Treating Highly Emotional Couples, Part 2


In a recent post, I explored the challenges of working with couples who are so reactive to one another that every session rapidly descends into rage, blame, or tears.

It can be hard to come back from this level of emotional chaos, especially when loud voices or aggressive behaviors shake your own sense of balance and safety.

You can’t prevent couples from feeling what they feel, especially when low levels of differentiation cause them to react to being hopelessly entangled. But you can embrace specific strategies that will bring structure and lead to increased accountability for each partner, creating the open space necessary for progress.

In this post, I’ll offer focused recommendations for working with volatile couples. These points build on the 5 insights offered in our earlier post, which came from a case study discussed in our Advanced Training Group.

1. Assume that each partner brings competency to the process

This belief is part of the positive mindset that is central to the Developmental Model and will keep you forward-thinking when working with highly emotional partners. Though at first, their behavior may remind you of warring 2-year-olds, behind these seemingly childish behaviors are two adults in acute pain. It can be helpful to acknowledge – first to yourself, and then out loud to them – that despite their extreme feelings, you know they are capable of listening, insight, and positive action.

2. Define your role with clarity and authority

From the outset, let this couple know you will work with them as educators, guides, and therapists. Affirm that you will redirect the conversation the moment you see it moving into unproductive territory. “Whenever I notice something I know is going to pull us off track, I will stop you both. At first, this might feel irritating or unfair, but there’s a reason for it. I want you both to know that I won’t be passive and that I will provide significant structure.”

3. Structure each conversation to strengthen the individuals within it

Consistently affirm each partner’s right to share experiences and views while you and the other partner listen respectfully. Immediately respond when this fundamental guideline is broken. “Hold on! There will be time for your point of view, but we haven’t fully heard what your partner is saying yet.” Or, if the speaker veers off course: “I hear what you’re saying about your spouse, but I’m going to ask you to focus on your own story first.”

4. Reframe and reaffirm to enhance mutual understanding

This is the art of uncovering a crucial point that might seem shrouded in resentment or criticism at first, turning it into a valuable insight. “So you’ve said that your wife works long hours. You know her job is important, but sometimes you feel lonely or angry. Tell me if I’m right about this, but I believe I’m hearing a wish for more time together because you care about her and your shared time together.”

As the conversation continues, you can follow this with appropriate praise: “Thank you for making this so clear. It isn’t always easy to express with vulnerability what is underneath your reaction to your spouse’s actions – but you’ve done that, and this is exactly what we’re here to accomplish.”

5. Recommend appropriate pauses and spaces to manage tension

Highly reactive couples might benefit from arriving in separate cars or working with you from separate screens. You don’t want them to literally walk into the room fighting or reacting to every nonverbal cue they sense when sitting next to each other. Coming separately gives them valuable cool-down time after each session. You might also recommend that they wait a day or two to revisit the work they’ve done or even table the topic until the next session. Pausing doesn’t mean they’re not progressing; it means they’re giving one another room to breathe and absorb what’s happening as individuals before coming back together as a couple.

6. Help them discover that differences aren’t threats

You may notice that highly emotional partners tend to judge or condemn behaviors that diverge from their own, yet another sign they may be struggling with differentiation. Introduce the idea that differences are normal and expected since all of us enter relationships carrying our own histories, habits, and beliefs.

Asking partners to explore differences with curiosity and openness – realizing that “different” doesn’t equal “bad” – helps them practice holding developmental tension. By expressing faith in their ability to see conflict as an opportunity to learn, negotiate, and solve shared problems, you’re reinforcing positive habits that can transform their relationship.

7. Point to the power of two, coming together to create change

Many people come to couples therapy expecting a certain kind of magic. They dream of that defining moment when the OTHER partner leaps up and says, “Clearly, I need to change!”

Volatile couples may be even more wedded to this narrative, at least in the beginning.

But over time, they’ll discover that a healthy relationship is created by two confident individuals, unafraid to be themselves, guided by a shared vision of the life they want to create. It doesn’t happen overnight, but with your skilled interventions to guide them, they can progress together.

Do these strategies for working with volatile couples resonate with you? Which of their patterns do you find most stressful? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.

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I like that you start out with the reality that people are not static and have the capacity to change. Point 2 supports the need for safety and efficiency by stating your intention to keep the session on track within clearly described guidelines. Point 3 provides clarity on how you can keep the session on track, with two concrete examples. Point 4 demonstrates how to help people see things differently, by translating a judgmental statement into an expression of underlying need. It is respectful and helpful when you check with the person as to whether or not you are on track with your understanding (translation) of what they said. I would change your wording in point 4 from “appropriate praise” to “appreciation”. Your statement sounds more like specific, heartfelt appreciation than praise. I find praise is generally not helpful. It tends to be about the praiser and not the praisee and can be received as a judgment (albeit a positive one). I really like the suggestions for minimizing stress in Point 5 because the strategies reflect consideration for how difficult elements of the process can be for individuals. Points 6 and 7 direct awareness to specific thoughts that with time and reflection may be shifted into a more open perspective. Thanks for summarizing and sharing these helpful insights.

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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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