The Delicate Art of Transforming

Hostile Angry Couples

Free Series June 10 – 17

Discover how you can work more effectively with these couples and receive solutions you can use now to help shift deeply entrenched patterns.

Check out our training series now.

A Roleplay When One Partner Turns on Their Therapist


4 Diagnostic Questions to Assess What Went Wrong

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 19-point diagnostic questionnaire.

Today I’ll share 4 questions that are particularly good for assessing what went wrong with these  fighting couples. These will help you uncover nodal stuck points.

4 Diagnostic Questions to Assess What Went Wrong

  1. What was the beginning of your relationship like (Passionate/Erotic, Companionate, Ambivalent, Volatile)? How long did this phase last?
  2. What was your first disillusionment? What happened? Was it resolved? If so, how? If not, what decision did you make about how to cope with your disillusionment  or disappointment?
  3. Do you support your partner’s development as an individual? How? Give examples. Do you support their desires even when you don’t agree?
  4. If your relationship were a movie, drama, or book, what would it be titled and how would it end?

As you assess their answers, look for these developmental stalemates:

  • Open and ongoing expressions of anger, bitterness, and blame predominated from the beginning. There was no early positive bonding they can fall back on.
  • An unresolved disillusionment caused the early symbiotic fantasy to crumble and that incident has never been resolved. Instead of resolution, partners made decisions to protect themselves from each other by withdrawing, shutting down, giving in, or seeing the other as a “monster.” These early coping decisions dominate and fire their reactivity  today.
  • Partners have remained self-absorbed. They feel entitled to get and not inclined to give. Therefore they can’t and don’t negotiate solutions that work for both of them.

When you encounter couples whose development was arrested so early that it resulted in anger and disillusionment, you’ll get song or book names like these real life examples I’ve heard in my practice: 2 Prisoners in One Cell, I Hope for Death so We Can Part, The Tidal Wave.

When you get answers such as these, it’s a clue that your success will rely on addressing their grief and early disillusionment.

Act Now

As a member of my Developmental Model program, you’ll get the full 19-point diagnostic questionnaire. This valuable handout connects the dots between couples’ answers and your interventions.. And I share more about what kinds of interventions fit certain kinds of answers. This takes the guesswork out of your sessions, which saves you lots of anguish and self-doubt. You and your clients can stop wondering “are we getting anywhere?” Some therapists say it’s the closest thing to a road map for therapy with angry couples they’ve ever encountered. To get your diagnostic questionnaire, join the Developmental Model program today.

5 Symbiotic Beliefs that Prevent Relationship Growth


Rachel, a therapist in my Developmental Model training program, posted a common frustration the other day:

I sometimes get exasperated with hostile-angry couples and think, “Why don’t you just grow up?” There is a feeling of being overwhelmed and wanting to give up. Do you have any perspectives on how to keep my head above water?

Rachel nailed it with that exasperated feeling.

One of the most frustrating aspects of working with hostile angry couples is that even your best interventions never seem to hold. You think you’ve made a breakthrough and when they come back next week it’s gone.

Do you blame yourself? Do you blame the partners?

Let’s look at why it’s so hard to get traction with these couples.


One main reason is that partners hold onto belief systems that stifle relationship growth. Some common examples are:

  1. If you really loved me, you would read my mind, know what I want, and give it to me in a timely way. I shouldn’t have to ask.
  2. If you really loved me, you’d make me the center of your universe and give up old significant relationships for me.  Friends and family should always come after me.
  3. If you really loved me, you would want closeness and intimacy when I want closeness and intimacy. You would want it when and how I want it.
  4. If you really loved me, you would change your personality to please me.
  5. I’ve given and given all I can. Now it’s my partner’s turn. I can sit back, do nothing, and wait.

When partners hold steadfastly to these beliefs, they treat their requests for developmental change like they should be easy and effortless behavioral changes.

By the time they come to see you these patterns are predictable and enduring. To interrupt these patterns takes something counter-intuitive.

You must not focus on their problems too soon.

…wait, what??

Don’t focus on their problems too soon? Isn’t that what couples have come to therapy for – for you to solve their problems?

There is a strong tendency to jump in and focus directly on their problems too fast. But if you jump into that focus too soon, you’ll keep getting pulled into recurring challenges. You need to lay a strong foundation first.

Once you know the order in which to do things, you’ll stop feeling like a ping pong ball in the middle of a fierce competition, with partners lunging and swinging at you from both sides. Instead you will know how to chart a clear path forward.

In my Developmental Model training program, I teach therapists not to get themselves trapped by jumping into problem-solving too quickly. I teach exactly where to begin instead; how to focus on why the couple is there, increasing their motivation, defining the kind of relationship they want to create and getting self-directed goals.

Word has gotten around that this training program fills in gaps missing from other models. That’s probably one reason that the last few times we opened registration, the course filled fast. Registration is open now, but only until Friday, June 17.

You can try it out right now risk free for 30 days.


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 alternated 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.

By the time they came to my office, they were embroiled in rage, disappointment, and hurt. There was no closeness or intimacy between them.

How do you begin building trust when you see a couple like this?

One of the most important things you can implement is what I call:

Constancy of Contact. 


Here is how to do it:

  1. Have the couple set up a time in the week they agree to spend time together.
  2. They agree they won’t discuss kids, problems, or frustrations.
  3. They can start with 20 minutes and increase the time later as they grow.
  4. It can be inside or out of the house, daytime or evening. Examples are taking a walk or going for coffee.
  5. Or, they each take turns deciding what to do.
  6. Each partner promises to be accountable for showing up, so they can rely on their partner being there without asking.
  7. If one needs to change it, they give the other notice and actively reschedule.

It may sound straightforward, but here’s the catch:

Typically one partner has an avoidant attachment and the other partner has an anxious insecure attachment style.

The partner with an avoidant attachment style often feels smothered by making an ongoing  commitment to show up at a particular time. When they feel controlled, their behavior becomes unreliable.

So you may need to take some time to help them understand why they’re doing it. They need to do it not because you’re making the demand, but because their participation is a good way to show their partner they can be trustworthy.

The insecure partner is likely to feel relieved by knowing they will have time together.

That’s because they often feel like they have to pull and coax and feel vulnerable asking. When rejected, they retreat or get resentful.

The reason Constancy of Contact works is that it’s reliable, and neither partner has to ask for it.

It takes away the dynamic of one partner always risking and then feeling hurt and rejected by the other one.

Then the focus shifts to what they do with the time and the quality of the time, rather than all the back and forth about how they will make it  happen.

Many couples won’t start out doing this reliably. You will encounter resistance and feigned  forgetting. You must check in week after week.

You’ll keep asking them, “Tell me a little about what you did and how the time was for each of you.”

Don’t forget about it and let their own avoidance mechanisms control what happens. Keep surfacing it until it becomes a reliable part of their lives or until they’re able to create time together easily.

When you’re setting it up, if you sense someone really is not going to do it, surface their resistance.

You might ask, “Is there one part of you that can see the value in what I’m suggesting but another part of you that says, ‘No way. I’m not going to do that. I don’t want to be controlled’?”

Sometimes acknowledging and accepting the resistance by giving it a voice can help move things toward success and reliability. And, you won’t be creating a homework assignment that is doomed to fail.

Be sure to tie this homework back to building trust and teamwork. “When you can count on each other to be reliable, then you are building a foundation of trust.”

This is a homework assignment I teach in my Developmental Model training program, and many therapists have found it incredibly useful.

They report that after several weeks of sticking to this exercise, their couples begin to relax and the intensity of their fights decreases. The therapists persist to be sure their couples implement this new behavior into their weekly routine.

When hostile angry couples aren’t reminded, they will stop being reliable. After they begin connecting regularly, it will be easier for them to take some other emotional risks.

Your clients do the work, while you lead like an orchestra conductor. Doesn’t that sound less stressful?

Training is closing tomorrow, June 17 at 11:59pm. Join risk-free for 30 days.


Here's what other therapists are saying about
the developmental model training program

Play Video
Not only was Nancy hooked from day one on the training and lessons, she also appreciates how Ellyn respects other models of couples therapy and how they can be woven into the Developmental Model.
Nancy St John
Couples Counsellor
Other Models, Community,
Clinical Improvement
Play Video
Martha used to become confused in sessions because sexual issues are so complex and difficult for clients to discuss, but now she can hold the focus on one thing at a time and really make a difference for them.
Martha Kauppi, LMFT, ACST Madison, WI
Challenging Couples, Community, Clinical Improvement
Play Video
Sue was an individual therapist. But after she got the tools she needed and learned how to be an effective leader, she now specializes in working with couples – and really tough couples!
Sue Diamond, MA, RCC Vancouver, BC
Confidence, New to Couples, Individuals, Tools/Framework, Challenging Couples
Play Video
When Janae first started training, her work was primarily with individuals. Now she is able to work at a new level with individuals and see more couples, too. She’s learned a whole new language she can use with all of her clients.
Janae Munday, LCSW Phoenix, AZ
Individuals, Tools/Framework, Clinical Improvement
Play Video
Glen is an experienced therapist and the President of Well Marriage Center in Fairfax. When Glen learned about the Developmental Model he signed up for the training program and soon realized that he wanted all of his associates to take the training. As a result Glen has noticed improvements for clients, and also richer exchanges in staff meetings.
Glen Denlinger, LCSW, BCD President & Clinical Director of Well Marriage Center. Fairfax, VA
New Therapists, Experienced Therapists, Training, Associates, Confidence
Play Video
Before the Developmental Model training, Nicole used to get stuck with hostile-angry and passive couples, often wondering, “What the hell just happened?”Now she feels clarity. With the framework that’s been provided, she knows what is happening and what to do.
Nicole Van Ness, PsyD, LMFT-S Grapevine, TX
Hostile-Angry, Passivity, Clinical Improvement


Even after 40 years in practice, Madge feels this training enabled her to feel more confident with couples, eventually charging more and having a waiting list.

“This training was well worth the time, energy, and expense. Every lesson opened up my clinical insights and skills. I have been in practice nearly 40 years and still devoured the materials like a young and eager college student. Frankly, I consider Ellyn to be a genius and at the top of her game. Her lessons are precise and masterful and spot on. Her mastery of the craft is breathtaking. She is wise and exact and her talent cannot be underestimated. EVERYONE should jump to study under her. She is one in a million.

The handouts are very useful and my couples were appreciative for them because they afforded a concrete accountability that they could lean on between sessions. Thank you everyone for your cases, your openness and camaraderie. Couples work can be a bitch, frankly, but since having this training I am equipped and of value. I have a waitlist out the door and I earn more doing couples than I do individual. This training has paid for itself in spades.”

MADGE FLYNN, LCSW, PhD - Fayetteville, NY
Full Practice/Waiting List, Clinical Improvement, Community, Investment

Kira feels like she's much more able to help her individual clients in a relationship with the effective interventions she's learned from Ellyn and the training program.

“I am currently only seeing individuals. This course has elevated my practice in ways I had not anticipated.

I have used many of the interventions which came up in lessons and calls in individual sessions, and I feel so much more able to help clients with their relationships. Listening to you, Ellyn, role play and demonstrate techniques was probably the most helpful part of the course. You reminded me every week to slow down, rewind, go back. You've also shown me how to effectively step back and look at the big picture of what is going on with my clients and address the patterns and processes rather than the situations.

This program has given me a whole new perspective on relationships and communication, and it is invaluable!”

KIRA LYNNE, BA, RPC, CCPCPR - Vancouver, BC Canada
Individuals, Clinical Improvement

Nicole appreciates the masterful skill that Ellyn brings to the cases presented by therapists. Ellyn does the consults in such a supportive way, asking really great questions and making it so easy to learn from her.

“The thing I like about watching Ellyn work with case consults is her masterful skill set to support the therapist presenting in a way that makes the audience want to take that huge risk and present themselves! Ellyn is so supportive for the presenting therapist, seeing strengths, validating a challenging case. I remember one time watching a case and thinking to myself, ‘oh wow would I ever be stuck here,’ and then Ellyn said, ‘this case would be challenging to the most seasoned therapist.’ Ellyn also asks really great questions, she is crystal clear about what she is doing and anchors it well to the Developmental Model, so easy to learn from. But most of all, it’s in her being that keeps me coming back: she is friendly, warm, approachable and conveys a caring for anyone she is engaged with. Thank you, Ellyn.”

NICOLE MAIER, RN, MA, RCC, CCC - West Vancouver, BC, Canada
Clinical Improvement, Case Consultations

Considering the depth of clinical training, tools, and consultations on the clinical calls with Ellyn, Nathan says it's been one of the best investments of his personal development and professional career.

“Ellyn's training is simply fantastic! From the beginning, I felt her sincere investment in my growth and development as a couple therapist. I was continuously gratified and impressed by the depth of understanding about couple relationships as well as the sophisticated training in practical tools that created more genuine and lasting change in my clients. This training provided me a wonderful community of other caring and brave therapists. Ellyn herself is the best couple therapy trainer in the profession. Her consultations and demonstrations are remarkable. She is also humble and invites other experts to the table to share their additional knowledge and skills, which she beautifully weaves into her training. This has been one of the best investments of my personal development and professional career!”

NATHAN HARDY, PhD, LMFT - Stillwater, OK
Clinical Improvement, Investment, Community

Shobha felt 400% more confident in her couples work within the first week, thanks to the first training call, lessons, and handouts provided.

“It's been less than a week, and with the first training call, the lessons, these handouts, and having the ability to watch the intro session video literally made a 400% difference in the quality and confidence I was able to bring to couples work this week! I was able to feel supported enough to relax and meet more in a session. Thank you for the support, your expertise and creating all of this!!!!! I am on cloud nine!!”

SHOBHA RANGANATH, Holistic IFS Couples Coach, Empowered Wellbeing IFS Coaching - Berkeley, CA
Confidence, Clinical Improvement


Play Video
Tammy joined training as a relatively new therapist and it has made a big difference in her personal life as well as her professional life. She values the community, has increased her confidence in working with couples, and is now having to decide what to do with more clients than she can see.
Tammy Van Hinte, MA, RCC Victoria BC
Community, Personal, New Therapist, Full Practice
Play Video
Tom says the Developmental Model translates well for working with queer couples because it’s really about how to be an individual inside a relationship, whatever the relationship structure looks like. And he especially appreciates the supportive community.
Tom Bruett, MS, LMFT Denver, CO
Diversity, Community, Clinical Improvement
Play Video
Lori is a seasoned therapist who has been using the Developmental Model for several years. With a successful practice and a long waiting list, Lori felt bad turning away so many couples who called in crisis.It was in the Couples Institute mentoring program that she became inspired to think about how she could specialize in couples intensives, and now that’s a major part of her practice.
Lori Weisman, MA, LMHC Bellevue, WA
Couples Intensives, Tools/Framework, Challenging Couples
Play Video
Jeremiah had an EFT background in working with couples, and now he’s moving out of that. The Developmental Model training has made a big difference in how he works with couples, even though he’s been in the training for a year. He’s seeing big changes that he’s able to make using the Developmental Model. Some of his clients have expressed appreciation for his work, and getting that feedback has been thrilling.
Jeremiah Gibson, LMFT, CST Quincy, MA
EFT Model, Other Models, Clinical Improvement
Play Video
Nancy and Lori recount many ways they’ve grown personally and how their relationships have improved since being part of the training. Lori says, “It’s a model that helps us do our own personal work.” Nancy agrees, “It’s profoundly life-changing and enhancing on a relationship level.” And she adds, “It’s the most positive environment you can be in.”
Lori Weisman, MA, LMHC, Bellevue, WA
Nancy St. John, MIACP, Couples Counsellor, Ireland
Personal Growth, Community, Clinical Improvement
Play Video
Alexa was very grateful she took the training and learned the material when she did, but it wasn’t until she started working with it that something shifted inside and she really saw what differentiation was, how it functioned, and how it strengthened relationships. She’s had especially complex cases during the pandemic, and she couldn’t have done the work as well without the training. “I am forever grateful for what you and Pete put into this.”
Alexa Elkington, MFT Las Vegas, NV
Remote Work, Complicated Cases, Clinical Improvement

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Learn from a pioneer and leader in couples therapy training as she shares exactly what to say in difficult therapy sessions.
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