9 Therapist-Recommend Couples Communication Exercises

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Communicating in your relationship is not always easy, but learning the skills to communicate well is essential, particularly in the context of a romantic relationship or a marriage. 

We’ve got a guide that showcases 5 ways to have better communication in relationships, but to take the tips even further, we reached out to couples therapists, relationship coaches, and other experts who know a thing or two about the subject. Our question? What are the best couples’ communication exercises? And how can couples use these to improve their communication? Their answers are below, summed up in this collection of great communication exercises for couples:

The Formula for Healthy Communication

Sarah Rice is an Associate Marriage & Family Therapist as well as host of the Brain Candy Podcast. She shares a basic formula that couples can use to be sure they are expressing themselves the best way possible during conflict situations. This includes avoiding accusatory “you” statements or allowing heightened emotion to take over.

Rice says, “When feelings are hurt, and we feel the need to defend ourselves or our emotions, it is not uncommon to fall into unhealthy communication habits such as using “you” statements. You statements, (such as “you always do this!,” or “you don’t even care”) are verbal jabs that are often blaming and critical and are subconscious or covert attempts to make the receiver feel the same as the sender. These messages of criticism can cause tears in the fabric of the relationship and lead to resentment and hurt feelings.

On the other hand, healthy communication is based on “I” statements. These expressions of our feelings help to directly communicate the underlying emotion and provide your partner with specific actions they can take to improve the situation.  

The formula is simple:

I feel _____________ (insert emotion/feeling word such as frightened, overwhelmed, disrespected, ignored, etc) 

when you do ______________ (specific action, statement, or event)

And what I need is ___________ (specific behavior change, alternative response, or call to action)

Let’s take this example: You asked your partner to take care of folding the laundry and two days have gone by without so much as a pair of socks being matched.  

First, identify the feeling. How did it make you feel when you saw the laundry still unfolded? Frustrated, ignored, unheard? Next, have a solid idea of what your partner can do differently next time. Do you need more info on their expected timeline?  Would you like them to let you know if they cannot take on that task at this time? Get specific! 

Now, put it all together following the formula above. 

I feel frustrated (feeling word)  and that my requests are not important when you agree to take care of a task around the house and then don’t do it (specific event). What I need is a clearer understanding of your timeline and when you may have work that interferes with being able to take care of it(action partner can take).”

Rice reminds us that the listener has a role to play too. She says, “it is important that the listener be aware of body language, avoid interrupting, and take time to reflect before responding.”

Beginning With a Compliment

California-based couples/sex psychologist Nicole Prause supports a similar exercise:

“One of the main techniques we work on is called problem definition and the framework is: I like it when you ____, but when you ________, I feel ________.

There are many rules and things to practice to do this framing well, but three good rules to start if you want to try it are:

1. The thing you like should be as generous and specific as you are able to compliment them on something related to the problem. I like it when you take care of the dishes after dinner without anyone even asking, you get everything completely cleaned up and I love that time to help me unwind.

2. The problem should be as behaviorally-specific as you can. When you disrespect me is useless to your partner, they have no idea what you are asking them to do. When you leave your clothing around our home on the floor is specific and makes clear what you are asking to change.

3. I feel should be an actual emotion, not ‘I feel like you are a jerk.’

Also, the softer the emotion the better. Say ‘I feel furious’ if you need to, but ‘I feel helpless’ also might be accurate if it captures, for
example, a feeling you can never catch up and are overwhelmed.”

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Active and Reflective Listening Exercise

The practice of Active Listening is one exercise that is very popular and effective for couples. 

Rachel Elder, a Couples Therapist in Seattle, Washington shares the very first couples communication exercise she brings into therapy: Active and Reflective Listening. This involves one person sharing a thought or a desire, while the other listens mindfully with the intent to fully understand what the other person is saying. 

After the first person shares, the reflective listener repeats back what was said to ensure they understood. This practice can be used to talk about a wide variety of subjects, but Elder has her couples start with some basic requests.

“I have each partner make a wish list of 3 things they want more of in their relationship such as more date nights, more cuddle time, less phone time, etc. Then each couple communicates their wish and what it will add to their relationship. Each partner gets a turn at practice active and reflective listening while I coach them to be effective in it.”

Read Next: 48 Questions to Ask Before Getting Married

Fish Bowl Active Listening Exercise

Jackie Shapin, a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in Los Angeles, also uses this exercise. She calls it the
Fish Bowl Active Listening Exercise. Here Shapin describes how it works:

“One person (1) begins by taking 30-60 seconds to share whatever it is they want to share. You want to time this or make sure the person does not speak too long because:

Person 2’s job is to literally repeat what they heard them say, starting with, I heard you say… This is not the time to translate or share
thoughts or feelings. This is the time to just try and repeat the words that were used. Person 1 can help if they are stuck. Person 1 can share if they felt person 2 heard them or not and if they didn’t feel heard, they can repeat what they said that person 2 might have missed.

After person 1 felt heard, because person 2 was able to repeat their words pretty well, person 2 then responds however they would like for 30-60 seconds.” 

Then the exercise repeats, with person 1 reflecting what they heard from person 2 and so on. 

While this exercise can feel tedious, Shapin states that it is “amazing for improving communication.”

Letting the Other Person Talk

Next we turn to Marissa Geraci, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Tampa, FL. Like the other professionals who shared with us, Geraci agrees that one of the greatest challenges in couples communication is “that most of us are programmed to listen in order to respond, instead of listening to better understand one another.” This exercise is meant to address that, as well as encouraging a couple to slow down, something that isn’t easy in our fast-paced society. 

Geraci explains the exercise, which is ideal to try in moments of conflict or disagreement.

“The purpose of these conversations is NOT to get your partner to agree with you. Your goal should be to hear and fully understand each other, doing so with kindness and respect.

So, the next time an issue arises, decide who will have the floor first. This partner starts by stating their side of the particular issue. For a
set amount of time (say 10 minutes), partner 2 only has one job – to ask questions in order to clarify their understanding. Questions like, Why is this so important to you? What is your worst-case scenario? What are you afraid will happen? What does this mean to you? Does something in your past contribute to how you feel about this? What emotions are you feeling? What is it you want me to know that you don’t think I’ve grasped yet?

The goal is for partner 1 to feel heard and understood by partner 2.”

After the 10 minutes, the partners change roles, giving the other person a chance to share.

While this exercise may not lead to an agreement or compromise, the key is that it enables couples to have a conversation about a serious topic without relying on defensiveness and anger. According to Geraci, this is the significant element: “It serves as a reminder to view the person across from you as your partner, not your enemy.”

I Feel Loved By You

Tina B. Tessina, PhD (aka “Dr. Romance”) psychotherapist and author of Love Styles: How to Celebrate Your Differencesshares a simple exercise that has a big impact. In this exchange, each partner has the opportunity to express their love and their appreciation for being loved. Tessina explains it here:

“Sit together and have a dialogue: Partner A says, I feel loved by you when.. (Complete the sentence.)

Partner B says, Thank you. Then Partner B says, I feel loved by you when. .(Complete the sentence.)

Partner A says, Thank you.

Repeat these exchanges alternately for about ten or fifteen minutes. The thank you responses are to prevent you from praising,
criticizing, blaming, making excuses or otherwise commenting, positively or negatively, on your partner’s statement.

Say your sentence and complete it as quickly as you can, back and forth, and after a few minutes you’ll find that your ideas flow smoothly. If you get stuck, just say pass and go on to the next round.

After doing this, discuss what you’ve learned: Were there any surprises? Did you get any good ideas from your partner’s statements?
How did you feel, hearing how your partner felt loved? How did you feel, sharing how you felt loved?”

Sharing Withholds Exercise 

Alisha Sweyd, LMFT has been inspired by communication exercises originated by Drs. Les & Leslie Parrott. Sharing Withholds is one of her favorites to use when working with couples. Partners are asked to share things they’ve been withholding from one another. 

Sweyd shares how to start. “Write down two positive withholds and one negative withhold. If you are practicing this at home, make sure that the negative you share is a 3 or 4 on a scale of 1-10 (1 being not a big deal, 10 being the hill you will die on).” Choosing a negative that isn’t as extreme is important to avoiding major conflict during this exercise. Bigger issues should be set aside for another time or another exercise. 

With these negative and positive withholds, Sweyd says to keep three things in mind:

  • You need to write them down. That way you can evaluate whether you are saying it in a helpful or a not-so-helpful way.
  • These should be short, sweet and to the point. No long droning on about why it was negative or positive.
  • These need to be behavior-based. That means it should be an action, not a thought or intention. DO NOT ASSUME you know what your partner was thinking or feeling when they engaged in the behavior.
  • Try as hard as you can to have these withholds be within the past 48 hours. The farther back you go, the less effective this tool is.

Examples:

Positive I really appreciated it when you cleaned up the dog poop outside before our friends came over, even though it wasn’t your day to clean the yard.

Negative: I didn’t like it when you complained about my driving yesterday.

Positive: I really appreciated it when you stepped in to help with the kids yesterday when they were fighting over the music toys.

You will share a positive at the start and at the end, with the negative sandwiched in between in order to begin and finish in a positive way.

Next you and your partner will go about your business—apart—for around 30 minutes. But Sweyd cautions, “the time apart is for REFLECTION, not STEWING. You want to look inside yourself to see how you can DO BETTER NEXT TIME.”

After 30 minutes, if further discussion is necessary, a couple can engage again, but they must come together with the goal of cooperation. Anything said should be shared in the spirit of how both of you can do better next time. 

The Regular Marriage Meeting

Dr. Patricia Celan, a Psychiatry resident at Dalhousie University in Canada is a fan of having a marriage checkup or meeting. 

Celan says, “one of my favorite exercises for couples is a variation of the State of the Union meeting, popularized by Dr. John Gottman. This is a weekly meeting that can be done in therapy and ideally starts to be incorporated outside of therapy. Once a week, a couple spends an hour discussing any conflict they may have had in the preceding week. This needs to start with listing five positive things that the partner did in the past week, as research has shown that a 5:1 positive:negative ratio is an indicator of a happy relationship. For every 1 complaint you may have, you need to express gratitude for 5 minor or major occurrences.

Then partners take turns describing any frustrations about relationship in the previous week, carefully using “I” language and incorporating an understanding of what it must have been like in the listener’s perspective during the conflict in question. The listening partner must not speak until the speaker is finished, at which point the goal should not be to defend but to validate and offer possible behavior change. Then they take turns. The most important parts of this exercise are the 5:1 ratio, considering the partner’s perspective, and choosing to validate rather than defend. This helps make conflict more constructive rather than destructive, and diminishes the desire to bottle things up.

The Money Date Night

Certified Coach Lindsey Lathrop-Ryan has created an exercise that helps couples communicate about one of their most important (and often divisive) issues: money!

She and her husband have created a community called Money Date Night to help equip couples to talk finances with one another regularly and comfortably. She says, “in our experience, when you talk about money, what you’re really talking about the life you want to design together. One of the exercises we have couples do is create an annual money date night calendar to help guide monthly conversations about money.”

Setting an agenda for each monthly or weekly discussion is important for helping couples stay focused and address all the issues. In the Money Date Night community, you can learn how to do this step-by-step, but couples can also start by spending time talking about specific topics, like vacation/travel money, debt, home updates, and more. 


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