For many couples, going to couples therapy brings up fears of arguing and conflict in the presence of a therapist who then must referee who is right and who is wrong. For many couples, this may have been their experience if the therapist was not skilled in teaching them new tools of communication and conflict resolution.
Besides teaching the couple how to increase positive relationship behaviors at home, a couples therapist should be instructing them and demonstrating exercises that will help them communicate more effectively at home, especially when in the middle of a conflict.
Here are seven couples therapy exercises that you can try with your spouse designed to disrupt any unhealthy communication patterns and conflicts that may have developed in your marriage.
7 Couples Therapy Exercises To Try
1. Use the Mirroring Technique
The mirroring technique has been described and used in many ways from business to sales to conflict resolution. When used in the context of couples therapy, it is used to help couples prevent defensiveness from entering a conflict and allow each person to feel as though they are being heard.
The spouse that isn’t upset would employ the mirroring technique to allow their partner to voice their thoughts and feelings about a topic. The spouse would then “mirror” back what they heard their partner say and ask for clarification if they didn’t get it right.
It is important to mirror back the words that your spouse used verbatim and avoid paraphrasing or adding your interpretation or opinions.
However, there is a caveat to using this technique. If you cannot implement this technique sincerely from a place of understanding, it will come across as sarcastic or patronizing, and it will defeat its purpose and escalate the conflict.
2. Use Nurturing Physical Touch When Discussing Difficult Topics
It is difficult to bring up touchy subjects with your spouse no matter how healthy your marriage is or how long you’ve been together. It takes a level of vulnerability to bring up sensitive issues and risk being rejected, criticized, or judged by your spouse. Thus, many couples sweep important topics under the carpet to avoid any possible negativity.
What often occurs when a partner gains enough courage to discuss a difficult topic with their spouse is that they bring it up while maintaining a guarded approach, bracing for any possible negative reactions.
This can manifest in nonverbal cues, such as defensive postures, aggressive facial expressions, and an argumentative verbal tone. This approach inevitably results in a defensive response from anyone on the receiving end.
When approaching your spouse with a difficult topic, it is important to use nurturing physical touch such as holding hands or maintaining an embrace. This action prevents defensive guards from going up in both directions and allows the best possible outcome in difficult conversations.
3. Clearly State Your Spouse’s Position in an Argument
John Gottman, a marriage researcher, recommends that couples should clearly state what their spouse’s perspective is in an argument before attempting to resolve the conflict, regardless of whether they agree with each other’s positions. Without this in place first, there is a danger that the conflict would be reignited with each person arguing their perspectives with all possibility of resolution lost.
Starting the resolution conversation by stating what you think your partner’s position is and seeking clarification set a tone of openness and understanding necessary for a couple to resolve the conflict. It also opens a dialogue for equal exchange rather than fueling the flames of debate.
4. Use a Disarming Technique
Author of The Feeling Good Handbook, David Burns, lists the Disarming Technique as one of the Five Secrets of Effective Communication. He defines the Disarming Technique as “finding truth in what the other person is saying, even if it seems blatantly wrong, or illogical, or exaggerated.”
This can be a very powerful and effective way of showing up assertively in a conflict with your spouse and avoiding contributing to miscommunication, defensiveness, or expression of resentment.
Keep in mind that you are not agreeing with everything your spouse is saying but focusing on finding the truth in what they are saying, however small it may be. The truth may even be you agree that you would feel hurt and angry too if you perceived the situation the same way.
Using this technique immediately “disarms” your partner of their need to use anger to defend themselves or attack back. It allows for the possibility of deescalating the tension and allowing the opportunity for dialogue to ensue.
5. Reiterate What Is Going Right and Acknowledge Room for Improvement
What we focus on grows, and relationships are no exception to this rule. If a couple always focuses on the problems that occur, much of their relationship will be filled with growing problems.
Yes, problems will naturally occur in every marriage. However, ruminating on the problems can bring about a sense of dread and hopelessness, which can ruin a relationship over time.
In 1986, David Cooperrider presented to the world the concept of appreciative inquiry, which shifted organizational change from a deficits-based approach to a positive, strengths-based change approach. The implementation of appreciative inquiry within organizations focuses on the discovery and appreciation of “what is” and the focus on positivity.
This approach can be applied directly to marriage as couples strive to change and grow together in a positive direction. Applying appreciative inquiry to marriage would then focus on what is going right in their relationship and what dreams they want to accomplish together, leading them to ideally design their destiny together.
When applied in a conversation with your spouse, your focus would be on where the two of you are successful together, in what ways you are a great team, and reiterating the common dreams that you both have.
6. Seek to Understand, Not to Be Understood
In Erich Fromm’s book, The Art of Loving, he states that three elements need to exist to have a union of love between two people: respect, concern, and knowledge.
Knowing your partner is a very important part of building a trusting and loving bond with each other, and it takes a lot of time and effort to achieve.
Seeking to understand your partner’s thoughts, beliefs, and feelings sets the tone for working as a team when facing life or relationship challenges. This gesture of being genuinely interested in understanding your partner then leads to the two other elements that Fromm wrote about: care and respect for your spouse.
7. Take Appropriate Timeouts
Couples know the concept of taking a time out when tensions are high to prevent saying or doing anything out of anger that you would regret. However, they often are not educated on how to do this appropriately.
Taking a time out, if not done properly, can be used as a weapon or a way to manipulate your spouse to back off or control their actions.
Couples are often taught to create a word or phrase that signals to take a time out and then to go to their separate corners until they cool off. It is very rare when this technique is successful, and it can often escalate an argument, especially if it creates feelings of rejection or abandonment in the relationship.
The reason why this doesn’t work is that it employs a logical and intellectual solution to an emotional situation. When tensions are high between you and your spouse, all intellect usually goes out the window, and it is very difficult to apply logical situations when the emotional part of our brain is engaged.
The emotional brain goes into fight, flight, or freeze responses when we experience these intense emotions. Thus, the signal word that you and your spouse chose doesn’t even register during those moments.
Because intense emotions shut down our logical thinking, the only way to disrupt it is to use equally intense emotions to trigger a shift in your emotional brain. This gives your logical brain a moment to regain control and start to take back control.
For example, using the equally intense emotion of humor can jar the brain out of anger or defensiveness. Creating a signal word that reminded the couple of the time they both got caught outside of their hotel room in their underwear would be jarring enough, for example, to pause the argument and signal a time out that would be much more effective.
Conflicts are inevitable in every relationship, and they can result in a closer and stronger bond between a couple if they are resolved and do not create a repetitive dysfunctional cycle.
Couples therapy is designed to teach communication skills and provide the tools necessary for couples to transform their relationship into a more effective union together.
The above seven couples therapy exercises often taught and practiced with clients in front of a therapist can be tried at home with your spouse and is a great start to shifting any old patterns the two of you may be stuck in.
Featured photo credit: John Schnobric via unsplash.com
|||^||ResearchGate: The Convergence of Mirroring and Empathy: Communications Training in Business-to-Business Personal Selling Persuasion Efforts|
|||^||The Gottman Institute: Understanding Must Precede Advice|
|||^||Feeling Good: 066: Five Secrets Training–The Disarming Technique|
|||^||David Cooperrider: What is Appreciative Inquiry?|