While social media is an ongoing highlight reel, the reality is that struggling as a couple is common. Many couples face conflicts and find comfort in guidance from a licensed therapist.
If you’re interested in trying couples therapy or wondering whether it’s a fit for you, we’ve rounded up the best techniques and exercises to get started.
Online resources and telehealth has made couples therapy more accessible than ever.
If you’re looking to engage in self-improvement and enhance your relationship, there’s a multitude of techniques and exercises at your fingertips.
Couples therapy techniques
1. Reflective listening
“Reflective listening is a highly beneficial exercise where the couple take turns being active listeners,” says Laura Louis, a licensed psychologist at Atlanta Couple Therapy.
Use “I” phrases instead of “you” statements. For example, say “I feel hurt when you do X” instead of “You’re wrong for doing X.”
“When couples take turns being active listeners, it boosts healthy communication skills as well as conflict resolution skills for the couple,” Louis says.
2. Emotionally focused therapy
Many therapists use a method called emotionally focused therapy (EFT).
The goal is for couples “to identify maladaptive patterns within the relationship that are interfering with secure bonds and attachments,” says Ansley Campbell, a clinical director at The Summit Wellness Group.
People “learn and utilize techniques to heal or create safe and secure attachments within the relationship,” she explains.
3. Narrative therapy
The practice of narrative therapy revolves around people describing their problems in narrative form and rewriting their stories. This can help them see that no single story can possibly encapsulate the totality of their experience.
“There will always be inconsistencies and contradictions,” says Sam Nabil, CEO and lead therapist at Naya Clinics.
Narrative therapy may be helpful for couples who feel like their relationship is failing due to both of their faults.
“These couples often believe that they’re subject to this romantic pitfall and emotional trauma because they have been a ‘failure’ from the start and it is what they ‘deserve,’” Nabil says.
4. Gottman Method
The Gottman Method is a popular method practiced among couples therapists. The technique is designed to help couples deepen their understanding of one another while managing conflict in their relationship.
The Gottman Institute has more than 40 years of research under its belt. It provides live workshops and take-home training materials for couples, but many therapists have also trained using the Gottman Institute’s methods.
5. Imago relationship therapy
Imago relationship therapy, developed by Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt in 1980, emphasizes the connection between adult relationships and childhood experiences.
By understanding childhood trauma, the therapy seeks to make couples more empathetic and understanding of one another.
6. Solution-focused therapy
If you’re experiencing a particular issue or want to work toward a specific goal, solution-focused therapy is a model to consider.
According to the Institute for Solution-Focused Therapy, the practice is “a short-term goal-focused evidence-based therapeutic approach which helps clients change by constructing solutions rather than dwelling on problems.”
Couples therapy exercises and activities
7. Get crafty
“Having a physically visible vision board can help remind you of your shared desires and goals for when you are having issues within the relationship,” Louis says.
She advises couples to get crafty by writing down goals and collecting pictures that embody your relationship desires.
“It’s a tangible reminder that a marriage is a work in progress, and that it takes hard work and time on both ends to create a strong, healthy, and long lasting relationship,” she says.
8. Find deeper topics to engage with
Get over surface-level conversations and ask your partner questions other than “What’s for dinner?”
Kelly Sinning, a Colorado-based licensed professional counselor, likes to give her clients the homework of simply talking with each other.
“Oftentimes, we get so busy and caught up in the day-to-day needs, we don’t realize that we stop having conversations about anything else,” she explains.
9. Express appreciation
Expressing gratitude and communicating what works in your relationship can help strengthen your appreciation for one another.
“Make it a habit of expressing appreciation daily through in-person conversations, texts, or a sticky note in a place your partner will find it,” suggests Meagan Prost, a licensed professional clinical counselor at Center for Heart Intelligence.
10. Identify your partner’s love language
Just because you’re in a relationship doesn’t mean you experience love in the same way.
“The 5 Love Languages” by Dr. Gary Chapman has helped couples identify what makes them feel loved so they can show up for each other.
The five love languages are based on the idea that each person has a preferred way of receiving love:
- receiving gifts
- acts of service
- words of affirmation
- quality time
- physical touch
Take the online quiz with your partner to discover your love language and better understand each other.
11. Schedule important conversations
Are you looking to have an important or difficult discussion with your partner? Take it from the experts: Serious talks are best when you have a plan.
“We often engage in conflict because the timing is wrong, and we aren’t in a frame of mind where we can thoughtfully engage in conversation,” says Alisha Powell, PhD, LCSW, with Amethyst Counseling and Consulting.
She advises tough conversations be scheduled in advance so no one is caught off guard.
12. Pencil in one-on-one time
While life can feel hectic, don’t let outside pressures override time with your partner.
“Scheduling an hour of ‘couples time’ to get intimate is a great start. Scheduling an hour of time to focus on topics that will help improve the relationship can be done several times a week or once a week,” says Grazel Garcia, LMFT.
13. Fill your intimacy bucket
As a couple and as individuals, understand that you both have intimacy needs.
Garcia calls this the “intimacy bucket,” which includes the following types of intimacy:
Spend time finding exercises in each bucket. For example, you can explore a new hobby together or socialize with mutual friends on a Zoom game night.
14. Practice partner yoga
Consider teaming up with your partner for couples yoga.
Partner yoga allows you to balance together with your partner, establishing and strengthening trust as you flow through tandem moves.
A 2016 study linked mindfulness to increased relationship satisfaction. By synchronizing your breathing, you’ll be one with your partner during your practice — and the benefits may even exceed your yoga class.
15. The 6-second kiss
Don’t knock this technique before you try it. Dr. John Gottman, founder of the Gottman Institute, advocates for the 6-second kiss. It’s a way for couples to add a dash of romance seamlessly throughout the day.
The kiss is just long enough to be passionate while also acting as a distraction from the busyness of the day.
16. Show interest in each other’s day
When was the last time you asked your partner what they were most excited about for the day?
Spending a few moments discussing your partner’s agenda and goals will help support them and make them feel cared for in your relationship.
With her clients, Prost finds that “curiosity can help your partner feel connected to you.”
17. Share a list of things you want from your partner
Write down three things your partner could do weekly that would make you happy. Share your list with one another while looking in each other’s eyes.
The lists may not be something your partner can do every day, but a reminder of things they can manage to do once a week to help build trust and communication.
“The point is that we all show and need affection in different ways, and honoring those differences is essential to feeling heard and understood,” says Nyro Murphy, LCPC.
18. Have an icebreaker
You might remember icebreakers from summer camp or work seminars, but this go-to conversation-starting game may help reinvigorate your relationship and teach you something new about your partner.
Reintroduce yourself to your partner by setting time to discuss icebreaker questions that dig beneath the surface.
19. Connect through music
Remember the days of making your school crush the ultimate mixtape?
A 2011 study found that shared music preferences create stronger social bonds.
Feel the nostalgia and curate your own playlist of songs that remind you of your partner and the moments you’ve shared. Swap your playlists and get a peek into each other’s romantic side.
20. Start a book club for two
Reading can allow you to share an experience together at your own pace. Alternate the responsibility of choosing a book that’s grabbed your attention, and set a date to discuss it over dinner.
21. Eye gazing
Initiating long-held eye contact with your partner may help you two feel a stronger connection.
Prolonged eye contact can help you recognize emotions,
A 2018 study associated eye gazing with “self-other merging,” reducing the boundary between yourself and the other person to feel unity.
As the saying goes, the eyes are the window to the soul, so why not give it a try?
22. Practice gratitude
Gratitude has many benefits, including boosting well-being for yourself and your relationship.
At the end of each day, take time to share three things you’re grateful for with your partner.
23. Increase your cuddle time
There’s a reason why cuddling with your partner feels so good: Cuddling causes your body to release oxytocin and reduces cortisol, the stress hormone.
Penn Medicine reports that hugging can also lower resting blood pressure and regulate sleep patterns. If you’re feeling warm and fuzzy, your body is doing its job!
24. Invest in a therapy workbook
Find a couples therapy workbook in a book store or online and take time each week to go through assigned activities with your partner.
Hsueh also recommends “The Couple Home Connection System,” a workbook filled with exercises designed to help couples connect in “deeper, more meaningful ways.”
25. Unplug from your devices
According to a 2014 report by the Pew Research Center, 25 percent of people in a serious relationship say cellphones distract their partner when they’re alone together.
If distraction and a feeling of absenteeism is infiltrating your relationship, experiment with setting aside time to fully unplug and communicate with each other.
Every relationship has conflict. Learning how to handle your conflicts can not only patch up your issues but also make your relationship much stronger.
In couples therapy, a licensed counselor works with two people to improve their relationship.
Like any form of therapy, couples counseling requires a commitment and willingness to open up from both involved parties.
According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, more than 98 percent of people reported marriage and family therapy services as good or excellent.
Counseling doesn’t have to be a guarded practice reserved for any “type” of person. Couples therapy can help anyone in a relationship, regardless of demographics like sexual orientation and age.
“Couples can form a more secure bond with one another and be able to have vulnerable conversations without pushing the other person away,” Hsueh says.
When committing to couples therapy, come with an open mind, and be ready to break down the barriers of communication.
If you’re in need of a relationship refresh, counseling may be a great option for you.
No matter your situation, every couple can benefit from participating in couples therapy and acquiring a toolkit to deepen their connection with their loved one.
“The benefits to couples therapy are endless. The mere act of seeking couples therapy can be a demonstration of the significance and importance you place on your relationship,” says Nikki Young, LMFT.
“My goal in couples therapy is to teach couples how to navigate life together as a team, so that ultimately they say, ‘Hey, thanks for the support, but we got it from here,’” she adds.
The perks of couples therapy can include:
- having a third-party mediator to help facilitate constructive conversations
- finding new ways to communicate with your partner
- decreasing distress and conflict within your relationship
- being intentional with your time and words
- setting time to dedicate to the improvement of your relationship
- creating a safe, calm space in therapy to discuss difficult topics
- practicing techniques to enhance emotional and physical intimacy
- forming action plans to make your relationship a priority
- identifying harmful or damaging patterns in your relationship and working around them
- rebuilding trust with one another
- establishing healthy boundaries in your relationship
- having a therapist who can identify underlying issues and emotions you might not be aware exist
- discovering and developing valuable skills to manage conflict
- finding common ground and learning to relate to each other in a loving, kind way
- feeling supported and listened to in your relationship
- building skills to identify your needs and wants in a relationship
When it comes to committing to couples therapy, partners can start therapy for any reason that causes them conflict, distress, or mistrust.
Some common reasons couples may seek therapy include:
- the need to rebuild trust after infidelity or deceit
- to enhance physical and emotional intimacy if you’re feeling unsatisfied
- to overcome trauma
- going through a transition together, like parenthood or a big move
- having different, conflicting views on how to parent
- to help manage substance use disorder recovery for one or both partners
- to learn more about the relationship and prevent future
- feeling lost in the busyness of life
- experiencing the grief of losing a loved one
- the desire to have fun within your relationship and reignite your spark
- anger issues that make it difficult to resolve conflict in a rational way
- wanting to define the significance and seriousness of a relationship with the help of a third party
- working through infertility
- blended families and step-parenting
- career pressures and job changes
- financial problems
“Oftentimes, couples wait to seek therapy until they have reached a point of crisis within their relationship. And while this is likely a fitting time to seek couples therapy, please consult with a provider to ensure couples counseling is the right avenue of support,” Young says.
But in dangerous or dire situations, mental health professionals may advise another path.
“There are times when couples therapy is not indicated, such as situations of characterological domestic violence or an ongoing affair. In situations such as these, the therapist will likely recommend individual counseling instead,” she says.
No problem is too big or small for therapy, especially with the help of an experienced licensed professional.
From feeling disconnected to your partner to overcoming infidelity, exercises and techniques developed by licensed therapists can rehabilitate your relationship and improve your communication skills.
Jillian Goltzman is a freelance journalist covering culture, social impact, wellness, and lifestyle. She’s been published in various outlets, including Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Fodor’s Travel Guide. Outside of writing, Jillian is a public speaker who loves discussing the power of social media — something she spends too much time on. She enjoys reading, her houseplants, and cuddling with her corgi. Find her work on her website, blog, Twitter, and Instagram.