We live in a fast-paced, consumer-oriented world in which we all too often either forget or fail to communicate effectively with our partners.
Communication, as with all other aspects of our relationships, can be improved with practice and the right techniques (Robinson, 2012).
Relationship counseling is challenging for the couple, who are most likely there to talk about something the relationship lacks, and the counselor, who is trying to avoid taking sides or developing individual relationships (Williams, 2012).
This article contains many tools and worksheets that will help your relationship therapy sessions and improve the chance of an effective outcome.
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:
Conducting Your Counseling Session: 4 Tips
While couples seek relationship therapy for many reasons, those reasons typically fit into one of the following categories (Williams, 2012):
- Poor communication
- Meddling in-laws
- Financial problems
- Work stress
- Substance abuse
- Disillusionment with the relationship
The following tips apply to many of the issues a relationship faces. However, sometimes couples will need specific help. For example, substance abuse and domestic violence should be referred to a specialist.
Get your own house in order
In Couples Counseling: A Step-by-Step Guide for Counselors, Marina Williams (2012), a hugely experienced relationship counselor, offers an incredibly valuable tip.
“Practice what you preach,” she says. If you find yourself in a relationship where you experience some of the same problems as your clients, learn how to overcome your struggles. Seek help and improve your relationship. Otherwise, your personal difficulties may show through in your therapy sessions with couples.
Besides, you will learn first-hand what it is like to go through relationship therapy, making you a better counselor. Even if help is not needed, try out some of the question sheets at home to see what works well or can be tailored.
Occasionally, one partner and sometimes both will have a hidden agenda: they want out.
They have already given up, and may have even taken steps to leave, but are yet to admit their wish openly (Williams, 2012).
It is essential to pick up on this as early as possible in sessions. It will affect your approach and may create additional challenges, as one or both partners may attempt to sabotage sessions. If this is the case, it can be worthwhile to try to convince them that even if they cannot save their relationship, they will learn essential skills such as communication and empathy.
Typically, client hostility reduces with time. The first three sessions are often the most difficult; as they progress and cooperation increases, angry outbursts tend to subside and behavior improves (Williams, 2012).
However, there are practical steps you can take.
Some who attend therapy will only have experienced dysfunctional relationships. As a therapist, you must build trust over time while acting as a good example of positive behavior and communication.
Try not to use body language that encourages inappropriate conduct. When a partner displays poor behavior or turns to you for your support in a dispute, do not give in with a sympathetic nod.
Instead, one of the greatest assets a therapist can bring during a disagreement is validation. Mirror what you heard them say, then provide validation, such as “I can see how you could feel that way.” Then, after expressing empathy, ask if they have a solution.
You are showing the client that no one person has to be right and the other wrong. Instead, compromise and walking in the other person’s shoes can lead to understanding and reduce confrontation.
Remember the value of your work
Abruptly breaking off a relationship helps neither partner, now or in the future (Williams, 2012). Besides, dysfunctional behavior forms a pattern and often passes on to the next relationship.
Therapy can help break this cycle, change behavior, and lead to skills the clients can apply in other situations (Williams, 2012).
While helping couples may seem more complicated than individuals, your work can help the two people as a couple and as individuals, and potentially benefit their children.
Check out our article on marriage counseling for some valuable tips regarding the all-important first session.
5 Activities & Exercises to Try With Clients
There are several excellent books regarding techniques, tools, and exercises for relationship therapy.
Communication Miracles for Couples by Jonathan Robinson (2012) and the Relationship Workbook for Couples by Rachel Stone (2019) provide excellent activities and exercises, some of which are modified below.
Help your clients understand that learning about themselves and their partner is an ongoing process and crucial for any relationship. Knowledge of their values, motivations, goals, and feelings can lower barriers, increase understanding, and strengthen bonds.
Introduce a few of the following activities in your sessions, and ask clients to revisit them later, bringing the results back for future discussion.
Ask your clients to leave each other love notes. Perhaps a sticky note left on a mirror, the car’s steering wheel, or beside their phone.
They can be simple messages such as I love you, Thank you, You are beautiful or quotes from favorite books, movies, or songs.
They can increase warmth in a relationship and help those who have difficulty expressing their feelings face to face.
Set a regular relationship check-in
Have the couple schedule an hour once a week to talk through concerns and frustrations, along with remembering the joy the other person has brought in the last seven days.
A weekly review allows the relationship to move on to the week ahead without negative thoughts brought over from the past.
The last 10 minutes of the review should be positive and forward thinking. The couple can discuss what they would like to do together and how they would like to respond differently in the week ahead.
Three things we have in common
It’s good to recognize and celebrate the differences between partners that make the relationship work.
As couples, we draw on each other’s values and skills that add to our own abilities to tackle the challenges and obstacles we face in life.
Ideally, each partner completes the sections in the Three Things We Have in Common worksheet together (either during or outside a session) and discusses their answers. It’s valuable to recognize that there are no wrong answers, merely different perceptions of the relationship and each other.
Encourage the couple to share and discuss their thoughts, celebrating what they bring to the world as a couple. Being different is not a negative, but an opportunity to build a multifaceted life together.
Ranking priorities in a relationship
Understanding our partner’s values is as important as knowing our own. Sometimes, what we think and even claim to be essential isn’t.
We spend much of our time and energy on activities that do not align with our core values; for example, by overindulging in social media or TV.
There are only a few hours in the day. Therefore, it’s useful for couples to rank their values to understand how they differ and make time for what is truly important.
The activities can be ranked under each heading (on vacation, over the weekend, etc.) in the Ranking Priorities in a Relationship worksheet.
The priority given to each activity offers insights into each partner’s values and can prompt both short and longer term decision making.
Create a connection ritual
To thrive as a couple, it is vital to make time for each other. Closeness is not something that happens by chance, but must be part of an ongoing ritual, especially after the initial blush of romance in a relationship.
Without taking sufficient action, couples can wake up one day and realize they have drifted apart (Stone, 2019).
They can use what they have learned to find time and activities to maintain and grow their relationship bond.
4 Useful Worksheets for Your Sessions
The following worksheets are excellent for strengthening a relationship and improving communication between partners.
Valuing your partner
When life is busy and commitments at home, work, and family pile up, it is easy to forget the qualities that first drew us to our partner. Use the Valuing My Partner Worksheet to remind the client what first attracted them to their partner long before resentments and frustrations built up.
Getting to know your partner
Sometimes we forget to check in with our partner to find out who they are now and revisit things we have forgotten or did not know about the past.
What event is your partner looking forward to?
Is there a book that changed how they thought about life?
What would they like to get better at in the next three years?
The About Your Partner worksheet can help couples see what they may have missed and enjoy spending time in relaxed conversation.
Changing the subject of the sentence
In an argument or emotional conversation, we often overuse the pronoun “you.” This can escalate the intensity of the conversation or make the other person withdraw, physically or emotionally.
Couples can use the Turning “You” Into “I” worksheet to practice changing the subject of statements from “You” to “I” and practice a more reasoned conversation.
Coping with your partner’s upset
Seeing your loved one in pain can be intensely difficult, and, at times, it can be hard to listen to their struggles. And yet, to be supportive and build trust, it is essential to know how to stop and listen while avoiding either exploding or shutting down (Gottman & Silver, 2018).
Use the 10 Tips for Coping With Your Partner’s Upset worksheet to guide partners on how to be there while maintaining their mental wellbeing.
Helpful Quizzes & Questionnaires
The following quizzes and questionnaires provide useful insights into ourselves and our partners.
What makes a perfect day?
“The more you learn about your partner, the easier it will be to find ways to brighten their day” (Stone, 2019).
Use the What Makes a Perfect Day worksheet to understand what a perfect day might look like for your partner or how to turn a bad day into a good one. You can make small changes that profoundly affect their lives.
Besides, knowing that someone is thinking of us and trying to make us happy has far-reaching consequences in a relationship. It reminds us that the other person is on our side and wants to make life better for us.
Interviewing your partner quiz
Early in a relationship, we are keen to learn as much as possible about our partner. Over time, either that degree of interest dwindles, or we believe we know everything about them.
As Stone (2019) writes, “keep playing detective with your partner no matter how well you think you already know them.”
Ask one another the questions found in the Interviewing Your Partner worksheet and make a note of the answers in the spaces provided. Your aim is to display curiosity and show that you are interested in hearing what your partner has to say.
24 Questions to Ask Your Clients
Use the following questions with your clients to understand the background of the relationship and the dreams of each partner.
11 Shared history questions
It’s valuable to revisit how couples first met and understand the connection they made. Ask each partner to complete the Relationship History and Philosophy questionnaire to capture their first date and the reasons why they got together.
Discuss and share the responses with the couple, and review them at a subsequent therapy session.
Shared history can be a valuable exercise to help them reconnect with their feelings.
13 Big picture questions
Often in relationships, we get caught up in the little things, such as getting the dishes done, taking out the trash, and paying bills. But we all had dreams as children and may still have the same or new ones.
It can be difficult getting through the boring or less eventful times if we don’t feel we are working toward something more significant (Stone, 2019).
Sharing hopes and dreams with a partner can lead to new insights and possibly finding ways of making some of them real.
Use the miracle questions in the Understanding the Big Picture quiz to build trust and connections with your partner and see your relationship as an opportunity to make things happen.
The answers need not be practical or realistic but should provide a general sense of where your partner wants life to go.
A Look at 4 Games
Couples must have fun in their relationship. Find activities that you both enjoy, especially ones that are out of the ordinary.
Perform a trust exercise
Many of us have performed the trust exercise where we fall back blindfolded and another person catches us.
To make it more fun and specific for a couple, try doing something around the house with one person blindfolded. The other person directs, providing instructions as the blindfolded person loads the washing machine, makes a sandwich, etc.
Make sure that the person directing is paying full attention to avoid injury or accident.
Truth or dare
Truth or dare can be a fun game for a couple. Each partner takes turns asking a challenging question. If the other person prefers a dare rather than answering the question, then set something fun for them to do.
Act out different books, movies, or TV shows for your partner to guess. Take turns, making them progressively more difficult.
Compile a list of fun dates that are a little out of the ordinary. Select one at random and do something that you have never done together before or haven’t done for a long time.
PositivePsychology.com’s Relevant Tools
We have many worksheets and tools that encourage partners in a relationship to work together to identify and resolve conflict along with approaches that strengthen their relationship.
- The Marital Conflicts worksheet identifies a list of situations in which conflicts arise, when they happen, and how to resolve them.
- The Resolving Marital Conflicts worksheet helps identify the conflicts and coping strategies that occur within a relationship, their effectiveness, and how to handle them in the future.
- Building the 5 Rituals of Connection encourages couples to create rituals and strengthen emotional bonds in their day-to-day lives.
- Creating a Hugging Habit can help restore a busy couple’s closeness by making physical connection a habit.
- The Positive Relationship Timeline provides an opportunity to identify and reflect on key events within a relationship.
- Showing Affection in Different Ways involves knowing your partner’s love language. Understanding their wants and needs will help you recognize how and when they are showing their love.
A Take-Home Message
Relationships require ongoing work to ensure good communication and closeness.
“The more consistently you nourish it with time and attention, the easier it will be to maintain its health in the long run” (Stone, 2019). As the initial magic and excitement fade, it is crucial to share new activities that imbue the relationship with excitement and foster continuing closeness.
Spending dedicated time together is crucial. Despite the busyness of life and the ongoing interruptions to our day, we must carve out time where the focus is on shared happiness and maintaining close awareness of each other’s needs.
Try out activities, including the quizzes and questionnaires, to maintain or recover the relationship’s excitement and enthusiasm while addressing the obstacles and poor communication habits.
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.
- Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2018). The seven principles for making marriage work. Seven Dials.
- Robinson, J. (2012). Communication miracles for couples: Easy and effective tools to create more love and less conflict. Conari.
- Stone, R. (2019). Relationship workbook for couples: A guide to deeper connection, trust, and intimacy for couples young and old (Kindle DX version). Author.
- Williams, M. (2012). Couples counseling – A step by step guide for therapists. Viale Publishing.