Anger and Aggression in Couples Therapy

A one-day workshop with Susanna Abse on working with anger and aggression in Couples Therapy

Some questions that I find useful to consider, in relation to couple relationships:

How do you define conflict? When does it move from passion to something more hostile? How does this change when it is in your relationship, to elsewhere?

What does aggression mean to you?

What is your relationship to your own aggression?

How do you manage your anger and aggression?

Are there certain arenas where anger comes out, perhaps in sport, sex, card games? Where is it acceptable and safe for you to express anger?

What did you make of your parents relationship, what did you witness and see?

Do you think it is possible to have a good relationship with no anger or aggression?

How do you define a healthy relationship? Perhaps it is one that can transform, grow, care and develop, in relation to the changing needs of each individual, rather than being stuck.

Aggression can be useful if it means that difficulties are addressed in a creative and open way, rather than a passive, nagging, undermining form. We need aggression for separation and individuation, which is often a problem in couples; how can one accept and relate to each other as separate individuals.

Anger can often be seen as hope – in insecure attachment anger is aimed at getting an attachment figure to notice, in the hope that anger will result in repair and understanding. But there can also be anger of despair, in insecure avoidant, where there is high hostility, but the anger is minimised, denied or unconsciously felt. In preoccupied attachment, there is rumination and a flooding with feelings, and anger can be very hard to manage. With disorganised attachment anger is linked to violence and abuse.

What is the fear around anger, what is being defended against? Fear of conflict, intimacy, abandonment, sublimation? It is important to have confidence in the ability for rupture and repair, so that anger does not have to be avoided. In relation to this, it is worth considering how disagreements and separations were reacted to as a child. Could you believe that parents could survive your necessary attacks – could it be worked through, or was it punished? The beliefs and fantasy underneath the arguments and aggression are important to explore.

It is important to remember that just because people don’t shout, it doesn’t mean that they are not aggressive. Walking away, being put down, sarcasm, blame, emotional manipulation, body language are all acts of aggression to be decoded.

It is very important in relationship to understand misunderstandings – we all continuously make wrong assumptions, and a willingness to constantly check and update these is vital – need to stay with uncertainty and curiosity

A mentalisng state is going on when the following are experienced: selectiveness (not rambling), lively consciousness, freshness of speech, capacity for humour, little self-deception, ease and openness with the ability to alter one’s views, ease with imperfections of self and others, empathy. This is when anger should be explored and dealt with.


Sartre (1943)

Life is the sum of all your choices:

“We are a choice, and for us, to be is to choose ourselves. Even this disability from which I suffer I have assumed by the very fact that I live; I surpass it toward my own projects. I make it the necessary obstacle for my being, and I cannot be crippled without choosing myself as crippled. This means that I choose the way I constitute my disability (as “vulnerable”, “humiliating,” “to be hidden,” “to be revealed to all,” “an object of pride,” “the justification of my failures,” etc)” (p432).



Meryl Streep

“The formula of happiness and success is just, being actually yourself, in the most vivid possible way you can”

It has become the norm to define happiness and particularly success based on jobs, grades, competitions, social media likes, and others’ opinions more generally. But relying on external validation is a very turbulent way of living and means that when something goes wrong we are very vulnerable and we can feel like a failure and empty. Everything we do and every step taken whether this is towards a goal, backwards or a complete tangent, is still a successful step that leads to new experiences and therefore learning. There is a ‘norm’ to have an explanation for what we are doing and why, to be sure about our choices. People rarely do things for the pure curiosity, happiness and wonderment, instead there has to be an objective achievement that can be relayed and compared. I would like people to take up the piano, not with an expectation that they need to be the best at it, but just to learn and experience and to gain internal validation. To go for a run, not with the goal to only beat the last time no matter how tired you are, but because you enjoy it, enjoy the countryside, space and ability to listen to your body. Do some art, not because you want to sell it or get it validated on instagram, but because it’s an opportunity to relax, clear thoughts and process emotions. As you sometimes hear within yoga sessions, setting an intention to listen to your body and what you need, as opposed to working to predefined expectations for yourself and how you must improve each session. The intention of enjoyment and care, and not only goal and achievement.

What are your core values?

What does success look like and mean to you?

How do you experience happiness and perceive it to be obtained?


Why change is so hard

“If my devils are to leave me, I am afraid my angels will take flight as well” (Rainer Maria Rilke).

This quote highlights the complex nature of change, in which certain change experiences are deemed too threatening to the maintenance and stability of the currently held position. Even though the current position might feel intolerable, the familiarity and security in terms of certainty, may be perceived as too seductive to move from, so that we make disruptions and off-set the changes, even if this comes with great suffering and a sense of stuckness. Our openness to the experience of change reflects an openness to the unknown and uncertain. From an existential-phenomenological point of view, this shift towards change requires  a willingness to risk the stability of ones current worldview (view and relationship to self, others and the world), without the security of knowing beforehand what new worldview will emerge.

Symptoms and our current way of being always serve a function for us, even if it can take time to work out what this is. It’s only once this has been identified that change can begin to be contemplated.


Acceptance as a form of change

It is only once you can accept yourself for who you are currently, that you can change:

”The curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I change” (Carl Rogers, 1990, p19)

”Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there” (Jalal ad-Din Rumi)

Rather than seeing what you ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ do, what actions are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and holding onto expectations of yourself, others and situations so tightly that you frequently feel frustrated or disappointed, acceptance is the essential thing to strive for.