Even if you’re not on the brink of ending your relationship, couples therapy is a great way to hash out relationship issues and gain new tactics for growing closer to your partner. But just like individual therapy, that hour spent with a trained professional is only half the battle. A lot of the growth happens at home, in the trenches of everyday life, which is why therapists send clients home with a slate of couples therapy exercises. The exercises are tailored specifically to help couples work through conflict and build communication, trust, and intimacy in a relationship.
Regardless of whether you’re active in therapy or not, the right couples therapy exercises can help reframe arguments, create more emotional intimacy, or simply appreciate one another more. That’s we asked a variety of couples therapists for a few go-to exercises that everyone can try. They offered those that are easy-to-accomplish and, over time, very effective. Try a few and chances are you’ll learn something new about your partner — and grow your relationship in the process. Here are nine couples therapy exercises they suggested.
Couples Therapy Exercise 1: Write a letter
Markesha Miller, a South Carolina-based psychologist, says she frequently suggests this exercise to couples in conflict. Here’s how it works: Write (not type!) a love letter to your partner, focused on positive, early aspects of your relationship –– what attracted you, your favorite memories, and so on. Then, transition the letter to potential growth areas. Silently read the letter your partner wrote you (and vice versa) before convening to talk about what you wrote and why.
Why it’s helpful: A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, right? That’s the premise here. When you express positivity toward your partner, emphasizing what works in the relationship, they’ll probably be more receptive to the stuff that’s harder to hear –– largely, because they know your intentions are good. Plus, you’ll both realize when things went off track so you can course correct.
Couples Therapy Exercise 2: Hold “state of the union” meetings
State of your relationship meetings are weekly (or daily!) check-ins to see how you’re both feeling in the relationship, says San Diego-based marriage and family therapist Dana McNeil. Think of these brief meet-ups as opportunities to share things you haven’t discussed, issues that need some clarification, or conflicts that need to be resolved. Ideally, each person should have time to share how they’re feeling, uninterrupted.
Why it’s helpful: According to McNeil, it’s common for couples to have missed bids for connection during the week. Big conversations don’t always feel possible in busy schedules, so it’s important to regularly –– and intentionally –– take stock of how you’re feeling so tension doesn’t grow. “Both partners are CEOs in a relationship, and both have needs and expectations that require space to be talked about in an open and positive environment,” McNeil says.
Couples Therapy Exercise 3: Do daily emotion check-ins
Marriage and family therapist Emily Stone, owner and senior clinician at Unstuck Group in Austin, suggests using a feelings wheel as an opportunity to connect. Each partner should choose and share three emotions they experienced in a given day. After, the other partner should reflect back: “It sounds like you were bored, frustrated, and excited today. I would love to hear the story of these emotions.” Remember: The goal is to share and reflect, not correct or defend.
Why it works: Emotional validation is an important part of making a partner feel heard, loved, and supported. Practicing active listening and mirroring back the other person’s emotions can help build communication skills and intimacy as a couple. Plus, you’ll have a better idea of how to support your partner when you’re in the “know” about what they experience on a daily basis.
Couples Therapy Exercise 4: Perform daily appreciations
If emotion check-ins feel a bit too vulnerable, Stone suggests building trust and intimacy first through affirming one another’s positive contributions to the relationships. Take time at the end of each day to share three things you appreciated about your partner, even if it’s small –– and do your best to give specific examples. For example, instead of “I appreciate how kind you are,” you could say “I appreciated how you stopped to give me a hug during a busy day.”
Why it works: Providing specific examples about behaviors you like is like positive reinforcement. Affirming your partner also builds respect in a relationship, making it easier to open up and grow together.
Couples Therapy Exercise 5: Use “The story I’m telling myself is…” in conflict
When you’re in the midst of conflict, it’s easy to project your feelings onto your partner –– but that doesn’t help anyone. Instead of pointing fingers, demonstrate to your partner you’re giving them the benefit of the doubt by using “ my story” statements. For example, instead of “You don’t want to spend time with me,” you could say “My story right now is that you don’t want to be with me because I’m too much.”
Why it works: According to Stone, framing your feelings this way takes ownership of your experience and perception of the scenario without throwing blame at your partner, which ultimately gives them the opportunity to share their side so you can work it out together.
Couples Exercise 6: Do breathing exercises together
It might sound either too simple, but therapist and relationship coach Angela Amias says doing simple breathing exercises together can reconnect you and your partner. Start by sitting comfortably back to back, then, focus on your own breathing, noticing the movement of your ribs and eventually, the movement of your partner’s. Bring your rhythm of breath in sync with each other for a few minutes, and close with a hug.
Why it works: According to Amias, this exercise is a physical practice for being “in sync” with one another physically and emotionally. Once you develop the patience to get physically in sync, you’ll be able to align with your partner in other ways. Also, mindful breathing can decrease stress levels, which is good for everyone.
Couples Exercise 7: Watch (and talk about) romantic movies
Here’s a simple one. If you’re having trouble communicating or feeling like you have nothing to say to each other, choose a relationship-themed movie to watch together, then talk about it afterward for 45 minutes.
Why it works: According to Amias, research suggests that couples who watch a series of movies together and talk about them afterward show improvements in their relationship equal to those of couples in couples therapy. The reason? It gives you practice talking about relationship issues in a low-stakes, non-threatening way. “Over time,” she says, “couples gain more confidence in their ability to talk about hard topics and are better equipped to talk about their own problems openly.”
Couples Exercise 8: Remember your wins
If you need a boost to work together on the issues plaguing your relationship, here’s a suggestion from Chicago-based couples therapist Shemiah Derrick: Grab a stack of post-it notes and take turns writing examples of conflicts or difficulties you’ve overcome in your relationship until you run out of examples.
Why it works: Looking at the collection of post-its can be a powerful visual that allows you to acknowledge the strength of your relationship and how you’ve partnered together to overcome challenges, says Derrick. And ideally, with that renewed hope and intimacy, you’ll be able to work together on current issues.
Couples Exercise 9: Write a wishlist
To create a safe space where you can share your relationship needs, relationship coach Nicole Elam suggests creating a “wishlist.” After taking time individually to write down three things you’d like more or less of in the relationship, take turns sharing. As you share, use “I” statements to express your feelings and describe how you would feel if your wish came true. When you listen, summarize what you heard and describe how your partner would feel if the wish came true.
Why it works: Relationships always have room to grow, but that growth can get stunted if you communicate ineffectively. The wishlist exercise promotes mutual understanding and allows each partner to communicate their needs in a calm way. Sharing how you’d feel if the change occurs also helps the partner visualize what your relationship could be like if you both put in the work!