Updated: Sep 9
As a couples therapist, it's important to have effective couples exercises at your disposal for as many situations as possible. This article is the response from licensed therapists and relationship professionals on what they believe to be their most effective couples therapy intervention. Here's what they had to say:
Tina Marie Del Rosario, LCSW, MS
(She | Her)
Practice Director | Licensed Psychotherapist Healing Collective Therapy Group
A common presenting issue I see in couples and relationship therapy are the challenges associated with presumptions and expectations. Being presumptuous means there is a belief that something is true because it is likely.
When a partner believes their partner should respond in a particular way because they believe it is the likely and appropriate response, they ignore their partner’s position in the situation.
Or when a partner expects their loved one to behave or do something in a way that they would do it, they are ignoring what works for their partner.
Many people presume their partner will react, respond or behave in a way that is conducive to their wants, needs or desires; and expect their partner to show up, perform or act in ways that are in alignment with their thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. When one’s partner does not behave in a way that is in alignment with their presumption and expectations, assumptions arise, and conflict emerges.
For example, a wife (#1) had difficulty accepting that her wife (#2) would not clean the house as thoroughly, and without the same amount of attention to detail as she does. She believed her partner should clean the house exactly the way she does because in her mind it was likely (presumption) and expected specific details to be covered because that is how she would do it (expectations based on her cleaning routines).
When these presumptions and expectations were not met, the wife became angry and
disappointed. While wife #2 felt she cleaned the house the best that she could and felt unappreciated. This led to conflict and arguments.
In my work I encourage people to question their presumptions and expectations. Where are they coming from, what are they based on, and why are they showing up?
I encourage couples to be curious about themselves and their partner. Rather than focus on the surface level behavior, response or reaction, focus on what is driving it. What is the driving force beneath the surface? Whatever it is, that is what should be the focus and topic of conversation.
Wife #1 was able to recognize that her presumptions and expectations were based on her anxieties surrounding cleaning. She expected her wife to clean the house exactly the way she did because she needed her anxious brain to be calmed and satisfied.
After working through and processing this, she recognized it was unfair and learned how to cope, reframe, and accept and appreciate her wife’s way of cleaning. Wife #2 now understood it was her wife’s anxiety, not disappointment in her, which led to her taking her defenses down.
When we focus on what is beneath the surface, it changes the way we see the situation. Rather than focus on the behavior or response, let’s focus on what is driving it?
This allows couples to not only learn more about their partner, but better understand where their triggers, reactions and responses come from. It allows space for understanding and empathy, which ultimately changes how we show up for another, and how we show up for ourselves.
Mary Kay Cocharo
Encounter-centered Couples Transformation Therapist
As a seasoned Couples Therapist, I’ve seen thousands of couples over the past 35 years. Most seek couples therapy because they are unhappy, disconnected, lonely, or fighting. They are disillusioned in their relationship and are often seeking an audience for airing their grievances.
My favorite intervention happens right at the start.
If I were to ask them the standard, “what brings you in?” question, I would be inviting them to launch into what’s wrong. It’s likely that they would welcome the opportunity to blame and shame their partner. “If only he wouldn’t or if she would just…”, etc.
Instead, I shock them by asking them to start with helping me get to know them in their essence. In other words, I focus on who they are at their core, the beauty of them when they are not embroiled in their struggles. Essentially, why they got together in the first place.
Since I believe that energy follows attention, I have them focus on their biggest relationship dream. I ask, “what for you is your greatest aspiration, your deepest longing for your relationship?”
I go slowly, allowing each of them to put three aspects of their wildest dream on the horizon in the language of abundance. The language of abundance is the language of dreams and intentions. If they say, “in my dream for this relationship we don’t fight”, I help them to imagine what they might do instead. This quickly turns to, “we listen deeply to one another, we understand each other, we accept our differences, we validate each other, we have empathy.”
This exercise, once deepened, gets them working together as a couple to achieve this vision. I explain to them that this is who they are. Their dysfunctional interactional pattern is how they have survived. I teach them to change that. But in the beginning, I collect their dream.
All of the work that follows is in the service of their deepest aspirations for being together.
I don’t believe that marriage therapy is about problem solving, per se. I think, at its best, it’s about leading couples to co-create a shared space that is nurturing, connected and safe.
Amy McManus, LMFT
Helping stressed-out smart people build healthy relationships
Marina del Rey and Santa Cruz, CA
Pronouns: She, her, hers
Who Does the Chores?
A common issue that couples have when they come to me is the division of household tasks. Sometimes couples will argue over and over about one particular task, like making sure the kitchen is clean before they go to bed.
When couples are arguing over any issue over and over, it is a sure sign that there is more to it than just than the dishes!
Here’s what we do when confronted with a problem like this.
Why do we see things so differently?
I explain to couples how our feelings are driven not so much by the actual events that happen, but rather by the stories they tell themselves about these events. Every action or incident can be interpreted various ways, and the way you interpret it will drive the way you feel about it.
This is one of the basic tenants of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This concept can be very empowering—after all, we can’t control our partner’s behavior, but we can control the story we tell ourselves about what happened.
How your brain makes you argue.
When we are triggered by our own narrative about a situation, our brain often responds in a very primal way. Our sympathetic nervous system gets activated and our brain goes into “fight or flight” mode. The executive function area of our brain, our pre-frontal cortex (PFC) literally shuts down. We literally lose the ability to make good decisions.
One of the important things clients do at this stage is learn techniques to calm their nervous system down—breathing, grounding, and mindfulness exercises are all helpful here.
Psychodynamic exploration. Why the thing they are arguing about it not the real issue!
Once the couple understands that there is probably more to the issue than meets the eye, they are usually curious to learn how this applies to their own specific argument. This is where we begin to explore what history each person brings to the table.
For example, did one of them grow up in a chaotic household? This might partly explain why having cleanliness and order is so important to them. When someone can get in touch with the history that is being triggered, they generally begin to soften.
They forgive themselves for getting so upset about the issue (of course it makes sense that they were so upset—they had years of conditioning that messy=chaotic!).
They also start to soften with their partner—they are less interested in looking for reasons why their partner did what they did, and more willing to forgive and/or problem-solve instead of getting angry.
Specific Strategies—How to get those dishes cleaned and that garbage taken out!
Most people are familiar with chore charts—but they are not just for children! The main problem I see with chore charts is that there hasn’t been a true “buy-in” from both partners.
After we have worked on all the things above, most partners have a greater understanding and motivation to work together to solve this problem. What I find works best is if each partner owns a certain chore or set of chores completely, start to finish. Having overlap just creates multiple possibilities for misunderstandings and makes things unnecessarily complicated.
Once couples have gone through these four steps, they have a whole new relationship to getting the chores done!
Laurie Pantell, MFT
The OverFunctioner/Underfunctioner Dynamic
A dynamic I see with some couples is when one member of the partnership tends to overfunction, and the other tends to underfunction. The overfunctioner might take care of everything around the house on top of working full-time, for example, while the underfunctionerfeels immobilized to do much more than what they have to do at their job. These roles can become quite entrenched and rigid, and cause painful feelings as well as limit both partners’ growth.
When I witness this dynamic, I will first name it as a polarization that doesn’t serve either person. Typically, the overfunctioning partner is the one who is most troubled by this dynamic because they are working so hard and feel angry or resentful about it, but it does a disservice to both parties. It is helpful to have both members of the couple in agreement that the pattern needs to change.
An overfunctioner will express concern that if they don’t take care of things, things will just not get done. An underfunctioner might say that they have no opportunity to contribute because the other person refuses to let go of control of responsibilities.
How to Break the Pattern
The remedy is for the overfunctioner to pull back and for the underfunctioner to step up…easier said than done! I ask the couple to choose a task or project to practice new behaviors with and we “assign” some responsibility for that task to the underfunctioner as homework. There is no specific goal attached to the assignment or judgment about how things have to go; instead, it is an opportunity for both people to try to approach a task differently and see what happens.
For this experiment, I encourage the overfunctioner to notice what thoughts/feelings come up if they refrain from taking action and to sit with that discomfort. Perhaps it feels out of control to them with many potential negative consequences if something doesn’t get done.
Similarly, I encourage the underfunctioner to notice what arises as they take steps to make this contribution, and what thoughts and feelings might inhibit them from taking initiative. For both partners, there are usually deeper roots as to why they have taken on their respective roles, and we get to explore any family-of-origin or past relationship experiences that contribute to their reflexive responses.
It usually takes some time for each person to exhibit new behaviors, but I have seen this process be very effective with some persistence. And often, when this unhealthy dynamic is challenged and worked through, other aspects of the relationship that need adjustment to become apparent and begin to heal as well.
John Mark Kane, LMFT
Couples avoid conflict if they can, often they dread it because their experience is negative and their outcomes are negative. But conflict is not the problem, conflict is actually your roadmap to intimacy.
Sometimes I get a couple that says, “we don’t have conflict.” Well, if that is true, then at least one person in the relationship is suppressing their needs, wants, and desires in order to please their partner. It's a relationship built on sand and it will collapse. If you learn to do conflict in a healthy way it allows you to grow through your differences to experience healthy intimacy.
The problem is couples do not know how to do it.
I teach couples how to engage in conflict in a healthy way. I provide a structured plan for how various types of conflict are dealt with when they arise. It is a plan built on foundational principles: stopping the damage in the relationship so the couple can focus on rebuilding their emotional and relational connections, and removing the anxiety in the process that debilitates individuals from healthy relationship decisions when they are in conflict.
It establishes the foundation for the couple's recovery and creates the pathway for the couple to experience true intimacy. I teach the couple how to move past the battle of right and wrong and identify each other's core needs.
When couples are able to meet each other’s needs in the process of their disagreement, they can always find a way forward, even when they are not in agreement about the issue being discussed. On this foundation, we are then able to repair and build trust because we have a new healthy way to face our differences with each other.
Sarah F. O'Brien, LCSW, LCSW-C, CCATP, CTMH
Licensed Clinical Social Worker in VA & MD
Thrive & Shine Counseling/ Ashland, Virginia
I recommend couple's use the Speaker-Listener technique and always recommend they use a talking object, as well. Could be a pillow, a pen, a magnet, literal stick, anything.
Rules go: The Speaker holds the object, and discusses either an issue they have with their partner, shares vulnerable emotions or difficult news, or asks for something from their partner.
The Listener, well, listens during the speaking part, active listening is key here, because after the speaker has addressed ONE issue or item, the Listener has an opportunity to repeat back what they heard.
it's important to pass the talking object to the Listener during the playback, as ONLY the person with the talking object can speak.
During playback, the Listener is only to paraphrase what they heard from the Speaker, and not start discussing their issue or rebutting; and it's important to share the floor, allowing the Listener a time to respond with their thoughts, but only after the Speaker has finished.
I recommend this exercise for couple's anytime they have a conflict or issue, or need to bring up something difficult to their partner. I find this technique effective in reducing combative arguments. It provides a way for couple's to discuss their problems or concerns peacefully and with respect to each other.
And when the Listener repeats back what they heard from the Speaker, it's an opportunity for connection and understanding, rather than defensiveness, blaming, or stonewalling.
This technique can help couples get out of arguments or conflicts without emotional injury, mutual respect intact, and hopefully, a peaceful resolution to an issue.
Ellie Borden, BA, RP, PCC
Registered Psychotherapist, Clinical Director and Clinical Supervisor.
My "go-to" couples therapy exercise is a combination of having couples identify surface triggers that come up throughout their week and discussing them in therapy, as well as asking them to answer bonding questions that give me a significant amount of insight on their perception of events and their partner. Surface triggers could be anything from keeping an untidy bathroom to using specific words or phrases. Bonding questions could include, What qualities first drew you to your partner? What qualities does your partner have that you think you lack? What needs are you (unsuccessfully) trying to meet through your relationship? For example, understanding, approval, appreciation, etc. Which of the above needs did your early caretakers have difficulty meeting?
Identifying triggers and discussing them in session helps improve communication and allows one's partner to understand why something is genuinely a trigger, on a deeper level. Usually, triggers reveal areas that need healing, areas that are lacking, and attachment styles.
Bringing these elements to the forefront helps one's partner understand them better. And, instead of it being a blame game or an attack and defensiveness pattern, it can now be a space for compassionate communication.
I find the bonding questions very effective because they enable couples to see their relationship and themselves in a different light. And, for many, it reminds them of all the good things that first attracted them to their partner.
Mental Health Officer at Women's Resources e-Information.
My go-to couples therapy exercise is a classic, but I find it so useful: the Five Love Languages. This exercise involves learning about the different ways people feel loved and appreciated, and identifying which "love language" is most important to each partner. Partners can then try to communicate in the other person's love language to show appreciation and build connection.
The reason I find it so effective is because many problems in couples stem from a simple mismatching of love languages. Often both partners feel like they are giving so much love and receiving nothing in return, when the issue is that they are communicating love in the way they understand, but not considering how their partner feels loved.
Lindsey Ferris, MS, LMFTA
Lindsey Ferris, MS, LMFTA, Washington State
Individual & Couples Psychotherapist
I often have couples start to notice when they feel defensive and start to acknowledge when it comes up vs. speaking from the defensive place. An example could be, “I’m feeling defensive after you just said that,” and then leaning into each other to explore the defensiveness.
I do this exercise as it encourages leaning into each other vs. leaning away from each other when feeling defensive. When couples speak from their defensiveness it often escalates conflict and retreating from each other both physically and emotionally.
When acknowledging defensiveness is coming up, couples often learn or begin to see the patterns of underlying beliefs and perceptions that each other has and can have more empathy and insight into each other reactions.