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  • Writer's pictureHeather Gibson, MA, LMFT

8 Couples Therapy Exercises to Improve Your Relationship

Updated: Jul 3

By: Maxine DeFank, APCC


“At least we’re not like them.”

“I tell them how I feel but they don’t hear what I’m saying.”

“I know they love me... but sometimes...”

“We have a pretty good relationship but I don’t always feel connected.”

If any of these statements sound familiar, you are not alone. There are many factors that impact the quality of relationships and contribute to an overall sense of relationship satisfaction (or dissatisfaction). One contributing factor is communication. Research shows that when communication is subpar, spouses report less relationship satisfaction (1). The good news is that improving communication, deepening connection, and resolving past hurt are all possible through couples therapy work. If you are interested in learning how to be matched with a couples therapist, click here to learn about Positive Change Counseling Center and our therapists.


What is Couples Therapy?

Couples therapy may not be what you think it is. Depending on the unique goals of the clients and on the therapist’s theoretical orientation, it can look different for every set of partners.

Common components of couples counseling include:

- Identification of common goals for treatment

- Psychoeducation (education about mental health conditions and related factors)

- Learning communication skills

- Discussion of current successes and struggles

- Understanding each partner’s worldview

- Coping strategies for improved conflict resolution

- Exercises focusing on intimacy and connection

- Processing unresolved emotional pain in the relationship


Is Couples Therapy Worth It?

Research shows that 70% of couples see positive results from engaging in couples therapy.

Couples therapy work can give you and your partner(s) a better understanding of factors

impacting your relationship and highlight unhelpful patterns. Research shows that couples who engage in specific negative behaviors (stonewalling, contempt, defensiveness, criticism) divorce an average of 5.6 years after their wedding (3). Becoming aware of patterns in your relationship can help prevent further decline in relationship satisfaction and increase connection with your partner(s). Overall, engaging in couples therapy work is connected to positive outcomes for most clients.


Couples Therapy Exercises to Improve Your Relationship:

1. Setting Goals with One Another

“Let’s get on the same page.” We might hear this in day-to-day conversation but it’s also

important to be on the same page as your partner with overall life goals. Set aside time to

discuss what’s important to your partner short and long term. Discuss goals each of you have specific to your relationship. After goals have been identified, partners can support each other in reaching these goals, all while strengthening their connection.


2. Letting Your Partner Know What you Appreciate About Them

Sometimes we may assume our partner knows how much they mean to us. If we assume

they know, we might not actually be telling them. A way to deepen connection with your

partner is by setting time aside to tell your partner exactly what you appreciate about them.

Your partner may feel unnoticed or unappreciated because they haven’t heard directly from you that you appreciate them. Take the guesswork out of it and share directly with your partner what you love about them.


3. Taking the Time to Listen to Your Partner

Hearing is when your ears identify noises and send signals to your brain to process sound.

Listening is the intentional practice of conceptualizing information received. Often we hear our partner but we are not engaging in active listening. Tips for active listening include:

summarizing information shared, asking questions to further understand, maintaining eye

contact, and giving your full attention (not texting or watching TV).

*Tip: It can be tempting to offer solutions when we hear our partner describing problems.

Next time you sit down with your partner to share about your day, try beginning the

conversation by asking, “Would you like me to listen or to help problem solve?” By

asking this question, you are giving your partner the chance to tell you exactly how they

want to be supported.


4. Doing Fun Things Together (Try to Make it Spontaneous)

Play is important to relationships! Try incorporating intentional fun activities into your

relationship, bonus points if it is spontaneous. If you have children or other caregiving

obligations, spontaneity can be difficult. Try having a dedicated time slot in your schedule for “fun with partner” to coordinate with childcare or other caregivers. Keep it spontaneous by drawing ideas out of a hat or by using a date night idea generator.


5. The Miracle Question

The Miracle Question takes on many forms but at its core, it asks, “If everything was exactly how you want it to be, what would it be like?” In the context of couples therapy, this may sound like, “If your relationship was perfect, what would that look like?” or “If starting tomorrow you had a ‘better sex life,’ what would that look like?” Each partner answering these questions vulnerably can lead to a deeper understanding of what they want to change (or keep the same) in their relationship.


6. Soul Gazing

Soul gazing is an activity aimed at deepening connection. During this exercise, you and your

partner will look into each other’s eyes - uninterrupted. Silence can be loud but we can learn to sit with the discomfort of silence while connecting with our partner. This generally lasts 2 - 5 minutes (although there’s no right or wrong timeframe). After the exercise is complete, spend time reflecting on the exercise with your partner. What did they experience during this time? Did you have similar or different experiences?


7. Synchronized Touch Exercises

Synchronized touch is another exercise that aims to deepen connection and intimacy. The use of mindfulness is valuable in this exercise because it allows you to be fully present with your partner. During this exercise, communicate with your partner about syncing your breathing. Notice what your synced breath feels like, your rhythm of touch, your pressure of touch. These are all ways to practice synchronized touch.


8. '5 Things' Exercise

In this exercise, you will pick five things about your partner that you are grateful for. They can be personality traits, memories together, physical characteristics, or anything else that comes to mind. Often we know what we are grateful for but rarely is it expressed to our partner. Try making this exercise your own by finding new ways to express your gratitude. Maybe one day you leave sticky notes with five things on them in your partner’s lunchbox. Maybe another time you play charades with each other to guess what the other is grateful for. Ultimately what is matters is that you are expressing gratitude to your partner and they are receiving your message.


What to Talk About in Couples Therapy

While there are many topics to be covered in couples therapy, some of the common topics

include factors impacting communication, emotional pain experienced by partners, successes of applying coping skills, and reviewing emotional connection activities. If you are noticing warning signs of strain in your relationship (or even if you just want to strengthen your relationship!), couples therapy work can provide a space for you and your partner(s) to process challenges and nurture connection.


Couples Therapy in San Diego - Positive Change Counseling Center

Positive Change Counseling Center has a diverse staff of trained couples therapists. If you are considering couples counseling to strengthen your relationship and process struggles, click here to contact our scheduling staff and to view our clinicians’ biographies. Positive Change Counseling Center has provided compassionate care to many members of the San Diego community and is here to support you and your partner on your journey.


Resources

(1) Nguyen T. P., Karney B. R., Bradbury T. N. (2020). When poor communication does and

does not matter: The moderating role of stress. Journal of Family Psychology, 34,

676–686.


(2) Lebow, J. L., Chambers, A. L., Christensen, A., & Johnson, S. M. (2012). Research on the

treatment of couple distress. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 38(1), 145-168.


(3) Gottman, J. E., Gottman, J. M. (2015). 10 principles for doing effective couples therapy.

W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.


(4) Ackerman, C. E. (2017, November 24). 21 couples therapy worksheets, questions, and

activities. Positive Psychology.

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