Couples counseling at home

Table of Contents

Top 10 At Home Couples Therapy Exercises

Couples at any stage of their relationship can benefit from counseling and therapy. While most people consider couples counseling as a last resort before a divorce or breakup, the fact is that happy, healthy couples can also learn valuable lessons from these sessions. If you’re trying to get closer to your partner, the techniques below may help you establish better communication and bonding in the future. Here are the top 10 at-home couples therapy exercises.

1 – Make A List Of Fun Activities To Try Together

One of the best ways to bond with your significant other is by trying new experiences together. This could be as simple as visiting a museum in town, or it could be as complex as going on a cruise to a dream location. Create a list of fun activities to try as a couple, and make an effort to do at least one thing from the list every month. You can make a separate list for family activities, if you desire, but this should be a list just for you and your spouse. Spending some quality time together in an unfamiliar environment will help you connect in a whole new way.

2 – Resolve All Arguments Before You Go To Bed

By now, you’ve probably heard the phrase “don’t go to bed angry.” What may seem like a simple concept is actually a crucial part of at home couples therapy exercises. By going to bed angry, you leave issues unresolved, and you allow yourselves to dwell on the matter throughout the night. If you simply cannot come to terms before bed, make a note to contact your couples counselor in the morning so you can schedule an appointment as soon as possible. The longer you let the issue sit, the more bitter you will both become about it. Fix the problem quickly, and you can move forward to a better quality of life.

3 – Have An “Honesty Hour” At Least Once A Month (Preferably Once A Week)

Honesty should always be a goal in a relationship, but sometime you may find yourself biting your tongue because you don’t want to upset your partner. That’s what the “honesty hour” is for. At least once a month, set aside a full hour of a day where you and your spouse talk about things that bother you – judgment free. You must both agree not to get offended or hold a grudge over anything that is said during this hour. This is set up to give both of you a chance to speak out and truly be heard. When your spouse is talking, LISTEN. He or she will hopefully give you the same courtesy when you have something to say.

If you do not feel comfortable doing this on your own at first, you could practice with your couples counselor to see how the process goes. He or she will tell you if either of you are being defensive so you end up with positive results when you try it on your own.

4 – Set Aside A Special Date Night Every Week

Date nights are great for couples of all ages, no matter how long they have been together. It’s easy to forget about going out on a date when you live with someone and see him or her on a regular basis. Date nights are designed to get you out of the house and allow you to reconnect with your spouse in a fresh environment. If you cannot leave home, send the kids to spend the night with a family member and cook dinner for just the two of you. As long as you make the night special and just about you as a couple, you can fall in love with each other all over again.

5 – Spend Intimate Time Together As Often As Possible

Intimacy is a fundamental component of a thriving relationship. However, it’s important to note that “intimacy” is about more than just sex. It’s about connecting with a person on a deep emotional level, more so than you do with any other person in your life. Every night before you go to sleep, spend some time talking to your spouse in bed – without the TV on, without your cell phone in hand, and without any other distractions that could take you away from this moment. Cuddle, hold each other’s hands, or look into each other’s eyes and take a moment to appreciate the amazing person you’ve chosen to be with. It’s these quiet moments that keep long-lasting relationships going for decades at a time.

6 – Unplug Yourselves For A Night

It’s amazing how much of a distraction electronics can be. As part of your at-home couples therapy techniques, try spending a night completely unplugged from the rest of the world. No phones, no televisions, no computers, and no tablets. Just you and your spouse spending quality time together. You may play board games, give each other a massage, take a relaxing bath or do anything else that does not require electronics. This will allow both of you to focus 100% of your energy on the other person, and it will ultimately make you stronger as a unit.

7 – “Leave It ‘Til Sunday”

The “leave it ’til Sunday” technique can help you see which fights truly matter and which ones are trivial and unnecessary. Any time you have an argument that you can’t seem to come to terms about, put it to the side and talk about it on Sunday. If it is still an issue by then, you can re-open the argument and move forward. In many cases though, you will both forget about the problem by the end of the week. Anything that gets forgotten clearly isn’t a priority, like a discussion about chores or a television show.

Of course, there is some controversy behind this practice because leaving it until Sunday could mean leaving issues unresolved for days at a time. You don’t want to do that. You still need to talk through issues that have a major impact on your relationship so you do not dwell on them for too long. If you find yourself in a “tiff” with your partner about something minor, that could be pushed off until the end of the week. You’ll learn how to prioritize your arguments as time progresses.

8 – Identify And Eliminate Stress Triggers

Stress is not healthy for your mind or your body. In a relationship, stress often leads to major conflicts because one person is irritable, emotional, depressed, etc. One of your goals for couple counseling should be to identify sources of stress in your life and your spouse’s life, and then figure out ways to get rid of the stress for good. For instance, if one spouse is stressed about paying the bills for the household, the other person may decide to take on another job to provide additional support. If you are worried about your personal health, talk to a doctor and see what treatments you can explore. Every stress trigger has a solution, even if it is not obvious at first. You can discuss all of this as a couple and come up with the best solutions for your situations.

9 – Use Trust Falls To Build Trust In Your Relationship

Trust falls are used in a number of team-building exercises. They are designed to help you trust the person you are with no matter what. To conduct a trust fall, all you have to do is stand behind your partner with your face toward his or her back. The person in front will fall backwards onto the person in back, and the person in back is supposed to catch the person in front. The person in front must blindly assume that their partner will in fact “have their back.” Once you can learn to trust someone with this basic responsibility, you can open yourself to trusting him or her in all areas of life.

10 – Write An Appreciation List For One Another

Spend some time writing down all the things you appreciate about your spouse. One of the main reasons why people feel like they are in a one-sided relationship is because they do not feel appreciated by their partners. By clearly expressing what you appreciate about your spouse, you can help him or her feel a sense of value in the relationship. You can build confidence about yourself along the way as you read about all the things you do to make your partner happy.

PRO TIP: Turn your appreciation list into a compliment jar! Write down the various things you appreciate about your spouse on strips of paper, and have him or her do the same. Every day before you leave for work, you can take out one of the strips and remind yourself that you’re doing something right in the relationship. This is particularly helpful for couples who spend a great deal of time apart from one another. Short notes back and forth will keep the romance strong and remind you of the love that burns deep inside you.

When marriages start going sour, couples are often urged to go see a therapist or to attend a workshop or seminar to help smooth out their difficulties. But these options are often quite expensive and outside a couple’s budget. If there’s already tension in your marriage, it’s probably not a wise idea to add financial stress to the problem by ponying up $100 an hour for professional counseling. And a lot of men aren’t keen on talking about their feelings to a stranger or a room full of strangers. We like to tackle problems ourselves.

As it turns out, this bootstrapping mentality is not such a bad idea. A recent study found that reading research-based articles together as a couple, and applying the advice from those articles to your relationship was just as effective as attending a workshop or seminar. ((http://magazine.byu.edu/?act=view&a=2437)) If you’re having serious problems in your marriage, you may need to see a therapist, but if you’re marriage simply needs some tuning up, here are some diy basics to read over with your spouse and start applying to your relationship.

Banish the Four Horsemen of Divorce

Dr. John Gottman, Ph.D. has been studying marriages in a lab at the University of Washington for 20 years. While many people think that what makes a happy or unhappy marriage is somewhat mysterious and divorce is hard to predict, he can watch a couple interact for only a few hours and then forecast with 91% accuracy whether or not they’ll end up divorcing. He’s not a fortune teller; he simply looks for telltale signs in the way the couple interacts and handles their disagreements. Those that display what he calls the “four horseman of the apocalypse” have a high likelihood for divorce. If a couple can identify and rectify these behaviors, the marriage can often be saved. So let’s take a look at what the four horsemen are.

Criticism

Criticism is not the same as complaining. Complaints center on specific actions and behaviors disliked by one’s partner, while criticism goes further and attacks the person himself. Here are examples from Gottman to illustrate the difference:

Complaint: “I’m really angry that you didn’t sweep the kitchen floor last night. We agreed that we’d take turns doing it.”

Criticism: “Why are you so forgetful? I hate having to always sweep the kitchen floor when it’s your turn. You just don’t care.”

Complaint. There’s no gas in the car. Why didn’t you fill it up like you said you would?

Criticism. Why can’t you ever remember anything? I told you a thousand times to fill up the tank, and you didn’t. (Criticism. She’s implying the problem is his fault. Even if it is, blaming him will only make it worse.)

Criticism throws in blame and general character assassination. To turn a complaint into a criticism, add the line: “What is wrong with you?”

Complaints are okay when each person is committed to addressing them respectfully. And criticism is something every couple deals with. It only becomes lethal to the marriage when allowed to fester into the next three horsemen.

Contempt

The intimacy of marriage can bring people healing and acceptance. But the flip side of intimacy is the ability it gives people to know how to hurt their partner the most. Contempt goes beyond criticism in that it is a purposeful attempt to wound and demean someone at their core. It’s manifested in biting sarcasm, hostile humor, name-calling, and insults. It can be seen in a partner’s eye-rolling, sneering, or lip curling. According to Gottman, contempt is the most deadly of the horsemen because “it conveys disgust. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message you’re disgusted with him or her.” Contempt rears its ugly head when couples lose respect for each other and cease trying to see things from their spouse’s perspective. They dwell on their partner’s faults, and this built up bile comes out in their arguments.

Defensiveness

Even if there is truth to someone’s criticism, if it is delivered in a contemptuous manner, the person is apt to react defensively. They will go on the defensive by denying responsibility, making up excuses, leveling counter accusations, and disagreeing angrily. This only ramps up the conflict, as “you’re effectively saying, “‘The problem isn’t me, it’s you.’” This only compounds the negativity and distance between the couple. Instead, one partner must be the bigger person and try to respond calmly and openly.

Stonewalling

After enough negative interactions of contempt and criticism, a spouse may simply shut down. They withdraw from the other person and stop listening to and engaging with them. During an argument they stop responding and give their partner the silent treatment. This often frustrates and infuriates their partner even more. In 85% of marriages, the stonewaller is the man, and it is by far the most serious symptom of a broken relationship. If it’s occurring in yours, the relationship is critical and you need to act soon to right the ship.

The four horseman may rear their heads in every marriage, no matter how happy or stable. It’s when they find a permanent and regular place in your relationship that you may be headed down the road to divorce. But every marriage, no matter how plagued it is by the horsemen, can be saved. Here are a few tips on how to turn things around:

Avoid a Harsh Start-up

The best way to short circuit the four horsemen is to nip them in the bud before they entrench themselves in your relationship. One way to do that is to actively attempt to begin your arguments in such a way as to minimize negativity. 96% of arguments that begin with what Gottman calls a “harsh star-up” end badly, even if the couple tries to make nice during the discussion. What begins badly, ends badly. So when you disagree with a spouse, never start out the discussion with criticism or contempt. Try to stay calm, civil, and respectful.

Build Your Friendship

In addition to the presence of the four horsemen, when Gottman is evaluating a marriage, he looks at whether the couple makes what he calls successful “repair attempts.” Repair attempts are attempts by the couple to deescalate the tension and resolve their differences. Unhappy couples often are so steeped in their negative feelings that they don’t even notice when their partner is waving the white flag. While a therapist might concentrate on having a couple negotiate their differences or work on their communication, Gottman says this is actually the wrong approach. He argues that, “The key to reviving or divorce-proofing a relationship is not in how you handle disagreements but in how you are with each other when you’re not fighting.” Whether a couple makes successful repair-attempts is not contingent on how they communicate, but on the store of positive feelings and friendship they have built up. Gottman says that happy marriages have a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. When you have this, you’ll still argue from time to time, but the repair-attempts will flow naturally from “positive sentiment override.” How do you build up these postive sentiments and soldify your friendship? Read on.

Spend 5 Magic Hours a Week

During his studies in the lab, Dr. Gottman sought to figure out the things that happy couples do that unhappy couples do not. He found that those in strong marriages spent only 5 extra hours a week doing things to strengthen their marriage. But those hours, which he calls the “five magic hours,” were enough to make a huge difference in the quality of their marriage. Here are the five hours you should be investing in your relationship each week:

Connect before you leave. Before you and your wife part ways at the beginning of the day, take the time to learn about one thing each of you have planned for the day. Estimated time: 2 minutes per day x 5 working days, totals 10 minutes per week.

Connect when you reunite. At the end of the day, spend at least 20 minutes talking about the things that went on during your day. Chatting at the dinner table or in bed helps you de-stress and reconnect with your partner. Estimated time: 20 minutes per day x 5 working days, totals 1 hour, 40 minutes per week

Admire and appreciate. Every day, find ways to tell your wife that you love her and appreciate all that she does for you. Be specific. Don’t just say that she’s wonderful; tell her how beautiful she is, how she lights up a room, how her meatloaf is a little slice of heaven on earth, ect. Estimated time: 5 minutes per day x 7 days, totals 35 minutes per week.

Initiate affection. When you were dating, you were all over each other. If you want to bring back some of that magic, that you need to start being more intimate with one another. Cuddle, kiss, hold hands, spoon, and so on. The more time you spend touching, the happier your marriage will be. Estimated time: 5 minutes per day x 7 days, totals 35 minutes per week.

Go on a weekly date. Establish that you will go out on one date a week, and make this a non-negotiable commitment. If you have kids, get a babysitter. This is time for just you and your wife. The date doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. But it needs to provide time for you two to talk, so a movie alone won’t cut it. Discuss what happened that week and your plans, hopes, and dreams for your future together.

Studies have shown that doing unfamiliar things together as a couple will bring back the butterflies you experienced together at the beginning of the relationship. ((http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/12/health/12well.html)) So while I know how hard it is to break from the Chili’s and TV watching routine, it’s important to make an effort to get out and do something different. Seek out little hole in the wall restaurants, explore a museum you’ve never been to before, take a hike on a new trail, etc.

Further Reading: The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman and Nan Silver.

Couples Therapy: 6 Exercises You Can Try at Home

Tips and tricks to work it out before moving out.

We’ve all watched enough reality television to know things could be a lot worse with our relationships. Angry yelling matches, threats of divorce and even drinks to the face can occur. But couples therapy isn’t just for the dysfunctional pair.

Maybe your relationship hasn’t reached Marriage Boot Camp level, but that doesn’t mean some healthy exercises won’t benefit you in the long run. In fact, you’d be surprised how you can replicate these professional exercises without ever leaving your house.

Next time you’re worried you might be ready to throw glasses of wine in each other’s faces, here are six exercises you can try to ease the tension.

More from YourTango: The 3 Biggest Reasons Women Cheat

1) Air Your Dirty Laundry. How long would you go without washing your dirty clothes? One week? Two weeks? After a while, those clothes would start to stink.

Your relationship is no different. Every day your relationship gets dirty; minor irritations, unspoken resentments and small sources of bitterness sneak into your interactions. Unwashed, these small annoyances turn into big problems, and couples can even stop talking to each other.

How do you fix it? Do the laundry together. Once a week, ask your partner this: “What have I done to make you feel unappreciated, disrespected or unloved?”

The first response you get will likely be a look of amazement or a reassurance that everything is “fine.” Do not believe them. Keep asking. Eventually, you’ll get an answer.

When you finally do, listen. Really, truly listen. And when you want to correct them or defend yourself, instead ask them something like: “So when I didn’t pick up the milk, you felt like I didn’t love you? Why?”

Understand how they feel. Soon you will have opened the door of constant communication, no lock in sight. This will increase intimacy between the two of you, and allow you to face conflicts head on.

2) Have An Honesty Hour. I often read advice that you should value the interests of your partner over your own. This is a terrible idea.

When you put your partner’s needs first, you naturally expect them to do the same. But often, one partner sacrifices more than the other and starts to resent the partner who isn’t keeping up their end of the bargain.

To prevent this, have an Honesty Hour. This is the time you can tell each other how you truly feel about things with complete immunity. For example, if you don’t like football, but your boyfriend/husband expects you to be there every Sunday, tell him.

This exercise will eventually allow you to share the truth about everything and respect each other’s opinions — without taking anything too personally.

3) Resolve Disagreements Before Bed. Arguments that linger without being resolved turn into bitterness, which then turns into resentment. Before that happens, simply resolve arguments on the day they start.

What if emotions are too high or sides so strong that you can’t resolve them before bed? In that case, agree to pause the argument and pick it up the next day with the full intention of resolving it together.

4) Make a FUN List. What are 10 things you want to do that are fun together? Make a list and be sure to check one item off the list per month.

5) Have Dinner Together. Eating meals together is a form of bonding as old as society itself. Make the time to eat together. During dinner, talk of interests, goals and dreams.

More from YourTango: My Girlfriend Has Trust Issues. What Do I Do?

If you are in the middle of an argument or your relationship is tense, let dinnertime be time when you can pause the fighting and just enjoy each other’s company.

6) Fun And Frolicking. There’s a lot of work that has to be done before the fun begins. Just like when you were a kid and you had to do homework before you could play, you’ve got to clean up the bitterness and resentments before you can have fun.

Once you do, think of something that is totally wild, fun and possibly irresponsible. It should be something you’d never do otherwise, like making out in public. The important thing is that it be fun, exciting and in line with your values.

This guest article originally appeared on YourTango.com as: 6 Couples Therapy Exercises You Can Try At Home

More great content from YourTango:

Happiness Happens: 20 Tips to Increase Your Happiness Every Single Day

11 Benefits of Pre-Marital Counseling – Why Even Happy Couples Need It

Do You Need Couples Counseling? Here’s How to Tell

Couples Therapy: 6 Exercises You Can Try at Home

What if I told you there was a magic recipe for making a relationship work? I’m sure you wouldn’t believe me, and for good reason!

It’s easy to see how difficult relationships can be. If there was a totally effective method for happy, healthy relationships out there, surely someone would have packaged it up and sold it by now, right?

Until we can find that 100% success guaranteed recipe for a perfect relationship, we’ll have to make do with what we do have – building our relationship skills, communicating effectively, engaging in activities that enhance our connection, and using couples therapy to tackle any of the big issues.

Read on to learn more about all of these great ways to build and maintain a great relationship.

What is Couples Therapy and What is Couples Counseling?

“Couples therapy” and “couples counseling” usually mean the same thing. There is no difference between them on a technical level.

The only context in which it matters what the session is called is a legal one; in some places, you must have a special certification or license to practice “therapy” that is more difficult to obtain than the certification or licensing to practice “counseling.”

Whether you call it couples therapy or couples counseling, this type of engagement with a qualified professional provides couples with an opportunity to work through their most difficult or emotionally challenging problems.

These problems can range from simple communication issues or significant disagreements to substance abuse issues and psychological disorders (Bonior, 2017).

While couples therapy can be a great way to reconnect with your partner or mend the differences between you, there are many ways to make sure you keep the spark alive and the relationship healthy without seeing a professional. There are many resources out there that draw from theories or research in couples therapy.

It’s never too late (or too early) to start putting a little more effort into your relationship. If you would like to improve your connection, choose one or two of the activities and exercises described below to practice with your partner.

If you are a marriage and family therapist or couples counselor, consider sharing some of these activities and exercises with your clients.

Let’s dive in!

What Are the Best Relationship Activities for Couples?

There is no one “best” activity that couples can engage in to build a healthy relationship and fend off divorce or separation because each couple will have their own best practice.

For some couples, it may be engaging in a shared hobby together, like bike riding, playing a beloved game, or playing music together. For others, it may be the long talks they often have when looking up at the stars, over morning coffee, or lying in bed at night.

No matter what this activity is, the only things that matter are that the activity:

  1. Is something you can do together
  2. Is something you can do regularly
  3. Is enjoyable (or at least not unpleasant) for both partners, and
  4. Is something that allows you to communicate in a healthy and productive way.

These four criteria don’t narrow down the world of activities very much, and that’s how it’s meant to be. The prescription for a good relationship for one couple may not work for another couple, and vice versa. Each relationship is unique and should be appreciated and tended to as the unique connection that it is.

If you’re stumped on what activity might be best for you and your partner, the following exercises may be a good place to start.

1. Icebreakers

The old faithful activity for bringing people together – icebreakers! I’m sure you remember these from school, training, or another context in which strangers are forced to interact or work together. This time, you won’t have to break the ice with a stranger; instead, you will get to know your partner a little better.

Even if you think you know everything there is to know about your partner, asking them some fun icebreaker questions is bound to produce at least one or two new facts about your partner that you didn’t know before.

Try asking them questions like:

  1. Tell me something weird about yourself.
  2. Tell me your favorite ice cream flavor.
  3. Tell me a wonderfully random childhood anecdote (Suval, 2015).

Feel free to get suggestions or ideas from actual icebreakers for this exercise.

Use this exercise whenever you feel the need to get a little more connected to your partner and be ready to learn some interesting new things!

2. The Game of Truth

Although you might enjoy watching Game of Thrones with your significant other, sorry – that doesn’t meet the four criteria! However, you can work in a game of another kind – the Game of Truth.

In this game, all you need to do is ask your partner questions and answer your partner’s questions honestly. The sole purpose of this game is to enhance your connection, so the content of the questions can range from the lightest topics (favorite television show or celebrity crush) to the heaviest (greatest fear or desire, meaning of life).

For example, you could ask your partner questions like:

  • What’s your biggest fear?
  • If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be and why?
  • What’s a fond childhood memory that’s close to your heart?
  • Which song truly speaks to you?
  • Who is someone who inspires you? (Suval, 2015)

This simple game can get you and your partner sharing intimate and meaningful details with one another, improving your connection and building up your relationship base.

3. Music Shares

Music can be a deeply personal and intensely meaningful experience – one that can be difficult to share with others. While it might make you feel overwhelmingly vulnerable to share something so personal with your partner, it’s a risk that can pay off in a huge way. The reward may be a deeper and more connected relationship with your partner, something that is surely worth the risk!

Take some time to think about and listen to some of your favorite music. Find songs that resonate with your personal life story, showcase your personality, or articulate some of your most deeply held beliefs. Share these songs with your partner, along with an explanation of how the song relates to you and why you chose it to share with him or her.

This extremely personal exercise can leave you and your partner with much better insight into each other, into yourselves, and into your relationship (Suval, 2015).

4. Swap Books

Another personal (and possibly scary) activity is to swap favorite books with your partner (Suval, 2015).

Swapping Books. Image By Thought Catalog on Pixaby.

What you love to read may convey some important messages about who you are and what you value to your partner and vice versa. No matter how well you know your partner, this exercise can reveal something about them that you never knew before.

Reading their favorite book is like getting a window into your partner’s mind; this is especially true in the case of a long-favorite book or a book from childhood.

Diving into something that had a profound impact on your partner in some of their most formative years is a fantastic way to forge a deeper connection.

5 Best Couples Therapy Books

Speaking of books, there are many excellent therapy books out there to help you learn about or practice couples therapy. A few of the most popular books on couples therapy are described below.

1. Couples Therapy: A New Hope-Focused Approach – Jennifer S. Ripley and Everett L. Worthington, Jr.

This book is a rare find – one that speaks to both couples and their counselors, therapists, or religious advisors alike. Couples Therapy outlines Ripley and Worthington, Jr.’s approach, expands on the theory behind it (note: approach also has a foundation in Christian beliefs), and provides assessment tools, real-life case studies, and resources for use in counseling.

You can find this book on Amazon, where it enjoys another rare achievement – a nearly perfect 5-star rating.

2. Couples Counseling: A Step by Step Guide – Marina Williams

Couples Counseling is an excellent resource for therapists, counselors, and other mental health professionals who work with couples. This book will walk the reader through a complete couples counseling treatment – from intake to termination. With step-by-step instructions and evidence-based methods, tips, and exercises, this book can give a novice counselor the tools necessary to engage in their first clinical engagement.

This book is also very highly rated on Amazon, and you can read the reviews or purchase the book for yourself.

3. Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy – Alan S. Gurman and Jay L. Lebow

This book is a must-have for students and practicing professionals. It covers the most popular and most effective methods and approaches in couple therapy, including the history, theoretical foundations, research findings, and techniques for each. This updated text also includes information on applying these approaches to sensitive or complex contexts, such as blended families, LGBT couples, and separated couples.

It also aids the therapist in addressing clinical problems like partner aggression, psychological disorders, and medical issues. This newest edition of the Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy can be purchased or reviewed on Amazon.

4. The High-Conflict Couple: A Dialectical Behavior Therapy Guide to Finding Peace, Intimacy, & Validation – Alan E. Fruzzette and Marsha M. Linehan

This is the one book on the list that is intended for struggling couples alone, rather than helping professionals. It is written specifically for couples who are highly reactive, or quick to argue, quick to anger, and quick to blame; however, any couple will find useful information in this book.

The High-Conflict Couple draws from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) to provide exercises, techniques, and tools that will help a couple improve their communication, rediscover trust, and address their problems in a healthy and productive manner. You can find this book on Amazon.

5. Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy for Dummies – Brent Bradley and James Furrow

Finally, a seriously good resource with a silly title and great information. You certainly don’t have to be a “dummy” to get something out of this book. Whether you’re a student of couple or marriage therapy, a new practitioner, or simply someone who is interested in couple therapy, this book will be a valuable addition to your library.

Not only does it provide an overview of Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT), it also provides simple strategies, useful tips and tools, and interesting case studies to help you get the basics in this type of therapy. You can find this highly reviewed “for Dummies” book on Amazon.

7 Couples Counseling Exercises, Worksheets, & Techniques

If you don’t have the time or the inclination to read through a book on couples therapy right now, that’s alright. There are some quicker and easier ways, also backed by couples counselors and therapists, to learn more about your partner and improve your connection.

A few of the most successful exercises, worksheets, and techniques are described next (Gray, 2014).

1. Soul Gazing

This is an intense exercise that will help you and your partner connect on a deeper level. It can have a huge impact on your sense of connectedness, but it’s not for the faint of heart!

To try this exercise, face your partner in a seated position. Move so close to one another that your knees are nearly touching, and look into each other’s eyes.

Hold eye contact for three to five minutes. Don’t worry, it’s not a competition – you can blink! However, refrain from talking. Simply look into one another’s eyes, even if it’s awkward at first. If the silence is uncomfortable, choose a song that is pleasant to both of you or meaningful in terms of your relationship and hold eye contact until the song ends (Gray, 2014).

Even popular culture has developed insight into the power of this exercise. Here’s one video below by Glamour that may make you cry—in a good way.

2. Extended Cuddle Time

This exercise is just as simple—and fun—as it sounds! The instructions are simply to cuddle more often.

It’s easy to get distracted with a cell phone, tablet, or book at bedtime, but cuddling is actually a much better way to end your day. The chemicals that are released when we cuddle with our partner improve our mood, deepen our connection, and can even help us sleep better.

This exercise is intended to be practiced right before bed, but you can carve out any time of the day to cuddle if bedtime doesn’t work for you. The important thing is to get some one-on-one time, show physical affection, and enhance your intimacy with your partner.

Relationship consultant Jordan Gray (2014) suggests cuddling to a music playlist if you have trouble finding or committing to a regular cuddle session. You could also sneak in some cuddle time while watching a movie or first thing in the morning when you both wake up – the point is to work it in however works best for you.

3. The 7 Breath-Forehead Connection Exercise

This exercise is an excellent way to take your mind off of what is happening around you and focus on your partner.

To begin, either lie down on your side by your partner or sit upright with your partner. Face each other and gently put your foreheads together. Make sure your chins are tilted down so you aren’t bumping noses and stay in this position for a few breaths.

Breathe at least seven slow, deep breaths in sync with your partner. It might be difficult at first, but you will get the hang of it before long. If you and your partner are enjoying the exercise, feel free to prolong it – take 20 breaths together, or 30, or simply breathe together for a set amount of time. There are no disadvantages to feel connected with your partner, so go for it!

This close breathing exercise will put you and your partner into an intimate, connected space. Practice it whenever you feel the need to slow down and refocus on each other.

4. Uninterrupted Listening

Another simple but powerful exercise is called Uninterrupted Listening, and it’s exactly what it sounds like (Gray, 2014). We all need to feel heard, understood, and cared for, and this exercise can help both you and your partner feel this way.

Set a timer for this exercise (three to five minutes will usually do the trick) and let your partner talk. They can talk about whatever is on their mind – work, school, you, the kids, friends or family, stress – it’s all fair game.

While they are speaking, your job is to do one thing and one thing only: to listen. Do not speak at all until the timer goes off. Simply listen to your partner and soak it all in. While you may not speak during this time, you are free to give your partner non-verbal encouragement or empathy through body language, facial expressions, or meaningful looks.

When the timer goes off, switch roles and try the exercise again. You may find that one partner is much chattier than the other, which is totally normal.

5. The Miracle Question

This exercise is a great way for couples to explore the type of future they would like to build, individually and as a couple. We all struggle at times, but sometimes the struggle is greater because we simply do not know what our goals actually are – asking the “Miracle Question” can help you or your clients to clarify your goals.

This question helps both partners to probe their own dreams and desires, and learn about their partner’s dreams and desires. It can aid a couple in understanding what both they and their significant other needs in order to be happy with the relationship.

Therapist Ryan Howes (2010) phrases the Miracle Question this way:

“Suppose tonight, while you slept, a miracle occurred. When you awake tomorrow, what would be some of the things you would notice that would tell you life had suddenly gotten better?”

While either partner may give an answer that is an impossibility in their waking life, their answer can still be useful. If practiced within the context of couples therapy, the therapist can dive deeper into the clients’ unrealistic miracle with this question: “How would that make a difference?”

This discussion helps the client(s) to envision a positive future in which their problems are addressed or mitigated, and the therapist to learn how he or she can best serve their clients in the session.

If you are engaging in this exercise without the guidance of a therapist, don’t try to dive too deep into the answer if it is unrealistic or impossible. Instead, use this discussion as an opportunity to learn something new about your partner and plan for your future together.

6. The Weekly CEO Meeting

If you and your partner are leading lives jam-packed with activities, events, and obligations, this exercise will be a great way to connect.

This exercise provides you and your partner with an opportunity to interact as adults (no kids allowed) and without distractions (no phones, tablets, or laptops allowed).

Schedule a non-negotiable chunk of time (30 minutes is a good default) once a week for you and your partner to talk about how you both are doing, your relationship as a couple, any unfinished arguments or grievances, or any needs that are not being met.

You can start the exercise with questions like:

  • How do you feel about us today?
  • Is there anything you feel incomplete about from this past week that you would like to talk about?
  • How can I make you feel more loved in the coming days?

The answers to these questions should lead you and your partner in a healthy and productive discussion about your selves and your relationship. Make sure to do this regularly to keep on top of any issues and ensure that things don’t get swept under the rug or put on the back burner for too long (Gray, 2014).

7. Five Things… Go! Exercise

Another quick and easy exercise, this exercise can be engaged in anywhere the two of you are together. You only need your words and your imagination!

Come up with a theme for each time you practice this exercise – something like “what I’m grateful for,” “what I appreciate in you,” or “what I’d like to do with you this month” – and list five things each within this theme.

You could have one partner go first and list all five things, or you and your partner could alternate saying one of your five things at a time. However, you decide to do it, be creative and don’t be afraid to get silly with your partner!

As an example, you could ask your partner, “What are five things that you love that I have done for you lately?”

Their answers might be something like, “Taking out the trash, making a dinner reservation, getting my car detailed, cuddling with me, and watching my favorite movie with me.”

Once they finish their list, come up with your own answer to the question,

such as, “Fixing the water heater, pulling weeds, sewing the button back on my shirt, telling me how much you love me, and kissing me goodnight each night.”

When you have both finished sharing your list, you can talk about your items, show each other appreciation, ask follow-up questions, or come up with more items together.

This exercise is a fun and engaging way to connect with your partner, learn something new, or reminisce over good shared memories.

Find out more about these seven exercises at (Gray, 2014).

Free Relationship Worksheets for Couples

There are many more resources out there for couples who wish to try new things and build their connection. A few of the best free worksheets that can help couples enhance their bond are listed and described below.

About Your Partner Worksheet

This worksheet is a great activity for those in a relationship who want to make changes or solve some difficult relationship problems. It keeps the discussion light but reminds a couple of their special connection, while helping them learn more about themselves and their partner.

The instructions direct the couple to take turns asking each other a question from each section below or ask them all if they believe they know the answers.

The questions are divided into six categories:

  1. Fun and Games (example question: What is your partner’s ideal vacation spot?)
  2. The Future (example question: What are the most important items on your partner’s bucket list?)
  3. You and Me (example question: What does your partner miss the most about you when you are apart?)
  4. Other People (example question: Is there anyone who your partner sees as a role model?)
  5. Careers (example question: What are your partner’s friends like in the office?)
  6. Feelings (example question: What are the main feelings your partner has experienced today?)

Asking and answering these questions can help couples feel closer, learn about each other, and reminisce or dream for the future together.

Click to use this About Your Partner Worksheet.

Good Qualities

This worksheet can help you or your client to remember the good qualities in your partner, especially when there are problems or arguments within the relationship.

Sometimes all it takes to get partners working together to solve their problems is a reminder of why they love each other.

The worksheet is divided into four sections to be filled out by the client:

  • The good qualities which first drew me to my significant other were…
  • The most cherished memories of our time together include…
  • I appreciate my partner because…
  • My partner shows me they care by…

For each section, the client is instructed to identify at least three things that they love about their partner, treasured memories with their partner, or the ways in which their partner returns their love.

Click to see this Good Qualities Worksheet or print it out for yourself or your clients.

Appreciative Inquiry of Relationships

If you or your client are struggling in a romantic relationship, this is another good worksheet to try. When a couple is having trouble, it can sometimes help to dig deeper into the good stuff rather than on the problems they are experiencing.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) examines what gives life to a relationship, through positive questions and respectful inquiry. A couple can use this approach to open up their past and look at their successes, potential, values, and strengths as a couple.

It will help the couple remember that they are a team with common goals, common desires, and common traits. There are five sections to fill out, with space below to record your answers:

  • Identify an Important Relationship – This AI worksheet is ideal for deep diving into family relationships and friendships as well as for romantic partners. Try to be as descriptive as possible with your answers, looking at the current state of the relationship and your feelings toward your partner and things between you.
  • Discover – This is divided into two steps.
    • First, a Celebration exercise in which you will recall a shared experience that you would like to celebrate. What was worth celebrating about this experience or moment? What is it that made it so positive? What qualities did you bring to the moment? What about your partner?
    • Next, a Maintenance activity in which you will reflect both on your own most positive contribution to sustaining the relationship, and your partner’s. What do you each bring to keep the relationship developing in a healthy way? What really works about that contribution?
  • Dream – Your next step will be to envision your perfect future together. Take some time to close your eyes and visualize how you would like things to be? What are your aspirations and dreams for your future together? What words could your partner use to describe you that would make you feel proud? Use the space beneath this step to describe your dreams.
  • Design – With your dream freshly written down, the following step is about designing concrete steps that you yourself could take toward that desired future. Think about your personal strengths and how those might help you in achieving your ideal relationship, then apply the same approach to the steps that you and your partner could take together.
  • Destiny – Use this important final space to lay out your intentions so that you can commit to them. Consider the rationale for each intention you will commit to, as this will help motivate you when any potential obstacles arise. Try to make these “Whys” as meaningful as possible by linking them back to your personal values, as well as why the relationship itself is so important in your eyes.

Filling in these blanks will encourage a couple to remember the good things in their relationship and commit in a meaningful way to positive change that builds on their strengths.

Click to see this Appreciative Inquiry of Relationships worksheet.

Apologizing Effectively

This is not technically a worksheet in the traditional sense, but it provides invaluable information about how to apologize effectively when either party has hurt their partner or damaged the trust in a relationship. For this reason, it is too great a resource not to share.

The four steps to effective apologizing are laid out as follows:

  1. Acknowledging – Whether you have hurt your partner willingly or unwillingly, you can begin an effective apology by taking responsibility and acknowledging the relevant offense. Demonstrate that you recognize your responsibility by “I” (“I messed up…” or “I am at fault…”). Acknowledge who has been hurt, as well as the nature of the transgression itself.
  2. Give an explanation for the offense – Explain both that you never meant to hurt the other person and that it won’t happen in the future. This worksheet also provides tips on how to distinguish between excuses and explanations for an effective, meaningful apology.
  3. Express your remorse – Naturally, we feel regret and remorse amongst other feelings when we hurt another person. Expressing the emotions that you feel – such as humiliation, shame, embarrassment, and so forth – can help your partner understand your recognition of the mistake. For example, “I feel really bad about what happened. For days I have felt embarrassed about how I let you down”.
  4. Make amends – Follow up your verbal acknowledgment and apology with actions that aim to fix the damage caused. Talk to your partner and see what they might consider a good reparation for the damage to your relationship.

This worksheet describes each step and provides tips for you or your client to follow the next time there is a disagreement, argument, or breach of trust.

To read more about these steps, you can view or download the Apologizing Effectively worksheet from our Toolkit.

Naikan Reflection

While this Naikan Reflection worksheet is something for each partner to work on alone, it’s still a great resource for couples who would like to build and maintain a healthy relationship.

The exercise encourages the reader to remember not to take his or her partner for granted. It helps to cultivate feelings of appreciation and gratitude while encouraging each partner become more aware of where they stand morally with their partner. Following these suggestions can help couples show their partners appreciation and inject some gratitude into their relationship.

Naikan Reflection is a Japanese method of self-reflection that features in therapy as three questions; on this sheet there is space for you to record your answers. Thinking back over the past 24 hours, and with your partner specifically in mind, reflect on the following:

  • What have I received? What support, care, and attention did you get from your partner? Did they say kind things to boost your self-confidence? Drive you to work or pick you up afterward? Was lunch packed for you? Feel free to list everything that you received from your partner over the past 24 hours.
  • What have I given? Did you ask them how school was? Did you call them just to say hi? Pick up their clothes or rub their shoulders?
  • What troubles or difficulties have I caused? Think now about the ways in which you might have caused any hassle or hurt for your partner throughout the day. Perhaps you snapped at them out of impatience, or pointed out something they forgot? Did you criticize some of their work, or forget to do something they were counting on?

One aim of this exercise is to cultivate your natural desire to help and care for your partner. By heightening your recognition of how much you really receive and offer in turn each day, Naikan Reflection is a useful exercise to boost your experience of gratitude and its benefits.

A Take-Home Message

This piece included a description of couples counseling or couples therapy and introduced several engaging, informative, and helpful exercises for making the most out of a romantic relationship.

We hope you found a few new ideas for how you can bond with your partner (or help your clients bond), but we also hope you got the underlying message—no relationship is perfect, but there are perfect ways of showing up for each other when it is hard.

No relationship is without an occasional problem, and even the best can benefit from some concerted effort on the part of each partner. Whether you are in a new relationship or going on your 50th anniversary, there is still more to learn about your partner and more new and interesting things to do together.

What do you think keeps your relationship happy and healthy? Have you tried any of these activities or exercises? What do you think is most important in a good romantic relationship? Let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading, and remember to appreciate your significant other. It will benefit both of you.

DIY Marriage Counseling

Carolina Melis

Apologies to the Beatles, but as most couples can tell you, love is not all you need. Any long-term relationship takes hard work, a lot of flexibility, and plenty of talking (so much talking). Sometimes you feel stuck—and that’s where this advice comes in. “Counseling is often just a matter of nurturing the relationship,” says Carrie Cole, a cofounder of the Center for Relationship Wellness, in Houston. Do you need a professional to make you do that? Maybe. But there are probably a lot of bumps that you can smooth out on your own. Cole says that, in her experience, couples who seek counseling have often been letting a problem fester for years (six, on average, she says). Why not try to heal little irritations before they become giant problems? Yes, it’s hard, but here’s help: Six experienced marriage counselors break down some of the most common problems that bring couples to their offices and offer advice for working through them at home. Together.

The Issue: Feeling Disconnected

Telltale signs: “We don’t get married for economic necessity, like in the past. Now we want to feel madly, passionately in love, but that’s hard to keep up,” says Kathleen Mates-Youngman, a marriage and family therapist in Mission Viejo, California, and the author of Couples Therapy Workbook. What was once passion turns into the logistical ho-hum of soccer practices and dry-cleaning pickup, and the marriage suffers from neglect. “Couples start to take the relationship for granted and don’t give it the attention it needs,” says Mates-Youngman. “There are external stressors, and hurt feelings start to build up. Then people begin to feel resentful and stop trying.”
What a therapist would advise: You can probably guess: Put time and attention into your relationship like you would any project that’s important to you. “Big gestures require big effort and are less likely. Instead, focus on the simple things that matter to your partner,” says Scott Stanley, Ph.D., a coauthor of Fighting for Your Marriage. “If your partner takes a walk every day after dinner for 15 minutes and you’ve stopped doing it with him, start it up again. We all know the little things that we could do on any given day that our partners appreciate. Do them.” And don’t underestimate a cheesy conversation. Think about the getting-to-know-you topics you spent hours dissecting early on in your relationship. For example, “Would you rather be with people or alone when you’re feeling stressed?” says Cole. “You think that you know someone, but you might be really surprised at the answer.” As unromantic as it sounds, you need to put time to talk on your calendar—even if it’s just 10 minutes a day. You might also re-create an early, memorable date to bring past sparks into the present, says Miles Wagman, a licensed family and marriage therapist and the director of the Relationship Center, in Red Bank, New Jersey. (Wait, is Almost Famous playing anywhere?)
Definitely don’t: Accept that this is just what happens over time. Relationships don’t have to become predictable; they get better as you learn more about yourself and your partner. Will you lose the connection at certain stressful periods (ahem, the survival mode of having small children)? Sure. But during those times don’t blame. Be patient and gentle with each other, and make it a habit to use questions rather than demands, says Marina Williams, a therapist in Boston and the author of Couples Counseling: A Step by Step Guide for Therapists. Instead of “You need to spend less time on the computer,” try “Could we find a way to spend less time on the computer and more time together?”
“We all know the little things that we could do on any given day that our partners appreciate. Do them.”

The Issue: Avoiding Confrontation

Telltale signs: You’re upset about something, so naturally you walk right past your partner when you get home from work and turn on the TV. Or maybe you escape the house—long hours at the office, CrossFit every morning. Avoiding confrontation or unhappiness by disappearing (emotionally or physically) can be common for people who grew up in volatile homes, says Williams: “Partners avoid confrontation when experience teaches them that it results in negative consequences.”
What a therapist would advise: Be willing to interact, even if it isn’t pleasant. “Fighting can be a good thing. It can bring greater intimacy,” says Cole. The key is letting the argument reveal what values are at play. For example: You fight about clutter around the house. Keeping score on who picks up more items of clothing or kids’ toys is only touching the surface. But say the argument leads to your husband’s explaining that growing up in a home with plastic protecting the furniture made him anxious; a lived-in house with stuff lying around feels comforting to him. (Cole says this is an issue that she went through with her own husband.) Then you end up with a productive discussion. “Know that you’re never going to change your partner’s values or beliefs on that subject, but once you understand, you can learn to negotiate,” says Cole.
Definitely don’t: Copy the avoidance behavior. If he’s just going to sit in front of the computer all day, then I’ll go shopping. Both people exhibiting a bad coping strategy is not the way to improve a relationship.

The Issue: Getting Stuck in Patterns

Telltale signs: Fighting? That’s no problem. You fight like champs. But it’s the same argument over and over again, with no breakthroughs. “I see a lot of couples who play certain roles over time that make them turn away from each other instead of toward each other,” says Troy Love, a licensed clinical social worker and the president of Courageous Journeys Counseling, in Yuma, Arizona. Those archetypes include: the prosecuting attorney (pointing out the things your partner is doing wrong); the union president (picketing the unfairness—I’m the victim! You need to make things better); and the fire chief (Just listen to me—I know how to fix everything). Williams adds: “I also see a parent-child pattern—one partner communicates like the other is her teenage son—and sibling patterns, where they both have temper tantrums.”
What a therapist would advise: First recognize the role that you tend to play. Then own your behavior and identify your needs. What does that mean, exactly? “Couples struggle with articulating what they really require, so the argument becomes all about the other person. You have to own your needs and emotions,” says Love. You’ve heard the ubiquitous advice about using I instead of you statements, but it does help to avoid seeming accusatory. There’s no blueprint for a perfect interaction, but the keys are to have empathy for your partner’s pain, stick to the subject, and simply keep a civil tone. (So hard!) “Just ‘I’m here. I’m present. You can be yourself’ works wonders,“ says Love.
Definitely don’t: Start talking to your sister or a coworker instead of your spouse. When you complain to an outside party more than you’re talking to the person you’re married to about the issue at hand, that’s a new set of problems. “Getting validation from others feels good in the moment, but you’re playing with fire,” says Williams. “You may end up with friends or family who don’t support your marriage. Or, even worse, the venting—to, say, an officemate—can lead to a feeling of intimacy with the other person, and that’s how affairs can start.”

The Issue: Fearing Infidelity

Telltale signs: They might not be what you think. Infidelity can be emotional as well as physical. Is your spouse turning to someone else instead of you? Online, at work, at a bar: Wherever it is happening, a relationship is compromised when one partner is giving his or her affection and attention to an outside party. According to Wagman, “Infidelity is not necessarily about sex. It is about secrecy, betrayal, and deception.” And sleuthing for concrete clues—checking credit-card statements or text messages—isn’t as productive as listening to your intuition (which was probably speaking up long before text messages became a problem). Is your partner more distanced? Maybe you feel yourself turning to others, rather than your partner, for emotional support. That’s a red flag, says Love. Be especially vigilant at times of transition—when kids are born or head to college, when there’s a death or a job change. That’s when your marriage can be most vulnerable, says Mates-Youngman.
What a therapist would advise: Well, it depends. If you’re noticing that your partner or you are starting to pull away emotionally—even if the physical act seems unlikely—you need to make an extra effort to check in and communicate directly. Take a relationship inventory, says Love. This is largely preventative and obviously requires both partners to be on board. Ask a simple question at the end of the day: How connected are you feeling to me? “Sure, it might feel weird at first. But still, you start talking,” says Love. “And then you start to notice, ‘No, I don’t really feel connected to you.’ This is what you would be doing on a couples’ retreat.” If there is (or was) a physical affair, it’s probably time to see a professional. “Couples who are seriously distressed—as would be many who are working through an affair—may not spring back on their own,” says Stanley. “They need a plan from a therapist.” Good news: A 2014 study published in Journal of Marital and Family Therapy found that couples who were able to forgive and work through infidelity or other betrayals ended up stronger and more satisfied.
Definitely don’t: Hope things will just right themselves. It’s scary to confront serious issues, especially when the truth might be life shattering. But sooner rather than later is always the best time to deal with it, especially before patterns of dysfunction become more ingrained. Don’t make ultimatums when you are caught up in the anger and the hurt of the moment. It is reasonable to ask for time to think before having a conversation or making any decisions. Also, don’t have your own inappropriate relationship to show your partner how it feels. Escalation will only cause more pain and make any kind of healing more difficult.
For more advice from the experts, listen to this week’s episode of “The Labor of Love.” Don’t forget to subscribe and review on iTunes!

The honeymoon may be over, but there are ways to keep the good feelings and fun times rolling—and to weather the inevitable storms without totally sinking. We talked to relationship experts who have tons of experience with counseling married couples to find out what causes the most trouble in paradise—and what they wish everyone knew before walking down the aisle…or at least before ending up in their office.

1. Stay True To Yourself
“Keep your identity, your goals, your dreams and your passions,” says clinical psychologist John Mayer, Ph.D. (not to be confused with the other John Mayer, who’s decidedly not an expert on love). After all, once you become someone’s wife, you’re still you! Yes, now your life involves a partner (and that’s wonderful), but if you forget about your own identity, you will resent it eventually…and that is going to come back to haunt you later.

2. Make Your Sex Life Work for Your Marriage
“Don’t expect the same breathlessness as you have early in a new relationship,” says Tina Tessina, Ph.D., author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage. “Instead, make sex about enjoying each other, being close, and keeping each other happy.”

One key to keeping that spark alive is novelty, says Lori Cluff Schade, Ph.D. She says that the “drug-like” effect of falling in love will eventually wear off, but you can recreate it. “Part of the excitement in the initial stage of a relationship, brain chemically speaking, is the novelty—everything is new,” she says. “I advise my couples to seek out new opportunities together.” Whether that’s by trying out new sex tricks in the bedroom, or experimenting with fun ways to keep your relationship hot, it’s all good, steamy fun that can benefit your bond.

RELATED: 12 Hot Sex Games for Couples

3. Give Thanks
“Today’s popular culture is cynical and cool—expressions of love are often looked on as embarrassing and awkward,” says Tessina. “But keeping love alive and flowing in your relationship is essential to being happy with each other. Set aside your reluctance, and let each other know when you feel loved.” Show your gratitude verbally, with flowers and candy, with dinners out, with a hug or a kiss—whatever. “Even if you feel awkward at first, you’ll enjoy being in the loving atmosphere that results,” says Tessina. There’s a reason gratitude has been shown to be so important for a happy relationship!

4. One Word: Compromise
“You’re going to find your partner has a lot of opinions you didn’t expect them to have on things you wouldn’t expect them to care about,” says Jane Greer, Ph.D., New York-based marriage and sex therapist and author of What About Me? Stop Selfishness From Ruining Your Relationship. “For example, where you put the chairs during redecorating, what color towels go in the bathroom, etc. After you get married, being able to blend your way and their way often takes on a new meaning.”

That being said…

5. Know What’s Really Important to You
“The biggest cause of fights are differences in needs, from sexual to financial to family-related,” says Greer. “For example, one person wants to spend more time with a family member, and the other person doesn’t.” Arguments can be avoided by being as clear as possible about what things are really important to you: seeing your parents, saving up for vacations, etc. “Have a sense of where you’re willing to make compromises so your partner will reciprocate and meet your needs, as well,” says Greer.

But no matter what…

6. Acknowledge That Fighting Is Going to Happen
“You are not going to fight less after you get married,” says Schade. “Anything a couple is having conflict about before marriage is going to increase after marriage. Always. End of story.”

So is everyone doomed? Definitely not. Dana Royce Baerger, J.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, says, “It’s important to accept that some marital issues will never be resolved.” That’s right—never! “However, it’s equally important to know that persistence, good will, and humor can go a long way toward buffering couples against resentment and hostility.”

In other words: Don’t freak out when you fight (because it’s inevitable), but do try to fight fair—and always remember that this person you’re fighting with is the love of your life. They can’t be all that bad!

RELATED: The Number One Thing Couples Fight About

7. Look on the Bright Side—of Your Partner
“Couples who create happy, stable marriages evidence positive attitudes toward their spouses, says Baerger. “They actively scan the environment, and their partners, for things they can appreciate or respect. This is true even during conflict, when these partners are adept at de-escalating arguments before they become too destructive.”

8. Be Honest with Yourself
“In my own work as a couples’ therapist, I’ve found that one of the single best prognostic indicators for the long-term health of a marriage is the extent to which spouses are willing to look at their own contributions to perpetual marital issues,” says Baerger. In other words, instead of focusing only on your partner’s flaws, you should own up to your own, as well—and think about what you can do to create more marital bliss in your relationship. Some couples get into a game of marital ‘chicken,’ in which each waits for the other to change,” says Baerger. “In the interim, the marriage can wither away because neither partner is willing to be the first to change.”

9. Be Willing to Work to Make Your Relationship Thrive
You’ve probably heard this before, but that’s because it’s true: “Having a good marriage takes intentional effort,” says Schade. “It doesn’t just happen on its own. People who have great marriages work at it all the time.”

Even just having some kind of ritual that shows you care about your bond—for example, making sure you kiss your spouse before you leave—can help. And, hey, it definitely beats shelling out thousands of dollars on marriage counseling.

RELATED: 12 Daily Habits of Super Happy Couples

Though it doesn’t always last, conflict is a natural part of every relationship. Even if you think you’re a pro when it comes to navigating your significant other’s quirks or managing your emotions, it doesn’t hurt to get a tune up every once in a while. That’s where couples therapy comes in, but it may not always be accessible.

Whether you can’t afford that co-pay or just can’t seem to find the time to make it to the office, we’ve got you covered. Chandrama Anderson, a licensed family and marriage therapist in Silicon Valley, CA, shares a few golden pieces of couples therapy hacks that can help make sure your relationship is smooth sailing.

Do what you did when you were first started dating.

Once you’re in a long-term relationship, it’s easy to fall into a rut and forget what kept you together. That’s why couples therapists suggest recalling and implementing what you did in the beginning of the relationship to help keep things fresh. “People are often open and excited in the beginning,” Anderson says. “As the relationship continues, they head down a narrow path, get set in their ways and lose connection. Go back to the days of complimenting each other, dressing up for each other, and doing something new and fun to get the excitement back.”

Remember relationships need attention.

More Relationships

It’s seems obvious, but a working marriage or relationship is dependent on the effort both people put into it continuously. You can’t show affection just every now and then and expect your feelings for each other won’t be affected. Instead, do a little everyday. For example, whoever comes home from work first should greet the other by the door and offer some kind of affection, whether it’s a hug or a kiss; you should also take turns listening intently to the other. “When you stop putting in the effort and doing those little things continuously,” Anderson says, “you feel disconnected emotionally.”

Create a shared set of goals.

Think of it as a relationship constitution, or a guidebook for keeping both on the same page. Choose three to five most important items to focus on — your non-negotiables — and refer to it as needed. Focus on habitual things that align with your values, such as vowing to do what you say you’ll do when you say you’ll do it. “It doesn’t need to be complicated,” Anderson says. Most people can figure it out their biggest priorities by consulting their bank statements, monthly calendars, or list of pet peeves. The items in the constitution can relate to sex, cheating, loyalty, money, family, discipline, or generosity — whatever is most important to you as a couple.

Don’t try to fix something unless asked.

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It’s essential for couples to share their feelings and understand what’s going on with the other as much as possible. That’s why Anderson suggests giving a personal “weather report” daily. “This is allows everyone to feel heard,” she says. “Hearing and knowing what your partner feels everyday leads to connection, and that connection leads to a stronger relationship.”

However, even if it breaks your heart to hear your partner hurting, Anderson warns that opening up about negative feelings shouldn’t be construed as an invite to step in and help unless expressly asked. When people share an unpleasant moment from their day, they most likely want you to listen and offer comfort, Anderson notes. Most people don’t want to be told how to fix things.

Take a minute to cool off when you’re upset.

We all know the saying, “don’t go to bed angry”, but an even better one is don’t talk about serious matters when angry. “The more you talk about the infuriating topic, the more upset you get,” Anderson says. Instead, she suggests taking a moment to cool off, making a repair, and deciding how to lessen the stress. Once the anger has dissipated, you can calmly discuss the upsetting topic at hand.

But how to do that without getting all riled up again? It helps if you speak using shorter bites or phrases. “It’s common for one person to talk more than the other,” she says, “and this helps balance things out and bring the other voice into the relationship. He probably has a lot to say, and probably a lot backed up that hasn’t been said.”

Be explicit. Your partner can’t read your mind.

This might surprise you, but your partner doesn’t always know what you are thinking regardless of how long you’ve been together. It happens to the best of us, but you can’t expect your partner to know you need him to cuddle you more no matter how many hints you leave. And it might not be that obvious that you are overwhelmed at work and need a little pep talk from your spouse. Sometimes, you have to say what you need out loud. Simply letting your partner know you’re too tired to cook dinner and need help or need more encouragement is sometimes all it takes.

Give in to your partner’s love language.

More on the Love Languages

Love may be a universal language, but everyone translates it differently. Naturally, we give love according to the love language we identify with, but it may not resonate with your partner if he speaks a different one. “Showing love in your love language often means your partner doesn’t feel anything and may not even recognize it’s a sign of love,” says Anderson. “So take the time to learn your partner’s love language, and get out of your comfort zone.” Similarly, once you understand your partner’s love language, you can recognize when he’s showing you his love, even if it’s not what you’d necessarily do. Take the love language quiz here.

Take turns initiating sex.

While one person in the relationship may be more sexual than the other, it’s best not to fall into a habit of allowing only one person to initiate sex. If you don’t take turns, the person who isn’t always initiating sex gets all the power and the person who does, feels uncomfortable, unwanted, and defeated, Anderson explains. Talking openly about sex, experimenting, and doing what you can to make the other feel attractive does wonders for intimacy and growth in the relationship.

Spend time with people who support your relationship.

Everyone needs to have friends outside of their relationship. However, it’s important those people are in support of your relationship, too. Keep close to those who seem to have your best interest at heart, and pay attention to those who may have a hidden agenda. “Your partner needs to be the first person you share exciting parts of your day with,” Anderson says. Be wary of anyone who pushes you to lie to or hide things from your partner.

Make some agreements about money.

It’s no secret that disagreements with money are behind a lot of relationship issues. Rather than waiting until problems arise, discuss various rules or systems to curb financial disagreements before it’s too late. “Your financial situation could be fine now, but you should think ahead and come to some terms,” said Anderson. “It could be a specific budget or having a specific dollar amount you must talk to each other about before making the purchase.”

Related Stories Terri Huggins Hart Terri Huggins Hart is a journalist, freelance writer, and author of 100 Things You Should Never Say – Wedding Edition.

The Top Three Couple Counseling Exercises

By Jessica Saxena

Updated November 14, 2019

Reviewer Kristina Ellen

No matter how much you love each other, every relationship has rough patches. It’s difficult to be with someone all the time for years without having disagreements once in a while. However, if you and your partner are concerned you are drifting apart, some excellent couple counseling exercises may help you.

Couple’s Counseling is Different For Each Relationship. Find Out What Works Talk About Your Love Life With An Online Therapist.

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Couple counseling is ultimately designed to help you build the tools to have a healthy relationship with your partner. There is no shame in getting help sorting through any issues you may be having. In fact, rather than putting off visiting a professional, visiting them early can yield better results. Couple counseling is recommended for those couples having trouble communicating, when the number of arguments between the two of you is increasing, if affection is being withheld from each other as punishment, if you’re holding secrets, infidelity, intimacy problems, or if you are having ongoing issues you are unable to resolve.

Fear of the unknown is often what holds people back from getting the help they need. However, over 80% of the people that have visited a professional to get help with their marriages say that counseling has had a positive impact on their lives.

Top Couple Counseling Exercises

While there are several exercises your couple counselor may have you focus on, there are three that are commonly used. We’ll cover key details of each exercise below.

  1. The Gottman Method

The Gottman method is a scientifically proven therapy that has been around for almost 40 years and has helped over three thousand couples heal their relationships. The Gottman method emphasizes nine essential steps to healthy relationships, which include:

  • Building Love Maps

This is Gottman’s term for getting to know your partner’s world. When you decide to spend your life with someone, that also means you decide to let them into your world. This includes memories of your past, thoughts on your present, and what you hope for your future. It also includes your fears and dreams. However, what you share with your partner is simply the beginning of your “world.” The idea that you are now a couple means you will take both of your worlds and start merging them together to create a new world where you are adding new dreams, hopes, and memories.

  • Sharing Admiration and Fondness


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  • State Your Needs

Many times, we put the needs of our partners above our own. We believe we will be seen as a better partner if we are taking care of the other person or that we will come off as selfish if we put ourselves first. But when we ignore our needs, we start to feel burned out, unheard, unappreciated, and eventually we may even feel resentful towards the other person. Discussing with your partner what you need is healthy. Whether that is time to do things that fulfill you as a person, or what you need from your partner, be honest about those needs.

  • Use a Positive Perspective

The basic principle of this step is to let your partner influence you. A long-term study of 130 newlyweds was found that men who allowed their wives to influence them in the first few months of marriage were happier and less likely to get divorced than men who resisted any influence from their wives. This works both ways.

  • Managing Conflict Rather Than Trying to Resolve It

In Dr. Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, his research found that 69% of problems in relationships are unsolvable. Instead of banging your head against the wall and trying to force your partner to see things “your way” or change, sometimes it is better just to manage the conflict. Take timeouts to cool down before coming back to the conversation, and make sure you are using “I” statements when speaking with one another so that you are not continuing to exacerbate the problem by becoming defensive.

  • Talking about Your Values, Hopes, and Dreams

This step ties into building love maps. You never want to stop talking about your values, hopes, and dreams. As we get older, we change. And over time, our values, dreams, and hopes may change. We want to make sure we are not allowing our partners to assume we’ve stayed the same.

Couple’s Counseling is Different For Each Relationship. Find Out What Works Talk About Your Love Life With An Online Therapist.
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  • Sharing Your Visions

Sometimes your visions will be the same, and sometimes they will differ. Sharing a common vision with your partner can help you gain a healthy perspective and help you both combat the ups and downs that come with a marriage or relationship. Simply talking about your visions can also bring you closer and let you feel like you have a shared purpose as a couple.

  • Building Trust

Trust is built slowly over time, according to Dr. Gottman (who actually developed a mathematical way to measure trust). Trust builds as you move through life. Dr. Gottman argues that it’s not to say that you don’t trust your partner now, but it’s possible that you do not trust them as you much as you will 10 years from now. Let trust continue to build over the seasons of your relationship.

  • Believing in Commitment

At the end of the day, you have each other. You have trust, love, empathy, respect, and admiration. But do you also have commitment? And do you believe in what commitment means to you both as a couple? Couples sometimes assume that commitment comes with exchanging vows or after being together for a certain period of time, but it may look different for each person, and so it’s important to discuss what that looks like for your relationship.

  1. Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)

Since the 1980s, EFT has been improving people’s lives by helping to strengthen the bond between them. This is usually a short-term exercise that focuses on three main goals, which include:

  • Expanding and reorganizing emotional responses
  • Securing a tighter bond between you and your partner
  • Repositioning each person’s stance during interactions, and making new and improved interactions

EFT is a proven couple counseling exercise that has been found to significantly improve the relationships for 90% of those that have tried it.


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  1. Narrative Therapy Exercises

Narrative therapy is a simple and respectful approach to counseling that puts individuals in charge of their own lives by letting them narrate what is going on in their relationship through their eyes. By letting others write down what they believe the problems are and what can be done to fix them, it helps everyone involved see things from the other’s point of view. The therapist can then help each person write a new story of what they would like their life to become, together as well as individually.

Considering Couples Counseling

As discussed above, there is strong evidence that shows incredible benefits to doing couples counseling. If you’re considering getting couples counseling, here are some things you can do to help prepare you so you can get the most out of your sessions.

Self-Care

It’s important to take care of yourself so that you are in the best position to make the changes needed to improve your relationship. Be intentional about your self-care and work towards keeping both your mind and your body healthy.

Introspection

You can only change yourself. Make the most of your therapy by understanding yourself, the issues you are facing, what you want, and the role you play in your current relationship.

Gratitude

Look for things to be grateful for regularly. Practicing gratitude can help you start looking for the good in each situation, leading to more positivity and can help you see your partner in a new light.

Why BetterHelp?

It’s not uncommon for a couple to forego the help that they need simply because they were embarrassed or ashamed to be seen going into the therapist’s office. Online counseling services like BetterHelp have removed this barrier so that couples can get the help they need to grow and improve their relationships, all from the comfort and privacy of their own homes. Online counseling can be especially helpful for couples, since the two partners do not have to be in the same location in order to talk to the counselor. This is helpful for people in long-distance relationships as well as those who are not physically living together, or are on different schedules. BetterHelp has helped thousands of couples. Consider the following reviews of BetterHelp counselors below.

Counselor Reviews

“Stephanie is a gem! She’s very thoughtful, thorough, honest, insightful but most of all helpful. This is coming from a person that never wanted to do counseling and just “knew” I didn’t need it. She’s been key in helping my wife and I find our better place. She made us grow as a couple and individually. Thanks Steph!’

“I would refer Helen to anyone that would need to speak to a counselor. She listens and gives excellent advice. My husband and I are the closest we’ve ever been.”

Final Thoughts

By learning about the exercises mentioned above, you’ve taken the important first step in the journey to strengthen your relationship. A truly fulfilling and lasting relationship is possible-all you need are the right tools. Take the first step today.

Marriage counseling with a Christian counselor can be extremely beneficial for couples who have reached an impasse in their relationship. A skilled Christian counselor can help couples to talk about their relationship problems in a safe way, and assist them in developing strategies to overcome these problems. In addition, a Christian counselor can help couples to evaluate their current priorities and point out possible areas of concern.

Make Your Marriage Relationship a Priority

In my work as a Christian counselor, I find that many of the couples I work with are so busy that they have little time and energy to devote to their relationship. Given all the demands they face, many experience great difficulty in setting healthy boundaries. Yet it is crucially important to make your marriage relationship a high priority. Only your relationship with God should take priority over your marriage. Many couples get off track, with too much focus on parenting children, too many involvements in civic or church activities, or poor boundaries with regard to the demands of their work.

In my years of working with couples, I have found that couples often make great gains in counseling sessions, only to lose ground in-between sessions. This has led me to assign activities for couples to do at home in order to help them maintain progress. In this article, I outline a few of these activities that you might want to try.

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Pray Together

Prayer is foundational for a great marriage. Studies indicate that the divorce rate for couples who pray together daily is less than 1%. Given that 50% of all marriages end in divorce, this means that prayer is crucial. Ask your partner how you can pray for them this week and then make sure that you follow through.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God,which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:4-7

Park the Technology at the Door

We live in a world that is saturated with technology, and there are many benefits to this. Nevertheless, I find that many couples allow their smartphones, tablets, or TVs to distract them from real and meaningful connection with their partners. One study showed that heavy social media use, especially Facebook, significantly correlated with partner troubles and future divorce. To avoid this, plan to schedule some tech-free time with your partner. Here are some ideas to corral technology in your relationship:

  • Kick the TV out of your bedroom. Research shows that couples with a TV in the bedroom have sex 50% less often than couples with no TV in the bedroom. In addition, the light from the TV does not promote restful sleep.
  • Schedule a Tech Sabbath or Shabbat. Imagine a whole day with no buzzing smartphones, and no emails or Facebook to check. Before the Shabbat, agree on what devices you will be giving up and how long the break will last. Pray together for strength to honor God during this time.
  • Set your phone on airplane mode at dinner and when you go to bed.
  • Set a timer when using social media sites in order to help you limit your use.
  • Stay away from all technology for 90 minutes before bedtime. This will help to improve your sleep and give you time to focus on your partner, or on a quiet activity for yourself or with your children.

Greet Each Other

Greet each other when you arrive home. Stop what you are doing and take a few seconds to hug each other and welcome each other home. Your partner will likely feel that nothing else in your day is more important.

Go for a Walk Together

Save your marriage by going for a walk together. I have joked with many couples that I am planning to write a book with that title. Let me explain the benefits of walking with your partner:

  • This requires you to set aside 15-20 minutes to walk with your partner, which takes commitment.
  • You are together and away from work, household chores, and other distractions.
  • You are usually outside in nature, which can be very enjoyable.
  • The left-right motion of walking is actually calming to your brain. In this calmer state, you can connect better with your partner.
  • Because you are both facing forward, there is less intensity between you and your partner. For couples who have been experiencing conflict, this lower intensity can set the stage for reconnecting by means of light conversation or just holding hands.
  • I often give couples a list of conversation starters for their walks. They can pick one light topic and head out of the door. Many couples report that in this less intense, calmer state, conversation will begin to flow more easily. Why not try this with your partner?

The Power of Gratitude

Our brains tend to be more readily attuned to what is negative, while it takes effort and intention to direct our thinking to what is positive. Scripture reminds us:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. – Philippians 4:8, NIV

Gratitude is a great way to focus on the positive in your relationship. Marriage researcher John Gottman posits that couples need to have five positive interactions with their partner for every one negative interaction. As long as there is five times as much positive feeling and interaction between husband and wife as there is negative, the marriage will be likely to be stable over time. By contrast, he found that couples heading for divorce were doing far too little on the positive side to compensate for the growing negativity between them.

How to Express Gratitude to Your Partner

Here are some ideas for how to express gratitude in your marriage. Place a chalkboard or white board in the main living area of your home. Each day, make a point of writing a note of gratitude to your partner – and make it specific for that day. This helps to build a positive atmosphere in the home. Other ways of expressing gratitude during the day can include:

  • Sending your partner a quick text: “Thanks for packing my lunch for me.” “I loved spending time with you last night.”
  • Leaving a sticky note on the bathroom mirror or on the car seat.
  • Packing a note in your partner’s lunch or suitcase.

1. Small Gestures of Kindness Count

Pay attention to what your partner enjoys. If you are at the store, try to pick up a favorite item that they will love – just because! If your partner enjoys coffee, serve them a cup of coffee in bed as an early morning treat. If you know that your partner really dislikes a particular household chore, do that chore for them. Look for other small ways in which to love and serve your partner each day.

What is desirable in a man is his kindness. – Proverbs 19:22

2. Investigate Your Partner

No, I’m not talking about doing a criminal investigation. But when was the last time you updated your mental file about your partner? John Gottman notes that each of us has a mental file with our partner’s name on it. We have filed all sorts of information about our partner in it, especially from when we were first dating. But your file may be out of date.

Here are some ideas for investigating your partner:

  • How did he celebrate birthdays in his family?
  • What was the funniest Christmas tradition in her family?
  • Did he have pets growing up – if so, get him to talk about the ones he liked best?

You can also ask your partner for more current information:

  • If he could see any person or group in concert, who would he choose?
  • What is the best book she has read lately?
  • What restaurant or type of food would he love to try?
  • What do you need most from me right now?
  • What are you looking forward to?

Go deeper and discuss spiritual matters:

  • What area do you feel more challenged in spiritually right now?
  • What do you feel God is speaking to you currently?
  • What is your greatest fear?

3. Plan a Surprise

I’m not suggesting that you give up your favorite couple-time activities, but rather that you try and mix in some new activities to do. New and rewarding experiences flood your brain with dopamine, which boosts mood. If you do something rewarding and pleasurable with your partner, that mood boost gets linked to him. Much of day-to-day life is routine, but novelty and surprise can really spice things up in your marriage. Here are some suggestions:

  • Pack a picnic and eat dinner at a new park.
  • Arrange for the children to stay elsewhere one evening and have a romantic staycation right in your own home.
  • Buy tickets to an event you know your partner will enjoy.

4. Games On

If finances are tight or a sitter is not available, why not dust off the scrabble board or backgammon set and play a game. Or get a deck of cards out and play a favorite card game.

5. Weekly Check-In

Set aside a time each week to talk about the upcoming week with your partner. What does your partner’s coming week look like? Are either of you going to be out of town? Is there an unexpected meeting one evening? Ask your partner if you can do something to help to lighten his load this week.

6. Walk Down Memory Lane

Pull out your photos or videos and have some fun remembering a trip or event from the past.

7. Touch More

Skin-to-skin contact is a great way to build closeness and even increase sexual desire. Such contact releases the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin, frequently called the love hormone, has a calming effect on the brain in addition to helping us feel more attached and empathic to our partner. Make a point to hold hands, sit close together in the evenings, and give frequent hugs. Also, consider sleeping in the nude. What better way to have skin-to-skin contact?

8. Go to Bed at the Same Time

Many couples that I work with are in the bad habit of going to bed at differing times, which can give rise to numerous problems. Partners can become more disconnected, and they miss an important opportunity for touch or sexual intimacy. Some partners use this alone time to develop unhealthy relationships on social media or with pornography. Most partners do not intentionally get entangled in these issues, but late night loneliness can provide opportunity for temptations. Do yourself and your marriage a favor and develop the habit of going to bed at the same time.

9. Invest in Your Marriage

If you are looking for additional ideas to strengthen your marriage, I encourage you to read The Love Dare by Stephen and Alex Kendrick. It is filled with ideas for ministering to your partner on a daily basis.

If you incorporate some or all of these activities into your day-to-day life, I believe you will experience more satisfaction and intimacy in your relationship. Couples I have worked with often report that marriage counseling provides greater gains when they are also intentional about doing daily activities between sessions. If you have children in the home, they will always be observing your interactions with your partner. You are their main model for how to have a healthy relationship, so make sure that you are modeling what is good.

Many Christians are very intent on serving God through involvement in ministry, and this can be wonderful. Yet many Christians overlook the important ministry to their partner that can take place right in the home. A pastor friend of mine liked to challenge couples with the idea that their most important ministry was, in fact, in the home. If you want to have an impact across generations and perhaps even change the relationship patterns in your family, then invest time and energy in your marriage. Your child’s future spouse and your grandchildren will one day thank you for this.

Christian Counseling for a Healthy Marriage

If you are looking for a solid Christian counselor to help you make your marriage more vibrant, I would love to work with you. I work from a Biblical worldview and have many years of experience working with couples to improve their marriage. If your relationship is suffering from years of neglect, the devastation of infidelity, or other difficult issues, there is hope for you. Working with a Christian counselor can help you to set your relationship back on the right path. I offer a risk-free first session and can be contacted at Seattle Christian Counseling.

Photos
“The Moment,” courtesy of Sean McGrath, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Hand-in-Hand, courtesy of jill111, .com, CC0 Public Domain License; “Couple at the Park,” courtesy of ilraul, CC0 Public Domain License; “Lovers,” courtesy of Splitshire.com

DISCLAIMER: THIS ARTICLE DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE

The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained on this article are for informational purposes only. No material on this site is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please contact one of our counselors for further information.

If a healthy romantic relationship were easy, more people would have one. Whether you are in a dating relationship, engaged, or married, here are 12 activities that can take your relationship from average to extraordinary.

#1: Schedule Fun

Make a list of 15 activities that you enjoy engaging in with your significant other. Make sure some of the activities cost little to no money. Exchange lists. Put some of these activities into your schedule.

#2: Encouragement Lists

Both you and your significant other make a list of 10 things the other person can do to encourage you. Exchange lists. Consistently do what’s on their list.

#3: Question Jar

Put some relationship building questions in a jar, pick a question, and answer that question. You can also purchase our already made question jar (The Legacy Jar) that has 108 great questions here.

#4: Exercise Together

As the saying goes, “a couple that works out together, stays together.” Actually, I don’t know if this is true, but what I do know is that exercise is great for your mindset and sense of wellbeing – traits that are part of a healthy relationship.

#5: Learn about Healthy Relationships

You can read books on the subject together. You can attend a weekend retreat. You can see a counselor for a relational check up. Opportunities to learn about having a healthy relationship abound if you look for them.

If you found this information helpful so far, SUBSCRIBE TODAY, and you’ll receive our Free PDF of 50 Great Relationship Building Questions AND our Free Life Balance TipseBook!

#6: Pray Together

A special activity that will always bring people closer. There is great power in prayer.

#7: Admiration Lists

Write down 15 things you admire, appreciate, or are thankful for related to your spouse. Write down the details. Exchange lists.

#8: Entertain Together

Entertaining magnifies the sense of team you have or don’t have. If you don’t have a strong sense of unity, having people over can help you learn to work together.

#9: Befriend Healthy Couples

Spend time around other couples with healthy relationships. Let them rub off on you remembering that the quality of your relationship will ultimately be similar to the relationships of those you hang around the most.

#10: Set Goals Together

You can start by setting goals for the next 6 months together in 7 different life areas: health, social, intellectual, spiritual, financial, family, and career. Agree upon one goal in each area. Post these goals on your fridge.

#11: Volunteer Together

Find a cause you both believe in and schedule time to serve. This could be through your church or a local charity. Getting your eyes off yourself and onto the needs of others is always a good thing.

#12: Make a Budget

Yes, this can actually build your marriage. If you aren’t married, then do a mock budget. To have a successful budget requires BOTH individuals. Creating a budget and sticking to it requires teamwork at a whole new level.

These are some simple and, for the most part, fun activities to strengthen your relationship (yes, budgeting is simple, but I didn’t say it was easy). Incorporate one activity each month, or even each week, and experience the positive impact on your relationship.

Question: What is a great relationship building activity that I didn’t include on this list?

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After decades of marriage, you can’t blame some couples for settling into not-so-constructive patterns. You get married young, you share joy, pain, stress, and family, and gradually you might realize you fight often, rarely have sex, and feel far apart even when you’re in the same room.

This scenario is archetypical of “gray divorce,” a concept made popular by researchers for a study at Bowling Green State University, which found that, since 1990, divorce rates have doubled for Americans over 50 and more than tripled for Americans over 65.

Susan L. Brown, one of the lead researchers for the study, told the Washington Post that the reason for these divorces wasn’t “severe discord,” but rather “the couples had simply grown apart.” In 2015, the National Center for Health Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau reported that for every 1,000 married couples older than 50, 10 get a divorce. For couples 65 or older, six get a divorce.

But distance doesn’t have to result in divorce.

Once one or both partners recognize, “Hey, I’ve been unhappy for a long time and I don’t want to be,” it’s time to commit yourself to changing the dynamic, says Sara Schwarzbaum, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Couples Counseling Associates in Chicago.

“They think they know each other, but they really don’t because they’ve both changed — they’re not the same people they were 30 years ago,” says Schwarzbaum, who works extensively with couples in their 50s and 60s. To repair the relationship, “they need to get curious about each other’s visions for the future and each other’s dreams.”

Changing over the years is one thing, but serious marriage problems also can arise from bad habits. “A lot of couples’ problems have been haunting them the duration of their marriage, but they may not have had the time or energy to deal with them,” says Rachel Sussman, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist and relationship expert, and founder of Sussman Counseling in New York City.

“As we age, we go through so much, often much more than when we were younger. By the time you’re married 25-35 years, you have very entrenched patterns, plus you may have new problems, such as health issues or drug or alcohol abuse.”

Most common complaints of long-married couples

Though problems involving abuse (physical, verbal, or substance) need to be addressed first, communication issues are generally the most pervasive complaint unhappy couples share, say the experts.

Dr. Schwarzbaum describes one married couple she counseled recently whose communication problems were impacting their marriage. Married for 35 years with grown children and grandchildren, the couple had grown distant and didn’t do anything together anymore.

“There are a lot of things she put up with and never complained about — he confused acquiescence with agreement,” Dr. Schwarzbaum says. “The marital contract before was: I, female, run the house, and you, male, make the money, and nobody has anything to discuss. Now they want a different kind of partnership.” The challenge becomes, how do you listen to your partner’s complaints without interruption or getting defensive — even when you disagree?

Communication issues then become interlaced with other issues, which is often what brings long-married couples into counseling. “A big source of conflict is when they have different visions for what they want their life to be,” says Sussman, and they don’t know how to resolve it. “They argue about money and finances, or when one wants to stay active and another gets sedentary, or about when to retire.”

According to Dr. Schwarzbaum and Sussman, the top reasons couples seek counseling include:

  • Frequent fighting
  • When one partner wants sex and the other doesn’t (or sexual desire discrepancy, as it’s known diagnostically)
  • One partner’s drinking or drug abuse
  • A difference of opinion on work-life balance
  • Financial stress
  • Weight issues
  • Arguments related to adult children

Finding the motivation to change

The first step to a healthier marriage: Acknowledge you have problems.

“There are signs when a marriage is in trouble and you have to get some help,” says Sussman, who notes things like fighting more often than having pleasant times; having no or little sex; preferring to spend free time with friends, family, or alone; dreading weekends; and fantasizing about other partners ….or being alone. “You call your doctor if you have pain, you call your accountant if you have trouble with your taxes. Ask for help. If you get help at the right time, you can really turn things around.”

So how do you two get back on track? A licensed therapist can help you find common ground again. “If the relationship had a friendship-and-love basis, then there is something that can be rekindled and restarted,” says Dr. Schwarzbaum. “When life gets busy, people tend to put their relationship on the back burner, and they both end up feeling neglected. can help them take ownership of their problems and address them.”

3 exercises that can reignite love in your marriage

Dr. Schwarzbaum offers three methods that can help all couples find more appreciation for each other and end the fighting:

1. Create a calm environment for conversation

If you’re airing a long-held grievance, emotions tend to run high. Take the fuel out of the fire and make sure you’re actually communicating with an easy three-step process, recommends Dr. Schwarzbaum.

  • First, open the conversation gently by asking permission: “I have some things I want to tell you — is this a good time?” If your partner says yes, your relationship issue shifts from an emotional outburst (which often provokes a heated response) to something more akin to a business meeting. “In a common fight, the brain is hijacked of its ability to reason and listen, and your partner cannot hear you,” she says. Giving your partner the choice to engage in a conversation puts you on even ground.
  • Second, clearly and calmly state your complaint and your desired alternative: “I don’t like it when you do x, and I would like that you do y instead.”
  • Lastly, the person receiving the complaint must write down what his or her partner said and repeat it back, which ensures you end up talking about the issue at hand. “It seems simple, but I can’t tell you how difficult it is to repeat what your partner said,” she says. “There’s always distortion and defensiveness about what was said. You don’t have to agree or respond to the complaint, you just have to hear it.”

“When couples learn the skills to talk to each other in a different way, then the bigger issues can get some airtime, too,” says Dr. Schwarzbaum.

2. Learn one another’s love languages

Identifying the behavior that makes your partner feel loved and connected to you allows both of you to feel more satisfied. If you feel loved when your partner hugs and kisses you, but your partner feels loved when you take out the trash or empty the dishwasher, you may have an appreciation disconnect.

“Most people give what they want to get,” says Dr. Schwarzbaum. “If you want help with the dishwasher, then you help him with the trash or the lawn. Or if you’re more of a physical person and need touch, you’ll tend to give physical affection, but your partner might not feel connected that way.”

When this happens, people typically get into detrimental interactional patterns, like, “I won’t give to you, because I’m not getting from you.” Dr. Schwarzbaum says exchanging love languages can help couples create a more virtuous cycle where, “The more I give to you, the more I get from you.”

3. Practice nonsexual touching

Recent research published by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology suggests that having sex once a week — but not more often — helps you maintain an intimate connection with your partner and correlates with a happier marriage, regardless of gender, age or length of relationship.

Having sex once a week — but not more often — correlates with a happier marriage, regardless of gender, age or length of relationship.

“Many people get in trouble because they’re not having sex,” says Dr. Schwarzbaum. “They grow further and further apart, but they can’t figure out how to get there.”

She describes the typical scenario as follows: Partner A wants more sex than partner B and tries to initiate sex by touching, kissing, or asking. Partner B then learns to read this behavior as a cue for sexual activity, which he or she doesn’t want, and pulls away. If they never talk about it, the distance grows because they’ve never established what acceptable sexual activity is. “The pursuer stops pursuing when the distancer distances too much,” she says. “Then there’s no more sex, and there’s no more nonsexual touch, so that’s a big loss for the couple.”

What to do about it? Remove the sexual pressure. “I try to get them to separate nonsexual touch from sexual activity,” says Dr. Schwarzbaum. “I tell them to play with each other’s body, and take it very slowly, like have a longer hug than usual, but purposely put a stop to further sexual activity. That way they rekindle intimacy without the threat of the performance.”

The bottom line

In the end, the goal of these exercises is to break free from behavior that’s not working, to get curious about your partner again, and, ultimately, enjoy one another.

“I try to help them talk differently, listen differently,” says Dr. Schwarzbaum. “Sometimes they go their separate ways because they can’t do any of that, but very often it works beautifully. I get people in their 60s who make enormous changes with how they interact.”