Couples Counseling Exercises
Exercises to Get Started.
When you and your spouse/partner agree to schedule a couple’s therapy session together, the marriage and family therapist will get to know you both first. The couple’s therapist will hear your story, what brings you in, and see both of your perspectives on what concerns bring you to therapy.
A good couple’s therapist should: balance between listening to both of you, make you both feel heard, and validate your feelings.
The couple’s therapist should: actively listen to you, summarizing and paraphrasing back to you what you said, reflect feelings that are coming out as your talking and empathizing with you (You feel sad because….).
These are basic treatment exercises and techniques that will start and be used throughout couple’s counseling.
Another type of exercise that is used in couple’s counseling are different types of questions asked. These are more than just the therapist asking: “how does that make you feel?”, but rather they are questions that really make you think about your relationship, your partner, and what can be done to improve your bond and connection. These are “action questions” that promote progress within therapy. There are three major types of questions used to help stimulate the couple and start them in these exercises of growth.
We will discuss the three types of questions here with scripts between a marriage counselor, husband, and wife:
Husband: “She is always using the credit cards! She runs up the balance and maxes one out and moves on to the next one! It’s out of control!”
Therapist: “So what happens next, once you find that out?”
Husband: “I go to her and ask her what’s going on and why she is maxing out our credit cards.”
Therapist: “And what is that like for you when you find out your wife has done something without you knowing?” (CIRCULAR QUESTION)
Husband: “I’m mad! I’m upset! She did something behind my back and its effecting our lives!”
Therapist: You are really angry because your wife did something behind your back. (EMPATHY)
Therapist: (To wife) “And what is it like for you when your husband comes to you after he finds out that you have used the credit card?” (CIRCULAR QUESTION)
Wife: “I back away and become defensive. His anger pushes me away and he has no right yelling at me like that!”
Therapist: “You feel hurt and defensive when you he comes at you in that way and you withdraw.” (REFLECTION)
What was demonstrated here were examples of circular questions. Circular questions are techniques or exercises by the marriage counselor that include both partners. These type of questions are influential, it is not just one partner effecting the other, rather the circular patterns or “dances” that the couple goes through together.
These type of questions come from a circular dynamic which is where the circular questions come from. The circular dynamic flows like this:
Partner A: Thought - - - - - -> Feeling - - - - -> Behavior (towards partner B)
Partner B: (receives behavior from partner A) Thought- - - - -> Feeling - - - - -> Behavior (Back to partner A)
This dynamic goes around and around and is the couple’s “dance” or interactions they have at home. The goal of this exercise with circular questions is to find out the interactions that go on between the couple outside the therapy room. This exercise finds out:
- What thoughts come to mind, how they feel about it, and what do they do about the feeling
- How the other partner perceives the other partners behavior, and how that makes them feel and react back to their partner
- How the couple effects each other in what way
- What the dynamics are, who “pursues” and who “withdraws” in arguments or encounters
When arguing with your partner, which role do you take in the argument?
Therapist: (To wife) “So you say that your husbands anger pushes you away. How does that anger show when it happens?” (OPERATIONAL QUESTION)
Wife: “He gets up and storms at me really fast, he gets really angry throwing his arms all over the place. He yells at me and gets really angry.”
Therapist: “It is really scary for you how aggressive he gets with his yelling. (To husband) Do you see how scared she gets and how fearful she is in that moment when it happens?”
Husband: “I’m not really sure, I am so angry at that point with how she has been hiding things behind my back.”
Therapist: “So if she is scared, how would that fear show?” (OPERATIONAL QUESTION)
Husband: “She becomes really quiet and looks away from me. I guess she is not engaged with me at all at that point.”
These are two examples of operational questions in this exchange with the therapist and the couple. Operational questions bring to life what is going on between the couple and what those feelings “look like”, in a way. This exercise helps the couple understand what the other’s feelings are in their interactions together, and what they look like in their behaviors when it happens. Understanding and acknowledging each other’s point of view can help facilitate change and new interactions together to help improve the relationship.
Therapist: (To wife): “When your husband confronts you, what would you prefer him to do instead of what he is currently doing?” (RECIPROCAL QUESTION)
Wife: “He could walk up to me calmly instead of storming at me angrily. He could calmly tell me ‘Honey, I love you, and right now I have some concerns’ and explain to me calmly from there what is going on.”
Therapist: (To husband): “What do you think about this? What could your wife do to make it likely that you would approach her calmly about this issue?” (RECIPROCAL QUESTION)
Husband: “If she were to first tell me about her spending in the first place and not go behind my back about it, I would not be so angry. If we had clear communication, I would be more likely to approach her calmly.”
Reciprocal questions are those that pertain to the husband and wife to find what they prefer to happen when there is a given argument or topic of issue. The reciprocal questions help to bring the different person’s thoughts and feelings out in the open and can clear up uncertainties. Neither the husband or wife knew what the other preferred and why the other was acting the way they were. These type of questions help clear up communication and get everyone on the same page.
What is also important about reciprocal questions is that it sets up homework for the couple which is the “meat” of change outside of the therapy room…
What could you say to your partner to tell them what you prefer in your interactions together?
Using the example above, the husband and wife actually come up with the homework assignment for the week. The homework given is an exercise where growth and change are put into action in order to strengthen the relationship in the marriage. Let’s review what the couple asked of each other and see how that is made into a homework assignment…
Wife: “He could walk up to me calmly instead of storming at me angrily. He could calmly tell me ‘Honey, I love you, and right now I have some concerns’ and explain to me calmly from there what is going on.”…..
Husband: “If she were to first tell me about her spending in the first place and not go behind my back about it, I would not be so angry. If we had clear communication, I would be more likely to approach her calmly.”…..
From here, the therapist would set up the homework assignment based off what the couple said. The therapist would ask for the next week that the husband approach his wife calmly and express his concerns, and also would ask the wife to be more proactive in communicating with her husband about what she spends money on.
This type of exercise will help put in place steps to reach the couple’s goals. They want to strengthen their relationship together, practice clearer communication, and re-establish trust. Each week, the therapist should go over the previous week’s homework and see how it went for the couple. Process the homework assignment together, discuss any growth or setbacks, and then continue on with the therapy session. At the end of that session, a subsequent homework assignment should be given that is appropriate for growth with where the couple is currently. Homework is essentially required for the couple in order to reach their goals and maintain their relationship once they leave therapy.
While homework assignment exercises create the most growth outside of therapy, enactments are the highlight moments during the therapy sessions. Enactments are exercises in which the couple turns towards each other and express how they feel and talk directly to their spouse. This is a powerful and even intimate exercise in which connections and bonds are made and built. Below is a script between the therapist and the couple during a session.
Therapist: (To wife) “Have you told your husband how you feel when he “storms” towards you, as you say? Have you told him what it’s like for you in that moment? Could you turn to him? Could you turn to him and tell him what is going on for you during those moments?
Wife: (Choking up/ tearing up) *Turns towards husband* : “It’s so scary to me when you aggressively come at me and start shouting. I feel attacked and so alone in that moment. I feel helpless and alone, and I don’t want that.”
Therapist: “I really see the feelings coming out to your husband. I could really feel what it was you were saying to your husband just now. It took a lot of strength and courage to say those important words to your husband.”
Therapist: (To husband) *Slowly and softly* : “What was it like for you, just now, hearing the words of your wife’s heart speaking to you?
Husband: “I never thought about how she felt and how I effected her. I was just so focused on how angry she made me feel and about running up the credit card. I never knew that I was really attacking her. This is all just so new to me.”
In an enactment, the therapist really stays present with the couple, actively listens, and validates their feelings in the moment. A part of the exercise in the enactment is for the therapist to be soft and slow with their voice to emphasize the emotions in the moment. Connecting the emotions with the couple really accentuates their relationship and strengthens their attachment. This type of exercise helps to build the bond within the couple’s relationship.
There are many different types of questions and homework assignments to be done within couple’s therapy. That is precisely why it is called “therapy” where there is work to be done in order to find a result, not just talk emptily to a counselor. True change takes true work, and the many types of exercises in couple’s therapy has shown to provide just that.
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