Clinical Example: Transcript of a Hostile Angry Couple

In my last blog post, I gave a list of practical suggestions to support your work with hostile angry couples.  To end my series on working with hostile angry couples, I offer you a transcript that demonstrates the last two principles that were on that list. These were my last two suggestions on that list:
  • Be honest and straightforward about what you see. When you are well-defined yourself, you are able to occupy a position of strength. You can expect your couple to step forward and be more honest and authentic. You can acknowledge that this is not easy but that 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.
  • Describe the process and at least one substantial change required by each of them.
Session with couple where husband wanted to cancel a plan to visit his wife’s family Sally and Joe have been married for 13 years and fighting explosively for the last 5 years. As is often the case, partners like Joe postpone important discussions and then bring them up in casual offhand ways, hoping they won’t generate anticipated conflict. At home, he unexpectedly, and at the very last minute, brought up his desire to delay a trip to visit Sally’s family. The session begins: Sally:  I’m furious. I can’t believe he thought it was no big deal to change this visit. Ellyn: How do you know he thought it was no big deal to change this visit? Sally: Well he wanted to change because of work. WORK, WORK, WORK! It is always work. He took on an extra commitment at work, and he never discussed it with me. Then 3 weeks later he says, “Can we find another time to visit your family? “ Can we do it in the summer? ”  It’s like you don't even care about me, my family, or our plans or our marriage! (This is her negative bias. Everything is filtered through her belief that he does not care about her or the marriage. Take a minute to think about how you would shift this.) Sally: You think this visit to my family is no big deal! Ellyn: No, that’s what you think that he thinks. Joe:  I do care… Sally: (she cuts him off, she is boiling)   Ellyn, does this make any sense to you? Ellyn: I don’t know yet. I know you are very hurt, very angry and very certain and your husband hasn’t said much yet. Joe:  Well, I found out about this offsite retreat just a few days ago. It kind of came up last minute and I hope going will help me get a promotion. Sally:  You always have explanations. Self- serving explanations. Joe: I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking. Ellyn (to husband): If you had been thinking, how would you have approached her? If you’d taken your wife more into consideration, what thoughts would you have had? Sally: (to husband) You’re never thinking. Ellyn: You are partially correct. He lives very defensively around you. Joe:  I just didn’t think to.  I don’t know. Ellyn: If you thought to bring it up sooner, how much tension would you feel? Joe: A lot, I am scared of her anger and I did not want her to say no. Sally: You know I won’t say no. You just live for yourself. You’re in your own world not in a relationship. Ellyn: Sally, you jump quickly to a lot of negative assumptions about Joe. It is easy for you to get really angry and talk about your displeasure and your upset.  It’s a lot harder for you to remember positive efforts he makes and pay more attention to the steps it will take to change the process between the two of you. Actually Joe wants some of the same things you do, but he shuts down around you. If you really want a different kind of marriage, a lot will have to change in how you express yourself to him. When you learn to express your desires and not treat him like a naughty child, significant changes will start to unfold.  When these incidents occur, it’s hard to remember to focus on your process and turn it into a learning experience. Each time something like this happens, it gives you an opportunity to build emotional muscle. Sally:  I get so frustrated. I’ve asked him over and over to talk to me about things, that we’re in it together.  And he nods his head in here and then doesn’t talk to me. (to husband) You never tell me how you feel. Ellyn: That isn’t exactly true because I have seen him tell you in here. I think it is hard for you to remember what he tells you. It seems that the soft moments get obliterated pretty quickly. Sally:  I just don’t think he wants the same things and that’s why he doesn’t do it. Ellyn: You jump quickly to believing your assumptions. Sally: I do. It’s hard not to. Ellyn: It’s hard to get a grip on yourself when you feel hurt or insignificant – and yet those are the moments that matter most. Joe: I feel very sad about the hostility between us. Sally: Well it is so long between times that you tell me what you’re thinking about. Why don’t you tell me more often? Joe: When I try to tell you, what I usually hear is how your pain is worse than mine. Sally: Well our circumstances are not the same. You did hurt me worse than I hurt you. Ellyn: It is starting to happen now. Sally, you asked him why it is so long between times that he is open with you. He is telling you that he does not experience a place for his feelings to exist. Sally: You have a point there. Ellyn: What makes it so hard to listen to him? Sally: It is safer to not trust. Ellyn: I appreciate you acknowledging that it is hard to slow down, be more open and trust. It is so much easier to be angry. The next time your husband disappoints you, what would you like to do instead? Sally: Remember what you are saying, “that he has sad feelings too.” In summary, as you review this transcript and reflect on my four blogs, I hope you will remember these points: Ineffective ways of working with hostile angry couples:
  • Not taking charge
  • Being passive and not intrusive enough
  • Not cutting a partner off quickly enough when they project or make negative assumptions
  • Failing to stick with containing interventions
Hostile angry couples will always take an enormous amount of leadership from you. Remember your role.
  • Make clear that you are in charge in the room
  • Build containment in the room as early as possible and refuse to go in directions that permit angry escalation
  • Create enough discomfort for each partner to recognize that they need to be accountable rather than just spewing anger and hostility
  • Get a clear focus on each partner’s goals
  • Uncover vulnerability
If you would like help developing any of these skills, consider joining my online couples therapy training program. Registration opens September 1st.

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hi Ellyn
Your series was so helpful! This transcript points out some clear steps to respond to hostility, create containment and hold each partner accountable.
Thank you!


Thanks for the suggestions given in the post. One feels hesitant to take a directive approach at times. This post has helped remove such apprehensions.


Ellen, I appreciate this step by step can I share this withour group andf also change the names.
We would like to write this in a booklet to study more. There are so many hurint copules.
Thank you.


HI Ellyn,

Thanks so much for this series. The information is right on target! I’m anticipating a tough session with a hostile couple this week, and the guidelines about remembering my role are so helpful.


whos Ellyn
what is she related to them?

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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