Working with Escalated Couples

mark kaupp






Some words of wisdom from E.F.T. Trainer, Supervisor and Therapist, Dr. Mark Kaupp, San Diego, California:

Mark, one of the biggest challenges for any couples therapist learning Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is how to work with couples where one or both partners become very angry in session.  

“When dealing with highly escalated couples, try to keep your cool as much as possible. View your couple’s reactivity and anger as their attachment fears flooding forward. Both partners are struggling so hard to have their relationship experience heard and understood. They are in panic and feel alone.

Try your best to emphasize that you are trying to hear them and that it is imperative they slow down to make sure you hear and understand them completely.

Let both parties know that both sides of the story needs to be voiced and understood. As you hear and understand their experience, the reactivity in the room will subside.

Maintain control of the session and don’t let your own fear hijack your ability to attune to the underlying emotions of your clients.”

Mark’s advice makes sense.  If we think about emotional safety in the room, partners need to be heard.  They are hurting inside.  Caught in a negative cycle, emotionally distant, they trigger each other.  Thus, they cannot hear each other’s underlying fears, pain and longing when angry.  As Dr. Kaupp says, their attachment fears and longings erupt in to the room in the form of demands, criticisms, hostile body language and interrupting.  We must make every effort to let them know we are hear to listen and create safety with them in the session, in every session, consistently over time.

Core E.F.T. Interventions that will also help slow us down so we can stay emotionally centered include:

1)  Empathetic Reflecting or as Sue Johnson says with highly reactive couples, “relentless empathy.”

2)  Validation, letting each partner know overtly with empathy that we understand where the anger and agitation are coming from.

3)  Tracking and reflecting the cycle, this becomes even more important with highly escalating couples.  Cycle work becomes the scaffolding or safety net that allows them to start to organize their experience and begin to access underlying vulnerability and emotion.

Finally, highly reactive couples offer us the opportunity to increase our use of the attachment lens.  As Mark says, “View your couple’s reactivity and anger as their attachment fears flooding forward.”  When we develop this ability with the toughest couples, it also becomes easier for us to see attachment distress in less escalated couples.