Most people think couples counseling is a last resort before for relationships on the brink, but in reality, all relationships could benefit from couples therapy exercises — even the happy, healthy ones.
Relationships take a lot of work, and although there’s no magic formula for a perfect relationship, having useful couple therapy exercises in your repertoire can definitely help (yes, even when you’re not a couple in crisis).
Below are eight couples therapy exercises designed to build trust, improve communication, and help you feel closer to your partner.
“A couple’s exercise that can help work on communication is having a ‘meeting’ a week where you air any grievances or feelings that have come up in the past week,” explains Lindsey Ferris, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
The purpose of a relationship check-in, says Ferris, is “for the other partner to listen and validate the experience and then trade off partners. This allows couples to know that feelings and issues that do come up, have a focus and time to be resolved if they are not resolved at the moment.”
To learn more about how to have a relationship check-in, download Paired and complete Dr. Joseph Cilona’s “Love Meetings” exercise.
“One of the things that shows up so often for couples is that they really feel like their reactive behavior is out of their control,” explains Evie Shafner, a licensed marriage and family therapist who has been practicing couples therapy for over 35 years.
In order to change this dynamic, Shafner recommends picturing a stop sign. “Stop before you say something you will regret, something that will harm. Then ask yourself and/or your partner, ‘What can I do to make this better right now?’”
Shafner recommends taking a leaf from the imago relationship book — a style of relationship therapy designed to help resolve conflict — and trying mirroring your partner.
“Instead of answering, try mirroring,” says Shafner. “Reflect back what you heard your partner say. [Ask] ‘let me see if I’ve heard you correctly’, repeat what you heard them say, then ask, ‘Did I get you?’ Then let them know you understand it from their side. Listening and validating can transform your relationship.
“If an argument starts harshly by attacking your partner it’ll likely end up with at least as much tension in the air, if not more,” says Dr. Jacqui Gabb, a professor of sociology and intimacy at The Open University and Chief Relationships Officer at Paired.
“Entering into conversations softly and calmly is more likely to lead to stable and happy discussions.” This is known as a “soft start-up”, explains Dr. Gabb.
“A soft start-up works to protect you both from feeling attacked or defensive because it reduces blame or character assassination.” By using this method, couples are able to bring up issues or concerns more constructively and with positive outcomes.
To soften your start-up, Dr. Gabb recommends trying the following techniques:
Complain don’t blame. “Launching into a discussion with blame, generalizing accusations and criticism will offset your partner’s defenses. A softer start-up would be to make a non-judgemental complaint followed by how you feel about it and your needs.” Instead of saying “Why do you never do the dishes?”, you could try saying “I’ve had a really long day at work and need to relax. I’m upset that the dishes are still in the sink after we discussed it this morning, could you take care of them for me?”
Use “I statements”. “When we speak from this perspective, we’re more likely to invite our partner to be compassionate and empathetic rather than defensive.” Rather than starting a conversation with “You’re reckless with our money”, you could say “I’m feeling anxious about our savings. I know we have different views on saving, but it would really help me if we sat down and discuss a savings plan together.”
Give appreciation. “Acknowledging a partner’s strengths is a great motivator for good behavior.” Saying “You’re always working” is less effective than wording it as: "I love our evenings together so much. For the last few nights, I’ve been on my own while you’ve been working — can we schedule some time together this week?"
“Schedule a weekly date with your partner,” says Dr. Marisa T. Cohen, a relationship therapist and scientist.
“It can be morning, noon, or night, but make sure you choose the same time each week. This way you’re establishing a ritual, but also anchoring your schedule and making time to connect with your partner a priority at the same time,” she says.
“Not only do we connect better and form fond memories with our partners by putting regular, quality time in the diary, but weekly dates also serve as anchor points in our weeks, assisting with our perception of the passage of time.”
“As a relationship progresses, and our busy lives kick in, few couples make time for meaningful conversations. We talk about schedules, who cleaned the sink, how to navigate shared desk space — but not about our everyday stressors, challenges, or vulnerabilities,” says Dr. Gabb.
“Couples who make time for intimate conversations build healthy relationship foundations from which connection, intimacy, and trust can thrive — but it’s not just the conversations that count, it’s the dailiness of them.”
Small, daily interactions are the key to happy and healthy relationships. Or, in other words, a chat a day keeps the heartbreak away.
Fighting is not only normal, but it can also be good for a relationship — when done the right way. One way to do that, according to Dr. Cohen, is by scheduling your fights.
“Scheduling fights with each other, though seemingly counterintuitive, is actually beneficial,” she says.
“It provides partners with a designated space and time to air out their differences, and they may even come to find that over time (with scheduling), they no longer have anything to fight about.”
“For many couples who have experienced a miscommunication about sex or have had a period of time without it, sex can seem daunting and the pressure on one or both partners can build up,” says Dr. Cohen. “The sensate focus technique is designed to alleviate this pressure since it’s about spending time exploring each other’s bodies without any specific agenda.”
The idea behind the sensate focus technique is to touch each other while focusing on your own sensations, without having a specific goal in mind — such as engaging in sex or even experiencing sexual pleasure. “You are touching to touch and to feel. The outcome is to allow partners to connect and explore, without any preconceived agenda,” says Dr. Cohen.
Download Paired for more expert relationship advice and couple exercises designed by leading therapists and academics.