While marriage counseling conducted in an office setting provides an emotionally safe and supportive environment for couples to discuss their difficulties and acquire the tools for resolving them, much of the work of therapy is done in the trenches at home.
At-Home Couples Counseling Exercises
Here are a few of my favorite couples counseling exercises for couples to practice at home between sessions:
The Love Map Game
I have adapted this exercise originated by John Gottman, PhD for use both in session and as a homework assignment. This “game” is a list of 60 personal questions that are each worth 1-5 points for correct answers. Questions aim to reveal how intimately you know each other. Items range from easy – “What is my birthday, including the year?” – to more difficult – “What is one of my best childhood experiences?” I give each spouse paper and a clipboard, read each question, and ask husband and wife to write down the answers they think their mate will give. Afterward, answers are shared and each spouse scores points for right answers. The spouse with the highest score wins!
I split the assignment into two parts, using the first half of 30 questions as an ice-breaker for couples who are experiencing conflict but are not in an acute crisis, or a few sessions in when I sense it is appropriate timing. The remaining 30 questions are a homework assignment to be completed alone with each other, unrushed, and without the kids around.
While knowing most of your spouse’s answers indicates a level of healthy intimacy, not knowing answers becomes an opportunity to talk and learn more about each other. This exercise is especially helpful for couples who, for one reason or another, converse mainly on a superficial level.
100 Ways You Can Love Your Spouse His/Her Way
This assignment involves two lists of 100 loving behaviors developed by Marriage Missions, International – one for husbands and one for wives. In session, each spouse has a turn to review the list prepared for them and indicate the 10 behaviors they most want from their partner.Most clients thoroughly enjoy reflecting on their own – often unmet – needs and having the opportunity to communicate them to their mate in a safe and supportive environment. In other cases, it is the chance to praise their mate for needs already being met well or to request more of a particular behavior. Giggles and expressions of excitement often accompany this task.
Here are some sample behaviors:
- Find ways to show him you need him.
- Thank him for things he has done around the house.
- Put your arms around her when she needs comfort, holding her silently.
- Find ways to help her know you are her partner in all areas of life.
When couples get home, they exchange lists and are challenged to implement some or all of the behaviors their partner most desires. When both parties wholeheartedly engage, it can create a resurgence of positive feelings for one another that helps get the ship turned around in the right direction.
This task can be used preemptively as part of premarital counseling, or with married couples. Partners who are engaged each write down 20 expectations they have for the other, and married couples write down expectations they may have had going into their marriage.
When expectations are not voiced or discussed before getting married and it’s just assumed they will be met, it can lead to disappointment, frustration, and feelings of not being cared for. When two people have been married for a while, often unmet expectations are borne in sad or bitter silence or else they become the source of many arguments.
Expectations are typically centered on roles, traditions, preferences, and relationship behaviors and may spring from family of origin. For instance, if you grew up in a home where your dad saw to the maintenance and repairs of both his and your mom’s vehicles, you might expect that to be the responsibility of the husband in your marriage, versus each spouse taking care of the car they drive.
Here are some other examples of common expectations:
- I expect that we will open Christmas gifts on Christmas morning.
- I expect that we will go to bed at the same time.
- I expect that my wife will do the majority of the cooking.
- I expect that we will share interests and do things together.
- I expect to have primary influence over the furnishings and décor of our home.
Discussing expectations either before or after they become a problem can lead to important negotiations and prevent unnecessary marital discord.
Alternate Date Planning
One complaint I hear often, usually but not always from the wife, is that their spouse rarely takes the initiative to plan fun and romantic times to nurture their relationship. The failure to participate in planning dates and shared activities can communicate a lack of interest and priority, even if that’s not what is felt in the heart.Usually, one partner is the better one at planning, but that is not an excuse for the other person to abdicate all responsibility. So any time a spouse finds this issue to be hurtful, I assign both of them the task of planning dates on an alternating basis. The first step is to collaborate on a list of activities currently enjoyed, ones they would like to try, and preferred date scenarios. The list is a helpful resource when planning dates.
How Can I Pray For You?
Not all Christian couples pray together, but most are willing to pray for each other independently. This is probably the assignment I give most often to married couples who are struggling in their relationship. Once a day, every day, each spouse is to ask the other what they can pray for them about.
Let’s face it, all of us have frustrations, needs, and challenges in our lives, but couples in trouble aren’t always talking about those things with each other. Furthermore, when a person is hurt or angry at their spouse, it can be tempting to complain to God about him or her rather than intercede. The “How Can I Pray for You?” exercise encourages husband and wife to be other-minded, to pray for the benefit of their mate, and to keep their finger on the pulse of what is going on in his or her day-to-day experience.
Letter of Impact
This is an assignment commonly given to the spouse who has been devastated by his/her partner’s abuse, substance use, infidelity, pornography habit, or other addiction. An important component of 12-step and other recovery programs is assessing the cost of one’s destructive behavior, including the stress and emotional harm caused to other people.
The injured party is instructed to write a detailed and brutally honest letter to their partner stating what it has been like being married to a person with their problem. Writing the letter is often painful, but cathartic and helpful in “getting it all out” so that the writer can completely articulate their wounds, process the experiences, begin to forgive, and eventually heal. It is certainly grievous for the perpetrator to hear the pain they’ve caused, but essential to taking responsibility and for making appropriate amends.
Windows to the Soul
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Eyes are windows to the soul.” Indeed, there is something very intimate when two people look into each other’s eyes. Couples newly in love tend to do it a lot, effortlessly. But people who have been together for a really long time may discover that they don’t gaze into each other’s eyes very often, and those who are in conflict tend to avoid eye contact.This exercise is helpful – and can be fun – for couples who are working to restore their love for each other. The task is simple: see how long you can look into each other’s eyes without one person looking away. Often, giggling ensues – that’s the fun part. But it also has a way of stirring the emotions, too. I encourage couples to practice this once a day for a week, and to make a conscious effort to look each other in the eye when talking. Eye contact lets the other person know you are engaged and that they have your undivided attention.
Deeply Sorry List
Most of the time when couples come to me for help, spouses are more focused on the wrongs of their mate than they are on their own. Furthermore, many spouses who are able to say “I’m sorry” fail to elaborate what for. A good homework exercise for blamers and vague apologies is the Deeply Sorry List.
Just like it sounds, each person is to make a list of 10 things they have said or done that hurt their spouse that they honestly regret. One by one, starting with “I am deeply sorry for…” the items on each list are shared with eye contact and heartfelt sincerity.
Act as If
When married people have “lost that loving feeling” for each other, I give the “Act as If” assignment. Happy couples in love do things like hold hands, kiss, sit close, and are verbally affectionate. My unhappy clients are instructed to “act as if” they are happy and in love with each other between sessions.This activity begins with the two holding hands all the way from my office to their car. From there, they are to hold hands whenever they are together, greet each other every time with a kiss, sit close when they can, and to speak to each other with terms of endearment and with warm words of affectionately.
Troubled couples have a strong tendency to notice every negative about each other while overlooking the positive. The admiration log is a notebook or electronic file used to daily record everything attractive, right, and good that you observe about your spouse. This log is to be shared in session and the exercise is continued as long as it takes to create a habit.
Most people feel disrespected and attacked when someone comes at them with a slew of “you” statements. “You” statements tend to trigger defensiveness and make it less likely that the speaker will be heard. For example, “You’re always yelling at me” is likely to be received much differently than “I feel disconnected from you when we fight.” Couples counseling clients are encouraged to practice using “I” statements over “you” statements, especially when communicating during conflict.
Toilets Are Not Self-Cleaning
A very common marital issue today, especially when both partners work outside the home, is the unfair division of labor in keeping a home. Most often, it is a problem of the wife, who both works full-time at a job or career and is also performing the bulk of the cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the children. At the same time, the husband has a problem of needing down-time, but feels badgered by his wife to help out more with household chores.
The fact of the matter is, household tasks do not complete themselves; they need people to do them. Gary Chapman, author of “Things I Wish I’d Known Before We Got Married” outlines a great exercise useful for both premarital couples and those experiencing strife over housework after getting married. The husband and wife are each instructed to make a list of everything that has to be done in order to maintain the household, inside and out. This should also include things like grocery shopping, paying bills, yardwork, car maintenance, and childrearing tasks. Then the two lists are combined to make a master list.
Each spouse independently works through a copy of the master list and puts their initials beside the tasks they prefer or believe should be their responsibility. The initials of both parties indicate duties that they believe should be shared. Afterward, the two lists are compared to see where there are agreements and disagreements. This ushers in the phase of empathetic negotiation. Allowing differences of opinion to incubate and brainstorming possible solutions should continue until enthusiastic agreement is reached. Agreements can and should be renegotiated as couples move through changing circumstances and different stages of life and marriage.
Christian Counseling for Couples
Self-help manuals abound for repairing marriages in distress. Some couples are able to apply principles and strategies and make significant progress in overcoming marital problems. However, while it may be easy to assess problems and identify remedies for other people we know, it can be more challenging to see our own issues clearly and objectively. If you’re experiencing challenges in marriage that threaten your fondness for each other, reach out to a Christian Counselor today. It’s an investment in your future you won’t regret.
Marriage Missions, International, https://marriagemissions.com/
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman, PhD. and Nan Silver
Things I Wish I’d Known Before We Got Married, by Gary Chapman
“In Love,” courtesy of Priscilla du Preez, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sunset,” courtesy of Makheo, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Eye contact,” courtesy of Jeremy Wong, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Holding Hands,” courtesy of Phuoc Le, unsplash.com, CC0 License