10 Couples Therapy Exercises for Communication

couples therapy exercises for communication

Effective communication is the foundation of and one of the most important qualities of a healthy relationship. Whether the issues are big or small, a poor communication style can lead to significant conflict and strain on a relationship.

Likewise, good communication skills can ground a couple to get through the difficult conversations in an effective way. Healthy communication represents openness to understanding the perspective of your partner, which is inevitably different from your own.

Couples therapy can serve as a significant tool in improving and strengthening this part of a relationship. I’m going to share a round-up of effective communication exercises you can expect to work through in session, and that you can even try yourself at home.

10 couples therapy exercises for communication

Validation is a crucial relational skill. All of us want to feel like our experiences are validated and acknowledged by the people we care most about. Validation helps to build trust and safety to foster secure relationships.

Validating someone does not mean that you agree with their actions. Rather, it means that you acknowledge the way the feel about their experience, based on their own perception.

For example, you could say to your partner, “It makes sense to me that you were feeling insecure when I wasn’t answering my phone.” This statement validates their emotional experience without addressing whether or not you agree with their behavior.

Instead of speaking about your partner and what they do or do not do, speak from your own perspective.

Rather than saying “you never support me when the kids are acting out”, try saying “I feel overwhelmed and alone when I am managing the disciplining the kids on my own.”

Speaking from the “I” perspective reduces the need for defensiveness and opens a path for communication rather than shutting it down.

We all have needs for our partner. The effective way to communicate these needs is through positive statements. Share what you do need from them, instead of pointing out what they aren’t already doing for you.

Instead of saying, “You never help wash the dishes” or “Stop watching television while I’m cleaning the kitchen,” be direct and positive in what you do need. Try, “it would really help me out if you took twenty minutes to help me get the kitchen cleaned.”

The sandwich method is a way to communicate a behavioral request that reduces stress and conflict.

When making a request to your partner, “sandwich” that request in between two positive, appreciative statements.

Stating requests in conjunction with positive messages way will lead to a stress reducing conversation because you are not focusing on negative.

Reflective listening builds understanding, reduces miscommunication, and guides couples in how to be a better listener in a relationship. Often, when we know someone well, we make assumptions about their intention and read between the lines of the words they are saying.

To practice active listening, share back with your partner what you heard them say. Replay it back in a way that demonstrates you understand, while giving them the opportunity to clarify. If they do clarify, make sure you re-summarize and share it back until they feel you’ve heard them.

When you speak from the “I” perspective, it’s important to label your emotions, and to separate your thoughts and feelings. This helps you reduce the intensity of your emotions and helps your partner understand your internal experience.

Start with a neutral, non-judgmental statement about their action. Then follow up with how what you say them do makes you feel.

For example, “I noticed that you agreed to pick up groceries on the way home and you came home with none. I feel frustrated and unimportant to you when things I ask you for don’t happen.”

Negative emotions express unmet needs. Underneath a negative emotional experience, you can identify a need that you have that is not being met.

When you identify your emotion, you can start to explore the need that may naturally flow out of that. For example, you could notice that when your partner comes home without groceries, you feel unimportant. Therefore, you need to feel cared for, supportive, and important to your partner.

Share this need to your partner using positive requests and sandwich methods above.

Empathic dialogue is a way that partners can demonstrate they hear each other on a deep, emotional level that by each partner sharing with each other.

Putting the pieces together of the steps above (neutral observation + emotion + need), the receiving partner can then show empathy by repeating this sequence back.

For example, “I am hearing you say that when I come home without groceries you feel unimportant to me, and being cared for is something you need. Am I getting it?”

Communicating this way will show empathy for emotions, reduce intensity, and help resolve conflict effectively. Compassionate listening means that you make an effort to relate to the emotion your partner shares, even if you did not experience it yourself.

Pay attention to non-verbals, such as body language, as you each share.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a behavioral therapy model that combines mindfulness with interpersonal resolution skills in order to help individuals regulate their emotions and show up effectively in relationships.

DEARMAN is an acronym for handling interpersonal situations in DBT. The acronym includes the steps below, which you can use with your partner, or in any interpersonal setting.

  • Describe: Describe the situation by only using relevant facts. 
  • Express: Let the other person know how you feel. Elaborating on how you feel will help them understand why the situation matters to you. Use the skills we’ve discussed.
  • Assert: Be specific and clear stating what you need.
  • Reinforce: Share what is in it for them if they can accommodate what you need. Consider how the relationship will be strengthened.
  • Mindfulness: Focus on the situation and stay open to hearing what your partner has to say.
  • Appear: Appear confident- communicate clearly and show that this matters to you.
  • Negotiate: Remember that this is not a demand. Relationships are built on healthy give and take. Compromise where you can, but stick to your values and boundaries.

Gratitude is an effective daily practice for couples. Verbalize what you are grateful for in your partner so they know how much you care and appreciate them.

This practice is also impactful because it gets you into the mindset of positivity and appreciation, looking for and explicitly stating the qualities you love about your partner. When these are positively reinforced with your feedback, your partner feels valued and is all the more likely to keep doing them.

10 Couples Therapy Exercises for Communication 4

Communication Exercises with a Therapist

Relationship communication exercises and couples therapy exercises can be difficult to implement without a mental health professional if there has been a pattern of communication issues and conflict. Working with a marriage and family therapist in couples counseling can accelerate your growth in effectively implementing these communication exercises for couples.

Most couples can benefit from working with a dedicated therapist to help them identify the areas of focus for improving their communication. If you have never attended therapy before, the idea can be daunting and intimidating. This is normal. Know that therapy is meant to be a safe place for you both to process and explore. Here are some tips on how to ask your partner to go to couples therapy.

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