When a relationship goes downhill, there are clear symptoms: your fights are more intense, your sex life has dwindled, or you’re more withdrawn towards each other for no apparent reason.
Whatever it is, couples counseling can help prevent these symptoms from blowing up into a total relationship meltdown.
If you’re struggling to decide on going to couples counseling or not, you can try out some exercises at home with your partner first.
Couple counseling exercises are a great way to figure out how you operate as a couple and how to work through some problems.
In fact, even healthy and happy couples would benefit from these proactive exercises as well.
Couple Counseling 101: What Couples Therapy Is Actually Like
Myth: You only need couple counseling if you’re on the brink of a breakup.
Many people think of couple counseling sessions as an emergency measure for their struggling relationships.
Some part of that is true; counseling can help couples work through major issues.
However, couples counseling should not be considered as the last ditch effort to save your relationship.
Couples counseling (or couples therapy) is a type of psychotherapy that helps couples recognize and resolve the conflicts in their relationships.
Through counseling, you and your partner can make more thoughtful decisions about the direction of your relationship.
Couples who go to therapy will meet with a licensed therapist once a week, for an hour each session.
Generally, couples therapy may last from 12 to 20 sessions.
In the first session, a therapist may review the process with you and ask questions to understand your lives and relationship better.
Your therapist will try to figure out:
- What you’re like as individuals
- What keeps you together
- The nature of your conflicts
- What stresses the relationship
- Power structure, behavior, and communication patterns
- Missing or dysfunctional qualities in your relationship
From there, your therapist will help the two of you set realistic goals and introduce techniques to help you work on your issues.
You would also work on pinpointing the good and bad parts of your relationship and identify the sources of your conflicts.
Couples therapy can guide you on how to improve your communication, problem-solving, and rational discussion skills together.
Things To Keep In Mind While Considering Couples Therapy
Before your bring up the idea of going to couples therapy with your partner, you should keep the following things in mind:
- It may get uncomfortable: It can be difficult to talk about private problems with another person, but your counselor is here to help. You are free to yell or argue during the sessions. Your therapist can act as a referee and help you process these emotions.
- You can go by yourself: If your partner refuses to attend counseling sessions, you can do it alone. While this will make mending the relationship more challenging, you would still learn more about yourself, your reactions, and your behaviors.
- There may be homework: Your therapist might suggest exercises to help you practice what you learned during the session.
- There is a “No Secrets Rule”: Don’t expect your therapist to keep your secrets from your partner. Many therapists implement a “No Secrets Rule”, where everything shared individually with the therapist will also be shared with the other partner.
- You’re here to change bad patterns: While it’s far easier to blame your partner for your arguments, therapy is all about changing old habits and patterns. You’re here to figure out what’s really bothering your partner and respond to their needs effectively.
- Your therapist won’t solve all your problems: A therapist will never tell you what to do. They aren’t the arbitrators of your case; their job is to identify dysfunctional relationship patterns and fix these stressors. If your goal as a couple is to decide whether or not to split up, they can also help you arrive at a mutual decision. But don’t expect your therapist to do the work for you.
- You can still go to therapy if you’re a happy couple: Don’t wait to go to therapy until you’re about to break up. Even if it’s scary to admit to your partner that things aren’t completely perfect, therapy is a good space for couples to express themselves freely. Therapy is the right place to start working through minor issues that cause friction in your relationship.
Why You and Your Partner Should Try Couples Counselling
Couples counseling can help couples in all kinds of intimate relationships, regardless of marital status or sexual orientation.
If you have little success in working through your relationship problems, professional counseling can help.
Therapists can also uncover underlying changes in your partner’s sudden emotional or behavioral changes such as mood swings or difficulty sleeping.
Other couples seek couples counseling to strengthen their partnership or understand each other better.
Premarital counseling is also an option for couples who want to iron out their differences before marriage.
Couples therapy is also a good way to learn coping strategies for periods of transition or stress.
Stressors that cause a troubled relationship can be internal or external, and may include:
- Communication problems
- Anger issues
- Sexual difficulties
- Substance abuse
- Child rearing conflicts
- Blend families and step-parenting
- Birth or adoption of a child
- Chronic illness of disability
- Career pressures
- Financial problems
To have a better idea of when you should seek out professional help for your relationship problems, here are eight reasons to consider couples counseling:
- Trust has been broken – physical or emotional infidelity, financial deception, and other breaches of trust have occurred.
- Your arguments have become more frequent. “Small” or dramatic conflicts pepper your daily life. You should also seek help if one or both of you become dysfunctional during conflict.
- There is poor communication, to the point that you feel misunderstood or ignored. Maybe you have no idea what is happening emotionally with your partner or you feel like the quality of your conversations can improve.
- The dynamic in your relationship changed, but you’re not sure what or why.
- The dynamic in your relationship changed due to a setback in life, such as the loss of a child, unemployment, a health crisis, or the like.
- You want your partner to know something but can’t overcome the fear of sharing it.
- Your physical or emotional intimacy has diminished and you feel like the “spark” is gone.
- You feel stuck in a bad pattern, even for seemingly minor things such as division of household chores.
Before you try couples counseling, there are some excellent online resources that can help to repair a struggling relationship.
One expert I always recommend to Hack Spirit readers is Brad Browning. He is the real deal when it comes to saving relationships, especially marriages. Brad is a best-selling author and dispenses valuable advice on his extremely popular YouTube channel.
23 Must-Try Couple Counseling Exercises And Activities
Some couples may accept that their relationship needs work but aren’t comfortable seeing a therapist just yet.
If you’re not ready to do couples therapy yet, you can opt to do couple counseling exercises to build up trust and communication.
These activities and techniques will teach you how to fight fair, understand each other better, and work towards your goals as a couple.
Exercises For Learning More About Each Other
Icebreakers among strangers can be uncomfortable, but they can be a great opportunity to learn something new about your partner.
Some starter questions are:
Tell me a random childhood anecdote
Tell me an embarrassing high school story
Tell me your favorite cereal brand
2. Music Sharing
Take turns with your partner to choose three songs that are significant for you and explain why. Music is deeply personal and meaningful so it’s a good way to express some vulnerability with each other.
You can also choose songs that remind you of each other or find other categories like “heartbreak”.
3. About Your Partner
This game is a great reminder to couples about their special connection. You can take turns to answer questions about each other and reminisce about shared experiences. Try out questions like:
What is your partner’s ideal vacation spot?
What are three items on your partner’s bucket list?
Who does your partner see as a role model?
4. Game of Truth
As the title says, this game helps couples work on honesty and connection. All you need to do is ask your partner questions and answer their questions honestly.
A few starter questions you might like are:
What is your biggest fear?
If you could be anywhere else right now, where would it be and why?
What was your favorite childhood dream?
5. The Weekly Marriage Check-In
The weekly check-in provides you and your partner with time to interact without kids or distractions around.
Schedule a non-negotiable chunk of time (30 minutes is ideal) once a week for you and your partner to talk about how you are doing, what you need from each other, and how you can improve as a couple.
This is one technique that marriage expert Brad Browning talks about in his video. I mentioned him above.
If you’re looking for more actionable tips you can apply right away in your marriage, check out Brad’s excellent free video here.
6. Book Swap
What you love to read says a lot about you. By swapping favorite books with each other, you share a window into your partner’s mind.
You would also find something new to discuss, even something as simple as your favorite childhood books.
7. Question Jar
Question Jars are a simple conversation starter for couples. Take a jar and add any number of relationship-building questions.
These questions can be something both of you write personally or you can find sample questions online.
8. Soul Gazing
To try this intense exercise for intimacy, face your partner in a seated position with your knees nearly touching.
Hold eye contact for 3 to 5 minutes and refrain from talking. You are allowed to blink and if it gets too awkward, and you can play a song meaningful to your relationship.
9. 7-Breath Forehead Connection Exercise
When things get overwhelming, it’s good to do this exercise with your partner to calm down and breathe.
Face your partner and put your foreheads together, making sure your chins are tilted down so your noses don’t collide.
Take seven slow, deep breaths in sync. If you enjoy the exercises, you can prolong it for 20-30 breaths or a set amount of time.
10. Extended Cuddle Time
The instructions to this exercise are simple and fun: cuddle more with each other.
It’s best to have your cuddle session right before bedtime, but feel free to practice cuddling and other forms of affection at any other time during the day.
11. Trust Fall
A trust fall is a fun activity usually played by friends and colleagues, but this exercise will build trust, teamwork, and feelings of security among couples as well.
One partner is blindfolded and has to fall backwards deliberately as the other partner makes sure to catch them.
12. Five Things… Go!
This exercise exhibits the power of positive words over your relationship. Simply think of a theme like “what I appreciate in you,” or “what I want us to do this month” then list five things within this theme for each other. Don’t be afraid to be creative or silly with your partner for this exercise.
13. Never Go To Bed Angry
Negative emotions and stress directly lead to the inability to sleep, so it’s best to make nice if you and your partner argue before bed.
Instead of letting the issue sit, make it a point to say something positive to each other and review the problems in the morning. You may find that your mindset has changed and the issue is easier to fix.
14. Unplugged Night
For at least 10 minutes in the evening, try to eliminate distractions like smartphones, television, and video games.
Go back and forth telling each other what you love and appreciate about them with no interruptions. If possible, spend the whole night unplugged and just take the time to bond.
Exercises On Working Through Problems Together
15. Uninterrupted Listening
A simple but powerful exercise, Uninterrupted Listening helps both you and your partner feel heard, understood, and cared for.
Set a time for 3 to 5 minutes and let your partner talk about whatever is on their mind.
Don’t speak at all until the timer goes off but feel free to give your partner non-verbal empathy through meaningful looks, facial expressions, or body language.
Once the timer goes off, switch roles and try again.
16. Leave It Till Sunday
If you both cannot resolve an argument, try to see if it can be pushed aside until Sunday then don’t talk about it until then.
Chances are you would forget any minor issue by that time. However, don’t wait around till Sunday if you feel like the argument needs to be urgently resolved.
17. Narrative Therapy
Narrative therapy involves you and your partner writing down what you see is going on in the relationship.
As you both “narrate” what you think the problems are and how to resolve them, you both gain perspective into the other’s point of view.
From there you can also write what you want the relationship to become, moving forward.
18. Eliminating Stress Triggers
Stress triggers could be anything that causes stress for you or your spouse, such as health concerns or financial instability.
Work together to identify stressors so you can figure out how to get rid of them for good.
For example, if your partner feels like finances are too right, you both can renegotiate your budget and see what can be done.
19. The Miracle Question
The miracle question helps couples probe into their dreams and desires, aiding them to understand what they and their significant other needs to be happy with the relationship.
The question can be phrased this way: “Suppose while you slept tonight, a miracle occurred.
When you wake up tomorrow, what would you notice that would tell you life had suddenly gotten better?” This question can help you and your partner figure out the kind of future you want together.
20. The Good Qualities List
Sometimes, couples need to be reminded of why they love each other – the Good Qualities List helps with that.
You and your partner should identify and share at least three responses to the four questions below:
I appreciate my partner because…
My partner shows me they care by…
The memories I cherish the most of our time together include…
The qualities that first drew me to my partner are…
21. The Naikan Reflection
The Naikan Reflection is a Japanese method of self-reflection that reminds the writer not to take their partner for granted.
It focuses on the recognition of give-and-take in the relationship. To do the Naikan Reflection, think back on the past 24 hours and reflect on the following questions with your partner in mind:
- What have I received? – List everything you received from your partner over the last 24 hours in terms of support, care, or attention.
- What have I given? – List everything that you have done for your partner over the last 24 hours, even for the most minor things like calling them to say hi.
- What troubles have I caused? – List anything you think which might have hurt or hassled your partner throughout the day.
22. The Appreciative Inquiry
The Appreciative Inquiry (AI) can remind a couple that they are a team with common desires, goals and traits. Take a sheet of paper and answer the prompts below:
- Describe the relationship: Write down the current state of things between you and your partner, as well as the feelings you have towards them.
- Discover: This part is divided into two steps: Celebration and Maintenance.
- Celebration: Recall a shared experience that you want to celebrate. What made it so positive? What qualities did you and your partner bring to that moment?
- Maintenance: Reflect on your and your partner’s positive contributions to the relationship. What do you each bring to the relationship that keeps its development healthy? What makes your contributions work?
- Dream: Envision your perfect future together and describe the dreams you both have for the relationship.
- Design: Plan out the concrete steps you could take so you both work towards your dream future.
- Destiny: Use this space to lay out your respective intentions and put your commitment in writing. Include the reasons for any commitment you write down and keep your rationale meaningful.
23. The Effective Apology:
This exercise is more of a template on how to effectively apologize whenever you or your partner has hurt the other and damaged the trust in the relationship. The four steps are as follows:
- Acknowledgment: Whether you have hurt your partner willingly or unwillingly, the first step you should do is to take responsibility for your actions. Acknowledge who has been hurt and the nature of the transgression itself. A good way to do this is to say something like: “I messed up by ______________ which caused you ________________.”
- Explanation: Explain how you never meant to hurt your partner and how you plan on not letting it happen again in the future. An effective, meaningful apology should be able to distinguish between excuses and explanations. You should also be cautious of blaming your partner as the reason behind your offense.
- Expression: Expressing your regret, remorse and any other emotions you may feel such as shame, humiliation, or embarrassment. For example, you can say “I feel terrible about what happened and I’m so embarrassed because I let you down.”
- Reparation: No apology is complete if you don’t make amends. Follow your verbal apology with actions that aim to fix the damage caused. Ask your partner what they consider is a good reparation for the damage done to your relationship. Be sure to make amends with your partner and commit to avoiding the same mistakes again.
A Happy Relationship Takes Work
Nothing worth having ever comes easy, which is why every fulfilling relationship takes a lot more work than it looks.
To help these exercises be more effective, you need to do a lot of emotional labor: be vulnerable about your desires, be honest about what you don’t like about your relationship, and be open to hearing criticism.
Couples therapy can have wonderful, positive outcomes if both you and your partner can work hard to change what you need to.
And even if the relationship doesn’t work out, therapy can help you unlearn your negative patterns and behaviors so you don’t bring the baggage with you in your next relationship.
Stay committed to the process to become the best version of yourselves as individuals and as a couple.
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