While research confirms that marriage leads to increased life satisfaction, it is not without its challenges (Boyce, Wood, & Ferguson, 2016).
Indeed, according to the American Psychological Association (2020), between 40 and 50 percent of marriages in the United States end in divorce.
Nevertheless, there are many approaches, often relatively straightforward, that have been shown to improve relationships. Research has identified that even increasing the number of positive interactions over negative ones can improve marriage stability (Budiharto, Meliana, & Rumondor, 2017).
Whether facilitated through one-to-one therapy, books, or mobile apps, the marriage counseling tools and approaches discussed in this article can strengthen marriage’s emotional bonds and improve overall relationship satisfaction.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients build healthy, life-enriching relationships.
This article contains:
20 Helpful Questions for Your Sessions
In Gottman and Silver’s excellent book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (1999), John Gottman describes how, after observing a couple’s interaction for only 15 minutes, he can predict the likelihood that they will remain together.
And, surprisingly, he is almost always right. When researchers tested his predictions, he was 91% accurate.
So, based on decades of research and interviewing thousands of couples, what did he conclude was the secret behind a happy marriage?
“Happily married couples aren’t smarter, richer or more psychologically astute than others,” he says. It is simpler than that. In successful marriages, partners are more positive than negative about one another. And this emotional intelligence can be seen, even in relatively short interactions. After all, a positive attitude radiates through all areas of the relationship: play, romance, learning, and adventure.
With that in mind, marriage counseling provides a vital opportunity to observe couples’ interactions, assess where conflict arises, and agree on the steps required to meet both partners’ needs.
The couple should put together a list of questions they have for each other to make the best use of time in each marriage counseling session.
The following questions can be shared with the couple, but they should be encouraged to come up with a personalized list in advance of the session:
- What are the biggest problems in our marriage?
- Do we want to stay together?
- Is this a temporary phase (or is it something more permanent)?
- When did these problems start?
- Do you believe we can save our marriage?
- Do you love me, and if so, in what way?
- What do you love most about me?
- Do you trust me?
- Is there anything you don’t trust about me?
- Are you satisfied with our degree of intimacy?
- Are you seeing anyone else? Do you want to?
- Do you feel you can talk to me about anything?
- Is there anything from our past that still bothers you?
- Why do you want this to work out?
- What do you expect from our counseling sessions?
- Do you see a future?
- What can I do to make our marriage better?
- Where do you see our marriage in one/five/ten years?
- Do you know how much I love/respect/admire you?
- Are you/we willing to make the changes needed?
Asking questions can help uncover important underlying issues and benefit from the relationship therapy environment’s safety to help the couple discuss, move forward, and overcome their difficulties.
4 Worksheets for Your Clients
Emotionally intelligent marriages are more likely to succeed. But what do they look like?
While Gottman’s research identified that happy marriages were rarely a perfect union, they all shared several crucial factors.
A happy marriage builds upon (Gottman & Silver, 1999):
- Friendship rather than fighting
Deep friendship is at the heart of the marriage.
- Sound relationship
High levels of trust and total commitment maintain the relationship.
- Capacity to repair
A healthy companionship supports repair following disagreements and conflict.
- Marriage purpose
A partnership has a purpose, where each supports the other’s hopes and dreams.
On the other hand, when a quarrelsome couple in a less emotionally intelligent marriage is arguing over who should take the trash out, it most likely signifies deeper issues.
According to Gottman, “most marital arguments cannot be resolved.” After all, how can you change another’s fundamental values or personality? Still, learning to understand what underpins disagreements and how to live with them can lead to a happier marriage with shared meaning and a sense of purpose.
So how do we do this?
Working together – completing questionnaires, reading books, or attending counseling sessions – can strengthen marriages, overcome difficulties, and reduce negative attitudes (Gottman & Silver, 1999; Babcock, Gottman, Ryan, & Gottman, 2013).
And yet, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to relationship interventions, so try out the following worksheets with your clients and see what works well. Their success may vary depending on personalities and the state of the marriage.
Seeing the good in a partner
When things are difficult in a relationship and resentments build up, it is easy to forget the qualities we first saw in a partner.
Share the Valuing My Partner Worksheet to remind the client what first attracted them to their partner.
Getting to know your partner
Learning more about your partner early in a relationship (or as part of a building exercise in a long-term relationship) can be fun and rewarding:
- The About Your Partner Worksheet can either be completed during a conversation between partners or independently and used in a subsequent counseling session.
- The Relationship Qualities Worksheet captures what each partner enjoys, what they would like to do in the future, and their longer term goals. Use the questions to build a bank of positive feelings and a list of activities to revisit as a couple.
Changing the sentence’s subject
The overuse of “you” during an argument or sensitive conversation can lead to escalation or withdrawal by the other person.
The Turning “You” into “I” Spreadsheet helps each partner practice changing the subject of statements from “You” to “I” to avoid blame and facilitate a more reasoned discussion.
Once practiced, the couple can use such statements in the future when discussing sensitive issues with a partner.
3 Activities and Exercises
Characteristics of successful clients
Marriage counselor Marina Williams has spent countless hours with couples in couple’s therapy seeking help for their marriages. Based on her experience, she provides each with a list of characteristics she has identified in her most successful clients.
Share the following list (modified from Williams, 2012) with your clients. Ask them to review each point and consider whether they can commit to the task:
- Make your appointments a priority.
The most successful clients attend every appointment.
- Be willing to take risks and try new things.
You are going to learn new skills, some of which may seem unfamiliar at first. Commit to trying them out.
- Prepare for each session.
This is a vital opportunity for your marriage; take it. Come prepared with a list of what you want to discuss and any changes since the last session.
- Provide direct and honest feedback.
Be open and honest about what is and is not working.
History and philosophy of your relationship
Couples sometimes need to reconnect with why they are fond of each other; looking back at their shared history can help.
Ask the couple to complete the Relationship History and Philosophy Questionnaire. Use it to remind the couple why they first got together and how they view marriage (Gottman & Silver, 1999).
Coping with your partner’s pain
Gottman’s extensive work with couples led him to an important conclusion. Happy couples live by the maxim “When you are in pain, the world stops, and I listen.”
The 10 Tips for Coping With Your Partner’s Upset (modified from Gottman & Silver, 1999) can help partners be there and yet maintain their mental wellbeing, whether the negativity is directed at them or someone else.
Assessment Methods and Questionnaires
Couple compatibility and areas of conflict
The Gottman Relationship Checkup questionnaire provides valuable insight into couple compatibility and areas of conflict that require attention.
It compares partners’ scores on several different elements of their relationship, including romance, emotional connection, commitment, values, and goals.
Once both partners have taken the questionnaire (usually it takes about two hours to complete), the therapist reviews the results before offering actionable recommendations.
Assessing marital conflict
Marriage requires balance and understanding between partners; when lost, conflicts arise and needs are forgotten.
As Gottman explains, each person in a marriage brings their own quirks, personalities, opinions, and values. It is, therefore, no surprise that conflicts arise. However, once recognized, it is possible to focus on and adjust coping strategies and regain marital balance.
Most couples are subsequently satisfied with their marriages and are no longer overwhelmed by points of contention (Gottman & Silver, 1999).
The following questionnaires drill down and capture the concerns and issues of each partner for discussion within counseling:
- The Marital Conflicts Questionnaire identifies conflict points and their triggers before exploring potential resolutions and how each partner is left feeling.
- The Resolving Marital Conflicts Questionnaire goes deeper, recognizing successful and unsuccessful coping strategies. Use it with the couple to promote discussion regarding the best approach to resolving conflict in the future.
For example, allow time to think before responding and reduce statements that blame and criticize.
Extra Marriage Counseling Tips
The important first session
While marriage counseling is important to you as a professional, it may also be the difference between building a happy marriage or losing your clients’ relationship.
The first session is, therefore, likely to be difficult for a couple. They will be nervous and uncertain about how marriage counseling will affect them.
The following four steps can be built upon or modified as required but offer a useful starting point for your initial meeting with clients (modified from Williams, 2012):
- Form a connection with the clients. A warm smile and initial small talk can help subsequent engagement in the session. Subtle mimicking of the clients’ body language (so long as it is not inappropriate or aggressive) can make them feel a sense of rapport and similarity.
- Gather information. Ask each partner what has brought them to counseling, their professions, medical history, and backgrounds. Inquire about the history of their relationship difficulties, specific behaviors, and feelings involved.
- Educate the clients about the process of marriage counseling. Explain that each session is structured with assignments given out weekly. Allay fears by confirming that you will not be taking sides or judging. It is not about who is right or wrong, but instead is about forgiveness and growing as a couple.
- Offer hope by expressing confidence that the marriage can be saved. Do not provide guarantees; there are many factors involved, most of which are outside your control. If the couple leaves the first session feeling that things are likely to get better, they will begin to fix what is broken.
Avoid becoming overwhelmed
Whether discussing conflict within the relationship (or outside), it can be enormously beneficial to reach a state of calm. However, using phrases such as “calm down” will have the opposite effect and should be avoided.
Instead, it can be useful to discuss the feelings openly regarding being ‘overwhelmed’ or ‘flooded’:
- What makes us feel overwhelmed? When does it happen?
- Can we change how we bring up issues?
- Do we store up conflict, rather than discuss it?
- What can I do to soothe you?
- What can you do to comfort me?
- Can we develop signals to let each other know when we are feeling flooded?
- Can we agree on an action when flooding happens? For example, take a break.
A Look at Useful Apps
There are many relationship apps available. They include questionnaires, daily challenges, and even provide the opportunity to connect with an online counselor.
We have included four of the best options below. Try them out with your clients and find one that motivates them in a fun way to grow in their relationship:
1. The Happy Couple
The Happy Couple app is an enjoyable way for clients and their partners to learn more about one another through daily Q&A challenges.
Each correct answer leads to the next level, relationship tips, and personalized challenges.
2. Love Nudge
The app is based on the New York Times bestseller The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts by Gary Chapman. (Available on Amazon.)
3. Lasting: Marriage Health
Find it in the Apple App Store.
4. ReGain – Couples Counseling and Therapy
The ReGain app enables couples to get on-demand help from relationship counselors. Your client can talk with the counselor on their own or invite their partner through the app.
Our Useful Resources
We have many tools and exercises available to help clients grow as an emotionally intelligent couple.
As well as being enjoyable and entertaining, they offer deep insight into both the relationship and the individuals involved, leading to the formation of stronger relationship bonds and a more resilient and happy marriage.
Try out the following with clients:
- Building rituals for a couple creates a sense of shared meaning and develops and maintains healthy, enduring relational bonds. Use the Building the 5 Rituals of Connection exercise to work on reconnection and intimacy.
- Use the Positive Relationship Timeline exercise to note significant events on your journey as a couple. Identify when you were most close and the events that led you to that position.
- Relationships change daily and, over the years, can transform significantly. Use the Showing Affection in Different Ways exercise to preserve and improve the relationship’s most desirable features.
- Use the Building Love Maps exercise to build on the cognitive space within the client’s mind for their partner’s experiences, preferences, attitudes, and general interests.
- When the initial honeymoon phase of a relationship is over, partners may shift their focus to minor irritations or differences in opinion. Maintenance of fondness and admiration can prevent the loss of empathy and respect in a couple. Use the Fostering Admiration in Couples tool to return attention to what partners admire about each other.
In any relationship, healthy communication is a cornerstone of success. To work on improving communication, have a look at these recommended articles:
- Your Complete Nonviolent Communication Guide
- What Is Assertive Communication?
- 49 Communication Activities, Exercises, and Games
A Take-Home Message
Not only are married people more likely to have higher life satisfaction, but they also have lower levels of stress and an increased life expectancy.
However, as with all areas of life, it is easy to become overwhelmed by stress and conflict and lose the ability to see the positives.
And yet, this is where marriage counseling can be of most help. Indeed, there is a wealth of tools and approaches available to strengthen marriage bonds through increased emotional intelligence, communication, coping, and conflict resolution.
However, the challenge as Gottman sees it – based on his wealth of experience – is for therapists to get deep into the heart of what makes a relationship lasting and happy (Gottman & Silver, 1999). While it is crucial to keep communication lines open and improve problem-solving skills in marriage, emotional intelligence must also be fostered.
Use the tools provided with clients to increase the positive interactions, grow closer as a new couple, and recover some of the misplaced love, affection, kindness, and empathy in a longer lasting marriage.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free.
If you want more, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 370 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.
- American Psychological Association. (2020). Marriage & divorce. Retrieved September 28, 2020, from https://www.apa.org/topics/divorce.
- Babcock, J. C., Gottman, J. M., Ryan, K. D., & Gottman, J. S. (2013). A component analysis of a brief psycho-educational couples’ workshop: One-year follow-up results. Journal of Family Therapy, 35(3), 252–280.
- Boyce, C. J., Wood, A. M., & Ferguson, E. (2016). For better or for worse: The moderating effects of personality on the marriage–life satisfaction link. Personality and Individual Differences, 97, 61–66.
- Budiharto, W., Meliana, M., & Rumondor, P. C. (2017). Counselove: Marital counseling Android-based application to promote marital satisfaction. International Journal of Electrical and Computer Engineering, 7(1), 542.
- Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. London: Seven Dials an imprint of Orion Publishing Group.
- Williams, M (2012). Couples counseling – A step by step guide for therapists. Viale Publishing.