. Resentful Rebecca started contacting an old boyfriend of hers and lying about who she was talking to on Facebook. She’d tell Trevor she was in client meetings when she was sneaking around to get coffee with her ex.… Read more...

The Couples Motivation Equation

The Motivation Equation will pinpoint whether you need to stress systemic or individual work for each partner. Claudia, a trainee in my Developmental Model program, said “Most useful is the ability to identify where the the individual is actually stuck, so interventions can be much more targeted.” If you’re ready for more targeted interventions, check out The Motivation Equation video above.   Act NowMy Developmental Model training program teaches couples therapists to understand motivation and leverage it for progress. The program is currently closed but you can click Developmental Model to read about it and get on the waiting list here. … Read more...

How Assessing Motivation Helps You

When you’re working with a Hostile Angry couple, you’ll save yourself a head of grey hairs if you assess motivation as early as possible. Your approach with the couple will depend upon whether they are motivated, unmotivated, or a third type, “motivated/unmotivated,” which I’ll explain below. A motivated partner comes to therapy for growth and change. They will set goals and do homework. An unmotivated partner doesn’t want to take an active role. They don’t identify problems.  They don’t set goals. They may not want to be there at all. They often expect to be blamed. They may have already decided to leave the relationship.… Read more...
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